- Almost five months might seem like a long time, but it is no time at all. Three months in Italy whizzed by, and there were major parts of the country we avoided all together. Still, we know how lucky we are to have had this amount of time.
- With time to reflect, most of all I wax lyrical about Jordan, and Puglia. Jordan for its unknown treasures as well as the rightly famous Petra, and for its friendly people. Puglia for the light, the most picturesque of seaside villages, and the seafood.
- We found it is possible to travel both comfortably and relatively cheaply.
- Renting apartments and houses gave us stability, space to relax between sightseeing excursions, and gave us an insight into real Italian life.
- Travelling off the beaten track – whether it’s to Qatar, in the hills of Molise in Italy, inland from the Dead Sea in Jordan, or in the lake district of Poland – brings unexpected rewards and is always worthwhile.
- Even supermarkets give insights into local culture, and provide both amusement and horror.
- There are a lot of myths about places and people that shouldn’t be believed.
- There is too much waste and litter in this world.
- When life gives you lemons, make limoncello. It really is delicious.
- Travelling abroad for an extended period allows you to see with new eyes when you come home. Things, people, places we take for granted, appeared new and fresh on our return, and we were reminded how beautiful our own country is, and what gifts we have here. Maybe that’s the best gift of all?
Hidden gems: Jerash Roman ruins in Jordan, Poland’s lake district, and the hills of Molise, Italy
Hottest: Aqaba, Jordan, where the temperature soared to 47 degrees.
Coldest: Warsaw, Poland, where we woke to morning frosts.
Most beautiful: Lake Bled, Slovenia, and on a larger scale, Giau Pass (Cortina d’Ampezzo), Italy and Wadi Rum, Jordan
Most squalid: The dirty, littered Roman streets
Most surprising (good): Monopoli’s old town and harbour, Puglia, Italy
Most surprising (bad): Italian beaches
Most annoying cultural habit: Hogging the footpath (pavement) in Italy
Most pleasing custom: The friendliness of Jordanians, and being welcomed as “locals” at restaurants in Italy.
Most disappointing place: Rome in July. (Rome is fabulous, just not in July).
Worst meal: Poland sausage encased in potato dough with a weak, watery white sauce and a few slices of mushroom.
Never going back: Pesaro – Italian beaches. Ugh.
Favourite place: Vittorio Veneto for all round fabulousness. Great scenery, tree-lined streets, charming town (both new and old), good prosecco, good food, and pleasant accommodation.
On this, our last day in Puglia, I wanted to share our top ten places at this end of Italy:
- Pulignano a Mare
- Locorotondo, Ostuni and the white villages
1. Monopoli – It may not appear in many of the guidebooks, but it is well worth a visit. A lovely friendly little town, with great restaurants, public beaches right there, and everything you could need. Consider using it as a less touristy base for explorations in Puglia. You can of course read my previous writings about my love affair with Monopoli here.
2. Alberobello – Those cone-shaped little huts are only found in Puglia, and the highest concentration is at Alberobello, the UNESCO World Heritage site. Read more here.
3. Polignano a Mare – We didn’t feel like a major expedition one Sunday, so decided that a 10 minute drive just up the road was a good idea. And it was. Polignanon a Mare (Polignano on the sea) is a beautiful little white town perched high on rocks, with the usual narrow winding streets, elegant piazzas, and pretty church. The walled town was once circled by a moat, and you can still see the slots for the chains to the drawbridge at the entrance to the old town, alongside a 16th century fresco. The beach next to the town is dramatic beside the cliffs, but perfectly located for a quick dip. There’s a good parking lot at the back of the town (take the Conversano exit and turn right), with a pathway down to the town and beach.
4. Matera – strictly speaking, not in Puglia, but in Basilicata, it is worth the drive and close enough that you must include it in any visit to Puglia. Driving through the countryside gave us plenty of opportunities to stop and take some classic Italian photos, wave to a farmer with a haul of grapes in the bed of his truck, admire some goats, drink some good coffee, and still get to the look-out before mid-day, to capture the best light. The only really useful piece of information that Lonely Planet gave us in three months in Italy was to look for the belvedere on the road west out of town.
