According to a recent survey, out of 1.300.000 people living in Milan, over 180.000 come from Puglia (or Apulia, as you may know it). Quite sadly, Puglia – one of the most beautiful region in Italy – has one of the highest unemployment rates in Italy and lots of people choose to move to the Northern cities to seek better jobs opportunities. When I was living in Milan, a large group among my friends was from Puglia and that’s how I got to know this amazing corner of Italy. All of them (with no exception) were truly homesick and deep down I believe they will never settle in Milan. They will “live” in Milan, but their heart will always be 1000 km south. Once you visit Puglia, you can’t really blame them.
I first visited Puglia in April 2012; a friend of mine living in Milan was going back to see her family and she kindly invited me to stay at her family home for a few days (her mum is a great cook, reason enough to go!). My conversion was immediate: I left Milan with just over 13 degrees, and I arrived in Puglia after over 10 hours car journey, with over 20. No need to say, I celebrated Puglia with an early swim in the gorgeous sea with my friends. OK, the water was still a bit chilly but…who cares with such a beautiful crystal water?? Oh… and an empty beach.
I have been back in April 2015 – this time as an independent visitor, without any local contacts – and my experience was equally great: people from Puglia are lovely and their region simply stunning.
Again, Puglia would need a few weeks to be properly visited and discovered but if you’ve got less than a couple of weeks, it’s a great destination (and very, very cheap). First rule: never, under any circumstances, visit Puglia in peak season (July-August). The region just can’t cope with the number of tourists in these 2 months unless you are particularly fond of traffic jams, packed beaches, overcrowded restaurants and – above all – ridiculous prices…. avoid it!
Here is a tentative itinerary for less than 15 days in Puglia. I visited at the end of the Spring and the weather was gorgeous. Locals will tell you that it’s still cold and Tramuntana still blows but personally I think that it was the perfect weather to visit the towns and enjoy the coast (a swim will solely depend on your braveness).
The region is well served by 2 airports, Bari and Brindisi. I choose Bari for being a bit cheaper at the time of booking our flights and because we wanted to start our journey from North to South. Some rental car companies will not charge you the one way drop off fee if you pick up your car in Bari and return in Brindisi (and viceversa), so that’s a good option.
Day 1. Fly to Bari. A car is a must-have to tour around this region, since you can’t rely on local transport. Rent a car in the airport and start your tour. We decided to base ourselves in Castellana Grotte, less than an hour drive from the airport and with a reasonably priced accommodation option. Grab a double room at B&B Caroseno (their restaurant is amazing as well) or at Masseria Capocaccia with countryside style rooms. I have to say, Castellana Grotte is not a particularly charming town (there are far more attractive towns in the area) but it’s an excellent base to explore the nearby towns and it does offer a true image of Puglia. Any of the towns you visit on Day 2 could be a very good base for a couple of days to tour the area, being Polignano a Mare probably the one with more sleeping and eating options (and being my favorite!).
Day 2. Castellana Grotte, Polignano a Mare, Monopoli. Castellana Grotte (as the name suggests) is famous for its caves so take your time to visit them (tours are available to discover this gorgeous natural attraction; have a look a the time schedule to arrange the visit). Then drive to Polignano a Mare (less than 30 mins).
It’s a gorgeous coastal town with stunning views, lovely narrow white streets and passages and an incredible blue/green crystal water. Stop here for lunch (strozzapreti with seafood would be a good option), a glass of white wine and enjoy the blue color of the sky and the water. For a quick lunch, try Pescaria. I parked my car in front of their restaurant and it looked busy and delicious. If the weather allows it, spend a couple of hours on the pebbles beach Baia Saraceni before heading to Monopoli.
It’s another very short drive (just over 30 min) and once again you are in one truly typical town of Puglia. White narrow streets, baby blue doors and lovely restaurants and bed and breakfasts. We didn’t sleep here but if you plan to and you are not on a tight budget, I would go for B&B Bellavista with absolutely stunning open views on the Monopoli bay.
Drive back to Castellana Grotte to rest a bit before going out for dinner. We tried Locanda Romanelli and were not disappointed; for a while we were the only table in the whole restaurant, so we got all the attention and the chat of the young owner. If you are planning a night stopover in Polignano a Mare, try these restaurants: for the best fish-based dinner in a lovely atmosphere, head to Ristorante Antiche Mure, possibly one of the best seafood meals I have ever had (their fresh sea urchins were to die for!). For a romantic dinner in a unique setting, choose Grotta Palazzese; I shouldn’t spoil the surprise but…you will have dinner by candle light in an open cave, with the sea waves breaking under you. I heard mixed opinions on this restaurant food (and I haven’t tried it myself) but as far as views and location, everyone agrees: it’s unbeatable.
Day 3. Alberobello, Locorotondo, Cisternino. Have a lay in (you are on holiday right?) and then head to Alberobello, less than 20 minutes drive from Castellana. Out of season is a quiet and unique town nestled on a hilly area with the characteristic “trulli“, a unique construction type original of the area.
