Postcards from a Week in Puglia

Puglia was the trip that almost didn’t happen.  I had been dreaming of visiting Italy’s lesser-traveled south for years.  A magical land of charming small towns, ridiculously delicious food and more than 800 kilometers of coastline.  Sounds kind of perfect, right?  But just as our plans were beginning to take shape – flights booked, rental car booked, gorgeous masseria also booked – the world came to an unexpected and unprecedented standstill.  Traveling abroad in 2020, especially to Italy, seemed like unattainable for an undetermined amount of time.  Fast forward to a little over a year later to a very different situation when we were able to rebook and rebuild our plans, albeit in a modified, mindful and perhaps better way.

With all the richness Puglia has to offer it was more than tempting to try to pack as much as possible into an all too short week to make up for lost time.  Instead we decided to take a different approach and gave ourselves a chance to slow down as things invariably do in the south.  And while we only scratched the surface of all that Puglia has to offer, we knew that someday we would be back.  Was it easy with all of the extra preparations and precautions?  No.  Was it worth it?  Absolutely.

Read on for a look at how we spent our week in Puglia, and for more in-depth information and recommendations (and photos!) check out my Guide to Visiting Puglia coming soon!

Day 1
The best way to see Puglia is with a car, and our original plan was to fly from Rome to Brindisi where we would pick up our rental for the week.  That was until our flights got canceled and rescheduled to ridiculous times that would require more waiting that flying.  So for peace of mind (and sanity) we decided to take matters into our own hands and changed our rental pick-up to the Hertz at FCO and make the more than 6-hour drive south.   This actually worked out to our advantage as it gave us the freedom to make stops along the way, like the obligatory Sarni (similar to an Autogrill) where we bought 1 euro sunshades and a huge bag of gummies for the road, as well as a caprese focaccia sandwich that we devoured in the parking lot with a view of an ominous Mount Vesuvius in the background.  Does it get any more Italian road trip than that?

Plus we found driving on the autostrade easy and rather enjoyable thanks to all of the beautiful scenery along the way (just be prepared for a bit of a slow down at the toll booths when exiting the autostrada).  We were also able to make a side trip to the small hill town of Picerno, not in Puglia but rather in the Basilicata region where my maternal grandmother’s family is from.  There we hiked up stony stairs to explore the narrow streets of this sleepy little town, taking in the same sweeping views of the surrounding landscape that my relatives had done generations before.  By this point the jet lag was really starting to set in just as we serendipitously met Alfredo and Mara at the little café by the train station, who through mutual broken language and lots of hand gesturing extended the warm hospitality of a friendly conversation, quick espresso and clean restroom before hitting the road again.

As we drove further south to the “heel” of Italy’s boot the fertile landscape of the Valle d’Itria exploded around us.  Rolling hills of golden fields mingled with the green of vineyards and olive groves in the distance.  Stacked stone walls that looked as if they had stood the test of time but could crumble at any moment crisscrossed the terrain, dotted by the occasional stone trulli in various stages of (dis)repair.  Large fig trees grew wild and untamed along the side of narrow gravel roads that a rational traveler would never dare to venture down without the reassurance of GPS.  The land was both bursting with life yet sunbaked by the hot August sun.

After our long and jetlagged journey we finally arrived at the Masseria Cervarolo, a former farmhouse accommodation that’s typical in Puglia.  The gorgeous whitewashed main building – complete with conical trulli – was paradise found, surrounded by lush greenery, stony walkways and a menagerie of succulents, cacti and other potted plants scattered around the property.  Our room oozed with equally as much charm, with its stone walls, high vaulted ceilings and rustic furniture.  It was immaculately clean and spacious, making us feel more than comfortable during our first trip abroad since the start of the pandemic.

