In Puglia, the flat, silty landscape is dotted with crumbling, abandoned masserias–fortified farmhouse estates (that look more like castles than farmhouses, but there’s not a perfect translation in English), built by landowners more than 500 years ago to protect their farms from pillaging Greeks and Normans and countless other warring factions. Off country roads and highways, you can see the massive, regal-looking structures lording over the olive groves, fruit trees and grapevines. Once they were guarded, fortified with looming towers and giant stone walls, now lopsided and crumbling into disrepair. I imagine they were pretty expensive to keep up, after enemy warfare and looting bandits were no longer a concern.
A few of them have been saved by the lucky, brave soul who takes on a daunting renovation, converting the old stone structures into agriturismo b&bs or vacation rentals. Villa Pizzorusso is one such example–a jaw-dropping, absolutely flawless example–that a San Francisco-based couple (one part Puglian native) bought six years ago and spent three years rehabbing. Parts of which date back to the 1500s, the main level, all stone arches, ancient rough-hewn stone floors and star-vaulted ceilings, retains a rustic simplicity despite being filled with pristine, modern furnishings like ivory horse-hair chairs and an extra-long dining room table made with a beautiful slab of buried teak wood from Bali. Ancient ceramics abound, stone-carved stairs have been worn away in the center from use, and most charmingly, an old olive press that was found in the living room when they bought it hangs above the fireplace. Upstairs, an owner’s wing was added in the early 1800s (the noble quarters), and the Moorish and neoclassical architectural details are far more extravagant: smooth colorful tiled floors, the faded remains of pastel frescos across ceilings, ornate wood-carved chandeliers, and beautiful antiques in every room to match. There’s a turret at each corner; once watchtowers, they’ve been turned into closets (and in one case, a shower), and views from every single window are unfathomably beautiful. Red soil, pink light and silvery green leaves, the agricultural landscape unfolds with vineyards, fields of grain and secolari, those magnificent, gnarled hundreds-of-years-old olive trees, planted in perfect pin-straight lines as far as the eye can see.
The place is over-the-top stunning inside and out, but we were happiest outside, and spent 90 percent of our waking hours in the courtyard, cooking in the 500-year-old outdoor oven, eating figs we picked right off the trees, swimming in the extra-long pool running along the fortress wall that flanks the citrus grove. There’s a dining table under a pergola, a hammock under the fig tree, lounge chairs around the pool, an outdoor living room with cushy furniture, and smaller tables with chairs scattered about. For anyone with kids, there cannot be a more perfect spot in all of Italy (the photos don’t begin to do the scale or beauty of the place justice). They never tired of exploring, catching geckos or swimming in that long, rectangular pool (yes, even under the stars). One evening we took them out into the olive groves at dusk, and it felt like some kind of enchanted fairytale, where they could climb trees, scale old walls, create makeshift forts, and duck in and out of old, empty outbuildings once used for storing fruit and olives, a blacksmith shop and additional sleeping quarters for farm workers. Although we fell pretty hard for Puglia, which is garnering a well-deserved reputation as a beautiful, more real/authentic (we didn’t see a single other American traveler) and reasonably priced alternative to Tuscany, it was difficult to leave Villa Pizzorusso to explore. I guess that’s the magic though–you really don’t need to.
Sleeps up to 14 across six bedrooms. Prices start at $5,135 during low season and $10,250/week during the high. Also included: two bikes, cleaning service and a wonderful welcome basket full of local specialties–wine, cheese, and taralli. Rent it at villapizzorusso.com or by emailing info@villapizzorusso.