Allow me to introduce our esteemed guest, Amber McLean:
Amber wears multiple hats as the founder and creative force behind the vegan lifestyle blog ‘Her Healthy Passport’. Beyond this, she dons the roles of a journalist and a seasoned professional editor for prominent health publications.
Amber’s expertise is a fusion of health, travel, and the vegan way of life. Having been nurtured as a vegetarian from an early age, she took the leap to embrace veganism 14 years ago, a choice that has shaped her journey ever since. Armed with a master’s degree in journalism from New York University, she is not only well-versed in the art of the written word but also holds the mantle of a certified yoga instructor. Among her accomplishments stands a nutrition cookbook titled ‘The Green Pregnancy Diet,’ focused on the nutritional needs of expectant mothers following a vegetarian path.
Her roots trace back to the scenic landscapes of Hawaii and Northern California, and though her journey led her to the bustling vicinity of NYC, her spirit retains the wanderlust for exploring the Earth’s splendors. Whether it’s the rhythmic keystrokes at her desk, culinary endeavors in her kitchen, or the serene embrace of a yoga studio, Amber’s pursuits mirror her passion for life. When she’s not immersed in these endeavors, you’ll likely find her traversing the globe, savoring the plant-based delights that various corners of the world have to offer.
In this episode, we explored the captivating realm of Puglia, a gem in Italy’s southeast. Our focus: central Puglia, home to UNESCO Heritage Sites, natural wonders, and quaint hillside towns.
Amber’s expedition spanned seven days, a family vacation brimming with awe and inspiration. They wandered serene coastlines and olive orchards. Amber introduced vibrant vegan-friendly options, revealing Puglia’s unique culinary scene.
Practical insights flowed as Amber shared tips on vacation villa rentals, transportation, and well-researched guidance for a smooth travel experience. Her firsthand encounters offered an authentic glimpse into this hidden Italian treasure.
In this episode we discuss:
- Explored captivating Puglia, Italy’s southeastern gem.
- Focused on central Puglia, with UNESCO Heritage Sites, natural wonders, and charming hillside towns.
- Explored serene coastlines and olive orchards.
- Introduced vibrant vegan-friendly options, unveiling Puglia’s unique culinary scene.
- Tips on vacation villa rentals and transportation.
- Well-researched guidance for a smooth travel experience.
Learn more about what we talk about
- Central Puglia: Complete Guide to UNESCO Sites
- Accommodations – her healthy passport
- Top 5 Vegan-Friendly Restaurants in Puglia
- Home Caves – Grotte di Castellana, in Puglia tutto l’anno
- The Trulli of Alberobello – UNESCO World Heritage Centre
- The Italian village of Cisternino, Brindisi in Apulia, Italy – e-borghi
- Grotta Palazzese Hotel Restaurant in Polignano a Mare | Puglia
- Masseria Le Carrube – A typical stone Masseria in the heart of Puglia
Other World Vegan Travel content connected with this episode
- Discover 11 Vegan Menu Options Hidden in Non-Vegan Restaurants in Italy
- Rated V Food: Vegan Foodie Shares Three Favorite Cities in Spain | Eunice Reyes | Ep 87
- Unveiling the Story: Inside the Vegan Resort Von Kernvoll | Christian | Ep 124
- Reflections on our Incredible Northern Italy Vegan Tour | Northern Italy 2022 Travelers | Ep 80
- NORTHERN ITALY: MOUNTAINS, LAKES & CANALS with Colleen Patrick-Goudreau
Connect with Amber
Brighde: Hello, Amber. Welcome to the World Vegan Travel Podcast.
Amber: Hello. Nice to speak with you.
Brighde: I am really so pleased to have you on the podcast because we are talking about a part of the world that we have not yet covered on the podcast, and that is the region of Puglia in Italy. We’ve done many episodes in Italy before, but never anything about Puglia, so I’m really excited to learn about what your experience is with spending some time there. But before we get into all of the amazing travel inspiration and tips and all of that, why don’t you tell us a little bit about what you do in the vegan travel space?
