If Bologna is the Boston of Italy, Puglia is the Cape Cod. I first heard about Puglia as a destination about 5 years ago when my friend told me that she heard it was great. “Italians are just starting to discover it,” she explained. Indeed when you go there, it has the feel, not of an International tourist destination, but as some place that local families have been going to in the summer for generations. I think we saw one other American couple there the whole time and our question when we met them was, “How did you hear about this place?”
Turns out they were students on an exchange program: he was in Rome and she was in Florence, or vice versa. They had been in Italy for about 6 months and were now traveling at the end of their school year. When the waiter, who spoke no English, brought them their check, the guy handed him a bill and asked for “twenty three” in change.
I looked at The Husband. “He’s been here six months and he doesn’t know how to say ‘twenty three?’”
The Husband shrugged, “I’ve been here a bunch and I don’t know that I know how to say ‘twenty three.’”
“What’s the largest size coffee at Starbucks?”
My judgment aside, the couple was on their way to Croatia. Puglia is the “heel” of the boot, in southeast Italy, across the Adriatic from Croatia and Albania. It may be too far south to conveniently fit into another itinerary, unless you’re doing a swing of Calabria and Basilicata, too. We broke up the drive down from Rome with a stop overnight in Campagnia to go to a winery but there is an airport in Bari, too, that you can fly into.
If you’re in the mood for a beach vacation, Puglia has some of the most dramatic
coastline I’ve ever seen: sheer cliffs bleached white with sea caves and clear blue water.
We stayed in two places while in Puglia. Polignano a Mare had all of that Cape feel that I was talking about. Your waiter from the night before would be getting drunk in the bar across the street. The beaches were populated with vacationers who would bring a chair and a sandwich in the morning and then hang there all day. Kids would snorkel and catch shrimp to cook later. After dinner one evening, we walked towards the main square. As we got closer we could hear a band playing “Volare” like we were in a movie about Italy forty years ago. The band was made up of people of all ages and in front of them was a quartet of baton twirlers ranging in age from about 5 to 16, too. (As we would later find out, it’s where the man who wrote “Volare” is from and in fact there’s a statue to him on the other side of town.)
Our hotel room was right on the street facing another smaller square, and we would go out at night with a glass of wine and sit on the steps and watch people walking around with gelato or also sneaking a beverage: groups of teenagers, twentysomethings on dates, older married couples, families. Everyone was out enjoying the night; no one was in a hurry.
Speaking of our room, we stayed at the Grotta Palazzese which I found through a list that circulated on Facebook. Yes, reader, it’s true! We already knew we were going to Puglia when I read a list of the most spectacular restaurants that you can’t believe are real or something and one of them was the cave restaurant at the Grotta Palazzese. We booked both dinner at the restaurant and 3 nights in the hotel. Note: not all the rooms are as amazing as ours. You have to be sure to ask for a room with a view and there aren’t many.
The restaurant itself is such a surreal location of breathtaking beauty that the meal is never going to live up to it, which is really too bad because you’re paying 37 Euros a dish. Which isn’t to say the food isn’t good: the seafood is very fresh and the tuna I had for my secondi was cooked perfectly. It’s just not going to blow you away. But that’s OK because the cave you’re eating in will.
Polignano a Mare is made up of bleached white buildings that create a maze of side streets of cafes and stores. A word about the beaches: they are rocky. Fortunately, you can get a pair of beach booties for 12 Euro in town and you’re going to need them. But once I had them, I was unstoppable. Also, rather than try to make camp with our towels on the rocky beach, we rented two chairs at a restaurant called Fly for 20 Euros for the day. Both the booties and the chairs were solid investments.
We had gelato every day, sometimes twice, and I highly recommend both Millennium and Caruso. We also had dinner one night at Pizzeria e Fichi which was cute and casual. And we also went to Villa d’Arancia. Eat outside overlooking the grove and gardens that you can also walk around. The grounds are beautiful and while the meal itself didn’t stand out, at the time I did think the octopus tasted fresh and was well cooked.
One of the reasons The Husband had been wanting to go to Puglia for years was that he had been reading about and seeing pictures of the town of Alberobello, a Unesco world heritage site famous for 1,000’s of 700 year old Hobbit house-like huts known as trulli. They are remarkable and many places will offer you the experience to stay in a trulli. Here’s my advice: visit the trulli, stay someplace else. We pulled into Alberobello around lunchtime and had a fantastic meal at Il Poeta Contadino . The food was the great kind of simple that was wonderful. We emerged from our meal with a carafe of the local white in us, only to find ourselves in the middle of downtown Disney. Up every street in the town were people trying to sell us tea towels and spoon rests and salt and pepper shakers, all with trulli on them. It was…overwhelming. Then I may have hit my head on one of Frodo’s low ceilings, with a crack so loud a stranger inquired as to my well-being, while The Husband kept right on snapping photos of fucking trulli, and a spat may have ensued. Then some woman tried to charge me 50 cents to pee in a public restroom, which didn’t bother me nearly as much as the fact that I only had a 20 Euro note on me and she refused to both change it or let me pee which made me want to just pee right there. I should also mention that we were there in July so it was extra hot and extra crowded. An average day in April might be a little less fraught. If you’re looking for something a bit quieter, a friend says the drive from Alberobello to Martina Franca has the best trulli scenery and is truly idyllic. Plus once you’re there you can get some of the capicolla they’re famous for.
