A stylish boutique hotel in the heart of rustic Puglia, this 18th century palazzo boasts some of the most secluded grounds and best value rooms in the region.
And the general vibe?
Guests like to think of elegant yet understated Don Totu as their secret home-away-from-home. In the rural town of San Cassiano large wooden doors along an unassuming backstreet open into a mini palazzo, gracefully decorated in muted tones.
Squishy armchairs and books and board games are on hand to keep visitors occupied. Or, help yourself to snacks from the kitchen (homemade biscuits, juices, cakes and nuts) and pad out through a higgledy-piggledy courtyard to find stone staircases leading to secluded terraces. Scented white rose petals drift down from a pergola that leads to a pool and gardens, jazz trickles from speakers and tiny lizards dart from one cacti-filled pot to another.
Which room to book at Don Totu?
Like any home, the six bedrooms at Don Totu each have an individual feel. The owners make the most of the building’s quirks (vaulted stone ceilings, quiet alcoves, narrow staircases leading to terracotta terraces…) and have gathered a collection of furniture from across the region to add contemporary touches (illustrations of spiraling shells, white porcelain lamps in the shape of horses, and pale wood chests of drawers in quirky shapes).
The Don Totu suite off the library has an impressive bathroom with a free-standing bath, double sinks and lots of stone. It also boasts, as do all the suites, a great little terrace reached via a tiny stone staircase, with panoramic views across the town.
The Dependence room has a huge stone fireplace, a four-poster bed and an impressive bathroom, yet costs the same as a standard room so, if you don’t mind doing without a private terrace, this one’s the best-value to book (the bathrooms in the other standard rooms are on the small side).
What’s the food like?
There’s no restaurant at the hotel but order before 10.30 and you can enjoy lunchtime sandwiches and salads made with the region’s fantastic produce. The hotel’s small team of staff provides complimentary snacks to break up your day, anywhere in the grounds – take afternoon tea (complete with coconutty macaroons) in the pool room, under white Art deco chandeliers, then relish a traditional Italian aperitivo in the early evening with a punchy negroni or refreshing aperol spritz along with Puglia’s famous tarallini (crunchy, savoury biscuits) and olives picked from the trees that surround the town.
Sign up for a cookery course with local restaurateur and opera singer, Raffaele, and you can embark on a tour of the area’s producers – visit a farm to pick up ricotta-like primo sale cheese that’s so fresh it’s still warm, forage for fennel at the side of an olive tree-lined road, and choose veg from the abundant selection at the local farm shop, where a man with a very husky voice will point out zucchini, spinaca, piselle, fave, cocomeri (marrow) and more.
Raffaelle sings in a deep, operatic tone while he dices veg to make caponata, grinds up walnuts and anchovies to create dressings, and crunches dried oregano between his palms over local cheese. After a light lunch, there’s a fun, hands-on pasta tutorial, when you poke your thumb through firm dough to create curly orecchiette (little ears) and swizzle more dough round a metal pole to create fricelli. Dinner is served with a performance from a delightful pianist and more operatics from Raffaelle.
And the drinks?
Aperitivo hour is a highlight, with negronis freshened up with a twist of orange, refreshing Aperol spritzes served in colourful glasses and Italian gin tonics.
If you want to discover more about local wines, venture down into Don Totu’s atmospheric wine cellar and take part in an informal tasting. We swirled and sniffed glasses of Puglia’s powerful reds (a rich, ripe and fruity Nero Scholasarmenti and floral Motive Cantle Amadivo, with a smooth vanilla finish) before selecting the Zero 100, an award-winning bottle filled with red fruit and fig aromas.
What’s the breakfast like?
Enjoy a delightful spread of fresh fruit and baked goods in an idyllic courtyard among stone arches, olive trees and an ancient stone well – crostata cake with jam, the local delicacy of pasticiotto filled with smooth cream, chipolata bread with zucchini baked in the town’s ancient shared oven. There are eggs made to order and always a juice of the day (maybe blood orange or kiwi, pineapple or carrot).
Is Don Totu family friendly?
There’s a dedicated family suite with connecting rooms, but all rooms have space for a babycot and two for an extra bed. Suite Corte has a private internal patio and ample room for an extra bed.
Other activities around the hotel in Puglia
Hire one of the hotel’s bikes or chic, cream-coloured mopeds and potter along country roads in search of tiny hamlets. Park up outside Dolci Fantasie on the outskirts of San Cassiano for a slice of local life. This grand patisserie-cum-café-cum-bar is a hub of local activity, where kids tuck into cones of freshly-churned gelato, sun-wrinkled men prop up the bar with an aperitivo and groups of stylish women chat over flaky pastries.
Back at the hotel, be sure to book out the hammam for a private session bathing in its prettily tiled plunge pool, invigorating yourself under the mood shower and sinking into one of the benches in the steamy hammam itself.
Where to eat and drink in Puglia
Possibly the chicest restaurant around, contemporary without any stuffiness, Cantine Menhir, in the tiny town of Minervino, is a fab lunch spot. Its stylish pale stone tasting room is lined with shelves of local produce, bags of fresh and dried pasta, and, of course, wines; go for a bone-dry white Verdeca or the award-winning No. Zero for complex herby, spiced aromas with figs and black berries.
The food is simple, elegant and fresh – an amuse-bouche of fried pepper with cream of pecorino cheese, olive slices and carrot crisp got our appetites going before huge plump prawns and slices of seared tuna.
Drive for half an hour to Lecce to soak up the impressive squares, buildings and facades of this ancient city. Dolci Fantasie’s sister café is where to head to for a coffee with views of ancient ruins in Sant’Oronzo square.
Doppio Zero deli is the place to be for aperitivo – trendy young folk gather on the terrace outside and shout merrily over long communal tables in the deli’s narrow warren of rooms. Meanwhile huge platters of cured meats, cheeses and antipasti are passed round and many a negroni is sunk.
The concierge says…
Alessandra makes fantastic cocktails, so amble over to her cocktail bar, Prima o Poi in San Cassiano, for an aperitivo before driving to atmospheric Farmacia Dei Sani for superlative plates of pasta (don’t miss the anchovy and pistachio spaghetti).
It’s near impossible to get around without a car, so unless you want to stay within the hotel walls and restrict yourself to the town’s limited eating and drinking options, we recommend booking a hire car; there are too many fantastic restaurants, ancient towns and beautiful coastlines in the region to miss out on.
Don Totu is at Via Crocefisso, 10, San Cassiano, Puglia, Italy (dontotu.it)