Amber: Yes, so I am the founder and content creator of Her Healthy Passport. It is a vegan lifestyle blog. The main focus of the blog is vegan travel. I do have lifestyle content in general, relating to vegan life and interests. But yeah, my vegan travel content focuses on traveling to regions of the world, whether or not they’re vegan-friendly, making it work for you, and working within local cultures to communicate your needs as a vegan. I do extensive amounts of research behind the scenes before the trips, researching vegan-friendly destinations, hotels, resorts, restaurants, and cafes. I highlight my experience in the blog, and I like to provide a context of my travel experience so that a reader can appreciate the travel experience in general. So I discuss art, culture, vegan food, and some wellness content as well, like spas and yoga and things like that. So far, I launched the blog six months ago. My focus, in general, has been kind of North America and Mexico, which is where I’m based. But I recently took this trip to Puglia, and I’m so excited to share all of the information with you, and your listeners.
Brighde: Yeah. I can’t wait to hear more about that. But you are, historically, a journalist, right? You do have a hip journalist background, correct?
Amber: That’s right. I have a master’s degree in journalism. I actually started out as a travel writer in my earliest days. Very briefly, so these were the days before Instagram and social media: with some publishing colleagues, I launched a budget travel magazine. We only published one issue. It was sort of a startup scenario that didn’t pan out. So from there, I transitioned to working for health publications, writing, and editing. So I’ve done journalistic work in different capacities, mainly in the health publishing space for a while now. So yeah, that’s what I’ve been doing professionally. I’ve done some freelance writing and editing as well, and travel and lifestyle. When I had my first child, I was inspired by my experience of learning about nutrition and embracing a vegetarian diet, which was the diet that I was eating at the time. So I actually wrote a book on promoting a vegetarian diet during pregnancy. It’s called the Green Pregnancy Diet. And then actually, right after I had my children, I transitioned to vegan. Since then, I have been vegan for 14 years. But yeah, I published a book on vegetarian pregnancy, and then from there I moved on to just writing and editing about health and lifestyle topics in general. So that’s my background.
Fantastic. You are definitely well qualified to have a blog, and yeah, I write blog posts too, but I’m not a writer. Yeah.
Brighde: I always have respect for people that have writing skills, for sure. Okay. So you have just undergone a trip to Puglia,
I’m guessing, with your family. Why did you choose Puglia?
Amber: Yeah, that’s a good question. Going back to my previous experience in Italy as a college student, I actually studied abroad in France and traveled all over Europe, and as part of that experience, I saw the traditional highlights of an American traveling in Italy. I saw all the big cities mainly. And then since then,over the course of years, I traveled to Amalfi Coast with my husband and then later to Lake Como on a business trip. So I’ve seen many other parts of Italy, and I felt like I wanted to experience an area that’s a little bit more off the beaten path. So that was a starting point. And then, the other motive was to find an area that kind of had fun interactive outdoor experiences. We were traveling with two teenage boys who, you know, are active, to say the least. And sitting and looking at pretty views on the Amalfi Coast wasn’t really gonna cut it for us on this trip.
I was really looking for an off-the-beaten-path area where we could have an authentic Italian experience, but also experience, the beauty of nature and the outdoors, and do outdoorsy, exciting activities rather than just sitting on a beach. So that was the motive for planning this trip.
Brighde: So why don’t you tell listeners where about Puglia is as a region in Italy? Because it really is a little bit more off the beaten path than Tuscany or Ombre.
Amber: So Europeans tend to know about Puglia, but North Americans, in general, haven’t heard of it, or know very little. So I knew very little going into my research. It had been recommended to me as a travel destination by some Europeans who are friends of ours. That was our starting point. But once I started doing my research, I realized Puglia is a huge region. It’s essentially the entire southeast of Italy. If you look at a map of Italy, you’ll see it stems out in a boot shape on the right. So the nickname for the region is “the Boot”, but it turns out there are actually five different regions in Puglia. The North is mainly, agricultural. The South is mainly known for its beaches. And because I was looking for a more dynamic, outdoorsy, travel experience, I focused my search on Central Puglia which is, actually, the most centrally located part of Puglia for seeing all of the amazing and inspiring wonders of the area. So what many people don’t know is that there are actually five UNESCO heritage sites in Puglia. Most of them are within a short drive of Central Puglia, and there are also some incredible natural wonders as well as UNESCO sites. I decided to focus our activities on sightseeing, architectural, and natural wonders, and I shaped a seven day itinerary that revolved around: the day going to one to two historical or architectural wonders, then taking a break in the afternoon, and then going to a restaurant that was either vegan, vegetarian or had a separate vegan menu. So that was the itinerary that I mapped out for us.
Brighde: Fantastic. Before we get into all of these amazing recommendations, and I’m sure you have so many for us. Could you explain a little bit about the geography, obviously the coastline, I’m sure if I think about Puglia on a map, I’m sure the coastline is very nice. Is it like a rocky, cliffy, coastline or are there any big hills or mountain chains?
