Italy Undiscovered: A Week in Puglia
A couple of months ago, I wrote a sort-of bucket list post to visiting Apulia (Puglia in Italian). Now, having returned from Italy and Puglia in December, I thought it was time I shared the inside scoop on the culturally rich – yet largely undiscovered – region.
For those of you who don’t know much about Puglia – let me briefly fill you in. If you look at a map of Italy (or just remember what a high-heeled boot looks like), Puglia lies in the “heel” part of Italy’s boot. It is the southernmost region in Italy to the East. Getting around Puglia isn’t particularly easy, unless you have a car. There are fewer organised tour buses, trains and affordable flights coming in and out of Puglia. Because of this the region continues to be largely undiscovered by most foreign tourists. Instead, if and when you visit Puglia, the “tourists” you’ll see are mostly other Italians from other regions throughout Italy. If I had a dollar for every time someone (local Pugliese or other Italians) asked me and my dad what the heck we were doing in Puglia…
But Puglia has everything people are looking for when they come to Italy: the best food and wine, awesome (in the original sense of the word) landscapes, great weather, culturally-rich cities and towns, churches with more frescoes, paintings and sculptures than some museums – and even the sea. So how do you choose what to do, what to visit and where to stay in Puglia?! With so many cities and towns and questions about what to do, I’m breaking it down!
Where to Visit
Alberobello is best known for its hand-built, cone-shaped Trulli huts. There are a few theories about their construction and use, the meanings of the symbols on the cone-shaped stone roofs, and where the building-style originated from. The stone dwellings are now home to many restaurants, gift-shops and fancy B&Bs. Aside from strolling along the Trulli-lined streets, there isn’t too much to do in Alberobello – a day-trip to the city is perfect. Where to eat: Trullo del Conte – an authentic, cozy, family-owned and run pizzeria. For dessert we had fresh fruit (kaki fruit from their own tree) and learned a bit about the history of Alberobello from the restaurant owner himself!
Altamura is a small city with a beautiful, charming old city centre. I wrote an article all about Altamura and you can read it here. Your incentive to read about the city: Altamura is known as “la città del pane”, the city of bread. If Italian bread wasn’t already delicious enough… can you just imagine the bread and the focaccia in Altamura?
Bari is a big city with pristine, pedestrianised shopping streets, the famous Teatro Petruzzelli (the fourth biggest theatre in Italy) but what I loved the most about Bari was the people-watching. We spent a Sunday in Bari – despite being warned against visiting on the weekend. There would be less people, less excitement, we were told. Instead, even if the city was rather quiet compared to the previous night, we were able to experience the city as locals. We watched a group of children play soccer at an outdoor soccer field, we dined with locals at a restaurant in the historical centre and strolled along the lungomare (the seafront), watching the local fishermen sell their catch.
Cassano delle Murge
Cassano is a cozy town with a tiny city centre. It’s the sort of place most will drive through while on their way to anywhere else. I decided to “set up shop” in Cassano. I found a gorgeous villa in the country (via Airbnb), about 5 minutes driving from the “city”, for a really good price. Visiting the Italian countryside is an experience I am grateful to have chosen and made the time for during my trip to Europe. I was able to see, experience and do things that can’t be done in Rome or Florence (see What (Else) to Do below). Bonus: Cassano has an awesome little health food store, Produzione Propria di Donvito D (sorry, no link available but it’s on the main street: Via Convento).
I’ve got to be flat out honest and admit that I didn’t make it down to Lecce during my sojourn in Puglia. The drive to Lecce from the Cassano area is a little over three hours and in light of all the driving – from Rome to Puglia, and to get to our next destination (Agropoli in Campania) – we opted for shorter day trips. This meant we didn’t get to Lecce, the “Florence of the South”. But having visited Florence twice, I decided that I’d probably visit Puglia at least a second time and that I’ll make it to Lecce eventually. You can read more about Lecce and why it’s still on my bucket list here.
Monopoli is a picturesque sea-side town, with a historic port and charming historical centre. I visited Monopoli for a handful of hours, strolling the quiet streets and walking along the lungomare. Having visited in November, the city was very quiet and most of the numerous shops and restaurants were closed. I enjoyed my stopover in Monopoli regardless – and I can only image what it’s like visiting during warmer months!
There are six provinces in Puglia, but you’ll notice that most of the places I mentioned are located in the province of Bari. Of the six provinces, Bari is the second-largest in terms of area but has the largest population (about 1.2 million) and it’s also located at right about the middle of Puglia. This makes the province of Bari an ideal place to “set up shop” for your stay in Puglia. You’ll be able to cover more ground. Bonus: the well-known, ancient city of Matera (located in the Basilicata region) is right on the outskirts of Bari.
What (Else) to Do
It’s all about the food in Italy and Puglia isn’t any different! The food in Puglia is to die for – from traditional dishes like fried olives, orecchiette (small, handmade pasta that look like ears), chickpea soups and dips, plates with artichokes and eggplants and for dessert, kaki and pomegranate… This is why I highly recommend staying in the countryside (such as at an agritourism establishment), where you can enjoy fresh-picked fruit and vegetables, and flavourful, homemade meals.
Olive Oil: from the Groves to the Bottle
The region of Puglia has between 50 and 60 million olive trees! When driving across the provinces, you’ll see tons of olive groves and if your lucky (and depending on the season), you might even see growers harvesting olives. The first time we saw a grower and his workers harvesting, we stopped to take some photos – coming from the city (in Canada), we were excited to see where the magical Italian olive oil we love so much, comes from. If you find yourself in a similar situation, I encourage you to ask the harvesters if you can take some photos. You might even be surprised by their enthusiasm – we were invited to chat and Mario (the owner of the land and grove) generously answered all our questions and encouraged me to take video and to even get a closer look at the way his men collected the olives. It was a really special experience, something you won’t experience just anywhere.
If you’re interested in the production of olive oil, there are a handful of factories where growers bring their olives to be pressed throughout the region. You can book a tour or you can pop by a smaller factory and hope to be welcomed in – like my dad and I did. In Cassano, we visited Ciriello where one of the owners showed us around the press and gave us some of their olive oil – with bread – to taste. Needless to say, the olive oil was so good, I devoured it on the spot and left with a bottle to bring home.
Puglia has the Adriatic Sea to the East and the Ionian Sea to the South and West. I don’t think you need much more convincing that Puglia is worth visiting but I wanted to mention the sea 😉
What You Need to Know
Like in most of Italy, shops and restaurants in Puglia are closed for long periods of time for lunch (usually around 1 or 2 pm to 4 or 5 pm). If you’re coming from Canada, the US or somewhere where this doesn’t happen, this might seem a little strange or maybe even inconvenient. As long as you’re aware and plan accordingly, you’ll be able to take advantage of each city or town you visit, regardless of the extended lunch hour. Another must-know (also about Italy in general) is that Italians take a month-long summer vacation in August and “close up shop”. Because most businesses (restaurants, barbers, and even some boutiques) are independently owned and run (another reason why Italy is so great), business owners and their families decide to close for the month. Take this into consideration when choosing which months to vacation to Puglia. Other than that, have a magical adventure in Puglia!
Over to you – what part of Italy do you want to explore?
Have you been to Puglia or have you just now added Puglia to your bucket list?!
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