We also went to the town of Lecce, which is supposed to be a cool baroque city, but the day we went it was 100 degrees and we ended up not having the best of experiences and a fight instead. I don’t remember what we fought about, but do you need a reason when it’s 100 degrees and humid? The weirdest thing about the day we spent in Lecce was that we got off the train and it was a ghost town, so much so that the two men who were on the street behind us made us nervous, and neither one of us are prone to get like that when we travel. We wandered through side streets, consulting the map for main streets, the whole time still seeing no one. It was 11, 11:30 on a Sunday morning, certainly late enough that you would see people at a café, or walking home from church or something. But we saw no one, save the two men who were going to rob us, for something insane like 20, 25 minutes. We saw empty wine bars, empty restaurants. It looked like a fun town. When we finally did see people it was on a particularly tourist friendly street, lined with shops that sold Pinocchios or whatever on the sidewalk. Admittedly, the desolation followed by the sudden and intense wave of tourists did little to encourage a feeling of excitement about where we were. We finally sat down in a small rustic café, wanting to get a little snack before lunch. The Husband had researched a restaurant that served amazing fried vegetables (and if you’ve read previous posts you know that he is a fanatic about his Italian fried vegetables) so he wanted to eat lunch there. But as I said, it was 100 degrees and we kind of needed to sit and put something in our stomachs and hydrate.
We sat down in the bar, where a friendly woman spoke to me in Italian while I ordered a bottle of sparkling water, a plate of local cheeses, and she helped me to select two glasses of local white wine for us. She then offered us capacolla from Martina Franca, which I declined because this was just supposed to be a snack and she was never nice to us again. I had no idea what we did wrong. I was speaking to her in Italian, she seemed to understand me fine and I her. She was absolutely lovely. Then I noticed the other tables who sat down after us were getting their food before us and she was a lot less lovely.
My Roman friend later told me that so much of the South had been poor for so long, if they have something and they offer to share it with you it’s considered an insult to refuse. “Sharing” seems like a strong word for something I was paying for, but I will assume he’s correct since he was born there and I wasn’t. Needless to say, it wasn’t exactly encouraging me to stay in a town I was already having a bizarre time in, especially when I had a room in a beach town and a bikini waiting for me. We never even made it to the place we wanted to go for lunch. I don’t remember why. It may have been closed…? Honestly, I just remember heat.
But I’ve heard so many great things about it from friends who have been there that I would be willing to go again and give it a second try. And where else are you going to start fixing a toilet in a Trattoria and end up unearthing a tomb dating before Christ?
After three nights in Polignano a Mare, we drove up the coast to the more remote Gargano, which is an area of Puglia that I believe is some sort of protected National park. We stayed at the Baia dei Faraglioni, named for the rock formations sticking out of the water on the private beach where you will be swimming.
The grounds are beautiful and the hotel even has a spa that we never got a chance to try. As I said, this is more remote than Poligano a Mare: there’s no town to walk around and if you want to leave the resort, you have to get in your car to go someplace. However, the good news is that there’s plenty to do both on the grounds and off.
The hotel can arrange different tours for you. We did a tour of the sea caves in a boat that was spectacular, despite the surly Italian captain who brought his girlfriend along. (What is it with these Italian sea captains and their mistresses!?) There’s also hiking that we never had the time for, but would definitely do if we went again.
There’s also two towns to visit: Peschichi and Vieste, although we only went to Vieste
and all we did there was eat an amazingly fresh seafood meal with the most amazing fresh baked bread ever. I know, all we did. Vieste is known for its old town, but by the time we got going that morning the drive there was so beautiful so we stopped a lot along the way, then we had to park in town and find the centro storico, well, by then we were getting both hot and hungry which we realized after Lecce wasn’t a great combination. One of the managers at our hotel had recommended Il Capriccio for lunch and so we made our way there.
What’s funny is that it was a bit of a hike from where we were, then we got there only to find that men were doing construction right outside the restaurant, complete with a jackhammer and the smell of fresh tar, and then they closed the windows in the restaurant which didn’t help the heat even with the AC and didn’t do much to cut out the noise although we did smell less tar. However, it remains one of the best meals that we still talk about to this day. We lost our minds so much over the bread alone, that they brought the chef and owner out who told us that he had another restaurant, La Piana della Bataglia, where he let the pizza dough rise without yeast for 72 hours and we decided to go there for dinner, to the somewhat shock of the manager of the hotel who couldn’t understand why we wanted to drive 45 minutes to go to a “pizza place.” The “pizza place” was in the hills, in the middle of vines and an olive grove but still with a view of the water. The owner’s wife came out and met us, having already heard about us from her husband. (I’m guessing it’s quite shocking to Italians to have people so into your bread.) And we had an amazing wine, an Uva di troia that wasn’t even on the menu, but that the waiter recommended anyway and was sure to decant.
From Volare in the town square to finding a restaurant hidden in the hills, Puglia was kind of magical. Except for when I hit my head. And the fight in Lecce.