27th Aug - 1st Sept 2023
Back in June 2023, I received an email from Miriam, the hospitality manager of a recently refurbished Masseria in the Puglia region of Southern Italy asking if we’d consider using it to host an art retreat. I spoke with my painting friend Heather and we decided to take a trip out to check out the newly renovated farmhouse and the local area to see if it would be suitable.
We flew into Brindisi Airport on the 27th August, collected our hire car and made the one hour drive through a number of small towns and villages until we arrived at the beautiful Masseria Specula. When we arrived, we were immediately taken aback by its beauty, its authenticity and its sense of peace.
We were warmly greeted by Miriam, who helped us with our bags and showed us to our rooms. They were stunning! Each one had been painted in a wonderful array of natural and muted colours, furnished and decorated with a tasteful array of old and antique objects from the period of the original Masseria. They were spotlessly clean and wonderfully cool… a welcome relief on a warm, balmy evening.
Once we had settled in, Miriam then very kindly set up an impromptu table outside, popped open a bottle of ice cold Prosecco and served us up with pizza and Italian condiments. What a fabulous way to start our adventure!
We woke up refreshed and were served a hearty Italian breakfast consisting of a variety of fruit, cakes, bread, jams, juices and yogurt. We marvelled at the view towards the sea as we sipped our cappuccino and remarked on how this would make a fabulous painting spot when working back at base. It was cool, calm and bright; ideal for a spot of outdoor painting.
After breakfast, we headed out with Miriam to discover the local area. Our first trip was to a rustic nature reserve/campsite, reputed to be frequented by several peacocks. Unfortunately although we found feathers attesting to their existence and a lot of chickens, the peacocks proved impossible to find! However, we very much enjoyed our walk amongst the olive and oak trees, chatting to Miriam about her love of nature and her passion for all things sustainable, locally sourced and bio-diverse. This vision, shared with the Masseria’s founder Carlo can be seen permeating throughout the farmhouse too, which generates all of its own power through solar energy, where local food is sourced, traditional skills embraced, a variety of plants and trees planted and wildlife nurtured.
Having given up on our peacock hunt, Heather and I headed onto Torre Chianca, a fortress in Porto Cesareo along the coast in Salento . There we found a long sandy beach, well frequented during the tourist season and a small fortress over looking a rugged coast line. The sound and sight of the crashing waves of the clear blue sea were mesmerising!
Having spent some time around the area, we headed back to the local beach & bar near to the Masseria. This was a beautiful beach and reasonably quiet given that it was still the peak of the tourist season. They served the most delicious ice creams! We made the mistake of asking for them to be served in cones and not pots… bad idea given the amount of ice cream that ended up dribbling down our hands. Lesson learnt! In real terms, we estimated that this beachside spot was a 15/20 minute walk from the Masseria, so the perfect are for non-artists and artists alike to chill on non-painting days. But we had read that there flamingos near by, so that was what we intended to find next…
And sure enough, just a few minutes drive from the Masseria, there they were! Flamingos! What a beautiful sight. With only flip flops on I decided not to venture down the shallow rocky incline as I have an appalling sense of balance, but made a mental note to bring a suitable footwear with me next time so I could get right up close to them.
So on our first day, we had seen beautiful olive trees, crashing waves, stunning beaches and flamingos. Not bad given we were both a little tired from our journey and that we’d only travelled a few miles or so. We rounded off the day with a gorgeous meal in the nearby town of Manduria. Twinkly lights, gentle chatter and the balmy warmth of an Italian night. What a perfect end to a wonderful day.
Mandoria, Color Vinaccia - Vineria con Cucina
For day 2, we wanted to explore a town that had traditional gothic architecture; one in which the shadows would make interesting patterns as the Sun hit the sides of the buildings. Miriam recommended that we visited Nardo which was around 35 minutes from the Masseria. It had a quintessentially Italian feel to it with a traditional town square, flanked by the stunning architecture of the Church of Saint Dominico and a series of cafes and other beautifully constructed buildings. We arrived around midday. We had a lovely cup of coffee at one of the cafes but passed on the tempting array of cakes! We were spoilt for choice for subjects to inspire paintings; a weather-beaten door hid secrets beyond in the form of a small family of cats (subsequently rescued by a lovely Italian couple); stone balconies, iron railings, tumbling foliage and pitted masonry presented a myriad features to explore.
