I’ve recently returned from a spectacular week’s tour of Puglia.
A week is the minimum I’d recommend to feel as though you really have begun to get to know the magnificent heel of Italy. We did cover significant territory, but we returned home knowing much was still to be discovered.
Prior to our journey, my sister Shelley had already been visiting for two weeks. At Rome’s Fiumicino airport, we retrieved my brother-in-law Ed, who had just flown in from the States. First, we made a quick stop at an Auto Grill to have a bite to eat, to have a caffè doppio macchiato caldo (“fuel” for the long drive ahead), and to load up on cold acqua frizzante (temps were high 90’s). Then we headed down from Rome towards Naples and then across Italy to Bari (I wish we could have stopped to see the old town of Bari since I understand it is well worth the visit). Our first destination in Puglia was Conversano, south of Bari and just inland by 10 minutes from Polignano a Mare.
We chose Conversano because of its proximity to Polignano a Mare. August is the month when Italians head to the coast in droves to camp out with their friends and families and to bake-in a good tan. Had we stayed in Polignano a Mare we constantly would have been fighting crowds and increasing our stress levels merely trying to find a parking space. To our delight, Conversano turned out to be a gem of a town, with incredibly friendly and welcoming people and a quiet energy – even though we had arrived for the weekend of the Sagra della Mandorla – the Festival of the Almond. Follow this Conversano TripAdvisor.com link to learn more about this delightful little town. We stayed in the elegant and impeccable Corte Altavilla – literally in the heart of town. Initially, we struggled to reach the hotel since the GPS in the car was taking us in impossible directions, and through incredibly narrow streets. Only later did we learn that we could breach the entrance to the square in front of the castle that was marked “no entry”, and the hotel would take my license number to give to the police so that I would not incur a ticket during our brief unloading of luggage (private parking with a shuttle was provided).
Conversano and Polignano a Mare
Long, cooling showers, and a lovely, relaxing dinner in Conversano, outside in an alleyway, were our just rewards for surviving the 5 1/2-hour journey from Rome. The following day we drove to Polignano a Mare (more on Polgnano a Mare at TripAdvisor.com), parked on the outskirts of town, and walked into the city center. Shelley had her swimsuit under a swim dress with intentions of dipping into the Adriatic and cooling off from the stifling heat. I had other plans and was armed with my Canon 5D Mark III and a short lens and a long lens. For me, wandering the streets of Polignano a Mare was like hitting an artist’s and photographer’s jackpot. Perfect vignettes and stories were constantly unfolding, and I found it impossible to be quick enough on the draw to capture all that I wanted. At times I wished I could be invisible so as not to alter the energy of a scene. We all know how people instantly change when they know a camera is pointed in their vicinity.
After a leisurely lunch, we made our way to the primary “swimming hole,” which is a beach in a gorge of sorts, almost in the center of town. We descended a path down into the gorge and passed under an aqueduct to reach a very rocky beach. Shelley, anxious to cool down and frolic in the sea with the swirling masses of people, stripped down to her swimsuit and took the plunge, expecting a cool and revitalizing dip. Wrong. She remarked later it was more like getting into a baby pool.
Not wanting to deal with the complexities of swimming and managing all my “stuff”, I climbed up some rocks to the side, whipped out my camera, and started. snapping away. I was amazed to find some inspiring compositions, including many I took from directly overhead. The shapes of the bodies in the brilliant waters and the light snaking across the ripples in the water have inspired a future painting series. More to come on that in future posts.
A day in Alberobello and a bout with heat exhaustion
Alberobello was a 30-minute drive from Conversano. All the guidebooks insist on a visit to Alberobello (literally “beautiful tree”), home of the Trulli. I encourage you to read up on these whimsical-looking houses at Wikipedia, as I cannot do justice describing them with any kind of brevity. Suffice it to say you’ll feel like you’ve arrived in Smurfville or some kind of town that is home to mythical creatures. A morning or a day trip is all you need to visit Alberobello, in my opinion. Unfortunately, the main area is overrun with tourist shops hawking their wares. To me, it felt like a historical site had been tainted with extreme devotion to commercialism. All too often this is inevitable in top tourist destinations.
