Borgo Egnazia comes out of nowhere. Down a multitude of minute windy lanes where wiry black snakes wiggle across the burning tarmac and olive groves bake in the sun, the hotel has been crafted perfectly to fit into the local landscape in a uniform but striking white stone. But more about the getting-there part first.
I’d been blaring out ‘Just one more Cornetto, give it to me…’ for a few days to our kids trying to give them a little flavor of Italy before their first trip to the beautiful country. We’d pored over a map and been through the boot and ball analogy of Italy and Sicily and sung that rhyme too. Now we were stepping off the aeroplane into a blast of Mediterranean warmth eagerly escaping a turgid and wintry early summer in the UK.
Our friendly driver pushed his way through the throng and grabbed our numerous bags, rucksacks, baby buggies and last-minute duty-free bottles and whisked us into an air-conditioned minivan.
Puglia can look barren and the drive from the airport to the hotel isn’t too eventful with various villages and concrete heavy towns not looking hugely inviting. We were about to find out that behind that average appearance there can be a lot more than meets the eye.
A warm welcome from the white uniformed staff at chic Borgo Egnazia chaperones us into the cool of the hotel itself, a labyrinth of cool stone tunnels, alcoves and ideal spots for the kids to play hide and seek and romancing couples to smooch away the afternoon.
Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither was Borgo Egnazia, which took local architect Pino Brescia 10 years to complete. Rather than simply build a hotel, Pino raised up a village: guests get a map to help navigate themselves around the sprawl of traditional trulli and, if you stay in the Borgo rooms, you’ll be sent a bolletino (bulletin) advertising events in the piazza. The hotel grounds are vast, one of the biggest spaces we’ve ever stayed in, but it’s a pleasure to stroll about through the replica streets of a bygone era, like walking through a film set of an Italianate cowboy town. Borgo Egnazia even has its own customized bike shop with low riders, go-karts and streamlined racers for hire for you to get around the place.
And what a place it is. The Vair Spa is a haven of tranquility in the cool, dim, basement of the hotel; the seaside restaurant is but a short golf buggy drive away across the award-winning golf course and a must see with incredibly shaped rock lobsters to tuck into washed down with a glass of vino bianco and the Reading Room and Cigar Room are escapes from the hubbub when it all gets a bit too much.
Our eldest son loved playing football with the sporty kids club workers who never seemed to tire of a sweaty match under a burning Mediterranean sun with children of all ages, while I investigated the olive groves for creepy crawlies with the younger ones. There’s never a dull moment for the wee ones with trips to the beach, arts and crafts afternoons and terrifyingly messy pizza making workshops.
Surrounding the hotel are some of the simplest but tastiest trattorias we’ve ever been to, and there we sampled endless small plates of fresh octopus, homemade pastas and bug-eyed monsters fresh from the sea while the local fish market in the nearest village is a fascinating scene of snapping claws, thrashing tails and colourful fish – it had the younger members of our party enthralled.
But back to the hotel – because the truth is you might never even want to leave. Spoilt for choice between the wood-fired pizzas of the relaxed poolside restaurant and the gourmet masterpieces served up in the posher dining room we were permanently stuffed as we waddled around contentedly.
As night falls a son et lumière – sound and light – effect takes over as the sun sets and the beautifully lit angles and nooks and crannies cast giant shadows across the piazza. Finding myself doing all the moves to YMCA at 9pm every night might not seem the natural choice for a trendsetting Radio 1 DJ with his own festivals, but I have to say after having unofficially retired from the dancefloor years ago, the nightly kids’ disco which is held in one corner in summer reinvigorated my love of a boogie… even it was slightly powered by a glass or two of the local grappa.
Unlike other regions of Italy, Puglia has kept hold of its sense of myth and mystery, and the hotel’s styling reflects this. Rooms are hewn from pale, craggy tufa rock, the palette relies on cream and white, muslin drapes hang above the beds, and the decorations abound with rural whimsy: bundles of dark metal wire tied with string, glass cases filled with old keys and pages torn from books, slabs of stone suspended from the ceiling, lanterns on the walls and beds haloed with soft yellow lighting.
It’s not merely fanciful, though: a great deal of thought has gone into keeping guests from boredom. If you’re not content with the golf course outside your bedroom or the Adriatic just on your doorstep, there are mozzarella tastings, cookery classes, museum visits and windsurfing lessons to take part in. Working out what to do here isn’t the problem; working out how to pack it all into one holiday is.
We left Borgo Egnazia a fatter, happier family but sad to see our Italian paradise disappear into the dusty distance from our rear-view mirror. So see you soon, or ‘arrivederci’ our beautiful Italian friend.
Rob da Bank DJ’s review on Mr & Mrs Smith