Driving in, we managed to find a park off the main ring road (Via Lucana) and then it was an easy and relaxed walk into the piazza for lunch, then down into old Matera, the home of the sassi, or caves where as recently as 1950 50% of the population lived, often in squalor, living in caves meant for animals. The sassi are gradually being renovated, and the town is no longer mired in poverty, but has a budding tourist industry, thanks to a UNESCO World Heritage listing. A network of channels and pipes and underground cisterns maintained the water supply for the population, but also the sewage, which may explain why the government evacuated the residents in the 1950s.
5. Lecce – A golden town, basking in the sun in the centre of Puglia’s heel, Lecce would have been an excellent base for our trip if it hadn’t been quite so far south. Wide streets (except for in the very centre of the old town), elegant shops, and plenty of parking (on a Sunday at least), made it a pleasure to arrive in and stroll through to the old town. Bar blackboards advertised two items new to us – one an iced coffee made with a dash of almond milk, and – perhaps more to our taste – a Lecce pastry (pasticciotto leccese) or shortcake (almost a friand) with a custard filling, ideal for a morning snack before tackling the sights. We started at the basilica, and wandered through the streets, getting to the main square complete with the ruins of a Roman amphitheatre, as well as the customary gelaterias, bars, restaurants and miscellaneous churches around the edges. A deli/café called Doppiozero was an interesting spot for lunch, in one of the streets skirting the cathedral. Steering away from the customary Italian lunch fare, this was more like a modern deli in Wellington, Sydney, or London than in traditional, habit-bound Italy. Unique and different in Italy, it was obviously extremely popular.
6. Otranto and the south – The easternmost point of Italy, Otranto is yet another charming little white town on the coast. It has a wide bay, filled with coves and beaches (the usual horrors with wall to wall beach chairs and umbrellas, though also with good sand) and a few public areas. Rocks provide interesting spots to swim out to, yachts enjoy the breeze, and tourists (like us) walk around the waterfront. A castle stands guard, but duck through the walls into the old town and you find some lovely little streets and tiny piazzas.The cathedral here provides a hint of the history of the town. The mosaic floors date from the 12th century, and are very impressive. More chilling, though, are the carefully arranged skulls and bones in one of the chapels, remembering the martyrs of Otranto, who were killed by the Ottoman invaders in the 15th century. Over 800 people were murdered, some say because they would not convert to Islam, others suggest that it was punishment for the resistance they put up to the invasion.
Further south, it is easy to see we’re coming to the end of the line. The road deteriorates, and at Leuca, the majority of businesses have shut up shop after the August rush. There were some interesting features on the drive – unusual shaped farm buildings scattered amongst the olives, menhirs and dolmens right out of Asterix and Obelix, and fishing villages. We went because we wanted to go to the tip of the heel. For that it was worth adding on to the visit to Otranto.
7. Trani – North of Monopoli and Bari, Trani’s beautiful cathedral is worth a visit. Starkly located out on a point, just along from another of Ferdinand II’s castles, the cathedral is beautiful in its simplicity. Wander through the old town surrounding it, and you might find (as we did) the Knights Templar church home to the first Crusades, and then pop out at the marina, where there are a small group of restaurants and cafes lining the shore. La Perla del Sud delivered a thin crusty pizza and a delicious seafood orecchiete, and a lovely view.
From Trani, drive inland around Andria to Castel del Monte, this odd octagonal castle dating from the 13th century. No-one knows exactly why it was built – it was never lived in, there are no kitchens, and no other defensive fortifications. Extensive reconstruction has been carried out, and it is another interesting World Heritage site.
8. Grotte di Castellana – Extensive caves, huge caverns, and enormous and beautiful stalactites and stalacmites await in the caves of Castellana. You need to explore with a guide, but the walk is easy (providing you have decent footwear) with wide paths. There are one-hour and two-hour tours. The husband chose the two hour, and was very happy with it. Photographs sadly weren’t permitted.
