Tag Archives: travel tips

Puglia, part 1

Age. History. It surrounds you in the heel of Italy’s “boot”. The stone – on the floors, walls, ceilings, and paths – the castles, the churches. Modern and shiny would look very out of place here.

I’ve wanted to come to Puglia for some time now – the food, the architecture, the food, the beaches, oh and did I mention the food? It delivered on all fronts, and then some. We already know we’re coming back.

And people were so very kind. We have a few Pay It Forwards outstanding. One night when we got a flat tyre, a man and his son, and then a friend, came and helped us and walked away with a wave before we barely had time to thank them. At a beach, when I realised I’d run out of cash and there were no ATM’s nearby, the gentleman at the umbrella counter gave us an umbrella and said not to worry about it. On a pitstop to get the Small People some lunch at a bar in a pretty town, the credit card machine wasn’t working, and the guy behind the bar said no problem, feed the boys, come back and pay me later.

Tourism is a relatively new thing here, really only emerging in the last ten years. And then, most of the tourists seemed to be Italians from other regions – we heard comparatively few foreign voices. I suspect the next then years will be very different, as the word is spreading about this southern jewel.

Tips on visiting Puglia

If you’re thinking about this lovely part of Italy, here are a few tips

– Puglia has two international airports, Bari and Brindisi, which have direct daily flights from several European cities, mostly serviced by discount airlines. British Airways does fly to Bari and Brindisi from Gatwick, but only on certain days. Depending on where you base yourself (see below), it may be more convenient to use one airport or the other to minimise long driving times. We flew into Bari and out of Brindisi.

– If you plan to explore, you will need to hire a car. There are some trains and buses but it will take you a long time to get to sites. The roads are quite good, but some of the speed limits and road signs are shall we say for “guidance” purposes only. Also in many of the towns you cannot park right in the historic centre, so will need to park a few streets away. Where parking is ticketed, it is pretty cheap, €1 an hour or in some cases 60 cents an hour

– Have some mobile data and google maps at the ready. The in car GPS is broadly fine but does not cope well with some of the more rural roads, especially the Strade Provinciale (“provincial roads”) in the bottom half. It would sometimes tell us to turn left into a non existent road or send us down a complete dead end.

– It can be tricky to know where to base yourself if you don’t want to do too much driving. If you opt for instance for pretty Polignano a Mare or Monopoli, then it’s an easy drive to places like Alberobello or Bari, but a hike to places like Lecce and Gallipoli. Likewise if you opt for the coastline down the bottom half, then pack a picnic lunch for Alberobello and surrounds. We solved this by splitting our stay between the “top half” and “bottom half” which worked really well.

– Credit cards are fine, in fact Amex was much more widely excepted than in Australia (and never did I encounter a credit card surcharge like here). You will need some cash for your €1.50 scoop of gelato, or your €1 espresso or for parking meters – I could never get my credit cards to work on parking meters – and for market stalls.

– The afternoon siesta tradition is still in full swing down here so a lot shuts between 1pm and 5pm. Most restaurants don’t open for dinner until 7.30/8.00pm.

– Beaches are either a “spiaggia publica” (public beach) or a Lido (organised beach). At a Lido you pay anywhere up to €30 per day for an umbrella and a chair whether you stay one hour or ten, though down at Pescoluse it was €5 an umbrella and €3 a chair for the whole day. The beaches here aren’t pebbles like much of Italy, they are either sandy or large rock formations.

– There are very few large hotels in Puglia. Accommodation is largely smaller boutique hotels, bed and breakfasts, or “masserie”, old restored farmhouses, typically with six rooms or less (have a look at the lovely one we stayed at here). So if you’re like us an need a family room or two rooms, and you have your eye on a particular place or area in peak season, do book ahead. Some places were booked out six months ahead.

Places to see

Monopoli
This was our base for the first half. What a charming seaside town with a very pretty historic centre, fishing boats, cafes and restaurants, bed and breakfasts and small hotels. It’s a very “house proud” town and the centre is beautifully maintained with lovely potted plants and flowers. In the mornings sometimes there would be a smattering of cigarette buts from those strolling the evening before, and out would come the nonnas with their brooms.

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There is also a small public beach with lovely sparkling water. There was a sandy area but plenty would just sit or lie on the rocks.

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We had some lovely dinners here too after venturing out exploring all day. The best pizza in town was at La Dolce Vita in the piazza with a light crust and excellent cheese. Here I also had an absolutely fantastic pasta dish of squid ink orecchiette with fresh tuna, baby peppers and breadcrumbs, one of the best pasta dishes I’ve ever eaten; once the others on the table tried it, I almost had to fight them for it. Gorgeous fresh seafood too.

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We also really enjoyed Il Guazetto, a small restaurant in one of the smaller streets. My homemade spaghetti with seafood was full of fresh scampi, crab, and prawns and just so tasty. The fritto misto wasn’t far behind.