Amber: Yep. Along the coast, in the northern section of Puglia, it is very cliff-like. There are swimming areas but actually very few long stretches of sand and beach. There is one really famous beach. It’s actually a tiny beach, but it’s surrounded by these stunning cliffs, and I will discuss it in the podcast because there’s an out-of-the-world, over-the-top, impressive restaurant built in a cave overlooking the Adriatic Sea, right in this beach area in Northern Puglia That’s an incredible site to see, but to get the traditional beach experience with clear sand and sea, you have to go all the way down to the far reaches of Southern Puglia. And that’s a different experience. If you want to relax and go to the beach for a week; you be you. Go to Southern Puglia. My trip was based in Central Puglia, which is very hilly. So we stayed in this area of Puglia. It’s one of the five regions. It’s called the Itria Valley. The Itria Valley is composed of five villages, and their kind of trademark feature is that their old town centres are pedestrian only. They’re blocked off from cars. So they’re almost like little mini versions of Venice. They have whitewashed cobblestone streets and buildings, mazes of alleyways that you can explore, and lots of shops and restaurants cluttered into small spaces. And then, the most incredible aspect of the experience is that it’s very Italian. There are very few tourists. So even though you’re in an incredibly, beautiful place in Puglia, it’s actually very traditional, regional and local. It’s very much like a thriving local culture. And you feel like you’re having a real authentic, pastoral, rural Italian experience, yet conveniently located to all these incredible, natural and architectural wonders. So the Itria Valley is a great home base to stay if you’re traveling to Puglia and you want to have more of an active vacation that involves sightseeing, and cultural and architectural kind of focused activities.
Brighde: It sounds really lovely. Did you stay in a hotel when you were there?
Amber: Yeah. So this is one of the most exciting aspects of our trip that I am raving about to all my friends. They think it’s too good to be true. And I thought it was before I went. We stayed in a town. It took me a little while to learn to pronounce it correctly. It’s one of the five Itria Valley towns and one of the iconic architectural features of Central Puglia. This is one of the UNESCO heritage sites in the area. So they’re old peasant homes from the Middle Ages that were originally built for architectural workers. The roofs are conically shaped and made with stone-colored material, and then the building materials themselves are whitewashed and they’re miniature in size, so they literally look like mushrooms. And to see a bunch of them together in one place almost makes you feel like you’re in a Smurf village. Or like a fairy village. Cisternino in particular has a bunch of these trulli homes. What real estate developers have done is, combine several of them, update the bathrooms in the kitchens, throw in a pool, and then rent them out as vacation villas. And by the way, for incredibly affordable prices. Like dirt cheap, compared to hotels. Especially if you need space. If you’re traveling with a group, with family, or with friends, I highly recommend renting a vacation villa for a week. You do have to commit to seven days, and you sort of need the seven days to see everything in that region anyway.It’s a little bit of a commitment to go to Puglia. It’s not like stopping by Venice for a night or two or stopping by Rome. You go there and you stay. You have La Dolce Vita experience. You live with the Italians, and you stay in a house. That’s what we did, and we stayed up in the Itria Valley. It’s up in the mountains, and it has vistas of the valley below, but it’s within a 20-minute drive of the coast in the more touristy areas of Apulia. So it’s centrally located and incredibly affordable. I would say a much better deal than staying in a hotel because you have a private pool, you have all this personal space, and it’s just very special.
Brighde: I have seen the trulli all through on Instagram and on social media, and all of the sort of roundup posts of various best things to do in Italy or best places to stay. And yeah, you described them really well; they look like mushrooms. They just are so unique and special, and I’ve definitely put quite a few of them on my Airbnb wishlist, for sure.
Amber: I have two blog posts. I divide the posts into vegetarian restaurants and food because that’s a whole other topic that definitely deserves its own post because I love to go into detail. I’m a vegan foodie. I will travel for vegan food. I go into detail about the menus and provide photos of every dish. I have a separate article on that, but in my main article, I provide an overview of the five regions of Puglia, an overview of the five UNESCO sites, and then I provide a list of Trulli vacation rentals in Cisternino. And the nice thing about the one that we stayed in, and some of the ones that I list on my blog, is that they’re sustainable. So ours had a saltwater pool. It was powered by solar power and they had a whole four-part recycling system set up that I was comfortable with. That’s what I do at home; the paper, the plastic, the compost. It was also a fulfilling aspect of the trip. I’m putting all these resources into traveling, but I’m investing in the local economy and I’m doing it with a low carbon footprint.