9. Capitolo coast – On the main motorway south, between Bari and Brindese, there is a stretch of coastline worth exploring. From Torre Canne, up to Capitolo and into Monopoli, there is a rocky coast. Few sandy beaches exist, but this doesn’t deter the sun-seeking Italians and other Europeans who flood into the region in mid-summer. By September the coast is almost a wasteland – only a few of the beach resorts remain open, but they are an interesting and pleasant place to relax for lunch off the main highway. Unfortunately temperatures dipped, and with high winds and choppy seas, we didn’t get our dip in the Adriatic. There are other things to do though –walks through the national park areas of Torre Guaceto, visits to the towers that scatter the coast (there for defensive reasons or communication – able to provide first warnings of invaders perhaps), or a visit to the Roman ruins of Egnazia, where the Via Appia Antica reached the Adriatic.
10. Locorotondo, Ostuni and the white villages. The other towns of Puglia – Monopoli and Polignano a Mare, and yes, Otranto – are so lovely that Locorotondo and Ostuni risked being left off our list completely. These two villages – along with Martina Franca (which we drove through) and Cisternino (which we flagged) – are on all the lists of places to visit in Puglia. And they are lovely. But I didn’t feel they had the heart that you find in Monopoli and Polignano. Still, it’s worth visiting them.
Ostuni is a white town on a hill, with a defensive wall. Apparently you can walk around the outside of the walls, but there was no tourist information or signage, and the views on the way in weren’t ideal. The town itself was pleasant – narrow streets and white houses. The view was the best part of it, with vistas of endless olives, and the Adriatic Sea stretching out beyond.
Locorotondo is my favourite of these two towns, and definitely worth a visit. A lovely white town on top of a hill. Take the ring road towards Martina Franca, and you’ll find some lovely views back to the town. Venture inside, and – after much swearing and difficult navigating of the town (we went twice and still couldn’t find an easy way to get to the main carpark – which on Friday was covered with a market anyway) – you’ll find a quiet and beautiful white village. Locorotondo is feted as being one of the most beautiful of Italian towns. And it is almost too perfect – white streets, and pretty flower-filled window-boxes. Walk through the town from the main gate, past the church to the opposite side and you’ll find a pleasant little park, with a view across the countryside. It is here where you might first see how many trulli there are outside of Alberobello, some still part of farmhouses, others left to ruin gracefully amongst the olives.
It is here too though you see a real similarity with a small town in New Zealand. The war memorial lists the dead from both World Wars. Family names predominate in both lists. I grieved for the family Palmisano, losing so many sons in WWI, then so many more in WWII. And yet on the way back to Monopoli, I was pleased to see evidence of survival and I hope prosperity – an advertisement for a business “Palmisano and sons.”
Our explorations in Monopoli are those of new residents. Our explorations through wider Puglia are purely those of tourists. Armed with suntan lotion, insect repellent, a good hat, walking shoes, bottle of water, GPS, and of course our cameras, every day or two we venture out. Another day, another charming village. We are fortunate that in Monopoli we are surrounded by several beautiful towns, all within an easy 30 minutes drive. We have yet to visit Martina Franca, but we were charmed by beautiful white Locorotondo, and enjoyed the views from Ostuni. We drive to these villages through the stone-walled olive plantations (groves might be traditional, but the word doesn’t adequately describe the sheer magnitude of the olive plantings down here), up onto the Murgia plateau and the Itria Valley to find these lovely white towns.
And on the way, just in this part of Puglia, we are treated to a peak at life as it might have been back in the 17th and 18th centuries. You see, this is trulli country. And to see trulli, you have to visit the town of Alberobello. Easy to get to, easy to find parking, good signposts to the “zona trulli,” Alberobello is a major tourist site. Because here you find a trulli community, with hundreds of trulli – the most dense concentration of these strange conical huts anywhere. These days of course, with UNESCO World Heritage site status, many of the trulli are souvenir shops, bed and breakfasts, and restaurants. And it is fascinating to walk the streets, looking at these odd constructions.
