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.
Old Matera and the sassi from the lookout
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.
A Roman amphitheatre still at the heart of the town
Figures on the Basilica represent families in the battle against the Turks
An interesting balcony
A Lecce street on a Sunday afternoon
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.
Trani’s seaside cathedral
Another view of the Trani cathedral
Church of where templar knights were invested before the first Crusades
A nice view for lunch
Castel del Monte
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.
Not exactly a sandy paradise
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.”