As the summer started to wind down, we decided to head to Puglia, a region in southern Italy located on the "heel of the boot." We learned about Puglia from some Italians living in Luxembourg, and they described it as a rugged, natural area home to miles of olive groves, rustic cooking, and grottoes lined with turquoise water, all undiscovered by the international tourism community. We flew from Frankfurt Hahn airport on a Thursday morning and landed in Bari just after noon. Then we traversed 800 miles by car as we explored Matera, Monopoli, Ostuni, Alberobello, Otranto and more.
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Day 1: Matera
We started our 6-day tour of the region in Matera, a town known for its famous Sassi (ancient town). Matera is known as one of the first human settlements in Italy. The first inhabitants dug their homes out of the rock, and people continued to live in the rock dwelling until modern times. The streets in some parts of the Sassi run on top of other houses, creating a maze-like experience when traversing the aging stone edifices. The ancient town grew up on one slope of the ravine created by a river that is now just a small stream. In the 1950s, the government of Italy forcefully relocated most of the population of the Sassi, as residents suffered from poor health due to the cave living conditions and co-habitating with farm animals. Notwithstanding the relocation, some residents stayed in the old town, and Matera is now one of the the only places in the world where people can boast to be still living in the same houses of their ancestors from 9,000 years ago.
We stayed in a renovated stone dwelling with a giant sunken tub, massive homemade candles for lights and fresh fruits in abundance overflowing from vintage pottery, and it felt like we were in another time. During our time in Matera, we got lost exploring the Sassi, took in views from atop the highest cave church, explored subterranean churches with thousand-year-old fading religious art and had an epic dinner of wood-fired pizza made with local burnt grains, burrata, pureed fava beans with greens and olive oil, local wine and fresh bread. We also enjoyed an outdoor sunset orchestra, complete with a light show that reflected brightly colored beams across the old down and surrounding rocky hills.
Day 2: Polignano a Mare and Monopoli
We headed out of Matera in the late morning and drove straight to the coast, through seemingly endless fields of ancient, gnarled olive trees and past tiny, rural towns, arriving in the coastal town of Polignano a Mare after a couple of hours. The whitewashed old town is built atop the ruins of the ancient Greek town of Neapolis, and the whole area has a very Greek feel, with beautiful blue water, rugged coastline and fresh, simple food featuring seafood, beans and vegetables in abundance.
We started with a walk through the stone streets and buildings. We stopped for lunch at Osteria dei Mulini, where we shared plates of seared tuna, smoked buratta with fresh tomatoes and balsamic, Erin's favorite pureed fava beans and greens, and a pasta dish featuring cod, gnocchi, tomatoes and chickpeas, all washed down with local beer and wine. We sat outside in the summer heat and enjoyed watching people come and go, and noticed that everyone, whether tourists, locals or workers, were all Italian. In most of the Italian destinations we've visited, we've been surrounded by other international tourists, but here, we found that most people spoke only Italian and that nothing was geared to foreign visitors, which was challenging yet refreshing.
After lunch, we headed to the city beach, a narrow gap of sand and small pebbles with cliffs on both sides. In one side of the cliff, there is a rock tunnel leading out to the sea where people jump in for snorkeling and climb the cliffs to jump. Red Bull held its yearly cliff jumping competition in this spot, so there was definitely opportunity for some wild jumps. Dave took the opportunity to explore the coast down from the beach and met some cliff jumping friends. After a few jumps and a nice long swim in the bright, clear turquoise waters, we headed to Gusto Caruso for artisanal gelato, served in a cone with another tiny cone on top, to be used as a makeshift spoon.
We drove to Monopoli, the next town over, checked into our cave-like Airbnb for an afternoon break from the sun, and then headed out in the evening to check out the town. Monopoli sat along one of the most famous roads of the Roman Empire, and has been known as a commercial center of the area for hundreds of years, with large outputs of ceramics and fish. We walked around the seaside town, taking in the convivial summer night atmosphere and then drove about 15 minutes into the countryside for dinner.
In Puglia, staying or dining at a "masseria" is the thing to do. These country estates and farmhouses date back hundreds of years, and are often renovated into boutique lodgings, eco-friendly farms and dinner spots. Masseria lodging ranges from rustic to luxurious and most are set in working farms producing olive oil, wine, or produce. Masserie are typically fortified, originally against attacks by Turks or pirates, and typically date from the 16th to 19th centuries. We chose Masseria Garrappa, and enjoyed one of the most delicious meals and magical settings of our lives.