But the trulli aren’t limited to Alberobello. Drive anywhere in the Bari region, and you will find trulli scattered amongst olives and vines. Trulli form part of farmhouses, and are renovated for hotels, bed and breakfasts, and rental accommodation. Dilapidated trulli appear to be protected, left in natural states of disrepair in fields, under trees, overgrown with prickly pear cacti, or surrounded by vegetable plantings. They are most prevalent on the plateau, but they are in fact scattered over the entire province, right down to the coast. We enjoy all these sightings, spying a trullo when we least expect it, just as much as (or perhaps more than ) at the World Heritage site at Alberobello.
When leaving the tower, Fabia asked where we were going next.
“Vittorio Veneto,” we replied.
After correcting my pronunciation of Veneto (VEN-eto not VenEEto), she looked puzzled, and then almost offended. “Why are you going there?” she asked.
We shrugged. “Because there was an apartment we liked.”
And it was almost as simple as that. It turned out well. Likewise, when deciding where to stay in Puglia, we looked at apartments we liked the look of, that met all our requirements (wi-fi, washing machine, and air-conditioning), and that were in a decent location. We didn’t want to be too far south, as it would take too many hours travelling for day trips. Monopoli looked like a good destination. Not that we could find anything about it in guidebooks. We shrugged. All we needed in a nearby town (we’re on the outskirts) was a supermarket, and a few restaurants. Any Italian town would have those. We could explore when we got here.
After arriving the night before, we ventured out the next morning. After navigating the one-way system through narrow streets, we found a park down near the port. We set off, and just around the corner, only a few metres from our park, we saw the inner harbour and the old town. The Castle took pride of place, guarding the busy, working harbour. We found the gate into the old town, and emerged into a bright, sunny, flower-filled piazza, lined with lovely buildings and restaurants, an old clock tower surveying its territory. What a delight!
Lunch at the bustling Vini e Panini was a treat – inevitably, we shared vini, panini and a salad, as we soaked in the happy atmosphere of this little town that is completely absent from our guidebook. After lunch, we decided to wander. We walked around the harbour, past the castle, and around the waterfront. We have explored more extensively since, finding narrow cobbled streets, a popular beach right beside the city walls, good restaurants, and a number of charming churches (on the outside at least), as well as a few subterranean churches or chapels dug into the rocks. As the old town ends, and new town begins, there is a large piazza, bustling in the early evening with people strolling on their passegiata, families, elderly and the young all there, eating gelati and catching up with friends and family. There are few shops and restaurants around the piazza, surprising us. But we have since realised that the locals head to the old town for their special occasions, their Saturday nights, filling the streets and restaurants, meeting friends, chatting to neighbours, buying drinks at the Pineapple, all contributing to the wonderful atmosphere.
We feel quite at home here We know the different routes to the port, where to find parking in the evening when the port carpark is full. We know how the harbour and the boats and the buildings look different as the light changes. We know where to get the best view for an evening prosecco, if it isn’t too windy, and where to find the best pizza (La Dolce Vita). The man in the local enoteca (wine shop) knows us, as does the man at Palazzo Indelli (though he doesn’t seem to know not to suggest the most expensive wine). We know which lanes through the centre of the old town will get us back to the piazza, and where the carabinieri park all their cars. We knew where to take our friend for seafood (Palazzo Indelli) when she visited over the weekend. And since then, we’ve discovered more new things, come upon a few new chapels, tried a new restaurant with the best bread so far in Italy (Il Punto Cardinale), walked down some very narrow winding streets we hadn’t found before, and found the butcher who spit-roasts chicken (over roast potatoes) to take away (dinner last night).
We know now that a few travel writers on-line have discovered Monopoli, agreeing with our perception that this is one of the most charming of all towns in Puglia. We know that those who miss it off their recommendations must never have bothered enough to visit, let alone explore. We know that we absolutely adore Monopoli.
The husband has a daily routine now. Each morning, before we leave to sightsee, or go out for lunch, or make a trip to the supermarket, he cleans up our courtyard. Namely, he picks up the figs that have dropped from the tree since we were last outside, and tosses them over the stone wall. One day he barely missed one of the owners, cleaning the apartment on the other side of the wall. We try not to leave them for too long – they attract ants and wasps. But if we do, and if the sun is shining and the day is hot, then by the end of the day there is a distinct, cloying aroma of dried fig. The tree is old, has been pruned many times and is tall. The ripe figs are well out of arm’s reach, otherwise a fig and prosciutto aperitivo with some prosecco or a beer at the swimming pool would be a good idea.