It’s a dry stone hut with a conical roof, once built as temporary shelters for the farmer or used as storeroom or even as permanent dwellings. The Italian Government has tried to push the restoration of abandoned trulli giving incentives to buildings and owners and now you can even sleep in them. If the weather is good, have an ice cream at Arte Fredda: the owner is a lovely loud and smiling lady (we saw her on a BBC interview by chef Locatelli and decided to give it a go) and her ice cream (and flavours) truly unforgettable (pistacchio and mandorla are to die for!). Visit the town (you could do it in a couple of hours) and then head to Locorotondo. Again, another very small typical Puglian town to give you a good feeling of what is Puglia. If you can hang around until dinner time, go straight to Cisternino for a walk in the old town (very, very quiet) and then try their meat specialties for dinner. Cisternino is famous all over the area for barbecue meat (in huge portions) so it’s worth a food-stop.
Day 4. Castellana Grotte-Ostuni. Leave your accommodation and drive to Ostuni, the so-called white city (la citta’ bianca); white paint (lime) gave more light and brightness to the otherwise dark narrow alleys but it particularly helped to stop the spread of the plague during the XVII century. When I visited in April 2015, the streets where like you see them in the pictures below: empty. Can you imagine thousands of tourists roaming down the narrow streets, partying until late and basically trashing one of the best towns in Puglia? I can’t, so don’t make the mistake of going during peak season.
We decided to stay downtown, so I could get up early to take some nice shots. We chose a place called I 7 Archi Guest House. It was a good choice, cute and interesting accommodation on 2 levels in the very heart of Ostuni. Staying downtown gives you the opportunity to have a couple of glasses of wine without having to worry about driving back and gives you the chance to be on the street when they are still very quiet (though in April they never get busy). As far as dinner, have you ever eaten inside a cave? Well, if you haven’t yet or if you already have and want to repeat, try either Caffe’ Cavour or Osteria del Tempo Perso. We tried the first one and dinner was excellent (and reasonable) in a beautiful and enchanting setting. If fresh sea urchins are available, ask for fresh sea urchins linguine, I can still taste them now!
Day 5. The countryside near Ostuni.
Before exploring the countryside, head to New Life Caffe’ Fanelli (Piazza della Liberta’ 30) to start your day off on the right foot: best latte and pasticciotto! Even if you already had breakfast, you should make an “effort” and sit in their sunny terrace in Piazza della Liberta’ to enjoy the morning with locals.
The countryside near Ostuni deserves a day exploring. We did it and we followed an easy and beautiful drive through the countryside. Hundreds years old olive trees, dry and broken land, blood red poppy fields, blossoming cheery trees in the middle of a shining and warm spring. A blessing for the soul and the eyes.
Difficult to suggest the best route, but definitely go for the Parco degli Ulivi Secolari (Park of the secular olive trees) and try to get lost. You can get there following the provincial road Pilone/Rosa Marina – Ostuni and the provincial road Penna Grossa/Torre Guaceto – Serranova/San Vito. There are also organized cycling and walking trips in the area, worth to have a look at, if you prefer to be with a local tour guide (check if anyone speaks English, before). While you are in Ostuni, you also have the opportunity to drive down to the seaside to visit the wild and almost untouched Riserva di Torre Guaceto. Don’t expect to find any service here but if you want to see where Puglia countryside merges directly with the sea and have a good trek….it’s a good and peaceful place to do it. In the evening, have an earthy dinner at Casa San Giacomo in Ostuni (Via Bixio Continelli N. 4): friendly and homely atmosphere with all the family on show busy cooking and preparing simple and tasty dishes. With a plate of orecchiette you can’t possibly go wrong.
Day 6. Ostuni-Lecce. Just over an hour drive and you reach Lecce, the heart of Salento (the heel of Italy). We stayed downtown in a very reasonable B&B (B&B Antiche Volte, nothing exciting but it did its job). Lecce really has options for every budget and if you shop around you can easily get a very good accommodation without having to pay indecent money. Mantatelure’ has been recommended as a great accommodation but I haven’t tried it myself. Whatever you choose, make sure that the accommodation has a car park or can provide you with a pass to park freely within the city walls.
Lecce is a very young and lively town; there is a well respected University and the streets are busy with people at anytime, particularly in the evening. We really enjoyed it and after a few days in small villages/towns, we appreciated the buzz of a bigger city. For all its Baroque architecture, Lecce is often nicknamed “Florence of the South” and if you take a stroll downtown you will realize how spot on the nickname is. Don’t miss: the Santa Croce Basilica, the Duomo and its square, Piazza Sant’Oronzo and the Amphitheatre.
Day 7. Lecce. Spend a full day in Lecce. There is enough to keep you busy for a few days but I think the best you could do is probably just wander around its streets, getting lost, visit its less known churches and discover one of the cities I liked most in Italy so far.
Food wise, it’s as good as any other part of Puglia we have visited so far and you will find plenty of good (and cheap) eateries at every corner.