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At Piazza Palmieri a highlight was the mixed seafood plate. We couldn’t believe what came out for €13. It was huge, and beautifully cooked.

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The pasta dishes were good, but not as good as what we’d had elsewhere.

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At every restaurant when we sat down we would get a basket of taralli, a Puglian munch. Feathery light and crunchy, these were very moreish.

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I loved the bakery in the piazza, Gran Forno Santa Caterina. Lovely biscuits, taralli, focaccia and more.

Now I know Pasticceria Ascalone in Galatina is famous for its pasticciotti, and I tried theirs along with several others, but this bakery’s pasticciotti were my favourite. Their pasta frolla (pastry) had a texture and taste that won me over.

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They also sold deli goods and beer (we couldn’t believe how cheap the beer was, and then we went to the supermarket and saw that you could get a three pack for 1.50. Love those little fresh cubes of yeast, wish we had them here!

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There’s also other entertainment, like the occasional triathlon.

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In one alleyway there was an elderly gentleman’s workshop. Where he was making boats.  I’m not sure where the boats ended up as it wasn’t a shop.  He’d sit at his workbench working by hand, then shuffle over to some hand operated machinery, then shuffle back to his bench.  I wanted to chat to him but he didn’t look keen on interruption!

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Monopoli Accommodation
We stayed at Don Ferrante, a lovely small boutique hotel in the historic centre. They had a great sized family room (though they only take children over age 11) and beautiful stone interiors. There was a dipping pool which was good for a refresh before dinner. There is a rooftop balcony, but they only serve dinner there, breakfast is served in the basement.

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Polignano a Mare
Polignano is a ten or fifteen minute drive from Monopoli and lovely for a wander, or to stay. Like Monopoli, there are no big hotels but small boutique ones and B&Bs. It has a stunning ragged coastline, and like Monopoli a pretty historic town centre. There is a gorgeous cove with a public beach.

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Grotte di Castellana
After a dip in the Polignano beach, we hop back in the car and see the sign for the Grotte di Castellana. We weren’t sure what kind of caves were there but thought we would check it out. There aren’t a lot of people around and the lady at the ticket counter tells us there’s a group leaving in about two minutes for an Italian speaking tour (there are two or three English tours a day). You can’t wander in on your own but only with a guide; there is a shorter one hour walk or the standard 1 hour 45 walk, which is about 3.4 kilometres.

Well, were we blown away. These caves are rather amazing, though hard to get good photos without a top of the line camera I think with the lighting, so my photos don’t reflect just how amazing it was. These formations are believed to be as much as 90 million years old, though the caves were not discovered until 1938. The guide tells us that the stalactites grow one centimetre every 80 years! The extraordinary opening is eerily called “The Graves” but is often referred to as a “natural pantheon”, reflecting the famous Roman building. Don’t miss this if you are in the area.

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Bari
For some reason Bari gets a bad wrap, and you’ll often get told to skip it if you’re heading to Puglia. It may be because of the history of high crime, and I don’t know if it is different at night, but it was perfectly fine during the day and a really lovely waterside city. It of course has a castle, which seems to be a pre-requisite for every town in Puglia, but there’s a good shopping area too with lots of Italian and international brands, and plenty of restaurants and cafes.

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The Small People feel like their go-to Puglia snack, panzerotti, and we see some nice looking ones in a hole in the wall where an old man is standing behind the counter. One of the boys says he feels like arancini and the old guy yells out “Maria, do we have any arancini?”. “We do”, yells back his wife, “give me five and I’ll cook some”. For ten euro we have panzerotti, focaccia and arancini; nourished we continue exploring.

Of course we had to stop by “Nonna Alley” in Arco Alto in the historic area where the Nonnas are making orecchiette and cavatelli at unbelievable speed. Often they are working out in the alley, but it’s quite hot so many of them opt for in doors, and they are quite happy to chat when I stick my head through the door and ask if we can watch for a bit. They sell a lot of what they make to local restaurants, though some of the Nonnas will cook you lunch for whatever you negotiate! While I’m chatting to two of them a man walks in who usually brings them cime di rapa (chicory). They take a look at it and shoo him away, telling him it’s not good enough today. Its very cool to watch and I hope their daughters and granddaughters learn the art (I did try and tell them they should also teach their grandsons but this suggestion got an eye roll).  These women are national treasures!

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More Puglia to come in the next post!

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Tips for Travel with Kids

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As you may imagine, with newborn twins, I didn’t venture too far in the early days. When at home, in the comfort of my house and carefully orchestrated routine, I found it fine and very manageable, and I must admit, a little boring (it was while on maternity leave that I discovered internet shopping). But going out on my own during the day with two babies, even up to a café or for a stroll, with all the packing and loading and unloading, was just exhausting. Plus the boys were terrible pram sleepers, they wanted their bed, so going out was often not peaceful.