We are staying in an apartment in a converted farm building, a masseria or fortified farm, one of many that you find scattered through this area. There is an old wall, a tower, and the remains of a moat. Fortifications provided some protection from invaders, coming from land but also frequently by sea in this part of Italy. Fortunately, there is no shortage of rocks from this stony Apulia* soil with which to build walls and towers and ramparts.
The farm where we are staying grows olives and, from the size of the trunks, has done so for maybe centuries. Apulia is pretty much Olive Central for Italy. Driving down from the Murgia plateau, as we look down to the Adriatic, across Monopoli, north to Bari and south to Brindisi and the tip of the heel, as far as the eye can see there are olives, blanketing the landscape. Mostly planted in careful straight lines, contained by pretty rock walls – some of these are new, some still under construction, and others ancient and crumbling – olives are clearly big business down here. But not only do they add deliciousness to the seafood, provide a wonderful source of unsaturated fat (the olive oil and tomato combination is essential to the healthy Mediterranean diet), but they soften the landscape and, even in their uniformity, provide endlessly changing vistas. The large, old, gnarled olive trees are scraggly and scrappy, the roots and trunks twist around themselves, often giving the appearance of two trees clinging together through the decades.
And the light – that September Puglia light that the Italians swoon over? In the late afternoon and early evening, the sun turns the landscape golden. The beautiful Apulia stone glows, the Adriatic turns an even deeper blue (if that is possible), and the olives soak up the warmth of the last of the summer sun.* I’m using Puglia and Apulia interchangeably as you can see. I hope it doesn’t confuse anyone.
We drove south, into the sun, for three days. We could feel the call of the Mediterranean, as the mountains disappeared, the scenery opened up, the sun shone, the roads straightened, and we ate up the miles speeding down the Adriatic autostrada. From time to time the sea appeared – the Adriatic, a sea we are familiar with, having sailed on, and swum in it, a few years ago on the cruise from Athens. Sunflower fields taunted me, though as mentioned earlier, many were ready for harvest, dark brown and drooping disconsolate heads. We saw vines everywhere – grapes, and something else, possibly kiwifruit. Picturesque ruins, like only the Italians can do, dotted the landscape as if scattered artfully by a designer.
We stopped on the way. On the afternoon of our first day, we visited the Republic of San Marino, our sixth new country on this trip. It is essentially a tax haven (or as our landlady in Vittorio Veneto said “a fiscal paradise”) on a hill, with an at times charming old town packed with gelaterias and duty-free shops for tourists. Ancient walls and towers overlook the town, and in fact the entire country. It has an interesting history though, and it claims to be the oldest surviving sovereign state and constitutional republic in the world, as the continuation of a monastic community founded in 301. When modern-day Italy was being formed, San Marino opted out, and due to the fact that in the early years of the process it had given refuge to many of those who were in favour of unification, Garibaldi agreed that it should remain independent. And so it remains today. It is not part of the European Union, but it uses the euro as currency. Once again it seems absurd that we drive along a particular road, and find ourselves in a completely new country. Even more so when you can pop in, drive across the entire country in about 15 minutes, and drive out again.
We stopped on the coast for the first night, and as noted earlier, our second night in Molise was a great success – with the exception of the lack of sunflowers – as noted earlier, and so on we drove down Italy’s boot, diverting around its spur (Lonely Planet and Tripadvisor told us it would enchant us – they were wrong), and finally into its heel. Now we were in Puglia, or more correctly, Apulia, the Italian name for this area. In the previous two months, when I would tell Italians that we were spending three months in Italy, and September in Puglia, they would sigh in delight. “Apulia! in Settembre!” they would swoon. “Bellissimo.” “The light!” they would gush, rendered inarticulate with longing.
In the middle of Apulia, on the Adriatic coast, there is a town. South of the more well-known Bari, unheralded by guidebooks or tourist websites, Monopoli is our base for September.