Brighde: Great. Why don’t you tell us some of your top recommendations for natural wonders? I’m guessing the scenery is really stunning here, and tell us about that.
Amber: Yeah. If we would talk about scenery, Puglia is known for its olive tree groves. So just as you drive into the region, you will see, you won’t have to take a guided tour to see, obviously, that there are many miles and miles of olive tree groves. They are all around you. It’s incredibly bucolic. The olive trees, some of them are thousands of years old, literally, and they’re very majestic. They’re huge, with these knotted trunks, and they’re really stunning to look at. It’s a beautiful setting just to drive around and look at the groves. But you can also take a bike tour into the olive groves and have a local tell you about olive oil production, about the history of the trees and the groves. It’s wonderful to hear that in Puglia in general, they still practice olive oil production in the old-school way by literally handpicking the olives. They don’t use machines and only pick them in season. The mill that we went to and did olive oil tasting at after the tour, doesn’t even sell their olive oil abroad. It’s not even available in North America. It’s like the highest grade that you can get. They have like an old-school farming method for olive oil production there. So it’s nice in addition to looking at the olive tree groves to learn about the history and the culture of their practices. So that’s one of the activities that you can do.
Brighde: I see. And are there any other natural wonders that one can see if they go to Puglia?
Amber: Absolutely. I discuss a bunch of them in my blog post, but if I had to pick one. The one that I pick, is this massive underground cave called Grotte di Castellana. And the way that I describe it to Americans, which is a very American reference, is it’s like a Grand Canyon underground. It is just massive in size. It takes hours to walk through. I’m not exaggerating. And I’ve gone, with having two teenage boys, I’ve gone on cave adventures in Israel and Mexico, and none of those experiences have compared to just walking around in this incredible natural wonder. So, as you walk through the cave, each cavern has its own kind of feel and look.
One of the caves is called a white cave because it’s composed mainly of calcium deposits. And literally it looks like a ghostly like, white kind of scene. And then another room that doesn’t have any light exposure is pitch black and dark and has an eerie ambiance. In addition to seeing the beautiful rock formations, it’s kind of like a sensory experience to walk around in this awe-inspiring natural wonder. It was really beautiful and incredible, impressive, and absolutely a top must-see, do, and do activity.
Brighde: I am guessing that it would’ve been quite a lot cooler in there from outside. And a question I have; is it quite accessible? Does it feel claustrophobic at all?
Amber: No. I didn’t know what to expect because I had done cave adventures that literally involved putting on harnesses. Another one in Mexico involved a wetsuit and water. I didn’t know what to expect. It’s actually very sanitized. There’s a paved path, and somebody even with, let’s say, a walking stick.
Like an older person could do it. It’s very spacious, so you do have to buy a ticket for a guided tour. And there are a limited number of people per tour, and it is a big group. It’s about 50 people, but you slowly make your way through the cave in a big group, at a slow pace. So there’s no scenario in which you’re crammed into a small space or crawling, clawing your way through a small hole or anything harrowing like that.
Brighde: Yes, caving brings lots of different images to different people’s minds, I think. For sure. And I’m guessing that a guided tour is available in English and you were able to purchase an English version. Is that right?
Amber: That’s right, and that’s a good question. I provide all the links in my blog post, which is great. But I went to the website for the grotto. A lot of the sites that I discuss in this blog and in this podcast do have guided tours at the grotto. You just have to sign up for
their own guided tour. You can’t hire your own guide. So you just buy the tickets on their website and they’re available in multiple languages. But I definitely recommend, especially if you’re traveling during the summer, getting the tickets in advance, because the tours do
sell out. And if you have, let’s say, one or two days you’re available, you could be out of luck if you don’t get the tickets in advance.
Brighde: Yeah. I think people are realizing the importance of booking in advance these days, and it’s a lot easier than it used to be. So at least there’s that. I guess. Are there any other must-see natural wonders?