Once past that tumultuous initial twin year, it was time to travel. Gingerly at first, short flights to the Gold Coast, Palm Cove, Port Douglas, then bravely moving on to Thailand and Hawaii. In those early days we’d fly to one spot, park ourselves there, and come home ten days or two weeks later. We didn’t really start the “city hopping” type travel till the strollers were ditched and the boys were happy to walk, eventually hitting mainland USA (tips for Disneyland in this post) and finally, Europe. I saw plenty of travellers in crowded cities like Paris and New York with small children and big prams – they are more courageous people than I was. But hey, twins gives you a slightly different view of life!

So here are a few things I’ve learned along the way. Some of these are general tips and not specific to children, but hopefully they’ll make your family adventure a little smoother. In no particular order

1. Bring a comfort item from home for bedtime. When the boys were little, it was a small blue blanket that they always slept with. These days it’s one of their plush character toys. In an unfamiliar hotel room or house, a little slice of familiar home can make bedtime easier.

2. Buy bright caps for the kids to wear when you are walking around. On our last few trips the Marito and the boys have worn their treasured bright red Ferrari caps. They walk faster than I do, so I would just look for the little three red hat cluster, it made it easy to track them down. This also comes in handy on the beach and in parks.

3. Once the kids start writing, get them to keep a little travel journal where they can write something every day. When they had just started school this was just one sentence every day, but on our recent USA trip it was pages.   They are something to treasure but also they are often hilarious, reading descriptions and perspectives from a child’s eyes.

4. Where possible, book an overnight flight. The kids get on the plane, have something to eat, watch a movie and then have a good chunk of sleep. I also bring their PJ’s onto the plane to change into to help them get into a sleep mindset. Even though they are older now, day flights are still a bit of a challenge and seem interminable to them.

5. Pack a change of clothes for the kids on your carry on luggage – accidents and travel sickness happen.

6. Tie a bright ribbon or something unusual onto your checked in luggage – makes it much easier to identify in that sea of black on the carousel!

7. If you are staying somewhere more than a few days, try and find accommodation with a kitchenette. There are lots of hotels and resorts with kitchenettes these days, otherwise there are serviced apartments and of course Air BnB. I don’t like eating out for three meals a day and I don’t think kids can handle it either. This is especially so if you are travelling with toddlers, or a baby that needs pureed food.

8. If you do plan to eat out, contact the hotel in advance of your trip and ask for suggestions of family friendly restaurants, they are always happy to help. Then you can check out menus and locations in advance. OpenTable is fantastic for restaurant bookings in the US, or often the concierge will happily make bookings for you.

9. Another tip for eating out, bring something small to entertain the kids – and by this I don’t mean electronics. We do not let the boys bring their Ipads to restaurants, they can bring some pencils and paper or a small toy; it helps the time pass while they are waiting for their food, or if we have two courses and they only have one. Or, they can talk to their parents!

10. Make sure you take kids Panadol/Nurofen, bandaids, or other key medical items

11. Other things that come in handy – scissors (check in luggage), sticky tape (you never know what you’ll find that you want to pack and bring home!), zip lock bags. Any toiletries that may be prone to leaking, put them in a zip lock bag before putting them into your toiletry bag. I also always take washing powder and disposable gloves. Hotel laundry prices are just horrendous and I can’t fathom paying them. Otherwise look for a Laundromat.

12. I’ve discovered that a lot of hotels don’t have interconnecting rooms, particularly in Europe (or if they do they are extremely expensive). Some hotels do have “family rooms” which sleep 4 or 5 but there aren’t a lot of these so they tend to book out quickly. Plan ahead.

13. If your budget allows, book a driver at your foreign destination to pick you up at the airport.  After a long flight, it is nice to have someone waiting who will haul the luggage and not have to find a taxi queue and just be deposited at your hotel.  You can find plenty of companies on the internet that do this (such as Execucar  in the US) or a travel agent can organise it for your; I generally find that if you organise it through your hotel it is a lot more expensive

14. If you’re doing a country hopping type trip which involves filling out lots of arrival cards with passport numbers, get a business card size piece of cardboard, write everyone’s passport number and expiry on it, and keep it in your wallet. It is a much easier thing to reference and much quicker than opening individual passports

15. Accept the fact that meltdowns will happen. They are kids and they are out of their familiar routine. I remember when the boys were three and we were coming back from Hawaii. It was a day return flight, they were tired and cranky, and our luggage took what seemed like forever to come out of the carousel. The boys went a bit bezerk. Do you best to distract them and calm them down, but don’t do nothing. There are other people around – it is not about what they think of you as a parent, it’s about common courtesy and consideration for others.

16. Line up a home grocery delivery to coincide with your arrival at home. That way you won’t have to scramble up to the shops as soon as you get home to get bread, milk, eggs and other basics.

17. Last of all, have fun! These are treasured family memories.