We freshened up and were back in the car, driving 15 minutes to the nearby town of Ostuni for dinner.  Often referred to as la città bianca (the white city), Ostuni is true to its name with beautiful white painted streets that make up its centro storico.  Finding parking near the center was nearly impossible.  As our dinner reservation fast approached we eventually gave up searching for an open lot and instead found street parking on the far south side of the city.  Ostuni’s maze-like streets were filled with people (no surprise) but we eventually pushed our way uphill to Bellavista Pizzeria Bistrot (Via Gaetano Tanzarella Vitale, 43) in the heart of the historic center where we were promptly seated at one of the atmospheric tables scattered along the street.  We were starving yet exhausted after basically being up for a day and a half so split a salad and a Margherita pizza, which was exactly what we needed to begin feeling human again.  We tried wandering a bit after dinner but the hot night air was weighing heavy on us weary travelers so we headed back to the car, making a stop at Bar Kennedy (Via Pola, 31/a) for our first obligatory after-dinner gelato.

Day 2
The next morning we were refreshed and ready to go after a hearty breakfast at the masseria and our first stop of the day was the nearby town of Alberobello.  Like something right out of a fairytale, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is distinguished by its cute-as-a-button trulli houses.  The town gets crowded fast and since we got an early start we were able to park in a tree-lined lot along Via San Gabriele a short walk from the Rione Monte.  This zone is home to more than 1,000 dry-stone constructed trulli that are mostly inhabited by touristy souvenir shops. Crossing Largo Marelotta we entered Rione Aia Picola, which offered the same trulli charm (if not more) with virtually none of the crowds.  Besides the more than 400 trulli that make up this zone, you’ll also find a handful of notable sights like Casa D’Amore (first home to be built with mortar), Trullo Sovrano (only 2-story trullo) and Sant’Antonio di Padova (only trullo church).  Despite the touristy feel, we found a lovely little shop on Via Monte Sabotino where we bought some pumo ceramics as gifts to bring home.

Next up was Locorotondo, which as its name implies is a circular hilltop town that’s considered one of Italy’s borghi più belli (most beautiful towns).  This lovely town is a bit light on sights and smaller in size but makes up for it in charm.  Here you’ll find lots of little whitewashed streets to get lost in, vibrant flowers spilling out from balconies, colorful doors and the occasional sleeping cat lazing in the afternoon sun. On the southwest side of town the Villa Comunale public gardens offered us sweeping panoramic views high above cascading grape vines and the valley below.  We also stopped to see the “Firmamento” art installation of hay bales covered with lace at the foot of Locorotondo, symbolizing the cultural significance of the region’s traditional art and landscape, which offered yet another beautiful viewpoint of the town above.   Looking back now at my nearly 1,300 photos, Locorotondo really was one of the most beautiful places we visited in Puglia.

Later in the evening we made our way to Martina Franca, another picturesque Pugliese town distinguished by its elegant architecture that’s a mix of rococo and baroque styles with distinctive iron balconies.  We arrived earlier than our dinner reservation to experience the city during the golden hour and have an apertivo at Chi Se Ne Food (Piazza Maria Immacolata, 8) before partaking in the passeggita along Via Vittorio Emanuele.  I was surprised to see such a diverse group of people including lots of Italian families with kids who were out enjoying the pleasantly cool evening.

Our dinner at Ristorante Garibaldi (Piazza Plebiscito, 13) was impressive all around, from the friendly service and beautiful setting on Piazza Plebiscitio across from the Basilica di San Martino to the incredible food.  Martina Franca is famous for its capocollo so naturally we had to try it for ourselves (delicious), followed by two different pasta dishes (also delicious, with quite possibly the best tomato sauce I’ve had anywhere in Italy).  We were slightly full so decided to wander a bit more around the winding streets after dinner, which were now quiet and empty sans a few local residents making their way home for the night.

Day 3
Having yet to see the blue waters that Puglia is known for, so the next day we headed to the coastal town of Polignano a Mare.  Located at the mouth of a ravine the town is perched high above rocky limestone cliffs and sea caves, making it a world-class destination for cliff diving.  Polignano a Mare’s other claim to fame is as the birthplace of Domenico Modungo who wrote and recorded the popular Italian song “Nel Blu, Dipinto Di Blu, more commonly known as “Volare”.  Here you’ll find a stature that celebrates the town’s native son, arms stretched out as if he’s about to take flight.  We walked down the nearby “Scalinata Volare” and were mesmerized by the magnetic pull of the azure waters of the Adriatic Sea merging with the horizon of the blue sky, perhaps the very same blue that Modugno immortalized in his song.  How’s that for creative inspiration?