This was also probably the hottest day of our Puglia trip. And even though I was drinking water and trying to stay in the shade, my efforts weren’t sufficient. Just before lunch, as we were heading to the restaurant, I suddenly felt as though I was going to do a faceplant in the street. My head was swimming, and I had gone from feeling sweaty to feeling dry and nauseated. I was pretty much “shot” for the rest of the day, and only after we made a trip to the farmacia to buy Polase and added this powdered mixture of essential mineral salts to my water did I begin the slow ascent to normality. Still, I wasn’t myself until the following morning. This was a painful lesson, and afterward, I redoubled my efforts to stay hydrated. Also, for my next trip to Puglia, I will avoid, at all costs, coming in July and August when the heat is at its peak.
Lecce and Gallipoli
After our three days in and around Conversano, we headed to Lecce, which was a surprisingly short drive – less than an hour. Arriving at Lecce, which is nicknamed “The Florence of the South”, was easier than navigating the center of Lecce (again the GPS refused to be of any real help). We had chosen accommodations at the Palazzo Belli B&B, which is smack dab in the center of the old town. Mauro, the proprietor, was incredibly helpful, meeting us at the entrance to the old town and guiding us to the hotel.
If you like Baroque architecture, you’ll be in paradise if you visit Lecce. Everywhere you turn, you see lively Baroque facades, interiors, and statuary. Streetlife is rich, but on the main pedestrian thoroughfare, you’ll have to dodge lots of beggars who are not shy about approaching you.
Gallipoli, which means “Beautiful City”, is a 30-minute drive from Lecce. Miles of beaches are south of the city, and some are well populated (you can rent a chair and or a cabana in some places), or you can find a more secluded spot (that might mean camping out on some rocks since much of the coastline is rocky). The old city center is accessed across a bridge and is circular and surrounded by city walls and rocks. There is one public beach, which we found well-populated with locals and vacationing Italians.
A short day trip is all you need to enjoy Gallipoli, but it is a worthy destination. If you’re staying in Lecce, consider going to Gallipoli in the morning and staying for lunch, and then taking the rest of the day to loop down around the tip of the heel and then back up to Lecce.
For our last day and night, technically, we weren’t in Puglia. Our strategy was to begin heading back to Rome by driving into Basilicata and to one of the most breathtaking places in Italy – Matera. Be sure to read up on its history at Wikipedia.com. This stop deserves at least two or three days to enable a full exploration and understanding of Matera’s history. This is an ancient city that was built into the cliffs, and many dwellings, called “sassi”, were caves transformed and used as dwellings. The fascinating history definitely includes some dark elements and periods. Thankfully much is being devoted to restoring the old city, and to preserving its heritage. In fact, it has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1993 and was declared the Italian host of the European Capital of Culture for 2019 (source Wikipedia.com).
I hope this mini-tour of Puglia (and Matera) has been enjoyable and helpful without being cumbersome. I’m sure I’ve missed calling out important places and facts. I plan to return to dig into the region and learn more. In closing, I’m adding a few snippets of information that may be of further help:
The Cuisine of Puglia
You’ll enjoy spectacular cuisine in Puglia. Since I prefer seafood as my primary source of protein, I was in heaven. I do eat other meat on occasion. However, I feel obliged to point out that in much of Puglia, horse meat is a mainstay on the menu. I would never “go there”, so if you’re like me, I’d advise you to inquire about any meat dish that isn’t clearly marked as maiale (pork) or manzo (beef). This is true for any sauces containing meats or a “mixed grill”.
A mainstay on most menus is fava e cicoria – fava beans (mashed) with sautéed chicory. Some people aren’t keen on the bitterness of chicory, but I’ve become a devoted fan of this dish.
Olives and Olive Oil
When you visit Puglia, you will see seemingly unending groves of olive trees. Olive and olive oil production is a major industry in Puglia and is responsible for most of Italy’s output. Sadly, an insect-borne bacteria is and has been ravaging much of Puglia’s olive trees. To learn more, read this article in the OliveOilTimes.com.
If you love Primitivo, you’ll be in paradise. While Primitivo often gets top billing among the wines of Puglia, there certainly are other worthy varietals. Check out this link at snooth.com to learn from the experts.