Amber: Yeah. So the top two I recommend are the caves, and the olive groves. And then, there are just some incredible UNESCO heritage architectural sites that I recommend. One is the Trulli, and there are some trulli in the small Itria Valley towns that I described, but the majority of them, which is more than 1000, are all clustered in one town called Alberobello. That town is a UNESCO heritage site and it is a little bit of a tourist scene. It’s one of the main tourist activities in Puglia in general. Our tour guide did tell us that on weekdays it’s pretty quiet. So if you can keep that in mind and avoid a Saturday or a Sunday, you could actually have the place to yourself. It’s divided into two sections. There’s the old part of town that has been blocked off from any kind of commercial activity and it’s actually still residential. People live there, and you can actually either take a bike or a Segway tour, which is fun, or you can just walk around and explore, and kind of feel the vibe of being in this fairy village. And then the commercial side, which is just as beautiful, is definitely busier with shops, restaurants, and gelato shops. So you can just go shopping, walk around, eat, get gelato, and just take your time enjoying the experience of being there.
Brighde: Matera is a town that only recently got on my radar. I think I saw an Instagram reel or something about it. Because it really looks like that. It’s really incredible. It’s on this sort of, like hill town. It even looks a little bit Moroccan, I would say as well. It really is stunning.
So you went there and you enjoyed that?
Amber: Yeah, so that was on our list as a must-do activity for anybody who’s seen one of the Daniel Craig, James Bond movies. You’ve seen the scenes where he scaled the rooftops in Matera. So we had that vision in our mind and I had readjust about it and how incredible it is.
So yeah, we set aside an entire day because the drive is so long, and of course, you have to have your long lingering dinners at night. You can’t do another activity. Matera is just one day, one full day, in terms of your itinerary. I definitely recommend if you have a week, put Matera on your list for sure.
Brighde: Yeah, I really want to check out that place. It looks incredible. Yeah. It’s interesting that you are referring to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites. And of course, they’ve got some incredible things too. But the fact that Italy has so many really is a testament to just how rich it is in all of these incredibly significant, historical and cultural treasures.
Amber: Yes, absolutely. And I think just the wonder aspect of going to Puglia, is that you’re going to these UNESCO sites that people haven’t heard of or don’t know about. You sort of feel like you’re discovering the unknown to some extent.
Brighde: You already shared with me so many recommendations and some really unique aspects of this region.
Are there any others as well?
Amber: So there’s one more that I highly recommend, and it’s actually tied in with a dining experience. So you would do both in one day because they’re located in the exact same place. So there’s a town called Polignano A Mare, and I apologize Italians, if I’m pronouncing it incorrectly, but it’s actually one of the more popular spots in Puglia in general and certainly in the northern region. It’s half an hour south of Borghi, which is the only city-like town in Puglia where the airport is located, and there’s a world-famous hotel and restaurant. They’re called the Grotta Palazzese. And the Grotta Palazzese is a hotel and a restaurant. So there’s a hotel that’s literally built in a cave, and within the hotel, there’s a restaurant, facing the Adriatic Sea. What I would recommend, and this is what I did or what we did, is book a boat tour of the grottos below the Grotta Palazzese, and you could either do it in the morning, before going out to lunch, or you could go out to lunch first and then do it in the late afternoon. So you can take a boat tour and you can access a series of grottos by boat that are in the water. They’re really beautiful, really stunning. And if you’re not a boat person or you get motion sick, you can actually do the same tour by paddle boat, which is really fun, or paddleboard rather. That’s a really popular activity. In fact, the grotto boat tour is the most popular activity in all of North and Central Puglia. We did that one day and then we went out to lunch at the restaurant at the grotto restaurant, and we went mainly because it’s a lifetime experience, literally just in terms of the scenic view and the dining experience to be there. But little did I know before I got there that they have a separate vegan menu.
I had scoured menus throughout the region, but I wasn’t aware of the vegan menu at this restaurant. And I had heard about it because of the setting. So I was very pleasantly surprised.
The separate vegan menu is why it’s actually one of the restaurants that I recommend in my blog article on the restaurants in Puglia. When we got there, we entered this stunning, huge cavern, essentially, a rock cavern, with, an upscale restaurant setting with white tablecloths and dapper waiters. The menu is prix fixe. So I will say this, I referred to the vacation rentals as affordable. All of the other restaurants as well are extremely affordable. Even the prix fixe ones. This restaurant is outrageously expensive. So I will say that. It’s an investment, especially if you go as a family of four. You are paying a pretty penny for the experience. You save in other ways, and I recommend it. It’s a worthwhile experience in your life. That said, it’s not affordable, but, there’s a five-course prix fixe menu and the food was absolutely delicious. I wrote about it on my blog, but I can actually cite the names of some of the dishes. I had eggplant parm that was bread crusted with vegan cheese. I had orecchiette, which is a pasta specialty of the region, which by the way is naturally vegan, and it’s important note for us vegans to know that some types of pasta in Italy are not vegan. They are made with eggs and those are fettuccine and ravioli. But orecchiette and macaroni are naturally vegan. They’re just made with flour and water and that’s it. They don’t even have salt in them. We had a dish of orecchiette with a basil turnip puree, and then the main course was grilled tofu on a bed of pureed fava beans.