Since the word “sea” is literally part of the town’s name we also had high hopes of seeking out some beautiful beaches including the Insta-famous Lama Monachile (aka Calla Porto), a pebbly beach that’s nestled between high cliffs with the Ponte Borbonico in the background.  The beach was teaming with people packed into the narrow space, but luckily it can also be admired from the adjacent terraces in the old town (which were also packed but worth it for the view).  The old town is also the perfect place to wander, partaking in a scavenger hunt for both shade and the poetry that’s scribbled throughout its picturesque streets.  As we made our way back to our car we walked along Via Roma, where we were delighted to find the words of Modugno’s popular song strung up in lights above the street.  No doubt will you find yourself singing out loud like we did.  Volare, oh oh….

Our next stop was the seaside town of Monopoli.  Once an important port city with defensive walls and a castle, today it’s a sleepy little town with winding whitewashed streets and a more lived-in feel but nonetheless lovely.  Perhaps the biggest draw is Monopoli’s picturesque Porto Antico with its colorful blue and red fishing boats.  By this point we were desperately in need of something to take the edge off of the 35-degree Celsius heat so stopped into a bar for a caffé in ghiaccio to cool off.  While walking around the town we also made a stop at the souvenir shop Apulia – La Finestra sul Mare (Via Porto, 8/n), which sells products typical of the region, from pasta and olive oil to flavored liquors, ceramics and more, along with other tourist services like tours and apartment rentals.  We obviously couldn’t resist purchasing a few more gifts to bring home.  Afterwards our search for a beach continued, but the ones we found nearby were also pretty crowded so we made our way back to the Masseria Cervaorlo and opted to spend the rest of the afternoon by its gorgeous natural sinkhole pool instead.

Later that evening we made our way back to Ostuni for dinner.  We had our sights set on Borgo Antico Bistro (Via Fina,8) with its supercharged apertivo menu of Pugliese small plates and other sharable bites, and thought arriving early before the restaurant opened would give us a better chance at securing one of its tables scattered along a terraced stone stairway.  We couldn’t be any more wrong as tons of people were already crowded around the street waiting as the restaurant does not take reservations.  Disappointed we made a quick photo stop at the so-called Porta Azzurra and then wandered from restaurant to restaurant looking for the first place with an available outdoor table.  Reservations are a must in August and we ended up settling for a restaurant that was left us wanting more to say the least.  Lesson learned.

Day 4
Another thing I learned about Puglia is that the region is home more beautiful towns that even the most ambitious traveler could fit into a single week.  Our wish list ran long but the heat was wearing on us and we didn’t want to risk burn out on our last day in this area before moving on to the next leg of our trip.  Our original plan was to drive to Bari but instead we opted for a more easy going day closer to our masseria home.  After another delicious breakfast of fresh baked pastries, fruit, cheeses and more, we set out for the Ciclovia dell’Acquedotto Pugliese, a 500 kilometer biking and walking path along a former aqueduct.  Guided by the hand-drawn map from Sabina at our masseria, we drove about 15 minutes and parked at a little church just off SP14 near an access point to the path.  From here we walked a 5 kilometer section of the path through the peaceful rural landscape surrounded by olive trees and sunbaked farmland divided by stone walls, only occasionally passing another walker or biker, until we reached SP 13 where we turned back.

Upon our return to the masseria we grabbed our sketch books and pencils and sought out a spot to capture some of the beautiful details of the property before spending another leisurely afternoon by the pool.  The sun was strong but the water was cool and we enjoyed an arugula salad topped with prosciutto, figs and burrata from the pool bar’s menu before lazily lounging poolside, listening to the melodic chit chat of other Italian guests.  This was arguably one of my favorite days spent in Puglia and a good reminder that it’s ok, if not essential, to slow down to truly appreciate a place.

Later on we headed back to Locorotondo for dinner.  The town was magical in the evening as if it were frozen in time with laundry hanging from windows and kids playing soccer in alleyways.  Older women in plastic chairs kept a watchful eye on the comings and goings from their balconies and two, three or more cute little old men could be found congregating on park benches in Villa Comunale (with the occasional popped collar), chatting about anything and everything as they most likely do day after day.  If I hadn’t already felt this way before, experiencing Locorotondo in the evening cemented it as one of my favorite towns in Puglia.

