Puglia, Heart of Italy

Puglia is all the rage in the magazines at the moment, from features in Conde Nast to stories across mainstream newspapers.  However it is far from a major tourist location and travelling by car takes you away from some of the major towns in to the countryside, along the unspoilt coast and the real Puglia.  Located on the very southern tip of Italy on the heel, it has a typical coastline of rocky mountain lines interspersed with long flat sandy beaches.  Inland is a mix of hills and flat countryside.  We only had 10 days so built a itinerary with some flexibility in it, we also wanted bookings we could cancel and some days without accommodation.  We were travelling out of season so it didn’t matter too much as there always seemed good availability on sites such as booking.com.

The rough itinerary looked like

  • Day 1 land, get car, head to Polignano and stay night
  • Day 2 travel to Ostuni and night there via Castellana Grotte and Alberobello
  • Day 3 travel to Squinzano and night there, this was a mistake but we’ll come on to that.
  • Day 4 travel to Lecce and night there
  • Day 5 travel to Otranto and night there
  • Day 6 travel to Vignacastrisi where we stayed 2 nights
  • Day 8 travel to Gallipoli and night there
  • Day 9 travel to Matera where we stayed 2 nights
  • Day 11 back to Bari and home

Hotels and Accommodation

Our budget for accommodation was £100 a night.  We are going away and work hard so this seemed a sensible amount.  We used a number of booking sites and went direct where possible but primarily our guides were some travel blogs which suggested Masseria’s which are fortified farms much like a Agriturismo but seem a bit more upmarket.  There are some stunning examples.  We used Booking.com to locate and then reserve places using the free cancellation functionality where possible so we could change our minds as we planned.  In addition we checked out some local guides and blogs.  As already said there is alot being written on Puglia at the moment which gave some ideas of where we wanted to stay.  We added Matera late as a result of being able to cancel.  Well in this case not cancelling an imaginary booking i thought i’d made.

Polignano – Hotel Covo, we picked a hotel for this first night which was based on one side of the beach inlet overlooking the town.  Breakfast had a amazing view over the town.

OstuniTrulli Boccadoro Truly one of the nicest hotels we have stayed in and a great example of a well built and authentic boutique version (if such a thing exists).

SquinzanoMasseria San Polo. So we shouldn’t have stayed in the region as didn’t plan wine tours ahead or visit the beaches.  We had a look but all the local places and the town seemed a little run down, maybe some authentic Puglia and was interesting in that sense.  Place was a average Masseria, as in good but not stunning for the money.

Lecce Palazzo Bignami Love, love, love this place, you need to stay here if you go to Lecce, just fly here for a day and experience this place.  Trust me.

OtrantoMasseria Dei Monaci – Good location just outside town and was good but again not stunning.  Could have used this a little more as a base to explore the coast for a few days.  Ortanto only needs a day.

VignacastrisiPalazzo Guglielmo – Another love, this place was so chilled in a local town with great evening atmosphere with people out on the street talking and huddled around houses.  The hotel was the definition of perfect hotel with some great touches in room names, a honesty bar and great food.

Gallipoli Al Pescatore & Restaurant  – A hotel!  One of the few we stayed in and a perfect location in the old town.  Good and as with all a great breakfast.

MateraAntico Convicino Rooms  – A great spa hotel, didn’t experience the spa but it is there.  Friendly hotel with small but very nice rooms (well the one we stayed in).  Again perfect location on the edge of the Sassi.  Great ready for steps though.

With all the hotels we found the wifi was free and was good in all locations, sometimes a little weak in the rooms, so a top tip is to try it out.  We also found parking in many for free but the towns needed planning ahead and some cost.  As we had a hire car we didn’t want to park on the street (maybe over cautious).  So we did pay for parking which was 12-18 euros a night.  Breakfast was always stunning with a great selection of cake!  Oh my god the cakes.  Be prepared to want to try every cake ever!  They are all good really.  All the hotels had friendly staff, some spoke great English others less so but if you know a few words you will get by no problem.  We didn’t meet anyone who didn’t want to help.  I was expecting a more direct and possibly more blunt people but not the case!

Car Hire

I’ve always had a passion for the Fiat 500 (the really old ones) but that wouldn’t get us around and although you see them around still they are not something you can just hire.  We instead plumped for the latest 500 with reclining roof from Europcar.  Brilliant little car and adapt at getting round the narrow streets of Italian towns.  Having been here a few times and driven Naples and Palermo I definitely wanted a small car which could manage tFiat 500hose streets.  This also meant travelling light with one bag each.  The boot is actually of reasonable size and was more than adequate for 10 days.  We also didn’t take out the additional insurance offered by the car hire firm, instead opting to use a third party which was a fraction of the price and insured us for the year not by the day.  I’d advise this for anyone travelling and hiring a car.  You have to pay the expenses if anything happens and then claim it back via the insurer.  There are a few out there but we used iCarHireInsurance.