That sounds delicious.
And with a lavender flower on top. It was just absolutely delicious. And it was, just an experience of a lifetime in terms of the setting. And actually, we had a view of cliff jumpers from our table. So as we were eating and pigging out, we were watching cliff jumpers dive into the ocean.
Brighde: Wow. Okay. That would be quite unnerving. I could imagine just people falling in front of you. Oh my goodness. Yeah. I’ve had a look at the website for this restaurant and it really is something. Something special for sure. I’m wondering if you might be able to speak a little bit more about the cuisine, generally speaking, and how Puglia cuisine is different from the Italian cuisine that we might get in North America. I know a little bit about Southern Italian cuisine, but not much. So I’m wondering if you might speak to that and whether it’s vegan-friendly at all.
Amber: Yeah, so I will say this, in full disclosure, obviously promoting veganism and promoting Puglia. In general, compared to Northern Italy, it’s not as vegan-friendly. So I know like Milan or Turin is much more vegan friendly. It’s also just more modern. So Puglia is old-school Italy. Keep that in mind. If you want to have an authentic experience; old school Italian cuisine comes with a package, right? So I was keeping that in mind. That said, the mindset of Puglians in general, in terms of their food, does tend to focus on red meat. Puglia is known for their, literally, their butcher shops. But of course, everywhere in Italy, you can find pasta. So you always have that as a staple. And at every restaurant, they give you a big basket of bread. But of course, no vegan ever wants to survive on carbs and carbs alone. So this was one of the highlights of my trip that I knew about before I went, but it didn’t hit home until I got there. A traditional Puglian speciality is pureed fava beans. It’s not something they introduced recently to make vegans happy. It’s something that they’ve eaten traditionally, historically, so you’ll actually find it on literally all the menus, even at the restaurants that are not vegan-friendly and don’t have vegan menus. So that was definitely one of the highlights food-wise. For me, on the trip, was that the few times that we were outside seeing and we needed to just grab lunch, I was able to get pureed fava beans with bread for lunch, which was wonderful. I didn’t have to rely on my stock of protein bars to get protein.
Yeah, that’s really interesting that fava beans are a common dish there because when I was speaking to some guests from Greece, many of them also referred to fava beans, a puree of fava beans being something that Greek people in the Greek islands have been eating for a very long time. I guess it makes sense because I guess the geography and the climate are quite similar there. How interesting.
Brighde: Okay, so generally speaking, I’m sure there are lots and lots of fresh fruits and vegetables around in Southern Italy, and maybe some of the dishes aren’t super vegan-friendly, but are there some good vegan restaurants around? Sometimes it’s quite hard because outside of big cities, of course, the choices can be a lot less, but are there any kind of little Gemma vegan restaurants that are out there?
