A Mini Guide to Puglia
When I first landed in Puglia I had a basic itinerary provided for me, but didn’t know where my trip would take me (nor did I have time to research in advance), but having no expectations meant I completely exceeded them. Thankfully, I had amazing hosts and guides who showed me so much in just a few days, but if I were you, I’d stay longer than a couple days and take it at a slower pace. Italy is one of those places where you’ll really benefit from hiring a local guide. I never would have eaten so well if I didn’t know what to eat thanks to my local Italian hosts! It’s the simple things you come to appreciate more when you’re with someone who knows the place. There is so much history in this place, one guide even mentioned she could give an entire underground tour – we’re talking archaeology, not public transportation – of the cities. No matter the time, you have the sense you are somewhere special, and a place rich in history.
To get to Puglia – the heel of the boot of Italy – there are 2 major airports: Bari (where I flew into) and Brindisi, and there are many connecting flights through Milan and Rome (I flew Alitalia from Paris). Unlike most major cities in Europe, this region of Italy is not a place to rely on public transportation, although there is a nice bus into old Bari from the airport. Renting a car or hiring a driver will be much nicer and help control your own pace, most places we visited were ~1.5 hour apart. The rhythm of cities can change due to temperature, particularly in the afternoon when its hot and many shops close for siesta (also plan on eating late for the same reason). Rather than trying to fit in a couple stops per day, spend at least or day or two in each city. The region is very diverse and surrounded by coastlines bordering the Adriatic and Ionian Seas, meaning there are lots of beaches, but also mountains in the north. All of the bloggers who participated in the #WeAreInPuglia campaign had different itineraries during their trips, so it was a great way to see the diversity of what the region offers (I’ve linked to their posts at their the bottom, but I also recommend checking out the hashtag on Instagram for tons of beautiful visuals). Below I give you a sense of where I visited (images are below the city name). I debated doing separate posts for each, but I thought it was nice to keep them all together to give you a flavor of Puglia, along with my impressions of each place and things to look for.
Bari is an old historic city with layers upon layers of history resulting in a style that is a mix of Medieval, Byzantine, Romanesque and Baroque styles. The old city feels like a maze of winding streets, which reminded me of the medinas in Morocco, with religious reliquaries around every corner (the ones devoted to Mary have blue ceilings with stars). The building colors are warm, reminiscent of the south of France, and look up to see laundry drying. Many families have been living in these homes for generations, and you can tell just by strolling the streets that everyone is friends with their neighbors. Expect to see older women making orecchiette [see video], the traditional pasta of the region, on the street. There are even public ovens for baking your own bread without having to make your home too warm. It’s fascinating to think that not long ago this city was considered to be dangerous – I never would have guessed from my visit, and clearly the city has come a long way!
Other noteworthy sites include Basilica da San Nicolas (there are two annual festivals to celebrate St. Nicolas) and Cattedrale di San Sabino. I’ve visited many churches in my life, but the ceilings of the churches in Puglia were nothing like I’d ever seen. You can also visit the crypts where you will likely see pilgrims paying homage.
Click for photos of Bari, Ostuni, Torre Guaceto, Martina Franca, Cisternino, and Poliagnano a Mare after the jump!
(I stayed at Hotel Boston. It’s a pretty basic, non-descript 3 star hotel, but good location close to old city. )
Ostuni is known as the “white city” for its white washed walls that keep the city cool, and also serves as a disinfectant. There is a historical center, and 5 rings. The city dates back to the 10th century, and the walls to the 14th century. Originally there were 15 towers on the outer ring to serve as protection, 7 of which remain today. Expect a lot of stairs, but from the top of the city there are views to endless olive trees and the Adriatic (there is said to be an olive tree to represent every person in Italy in Puglia).
Ostuni is also a bit of a maze and easy to get turned around in. While trying to find our hotel for our night we got a bit lost, which I didn’t mind because that’s when we encountered Guissiupe Romano, spoon maker extraordinaire. There was a Dutch couple in his tiny work/shop which caught my eye. He was explaining how all the different spoon shapes were used: to scoop lasagne out of the pan, to have soup and cool it down as it rolls from one end to the other. We were in a rush, but I wish I would have bought a dozen of these hand made wonders! I love too how he brands them all with his initials. Should you ever encounter any of his spoons, just be sure not to wash them with soap. He didn’t speak much English, but we did pick this up!
