Any trip to Italy usually involves sunshine, idyllic landscapes and good food and wine, so imagine being able to enjoy all three while staying in what feels like your very own castle.
Castello Di Ugento in Puglia stands tall over the town of Ugento and dates back to the 8th Century BC.
It is now home to a luxury boutique hotel as well as a state-of-the-art cook school and exhibition space.
With only nine suites, a private apartment and a nearby farmhouse, the current incarnation is the result of a €15 million restoration project.
Left to decay for a century, the restoration has taken six years and has put the castle on the map as the focal point of the town. The interior has all the modern comforts, without compromising on the ancient stature, with original brick walls in each room.
Because of the castle’s history as a former fortress, it is located on the highest point in Ugento, meaning each room has uninterrupted views of the walled grounds towards the town.
Our double suite, like the rest of the Castello, was decorated in an understated style with muted tones and original features, which included a vaulted ceiling and arched windows.
It is difficult not to be drawn to the nearby Ionian Sea, with its sparkling turquoise waters and pristine sandy beach.
But we also wanted to see more of Ugento and Puglia. The region forming the heel of Italy’s “boot”, Puglia is renowned for its landscape, farmland, hill towns and coast, so to see more of this we hired a car and drove to the The Castellana Grotte – miles of caves which contain vast numbers of stalactites.
As well as an interesting way to spend a morning, the caves offer a welcome respite from the heat.
From here we headed to Polignano di Mare, a scenic coastal town located high on limestone cliffs.
After a spot of lunch and a wander we decided to carry on along the coast to Bari for a seaside stroll and the chance to visit the Basilica di San Nicola. Although a summer trip, Christmas calls as it is here that visitors can see where the mortal remains of Saint Nicholas, which were stolen from Turkey in the 11th Century by Barese merchantmen, are buried.
Other highlights of the region include many places of historical interest such as the Roman amphitheatre, Sant’Oronzo Column, a Roman column topped with a bronze statue of the city’s patron saint and the eye-catching Basilica di Santa Croce with its Baroque façade and rose windows.
Closer by, in the rustic town of Ugento, there are small shops and pizzerias, but it is lovely just to walk around this “citta’ di arte” – city of art – and soak up the atmosphere, history and sunshine.
After a full day out and despite various stops for a gelato or two, we headed back to the Castello for a much anticipated dinner.
The Castello is also home to the Puglia Culinary Centre, helmed by Odette Fada, one of the best Italian chefs.
The restaurant, II Tempo Nuevo, has a seasonal menu with ingredients sourced from the garden and local market.
Dishes are modern twists on traditional cuisine and include seared mackerel and deconstructed tiramisu.
We tucked into a delicious dinner served alfresco in the courtyard.
Because of the small number of rooms, it’s easy to find an unoccupied space to relax or explore the Castello as if it’s your own.
And there’s plenty to see thanks to the museum and events space, with its restored frescoes, that is set to house over 900 pieces of Italian art, as well as more modern art in temporary exhibitions.
Outside, the 17th Century kitchen garden is a beautiful place for a post-dinner stroll.
Known as the Florence of the south, Puglia and Ugento are ideal destinations for exploring Italy and, staying at the Castello Di Ugento, you get the added bonus of being able to feel like a king or queen, while eating like one, too.
For years Puglia was dubbed the “bread basket of Italy” due to the region’s production of pasta and bread, which could be traced back to the post-WWI era. The area provides about 40% of the country’s olive oil, amounting to around 300,000 tonnes a year.
Suites at Castello Di Ugento start at £330 for a double room including breakfast.