Amber: Yes. So, I will say this, there are not many totally one hundred per cent vegan restaurants. However, there is one vegan restaurant in the town that I keep talking about, that I highly recommend, which is Cisternino. There’s actually a vegan cafe in the old town in the cute little pedestrian-only area. We went there for lunch. I met the owner and the chef. It’s a tiny little place. It only has a few tables, but the menu is actually really creative and innovative. The food is delicious and it’s elevated, like it’s not just a cafe with salads. For example, she had vegan sushi with salmon made out of tapioca starch. I got a vegan burrata salad with this huge piece of burrata. I had so much fun eating a huge piece of cheese. I hadn’t eaten that much cheese in 14 years, and it really tasted like burrata. The menu is Italian with kind of California cuisine influences I would say. It was like avocado toast with vegan tuna. And yeah, I’m raving about it, but I rave about it in my article as well. All four of us pigged out. We ordered so much food and we had a great meal. So that’s the only, “a hundred per cent vegan restaurant,” that I went to. There are a few others, so I list them at the bottom of my blog article because I didn’t go to them. I’m not going to write about a restaurant in detail if I didn’t actually go to it. There are a few others, not many in Puglia. I did find several vegetarian restaurants that were of course, very accommodating to vegans, and most of the items were actually vegan or vegan if you just asked them to leave the cheese off. Both of them were incredible experiences because they were located in beautiful hotels. But if I had to pick one of the two, I have to rave about this restaurant called, Masseria Le Carrube. It was just such a special experience, and I’ll tell you why. So of the five towns I’m describing in the Itria Valley, the most famous one is a town called Ostuni. So it’s known as the white city because the town is whitewashed, similar to Cisternino, but it’s much bigger. We hadn’t been there and we were on our second to last day. We went there in the afternoon, walked around, and just by comparison to Cisternino, by the way, it was like flocking with tourists. It was very crowded, so it didn’t have as much of the “small-town charm” for me. But it’s very pretty and I recommend going. It has beautiful views and there are tons of young people taking Insta photos and there’s a whole scene going on there. So anyway, the restaurant was located near there, so we timed it so that we’d go to Ostuni and then go to this restaurant for dinner. We get in the car and put in the GPS and it takes us on this unpaved, unmarked road. In the middle, surrounded by olive groves. So we’re driving and we just feel like we’re really in the middle of nowhere, and then we just literally stumble upon a gate and we really just didn’t know where we were or what was going on. But I thought maybe this was a gate to get into the hotel. It turned out that it was a security gate for the hotel. We announced ourselves, and we were let in.The whole setting is a very private, exclusive feeling, kind of magical because it’s surrounded by olive groves, and it’s not in some busy, cluttered city surrounded by crowds or tourists. The hotel itself is just magical on the inside. It feels like an upscale spa. It was filled with lush pillows and candles, and whitewashed walls. Just really beautiful and serene. During the summer, all the restaurants have seating outside. They brought us to the outside seating area, which was this really cute plaza-like area with dripping vines everywhere. So the whole setting was just very cute and charming. The meal itself was just next level, honestly. It was just really incredible. Just really delicious.
So it was a prix fixe five-course menu. The menu came, arrived on a papyrus scroll that you open, and the menu was vegetarian, but could be made vegan with very few adjustments. It started with a huge bread basket, of course, with lots of regional Italian breads. And then the dishes included zucchini with mint cream and braised eggplant. Pasta with string beans, tomato and basil, toasted hickory and potato with white turnip puree. And then the dessert was just like incredible. I couldn’t believe it was vegan. It was like this sugar-crusted marshmallow puff with coffee, and caramel cream.
Amber: Yeah. Very elevated, very delicious, and by the way, very reasonably priced. It was just a really special dining experience. And then to top off the experience, the server saw that I was taking pictures for a blog and Instagram. So the chef actually came out and introduced himself. He didn’t speak any English, so we couldn’t say much to each other, but he introduced himself and he was so sweet. He specializes in regional vegetarian food, and of course, the ingredients were all seasonal, fresh, with locally produced vegetables. So yeah, it was a really special dining experience.
Brighde: Wow. As you’re talking, I’m looking at the pictures on your blog post for this, which of course, listeners, will be linked in our show notes. So I really invite listeners to go and check those out because whitewash really seems to be the theme of Puglia. Everything seems to be whitewashed according to your pictures.
Yeah, the effect is ethereal. You feel like you’re floating in a dream in some ways because everything is so visually beautiful. The food is delicious. The people in Puglia are so down-to-earth and friendly, and there’s no offence taken that they don’t speak English and you don’t speak Italian. You just make it work, and as I said, it’s an old-school Italian area of Italy, but if you’re flexible and open-minded, they are too. And you can make veganism work. I did the leg work for all of you listeners and found the vegetarian restaurants and the vegan menus, there’s not a huge variety, but certainly enough to make it work for a week.
Fantastic. For sure. And all of these restaurants are in such lovely locations as well. So are there any other recommendations? I see you mentioned Osteria Bell’Italia, which is so charming from the outside.