The view from the belvedere during golden hour was beautiful as we watched the sun setting over the rolling hills dotted with white trulli in the distance.  Before our dinner reservation we stopped at Caffé della Villa (Piazza Vittorio Emanuele) for apertivo as one should never pass up an opportunity for a good negroni or spritz and bowl of crunchy taralli in Puglia.  Afterwards we made our way to Ristorante Pizzeria Belvedere (Via Aprile, 24), where we were seated at a cozy table off a side alley and enjoyed delicious pizza along with a bottle of the region’s trademark Verdeca DOC white wine.  Our experience here definitely made up for the one the night before, which we capped off with gelato from Kidor (Via Nardelli, 5) as we walked Locorotondo’s stone streets before heading home.

Day 5
After saying goodbye to the beautiful Masseria Cervarolo we actually spent a few days in Matera in the neighboring region of Basilicata.  I’ll share more details about Matera in separate posts soon, but for consistency’s sake I’ll continue here with our journey though Puglia.  This part of our trip began with a drive further down Italy’s boot heel to the city of Lecce on the Salento peninsula.  En route we made a stop in Brindisi, an important port city on the Adriatic Sea that once marked the end of the ancient Appian Way.  After biking on the Appian Way outside of Rome 10 years ago I wanted to see its famous endpoint, which is marked by the gleaming Colonne Romane at the top of stairs leading to the sea.  Originally there were two columns that served as a sort of lighthouse for mariners but one crumbled in 1528.  The drums of the fallen column were later presented to the city of Lecce to thank its patron saint for saving Brindisi from the plague, and we were able to see its capital up close at the nearby Palazzo Granafei Nervenga museum.

We finally arrived in Lecce in the heat of the afternoon and checked into the lovely Torre del Parco.  Dating back to 1419, stepping inside the gates of this former medieval fortress was like stepping back in time.  Suddenly we were surrounded by tall stony walls, lush gardens filled with flowers, palms and other plants and trees and the property’s distinctive 30-foot tower.  With so much historic charm, the Torre del Parco felt like a bit of a retreat, and was perfectly positioned a short 10-minute walk from the historic center of Lecce.  Our room was equally as charming, moderate in size but comfortable, with a large modern bathroom and small patio overlooking the central garden below.

After exploring the property and freshening up we embarked on a snapshot tour of the city’s highlights.  Often referred to as the “Florence of the South” Lecce is an architecture lover’s dream.  Its unique baroque style (nicknamed Barocco Leccese) can be seen throughout the city in its many churches, including the most notable Basilica di Santa Croce.  We were unable to go inside this richly decorated church since a wedding was about to start but admired its elaborate façade – so detailed and pristine as if it were newly completed – from the outside.  As we wandered around the city we were taken by all of the beautiful buildings with worn doors, each one more beautiful than the one before.  We also visited the 12th century partially excavated Roman amphitheater on Piazza Sant’Oronzo, which once sat a modest 15,000 people (as compared to the 50,000 spectators that could fit inside the Colossuem in Rome), and did some pre-dinner sampling of taralli at Sud Con Gusto (Via XXV Luglio, 8/A) where we later returned to purchase way too many bags of the delicious apertivo snacks to bring home.

For dinner we headed to 00 Doppiozero (Via Guglielmo Paladini, 2), a restaurant with a laid-back setting and menu of Instagram-worthy charcuterie boards, salads and pasta dishes.  I have been following (literally) this place since our pre-pandemic planning and was excited to finally experience its cool Italian vibe in person.  Needless to say, our drinks, dishes and the overall ambiance in yet another enchanting pocket of Lecce, just steps from its cathedral, did not disappoint.  We topped the evening off with gelato from Sensi (Viale Giovanni Paolo II, 11), which was overflowing with others who had the same idea as we did.

