Apulia is beautiful and away from Italy’s madding crowds
However, at Robinson Club Apulia, bagging sun loungers is banned by the disarmingly charming Italian general manager, Mario. After 24 years of running this well-manicured resort, charismatic Mario has instilled the 464-room hotel with his sense of fairness, putting an end to the dreaded sunbed wars between vacationers.
I brought my family, including my 74-year-old mother, to this sleepy corner of the country, to escape the madding crowds found elsewhere in Italy.
Well-equipped for multi-generational holidays, a rising trend across Europe, Robinson Club specialises in family groups catering from the very young to grandparents – and everything else in between.
Set within a 70-acre complex, the plush resort has six swimming pools – one so vast you need never worry about crashing into other swimmers – as well as two especially for children complete with waterslides and fountains, an adults-only pool and whirlpool.
The Robinson Club resort is exceptionally run by General Manager Mario
Food is part of the entertainment at Robinson Club. Here the chefs cook to order in front of the guests – and they make it fun. One cook, noticeably skilled with his saute pan, reappeared one night as a dancing acrobat during an evening of circus tricks
When it comes to sport, Robinson Club has it covered with a range of activities that will keep all the family entertained. Surfing, sailing and stand-up paddle boarding were available at the resort’s 220-yard stretch of private beach.
Back on land we were encouraged to try our hands at archery, volleyball, darts, tennis – and my children refused to leave without having a whizz round the nearby go-karting track.
If the adrenaline-fuelled programme gets too much, adults can slink off to the WellFit Spa for massages and beauty treatments, or to find some inner peace at a yoga class. With so much to do we’d built up our appetites by lunch and again by the evening.
Six restaurants cater for all tastes, with the main dining area serving varied buffets and international cuisine overlooking the stunning terraced gardens.
Robinson Club offers a great multi-generational experience
Capturing Italy’s essence, there’s also a pizzeria complete with a wood-fired oven, a high-end beachside Trattoria and Vinothek bar, serving local wines from Salento and south Apulia. All week we could choose from a spectacular range of southern Italian dishes but for me the highlight was the freshly caught frutti di mare which included kingfish, lobster, swordfish and mussels.
Food is part of the entertainment at Robinson Club. Here the chefs cook to order in front of the guests – and they make it fun. One cook, noticeably skilled with his saute pan, reappeared one night as a dancing acrobat during an evening of circus tricks.
Climbing two black curtains, he had to be rescued by one of the clowns when he got his foot wedged halfway down, almost missing the finale, much to the amusement of my children, who howled with laughter.
He was very much the star of the show. A jack of all trades, general manager Mario, could often be found sprucing up the resort or demonstrating how to make pasta to guests. My two children were quick to notice the difference between the freshly made pasta, kneaded with care and the dried stuff we cook at home.
With so much on offer, there’s little reason to leave Robinson Club. But, keen to get a sense of the region’s long and varied past, we headed out to explore the surrounding area. Apulia was once a central hub in Greek and Roman times and during the Crusades was a strategic route between Europe and the Holy Land.
Lecce is known as ‘the Florence of the South’
Small clusters of villages still speak Griko, an Italiot Greek dialect, that dates back to the early Middle Ages when waves of migrants settled here while fleeing from Ottoman invasion. A 40-minute drive north to Lecce, which is known here as the “Florence of the South”, the buildings, of soft yellow limestone, are an eclectic mix of elegant Norman, refined Renaissance and explosive Baroque styles.
Contrasting again are the Mussolini fascist-era apartment buildings, whose huge, rational blocks tower above the sunken, second-century, Roman amphitheatre. The city’s palazzos and churches are intricately carved with olives and artichokes, celebrating the area’s rich agricultural heritage.
Apulia produces almost half of Italy’s olive oil, with some groves boasting gnarled trees more than 1,000 years old. Grapes also decorate pillars and balustrades, highlighting the region’s wine-making expertise.
It is famed for its full-bodied red, Negroamaro. With reminders of food almost everywhere, we made a quick stop for lunch.
My 14-year old was delighted with his “little chicken”, an extraordinary dish made with slices of chicken and peas filled into a miniature pastry chicken mould. A hearty meal but nonetheless followed with homemade Italian gelato.
Otranto is a stunning fortress town
En route back to Robinson Club we stopped at Otranto, a surprisingly charming resort perched on the south easterly tip of Italy. The quaint town has preserved its winding streets with whitewashed houses, like precious pearls against the vast backdrop of the sea.
A treasure trove of historic buildings, its coastline was fortified after 1480, when 800 Christians were slaughtered after being faced with an invading Turkish ultimatum: “Renounce Christ or lose your head.”
The Byzantine-style Cattedrale di Santa Maria Annunziata, an 11th-century cathedral with a priceless 650-square yard floor mosaic as its centrepiece, still exhibits the skulls and bones of these martyrs in a large glass cabinet. The tragic invasion led to the militarisation of this region during the 15th century.
Walls fortified with ramparts surround the old part of town and watchtowers punctuate the surrounding landscape, at almost every nautical mile, to warn locals of invaders with innovative techniques: mirrors during sunlight or fire at night.
At the harbour, we climbed Torre Matta, one of the town’s formidable towers. With sweeping views over the Adriatic, on the horizon we could just pick out the rolling hills of Albania and 70 miles west, though we couldn’t see it, was Corfu.
Further south, we visited the town between two seas, Santa Maria di Leuca – on the southernmost tip of Italy’s Salento peninsula – where, beneath a white 19th-century lighthouse, the Ionian and Adriatic mingle to become one.
It’s hardly surprising the Romans referred to this dramatically sculpted coastline as “de Finibus Terrae”, the end of the Earth. Beneath us the limestone cliff edge is peppered with grottos where seagulls and pigeons come to perch among fossils, apparently dating back to palaeolithic times.
We explored these grottos, on the stiletto heel of Italy’s boot, the next day. Diving into one blowing cave, we surfaced under its roof with light pouring through its cracks to highlight a shoal of big, black fish swimming beneath us – much to the children’s exhilaration.
As we pack for home, I’m already planning our return. Capturing the essence of Italy, it seems impossible to sate our appetites for more of what Robinsons Club and Apulia has to offer.
GETTING THERE: Robinson Club Apulia (0511 955 5736/ robinson.com) offers seven nights from £635 (two sharing), all inclusive. Ryanair (0871 246 0000/ryanair.com) offers return flights from London Stansted to Brindisi from £44. Apulia tourism: viaggiareinpuglia.it