Amber: Yeah, so I can talk about that restaurant. So that one is located in Cisternino, and it is the most sought-after, I would say, restaurant in the town. In fact, there’s even a signpost on the roadway leading to the town with directions for how to get to this restaurant. And it’s won multiple awards. It’s award-winning for its cuisine and for its setting. It’s not vegetarian, it’s not vegan but they do have a vegetarian menu, which is nice. That’s something that a vegan can work with. There wasn’t a vegan dessert. But there were several vegan courses on the vegetarian menu and then there were several Ã la carte vegan options, including a vegan burger. The pureed fava beans were one of the dishes. Another dish was pasta. They had a great plate of grilled vegetables, so there’s enough to work with, and you would really go there, honestly, for the gorgeous setting. So it’s set on a little private alleyway, like in a tucked away corner in the old part of town. The setting of the restaurant is just really beautiful. As you can see, in the picture, in my blog post, they had vines and flowers hanging down from the awning. The tables fill every night. It’s always fully booked. You can make a restaurant reservation in advance on their website. And similar to all of our other dining experiences. The wait staff is so kind and accommodating, and it is helpful to learn just a couple of basic terms in Italian like formaggio is cheese. Everybody understands the word “No”. So literally all you have to know how to say is, “No formaggio”. And they totally accommodate. So yeah, that was our experience. That restaurant was one of my kids’ favorite experiences because I just think it was so beautiful sitting there in that charming little alleyway, being pampered. The slow service fits the setting of eating a relaxing dinner over the course of hours as the sun is setting. So it’s like La Dolce Vita, honestly, to dine out in Southeast Italy.
Brighde: I absolutely love that, and I really love your approach to this trip, this idea of going and doing something in the morning and then just relaxing in the afternoon when it’s hotter. That’s also a question I have. What time of year did you go and how hot it was, and then just really enjoying the evening as well when it’s hopefully a lot cooler? So what time of year did you go?
Amber: Yeah, so we were there the first week in July and we got lucky because there wasn’t a heat wave, and actually the temperature was literally perfect. The temperature was in the low to mid-eighties. It was beautiful weather to be out exploring, and like I said, the plus of having a house rental is that you have a pool. In the afternoons we would come back from sightseeing and cool off in the pool, relax. And one of the things I may not have mentioned yet about Puglia is that the restaurants don’t open until seven-thirty at night. There are almost no exceptions. You cannot find food between three and seven-thirty. So stock your villa with snacks, and cater your itinerary around having an intense few hours of sightseeing, and then keeping in mind the fact that you’re gonna be dining out late at night every night. Take some downtime in the afternoon to relax and enjoy yourself. Expect to be out late at night dining because the service, is a little bit on the slower side and most of the menus are prix fixe. And they involve three to five courses. So dinner in Puglia takes time, for sure.
Brighde: And how did you get around? I think you alluded to the fact that you had a car. Do you need to have a car to explore Puglia the way you did, or is public transit an option?
Amber: I will say this, I think it would be difficult to travel by public transport only If you want to have the type of trip I’m describing, where you see the architectural and the historical sites, because everything is very spread out. That’s the beauty of the area, is that you’re not crammed into a small space. It’s not crowded. It is a little bit of a feat to navigate. The roads are really windy and narrow. The Italians are pretty fast drivers, so, it was really helpful for us to have a car. And I didn’t honestly look into public transportation options. I do think, maybe it’s possible, but it would be difficult to do all of the real heavy-duty sightseeing that way. If you wanted to stay along the coast, maybe that would be more doable, but if you want to explore Central Puglia and the historical sites, I think you would need a car for sure.
Brighde: Did you deliberately choose to hire a small car because of all of the little winding roads, or did you go with just a regular car?
Amber: Yeah, that’s a good question. So we had a small SUV, and it was smaller than an American SUV. So it was doable. We didn’t find the size of our car a problem, but there were times when we were driving down narrow roads that we found the experience a little bit unsettling. But we didn’t scratch the car, so we escaped unscathed. But yeah, especially in the Itria Valley, in those hillside towns that I’m describing, they were originally designed before cars existed, right? So the streets, even the driving streets were designed for horses and buggies, and they are very narrow. It’s a little bit of a feat to learn to navigate as a driver in Puglia, and maybe a little bit of an adjustment as a driver. It’s definitely a different experience than driving in North America, let’s just say that.
Brighde: Awesome. So, Amber, this is such incredible information and I want to thank you so much for taking the time to be on the podcast and sharing this kind of like trip report of your trip to Puglia. I’m sure it has inspired many people. For those people who want to check out more in detail, your thoughts written down in your blog, how might people get in contact with you?
Amber: Yeah, so the URL of my blog is herhealthypassport.com. You’re welcome to just go directly to the blog, obviously, and read up all the content there, and if anybody has any questions at all, feel free to reach out to me. I’m happy to communicate directly. My email address is [email protected] and you can also reach out to me on social media. I can be found on Instagram- @herhealthypassport.
Brighde: Thank you. That is wonderful. Thank you so much again for being on the podcast.
Amber: Thank you so much for having me.