We drove down a rocky path through fields of vegetables dotted with olive strees and came upon an imposing stone, castle-like structure surrounded by a large wall. We pulled in and were greeted by the owner, still dressed in his clothes from a day harvesting in the fields, and his dogs. We walked around the grounds as the sun went down and took our seat at one of only a few tables, surrounded by olive trees strewn with twinkle lights. As the sun set, we enjoyed local sparking rose wine, salads with vegetables picked in the garden that afternoon, roasted fish, fresh pugliese bread with olive oil from the property and homemade pasta. The food was excellent, and the service was so good and attentive it bordered on excessive - Dave quickly grew tired of the silverware changes. We highly recommend checking out a masseria if ever in the region..
Day 3: Torre Guaceto, Alberobello and Grotta Palazzese
The following morning we left our Monopoli cave-dwelling super early and continued our drive down the coast to the Torre Guaceto national park for a beach day. We squeezed our car past road barriers to sneak down a few closed roads deep into the park to a deserted stretch of pristine beach, We got busted by a park ranger (who was nicer than he needed to be), so we had to turn around, park in a field, and take a group shuttle van to the start of the beach. After that, we hiked about 45 minutes down the coast and found a good spot to alternate between swimming in the waves and laying out for a couple of hours. We picked up lunch on the drive, consisting of fresh-picked peaches and grapes and foccacia with tomatoes and olive oil just out of the oven.
In the late afternoon, we drove inland to our next accommodation, an Airbnb in the town of Alberobello, known mostly for its hundreds of trulli - which are hobbit-looking white stone houses dating from the 14th century with pointed roofs made from mortar-free stacks of limtestone. We stayed in one of these traditional trullo houses, and enjoyed the unique touches of a pointed loft ceiling, tiny bathroom, ladder going down to a subterranean cellar and outdoor shower surrounded by flowers and grapevines. We enjoyed a rest in the house and then headed back to the coast for one of the most glamorous, over-the-top dinners of our lives at Grotta Palazzese.
In the 1700s, a local count with a coastal estate decided that he wanted a more elaborate venue for parties and banquets. The nobelman had a giant cavern carved into a seaside cliff, resulting in a grand cave 30 feet up from the crashing sea, with about a hundred feet of rocky cliff ceiling above. At night the cave is lit with lanterns and glowing lamps, and the cavern comes alive with the setting sun. Although the restaurant is a bit formal than what we typically like, this was a chance to have an elaborate dinner in the setting of a lifetime, so we booked a seaside table a couple of months out.
Just as we made the drive to the coast, a huge storm rolled in. We pulled up to the parking area and ran to the restaurant shuttle that would drive us to the cave amidst a downpour. When we arrived, the lobby was filled with beautifully dressed Italians all yelling at each other theatrically, because all of the cliff side dinner tables were drenched by the storm. Luckily, the storm passed quickly, and within minutes we were descending flights of stairs down into the cave.
When we stepped through the entrance, we were completely entranced by the cinematic views of waiters in ties, glowing candles, white linens and crashing waves, all set to the tunes performed by a live saxophonist perched upon a stage along the far rock wall. We took our seats, ordered wine, sea urchin risotto, seared tuna, scallops, fresh pasta and a few desserts to taste and then took time to just walk around the venue and take in the spectacular scenery from all angles. We felt like we were characters in an F. Scott Fitzgerald book as we watched the sun set and stars brighten above the sea from our candlelit cave table.
Day 4: Ostuni, Otranto and Night Swims
We spent the first few hours of the next morning walking amongst the trulli in Alberobello before heading into Salento, the southern region of Puglia. This part of the region has traditionally been very poor, and the regional cuisine reflects the humble, simple ingredients: olives, beans, wild greens, fish, sundried tomatoes and whole grain breads and orecchiete pastas. We were excited to taste all of the foods and explore this off-the-radar part of Italy.
After Alberobello, we headed into the hill towns of the region, which are historical cities typically seated atop the rolling hills a few miles inland from the sea. We drove through Cisternino and Locotorondo and made our way to Ostuni, an originally ancient Greek settlement, known as "la citta bianca" or the white city due to its all white and stone-colored old town surrounded by a citadel wall. The Ostiuni area is a major producer of wine and olive oil, so we were excited to grab a quick lunch in town and wander around the narrow streets.