Having spent a couple of hours in Nardo, we headed out for a 10 minute run to another gem of a town, where we discovered the Beach of Santa Maria al Bagno. We loved this area; you could get right up close to the waves as they crashed against the rocks. The sea was clear and turquoise and a beautiful breeze cooled us down as we strolled across the promenade of open cafes.
On our way back to the Masseria, we stopped at one of the many Olive groves. Some of the olive trees we saw dated back a couple of hundred of years. Their twisted trunks and craggy branches were fascinating to study and we chatted about how we would love to recreate them in charcoal.
Finally, having popped back for a shower and change we headed out to the local town of Maruggio where we dined at the Osteria del Vico. This was such a fabulous experience. Authentic Italian cooking at its best, frequented by locals. In fact, it felt like we were the only tourists there. Despite that, everyone we met was so friendly, helpful and engaging. Luckily for us, everyone spoke English which genuinely put us to shame given our lack of language skills. Maruggio itself was another beautiful little town that came alive at night. We left it with a sense of warmth and contentment.
On day 3, we wanted to explore further afield beyond the immediate vicinity of the Masseria. We had given ourselves the goal of finding somewhere within roughly an hour’s drive. We had many options but decided to chose the city of Lecce and we weren’t disappointed. We were there for the afternoon and only just touched the surface of this beautiful City. Home to a Roman amphitheater as well as a multitude of stunning buildings, quaint sidewalks, coffee shops, gardens, museums and art galleries, we figured that this would make for a wonderful day out. Having absorbed the city’s atmosphere and of course, downed the most beautiful gelati , we headed back to the Masseria where Miriam and the staff were putting together a lovingly prepared traditional Italian meal for us.
This was our penultimate night and the Masseria staff prepared the most beautiful vegetarian dinner for us. It was our chance to discover more about their culture, their aspirations for the Masseria, their sustainability plans and the logistics of if and how this could be a retreat for artists.
On our final day, we decided to keep everything local in the daytime to give us chance to think about everything we’d seen and even try and get a little painting done. We visited the world famous white sands of the nearby Punta Prosciutto beach. White sand and aqua blue sea eventually gave way to rock pools and gently lapping waves further along the coast. It really was stunning.
Back at the Masseria Heather and I enjoyed some much needed downtime doing a little painting under the arches of the dining area.
Watercolour paintings inspired by the local beach and by a cafe
Festival at Castiglione
On our final evening we travelled out to a Festival at Castiglione. Suggested by Miriam, this was a celebration of music, art, and food underpinned by themes of sustainability and bio diversity. Our senses were overloaded with an abundance of sights and sounds;the music coming out from live performer in the ancient market square;the sweet chirps of migratory birds sitting on overhead wires;the periodic chimes of ancient church bells; the paps of the odd moped scuttling round the street; the gentle murmur and chatter of Italian voices. It was stunning. What a fine end to our short but very sweet stay in Puglia!
From there, armed with 3 young trees that we all picked for the Masseria, we headed back to base to say a final and very fond farewell to the beautiful Masseria before making the evening journey to Brindisi airport and on to home.
Thank you so much to Miriam, Carlo and team Masseria Specula for making our trip so special. We have such happy memories and hope that we see you again!
I am about to launch my 2025 Art Retreat to beautiful Puglia and so you'll be able to find more information about this soon. If you'd like to register your interest in the Italian Art Retreat, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Sarah Stokes Art Retreats & Workshops- You can find out more information about all of my Art Workshops and Retreats via my website- Art Workshops & Retreats | Sarah Stokes Artist