Day 6
The next morning we were treated to a breakfast feast fit for a prince at the Torre del Parco.  Little did we know that the thoughtfully-curated, themed menus would turn out to be a procession of gorgeous pastries, local cheeses and bountiful fruit platters, which would be more than filling for the day’s adventure.  This would turn out to be one of the only dedicated beach days and we were looking forward to spending time on the mythical coastline of the Salento that we had been dreaming about for nearly 2 years.  Our first stop of the day was the Grotta della Poseia, a natural pool atop the rocky limestone cliffs about a 30-minute drive from Lecce near the town of Roca.  The parking lot had a decent amount of spots available when we arrived late morning but was filling up quickly.  We found the ticket machine and with the help of a friendly Italian in line behind us, entered our targa (license plate number), then inserted a handful of coins and retrieved a ticket to display in our dashboard.  After a short walk we got in the first line where green passes were being checked (which for us was our CDC white card) and then a second line to purchases tickets to access the grotta and nearby archeological site.  The water here was one of the most beautiful shades of blue-green and the crown jewel of the jagged coastline was obviously the Grotta della Poesia.  Onlookers crowded around the rim to watch and cheer on those brave enough to make the 15-foot jump into the sparkling pool below.  The spectacle was fun to participate in for a bit, but after seeing how fast this site was filling up we decided to move on to our next destination.

We drove about 10 minutes towards the picturesque coastal area of Torre Sant’Andrea, distinguished by its towering stacked rock formations called faraglioni.  As expected, finding a place to park was nearly impossible so we backtracked down the congested street and parked on a side road a little further up the coast and walked along the rugged cliffs, windswept and worn and set against a backdrop of the most vivid shade of aquamarine imaginable.  Tiny swimmers in miniature dotted the refreshing water below, which shone brightly in the high-noon sun.  We weren’t prepared to climb (or jump?) down to the water and caves, so we decided to skirt the rocky terrain until we came upon a spot with few other beachgoers near the small Grotte delle Peppe. This area is very slippery and uneven so good shoes and caution (especially when windy or wet) are a must.  It was a little challenging to climb into the water here and we didn’t want to risk sitting on algae-covered rocks (a lesson learned the hard way in Taormina, Sicily a few years ago), so we found a shallow crevice between the rocks where we could wade a bit before laying out in the Apulian sun.  After a couple of hours the clouds started rolling in, which caused our fellow beachgoers to begin to pack up and roll out.  I’d personally prefer overcast beach days, but we figured there was good reason that the Italians took this as a sign to call it a day.

We were really excited for our last dinner in Lecce at 400 Gradi (Viale Porta d’Europa, 65), a Neopolitian pizza place located just outside the historic center.  The restaurant doesn’t take reservations in advance but we were lucky enough to snag a spot on the list by stopping by in person the previous night.  We arrived a little early and joined the growing line of Italians – with green passes in hand – waiting for the doors to open.  At 7pm on the dot we were greeted with a warm welcome and were escorted to the palm-lined patio behind the restaurant.  The service was super friendly and the food was super amazing, from the polpette fritti (fired meatballs) to the Filetto pizza topped with big slices of San Marzano tomatoes.  Add a bottle of wine enjoyed under a canopy of palm leaves and bistro lights and it doesn’t get any more perfect, does it?  Afterwards we had one final gelato at Opera Lounge (Via XXV Luglio, 15), where we enjoyed surprisingly generous portions at a reasonable price despite its upscale appearance.

Day 7
Our last morning in Lecce began with another equally as impressive breakfast in the garden of our hotel before we packed up and departed for the long drive back to Rome.  Even though the flight we originally planned from Brindisi would have made our journey much shorter, driving allowed us to soak up the landscape one last time and reflect on the understated beauty, magnificence and intrigue of Puglia.

Traveling during coronavirus times was an experiment in flexibility and humanity.  Most things were open, some with modifications, but we generally observed a collective desire of the Italians to get on with the things they love, even if it meant wearing a mask and showing a green pass to enter a museum, restaurant or beach.  From a traveler’s perspective it meant constant vigilance on frequently changing rules, a bit more pre-booking than pre-pandemic times and the now-too-common swab up the nose.  The year 2020 changed all of our lives and the year 2021 gave us an opportunity to see things differently, and for that I will always be grateful.

For more information, tips and recommendations be sure to check out my Guide to Visiting Puglia coming soon!

ON THE MAP

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