The experience began before we touched down in Brindisi, with background chatter on the plane spoken in true Italian gusto. After a countryside drive through infinite olive groves, we found ourselves at a palazzo like no other: Don Totu Dimora Storica. Nestled in the small town of San Cassiano, Don Totu pays homage to its 18th century roots with exposed pietra leccese stonewalls and baroque furniture. The boutique hotel succeeds in being both intimate and grand, with six luxurious rooms on offer, each one as authentically Italian as the next. Travel-loving owners Mauro and Chiara Bini originally intended for the hotel to be their own private getaway, extending it to like-minded travellers in 2014.
With high star-vaulted ceilings, jasmine aromas and a warming neutral colour palette, the rooms at Don Totu will never feel crowded nor empty. The interiors are typically Pugliese, with turquoise ceramics, bespoke china sets and local artists’ oeuvres lining the walls. Expect large suites with a classic décor, boasting canopy beds with locally made linen, chandeliers and stylish chaise longues. The bathrooms are fit for royalty, with a most majestic freestanding bathtub, marble countertops and lavish Côté Bastide toiletries.
While it is tempting to curl up inside, summer nights call for stargazing on the hotel’s rooftop, which doubles as an open-air cinema in true Italian style: Italian films coupled with pizza and gelato. What’s not to like? Don Totu’s communal areas are equally inviting – find peace amongst the garden’s lavender shrubs and citrus trees, or take a dip in the refreshing pool. We found ourselves soaking up the hotel’s artistic side in its new Pool House, decorated with Matisse-inspired wall art, an authentic Taschen book and exotic ornaments picked up on the Binis’ travels.
Don Totu provides the most picturesque setting for a series of wellness retreats, led by the highly qualified personal trainer David Hugues King. The fitness suite is both high-tech in its equipment (kinesis, weights, cardio machines) and its stylish décor, with a colourful tapestry-filled lounge fitting for a mid-workout break. After the pre-workout fuel of banana and yoghurt, as recommended by King himself, we began our aerobic routine, switching from warm-up on the machines to high-knee jumps and abdominal floor exercises.
With his infectious and light-hearted mantra “If I can do it, you can too”, King tailors the workouts to your every request. Afternoon workouts focused on upper and lower body strengthening, with weights in the loop. King’s emphasis on stretching at the end of each workout was a blessing, with none of us feeling achy or sore in the coming days but rather reinvigorated and ready to get stuck back in. The hammam in the caves of the hotel is the perfect way to unwind after a day’s activities.
Guests are also encouraged to embrace their inner explorer with Don Totu’s traveller kit, filled with local gems and a blank page for your own discoveries. Borrow one of the hotel’s bikes, free of charge, and take a trip to the Paduli Park, an olive grove plantation and cultural hub. Here you’ll find eco-friendly woven sculptures, built by local artists as part of a creative project to sustain the area. If you’re brave enough to take one of their pristine Vespas out for a spin then be our guest! The seaside town of Castro is worth a visit, if only to see the clifftop views of the Adriatic’s scintillating crystal blue waters.
While Don Totu doesn’t have a restaurant per-se, the kitchen provides snacks throughout the day and apéritif in the evening. This is no drawback as the pristine neighbouring towns are brimming with exquisite Italian trattorias. Breakfast in the hotel is either taken indoors or al-fresco under a canopy of olive trees. Don Totu offers a buffet of Italian delicacies – think local fig tarts, freshly baked bread and jams from the local area – and a menu of fresh juices (apple and kiwi was our regular), and any-style eggs.
Upon recommendation from the Salento locals who run the hotel, the dream duo Alessandra and Davide, La Bersigliera in Surano offers four-course set menus cooked up by opera-singing master chef Raffaele Fanciullo. Fanciullo is no stranger to Don Totu, holding daylong cooking classes in its kitchens. We joined one of these for the wine tasting section in the hotel’s cosy wine cellar, sampling a range of Puglia’s native Negroamaro and Primitivo. Among these were a selection of meditation wines, suitable for after-dinner dark chocolate or cigars. For further wine tasting experiences, take a trip to the vineyards in Salento, followed by apéritif at Cantine Menhir, whose organic wine collection is complimented by their creamy buffalo cheese, artichoke purée and cured meats.
Don’t miss out on the unforgettable Masseria Le Stanzie, a rustic haven in the Supersano countryside, which transports you back to the 1400s with its historical manual olive-oil production facilities and prehistoric caves. Stanzie, meaning room in Italian, has just that: room after room of traditional farmhouse interiors. Perfect for an autumnal evening, dried chillis and winter tomatoes hang from the ceilings while pumpkins and acorns make up the table display. Small plates of winter tomato salsa, fried bread, fava bean purée and aubergine parmigiana line the table, followed by fresh creamy spinach orecciette and cheese from their very own grotto.
Don Totu lies in an unspoiled region of Italy, providing more than just luxury with its attentive staff, all-inclusive perks and chic interior design. There was something missing on our last morning as we set off to catch a plane back to the U.K., longing for hearty Italian cuisine and a highly uncharacteristic craving for our morning training. It’s safe to say we’ve caught the fitness bug and are longing to return to this Pugliese home away from home.