We parked near a city green space filled with an antiques market and started our visit by browsing furniture, housewares, clothes and jewelry. Dave was particularly taken with some miniature ships and a captain's wheel, and Erin really wanted a vintage tea set, but we moved on and headed into the old town in search of lunch. As we wound through the bleached-white alleys and stone pedestrian streets, we passed the Ostuni Cathedral (which included vividly coloured fresco ceilings), the crumbling but grandiose Bishop's Palace and numerous palazzi of local aristocratic families. We spotted a local ciabatta shop and picked up some fresh bread, dotted with olives, capers, tomatoes and tuna and drizzled with olive oil. As we reached the top of the hill town and turned down another pristine, white alley, we saw that the path led directly to an overlook down the hill and out to sea. We enjoyed our ciabatta as we watched the clouds pass over the olive groves and sapphire blue waters.
After Ostuni, we headed out to the coast in search of a shipwreck. We'd read a few blogs about a sunken ship from WWII about 50 yards off the coast in shallow water, so we spent a couple of hours driving, searching the internet and trying to find this mythic-sounding snorkel spot. Despite our best efforts and numerous attempts to ask the locals in Italian, it wasn't meant to be, so we headed to a nearby grotto, the Grotta della Poesia, for a dip. It turned out we'd arrived in the area during the long weekend celebrating Mary's rise to heaven, and it seemed like every Italian south of Rome was hanging out in the grotto to celebrate.
We moved on after seeing the crowds and decided to hang by the pool and take an afternoon siesta at our lodging for the next two days, Locanda Fiore di Zagara, which is a renovated mansion from the 1700s. We checked into our cavernous room with church-like domed ceilings and lounged by the pool for the afternoon. Just like everywhere else on this trip, we did our best to have a conversation with our hotel proprietor in Italian and got some recommendations for our next couple of days.
In the evening, we rode out to Otranto, a coastal city in the heart of the Salento. The Strait of Otranto, to which the city gives its name, connects the Adriatic Sea with the Ionian Sea and separates Italy from Albania. We parked near the port and strolled into the walled city through a drawbridge. All along the citadel walls surrounding the city are crystal-clear waters, so we started our visit by taking a dip at the city-side beach and watching a soccer match as we dried off. As the sun went down, the streets became crowded with holiday revelers. We wandered through a street fair with kids' rides, food stands and, strangely, tents with demonstrations for washing machines, shower heads and stain removers.
We ventured deeper into the old town for dinner at La Pignata, and shared a feast of roasted fish, orecchiette with roasted tomatoes, pureed fava beans with shrimp, greens and roasted garlic and grilled vegetables. We continued our walk around town that that sparkled from the holiday lights and we enjoyed gelato and granita in the festive atmosphere.
On our way back to our place, we stopped at Acquaviva, a small sea inlet where warm springs flow from deep underground. The natural pool was lit at night, so we took a swim in the water under the stars before heading in for the night.
Day 5: Cave Dips, Gallipoli and Local Dinner
Each day on the trip, we woke up at or before 7am, to take advantage of the local beaches, grottoes and natural sights before the local holiday crowds came out en masse. On this morning, we arose to the smells of fresh baking bread and enjoyed a breakfast feast at our hotel. On our way out, we discreetly grabbed a few pieces of foccacia and sweets and drove to the Grotta Verde for an early morning cave swim.
Unlike other caves we have visited before, this otherworldly spot was accessible via a quick 3 minute hike from a roadside parking area. We drove down the coast, parked the car, and within minutes walked along a cliff to a cave with a few senior citizens floating in the sea just outside the cave opening. We grabbed our snorkels and swam behind a few boulders at the cave entrance, and were shocked to see a nearly pitch black domed sea cavern, lit only by the neon turquoise green water, illuminated from underneath the seaside cave wall.
We spent time exploring the cavern, and then Dave decided to take on the challenge of swimming underneath the cave wall a few meters out to the open sea. Once Dave made the swim out to sea, following the bright sunlight from outside the cave, and then back under the wall into the pitch black cave, he challenged Erin to try. It was a struggle, but she made the faithful swim there and back, overcoming the fear of not being able to come up for air while under the rock wall separating the cave from the sea.
Next, we headed down around the tip of the heel of the boot of Italy, and stopped at a lighthouse in Santa Maria de Leuca for views from the Southeastern tip of the country. We drove a few miles down the road to the Tre Porte caves, a series of cliffside sea openings for cliff jumping and snorkeling. We parked alongside the road and hiked down the sharp rocks, dropped our stuff on a rock outcrop and jumped in for a long snorkel and swim over to the caves. We took or time just floating in the pristine waters and climbed around on the rocks inside each cave.
After a morning spent in caves, we decided to get some more traditional water time at a famous local beach, known as "the Maldives of the Salento". The pictures we saw online showed a perfect white sand beach with still, pool-blue waters, and when we pulled down the sand drive our expectations were high. Unfortunately, we came upon an amusement park-like parking lot filled almost to capacity, and looked out to a beach so packed with people it was hard to see the sand. We chalked it up to being midday on a holiday weekend in August, and instead headed further around the coast to Gallipoli.