In Ostuni we stayed at Relais S. Eligio, which from the street may not look like a lot, but had a really nice stay and nice meal in their restaurant (I felt like I was in a private castle). The terrace is great for breakfast too!
PUNTA PENNA GROSSA
This day started with a trip to the Torre Guacerto Wildlife Reserve, a protected area where cars aren’t allowed (there is a little train to take you from the parking lot). The beaches are beautiful, and there’s one area where swimmers aren’t allowed so it’s completely protected, which is so rare to see. We even got a special look from the top of the Reserve’s tower. The Torre Guacerto beach resort area completely took my breath away. Perhaps it was the fact that I was looking at my photos in the Reserve’s van, so I thought when we stopped we were back at the welcome center. Instead I looked up to see wonderful cane umbrellas, one one of the most amazing beaches I had ever seen. This is also where I met Marcello Longo and learned about the Slow Food Italy movement (more in this post), and ate the most delicious, organic foods from the snack bar! The goal of the nature reserve is to focus on biodiversity and sustainability in tourism and daily life.
Martina Franca is another white washed historic city in Puglia which dates back to the 10th century. It’s most known for it’s fantastical light displays that they were starting to set up while we were there. (Think giant decorative panels with big Christmas lights, but serves as a summer festival). I was so happy to have a guide here, because I never would have known to go into one of the former palaces – Palazzo Ducale – that is now a government building. From the outside it wasn’t overly ornate, but I loved the fresco walls upstairs. Many were in Baroque style, which having studied in art history recognized, but was even more amazing too see in real life – and believe this style ever existed. The frescos were are by Domenico Carella. Art historians would probably say they’re not very good, particularly in the renderings of figures, but I thought their imperfections made them that much more magical! Throughout all of Puglia the churches and basilicas were all worth walking into just to see their ceiling decorations. I’ve seen a lot of churches in my day, but these all caught me by surprise. (In Martina Franca there’s Basilica di San Martino). While you’re here, also keep your eye out for pine cones on buildings – they’re to symbolize escaping negative feelings.
Cisternino feels like a blur to me, and we spent the least amount of time here (only because we were tight on a schedule). There are churches to visit and I can tell you Cisternino is known for their meat shops and I’d recommend eating at Mezzofanti!
POLIAGNANO A MARE
The best part about traveling with locals is that they know all the great spots. Before heading back to Bari for the night we detoured through Poliagnano a Mare to catch the sunset from the amazing rock terraces. One of the things that caught my eye in the city was a local who has taken to writing poetry on doors and stairways. The plaza was clearly a meeting point for friends, and there was even a live concert later in the evening. The other great thing about traveling with a local is that it’s fun when they run into friends – it really gives you the sense that people live in these picturesque places. Last stop – and best way to end the night – was a watermelon granita with cream for dessert. Sometimes the most mundane experiences can be the most memorable! (However, there’s a really fancy restaurant tucked into the rocks here too!)
A huge thank you to Carlo and Stefania of #WeAreInPuglia for making this such a memorable trip!
You can see Puglia through their eyes:
Where to Eat in Bari by Fotostrasse
Poligano A Mare by Fotostrasse
Saw Puglia by Fotostrasse
Alberovello by Fotostrasse
Apulien Alle Farben Von Blau by Fernweh mit Kids
Poligano A Mare Weather Carves Stones by The Travelling Editor
Landscape Trulli Alberobello by The Travelling Editor
Saint Nicholas San Nicola Bari by Love and Passport
Sun, Sea & Spa Escape in the South of Italy: La Chiusa di Chietri Hotel Review by Love and Passport
Six Sexy Reasons to Visit Puglia by Coffee in a Cup
Where & What to Eat in Northern Central Puglia by Eat Like a Girl
Cheese Making at Azienda Zootecnia Facenna in Puglia by Eat Like a Girl
What to Eat in Puglia by Prêt à Voyager
@WeAreInPuglia on Twitter
@viaggiarepuglia on Instagram
We Are in Puglia on Facebook
Walking on Sunshine (filmed entirely in Puglia, movie trailer)
We Are In Puglia: Happy (beautiful look at range of landscapes, mute the sound if you’ve over-dosed on the song!)