Day 8. Lecce – Otranto. Leave Lecce and in less than an hour you will arrive in the beautiful small harbor of Otranto.
The old historic town, protected by the walls of the Castle, is pretty small and it will not take you more than half a day to visit so take your time and once you’ve visited the most important sites (the Castello Aragonese and the Cathedral with the impressive Cappella Mortiri, where the bones of 813 Otranto martyrs are kept) just enjoy a pleasant relaxed stroll in the narrow streets.
If you have a bit more time on your side, choose the coastal road SP366 going through the Natural Reserve Le Cesine, San Foca and Torre dell’Orso. It is a slower road but definitely worth; the towns you will drive through are not particularly attractive but the scenery is stunning.
Unfortunately this was the only day we had cloudy weather but still it was absolutely worth. We happened to drive there at lunch time or let’s say at a good time to start eating 🙂 and we stopped at a place called Al Rifugio di Capitan Morgan, advertising fresh sea urchins. They haven’t got a website but their full address is Lungomare Matteotti Zona Ricci, San Foca. If you are driving the coastal road, you can’t miss it! Don’t expect fancy table cloth and posh plates but do expect excellent fresh seafood and friendly service. And delicious sea urchins…they don’t get any fresher than this!
Once near Otranto, we took the road to the B&B that we had prebooked; we stayed a bit outside town, in a tiny village called Casamassella at B&B Vigne Vecchie. While the town doesn’t offer almost any service other than the basic ones, this was undoubtedly the best value accommodation. The B&B is managed by a nice Italian lady; the rooms are spotlessly clean, the outdoor area is immaculate and breakfast is to die for. We were the only room in the whole B&B and still she laid a 2 mt. long breakfast table literally covered with everything you can possible want to start your day and more: savory homemade breads, selection of hams and cheeses, focaccia, yogurt, fresh fruit, home made cakes etc. It was enough for 10 people but we managed to eat a fair bit and breakfast kept us going for almost all day. In the evening, following the B&B owner’s recommendation, we booked a table at Cantine Menhir which was a fabulous experience, especially if you enjoy good wine!
Day 9. Coastal drive. The Salento coast from Otranto going South is stunning and it’s a lovely drive on a hilly coastline that stretches all the way down to Santa Maria di Leuca, where you can see both sunrise and sunset. You can’t go any further south than Santa Maria but before reaching it, take your time and enjoy the drive down. Start with a visit to the town of Porto Badisco. It’s a small and humble town so it will not take you long to have a walk around, follow the coastline and just prepared to be amazed.
Keep driving south and you will drive through Santa Cesarea Terme, possibly one of the ghostest town I have ever visited. Apart from a bus of older German people, we were the only people around. Not a soul was wandering in this town. Santa Cesarea must have had golden time, when the royalties in Lecce and Ostuni starting to convert it in a resort town, exploiting the therapeutic effect of the nearby springs but now it seemed irreversibly sad and abandoned. And it is a true shame because the location and the architecture of the town deserves a lot better.
On a side note, the Thermal Baths are open and they have got a webpage so I suppose that someone actually comes here. Follow the road south and before heading to the village of Castro and the Zinzulusa Cave, make a quick stop at Porto Miggiano. In summer it gets hard to find a spot on the rocks but if you have come out of season you’ll have the whole place to yourself.
Keep driving and a few minutes from Porto Miggiano, you will arrive in Castro, another lovely coastal town overlooking an emerald green bay.
We didn’t reach Santa Maria di Leuca since apparently there is not much there but if time is on your side, it could be worth the drive – now that you have arrived this far south.
Day 10. Otranto – Gallipoli. Head on the east side of Puglia, where the well renowned town of Gallipoli is located(less than an hour drive from Otranto). Hopefully you have chosen to not visit during peak season when moving around town is a true nightmare. I haven’t heard of anyone being in this area in July/August and enjoying it. Last summer, such was the number of people in town, the sewage system collapsed. Out of season is a charming quiet town absolutely worth a day visit (or more).
Day 11. If the weather is sunny and warm enough, I would just spend one day chilling out on the beach, having a drink in one of the Lidos (if they are open) enjoying the emerald water and the blue sky and getting ready to (sadly) go back home. We didn’t mind driving again from Casamassella to Gallipoli area and spend a day on the beach but another option is to sleep in Gallipoli for a night.
Day 12. Bari / Brindisi (depending on where you return the car). We didn’t stop in any of these two cities because we had run out of days but they could both be a good overnight stop with plenty of things to do and visit.
I’ve tried to suggest a few sleeping options but if you are looking for more detailed information on the accommodation in Puglia (apart from the usual booking.com, tripadvisor etc), have a look at Charming Puglia as well, to get some interesting and unusual sleeping options.
Food wise, Puglia variety of food is sooo delicious that I have listed my favorite food memories in a separate post. Don’t read if you are hungry!
I read somewhere that “for the Italians Puglia is like Cornwall for the English”. A lot could be said on this sentence. I love England but let’s be fair: you wouldn’t exchange Puglia with Cornwall in a million years!