The old town of Gallipoli is located on a limestone island in the Ionian Sea, linked to the mainland by a bridge built in the 16th century. In the past, the olive oil from Gallipoli was the best in the Mediterranean. Throughout town there are intact olive oil presses in subterranean structures dating back to the middle ages. Gallipoli also has one of the best known fish markets in the area, so we headed through the old town to the port to one of the fish vendors who had a few ship-shaped standing tables next to his display case. We walked up to the case and used our improving Italian skills to order some fresh-off-the-fish tuna, oysters and raw shrimp, which the proprietor washed and shelled and drizzled with local olive oil and lemon. As he prepared our lunch, we grabbed some Pugliese bread, beer and wine. We devoured our standing lunch of bread and seafood under the summer sun and then headed back into town for gelato.
We headed back to our place to chill for the afternoon, and around sunset ventured out to a nearby hill town called Ruffano which was recommended by our hotel owner. We tried to get in to a famous restaurant in town, but were shut down, so we headed a few miles away to a very local trattoria, and for our last dinner we feasted on local beans cooked in clay pots in wood fire oven, house made pasta with eggplant, grilled zuchinni and pizza.
Day 6: Sant'Andrea, Lecce and Castel del Monte
For our final day in Puglia, we decided to dedicate the morning to enjoying the sea. We started by driving a few miles down the coast to the Piscina Naturale di Marina Serra, an arching channel and natural pool filled with turquoise sea water, made from waves crashing over the rocks. We arrived by 8am and enjoyed about an hour of sun and swimming before the destination was filled with local families enjoying the holiday, so we headed out in search of a less crowded location.
We found exactly what we were seeking about 45 minutes north in Sant'Andrea. We parked and then hiked along the cliffs, and stared down hundreds of feet below to perfectly clear bright blue waters, protected from the waves by giant rock arches and formations. We walked for about 20 minutes along the coast and then found some steep stairs followed by a rope, to used to descend along a cliffside path down to the sea. We made our way down and found only a few locals laid out on the rocks, taking in the views, sun and ocean. We got some sun and then jumped in the water, which was the exact right temperature - refreshing but not at all chilly. We spent the next hour or so floating, climbing and swimming and trying to relish our last day as much as possible.
Once we were hungry for lunch, we ascended the cliff path and headed to Lecce, a gorgeous baroque city known as "The Florence of the South". The town is filled with ornately detailed churches, convents and palaces, and it seemed like each corner we walked around contained another surprise of a lavish, over-the-top building. We walked around and tried to see as much as possible before stopping for lunch at a local sandwich shop with only two menu options, a vegetarian or a prosciutto sandwich. We each opted for the veggie and watched as oven-fresh bread was piled high with roasted beets, peppers, chiles, zuchinni, onion and eggplant and topped with local buratta before being pressed like a panini. We sat outside and took in the views of the ornate cathedral and watched locals pass by as we downed our sandwiches. We followed up with our last gelato of the trip - Erin asked the elderly woman running the shop to choose the flavors for her, and she came out with a chocolate fondant, vanilla ricotta and biscotti cream cone that was one of the best of her life.
After jamming as much Lecce as we could see into a few hours, we headed a couple hours north to Andria, home of the unique, octagonal castle known as the Castel del Monte. The castle is a 13th century citadel resting atop a hill surrounded by farmlands. This famous castle is on the Italian version of the Euro coin, and is one of the few eight-sided castles in the world. We hiked up to the building and felt like we were on the set of Game of Thrones. We explored the guard towers and internal courtyard and did some hiking in the nearby farmlands before heading back to Bari for our flight home.
We packed a ton into 6 days, but we really couldn't get enough of immersing ourselves in the various country and seaside towns, local cuisine and the wildly beautiful coast and sea. We recommend Puglia to anyone trying to get a good taste of a more rustic, undiscovered side of Italy, with a Greek island feel. Next up, for our last trip of summer '17, we head to Paxos, Greece.
Masseria Garrappa, near Monopoli, for dinner or to stay
Grotta Palazezze, for a luxury dinner experience in a crazy, cinematic setting
Corte San Pietro, in Matera, for a luxurious cave accomodation
Morgan Pizzeria, in Matera, for wood-fired pizza made with roasted grains
Otranto, for the picturesque whitewashed architecture and hilltop location
Grotta Verde and Tre Porte Caves, for swimming and snorkeling
Lecce, for Baroque architecture and gelato at Pasticceria Natale
Check out our other Adventures in Italy