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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The pasta dishes were good, but not as good as what we’d had elsewhere.
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.
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.
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!
There’s also other entertainment, like the occasional triathlon.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
More Puglia to come in the next post!