Arriving in Puglia

We flew in to Bari which is a fairly small but modern airport with only a few flights to the area a week.  We flew BA but you can also get there or to nearby Brindisi via Ryan Air and easyJet.  easyJet have a new route in to Bari which highlights the likely growth in travel to this area.  We picked up our car, a fairly painless experience although there were queues at some of the other dealers, notably Budget.  It is easy to get on the motorway (no tolls) and then quickly down the coast.  We had our first night booked in a hotel down the coast in Polignano a small coastal town on the edge of a rock face with a small beach.  It is only 30 or so minutes from the airport and is a picturesque coastal town.  We didn’t stay in Bari at all, mainly due to the thought of driving in to the centre.  If we went again based on experiences elsewhere then would like to wander the narrow streets of the old town.

Travels

The plan was to get a feel for the area rather than spend any time in one place but we did see enough to know we wanted to come back.  We’d seen pictures of the amazing coastline and water as well as the Trulli housing which is classed as a World heritage site.  However like all our travels we tend to find places as we go and start to relax and switch out of work mode.  Our first night in Polignano let us do this, not far down the coast from the airport taking us just under a 1hr to get there.  Once there we went out to explore the town take a dip in the sea (it was hot!) and then just wander inside the narrow old streets.  The town is full of places to eat and to watch the world go by.  In the evening were able to see a free show of ballroom dancing.  This seems to be common of many Italian towns which have festivals and evening performances in the evening heat around the main squares.  It is worth checking out posters and the web to see if anything is on.

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Our first gave us a plan for the next day, we decided to explore the vast caves of Grotte Di Castellana, a stunning mile long walkable set of caves.  You can get entry for about 20 euros for the longer tour which is well worth it and there are some English language tours.  We went in trainers and jeans so don’t worry about hard hats, getting wet or claustrophobic as the caves are massive.   You can’t take photos once inside the main passageways so the photo below was in the main entrance way.

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We then made out way to Alberobello where there is a small town of local cone shaped Trulli housing.  The town is all whitewashed and from a distance looks pretty impressive.  In part we felt let down that it wasn’t really a lived in town and instead was more of a hotel with tourist shops and cafes.  There wasn’t really anything left of the old life here except some old photos.  It is good to see but will only take you a few hours, we stopped here for lunch before moving on.

AlberobelloTrulli House 3Trulli housing

The rest of the journey down to Ostuni was flat country side with small hilltop towns in stunning whitewash.  Great for a quick stop off to wander round and admire the views over the countryside.  I think if we had more time we would have spent some time in each of these towns soaking up the atmosphere.  We were wandering round them when much of the town was closed for the afternoon (between 1-5).  Something you’ll find wherever, especially when warm.  If you don’t have time then Ostuni is the biggest example and one of the best.  Not too far from the coast and a fairly big town with lots to see and do.  We stayed just outside and drove in for the evening but parking wasn’t too bad in the Fiat and we explored much of the town and stayed for dinner.  Staying round here also gives you a chance to stay in a Trulli house.

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From Ostuni we then followed the coast to Gallipoli.  The coastline is a stunning mixture of rock and sandy beaches and if you take the coast road you can just stop enroute and take a dip in the sea or jump off one of the rocky outcrops in to the sea.  We took a few days to drive around the coast but you could easily spend a few weeks here.

One thing we did notice and something i am keen to go back and do is cycle.  Already a national pass time in Italy there were many roads and trails to cycle for both mountain and road bikes with clear sign posting.  Next time.

We headed along the coast to Squinzano.  Although not quite on the coast it was near and we chose it in part due to our first stay in a Masseria, a fortified farmhouse.  There are many examples of these across southern Italy and like Agriturismo seem to have found money to rebuild and convert in to some stunning places to stay.  Pitched between a Agriturismo and a hotel all of the Masseria’s we stayed at were lovely.  In hindsight Squinzano although a nice place to stay we didn’t find anything captivating about the area and probably should of headed to Lecce.  If you are coming this way i’d suggest booking a wine tour or staying along the coast much of which is National Park.

Lecce was our final inland stop before sticking to the coast.  A stunning baroque town with fortified walls and a warren of roads and beautiful buildings within.  There are also elements of a Roman city with a amphitheatre and theatre partially uncovered.  We stayed in possibly our best hotel here and the food everywhere in the town was great.  We can recommend the DoppioZero cafe which serves amazing food such as the platter below.  We accidentally ordered one of these beasts each.  The sandwiches were similarly huge!

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From Lecce it was back on the coast.  We travelled down to Otranto which is a nice coastal town with fort.  Along the coastline are a number of towns like this, they all have Spanish style forts reflecting the history of the coastline and allegiance with Spain against the Moors.  The coast here is rocky with little or no beaches and instead rocky inlets where you can swim.  To the north towards Brindisi beaches can be sandy.  South until Santa Maria the coast is largely rocky with some inlets and beaches.  From Santa Maria the beaches are long stretches of sandy beaches.  As you get closer to Gallipoli the beaches get busier and also more commercial with music playing and lot’s of bars.  Along the way we visited and stayed at a number of locations.   We stayed enroute at VignaCastrisi near Castro and It is well worth spending a few days exploring and soaking up some sun round this area.  We stayed at the best example of a Masseria we experienced.  There is lot’s to do, for example we got a boat out to explore some of the caves along the coast which was well worth the 5 euros.

Rocky coast  IMG_0119 DSC06901

Gallipoli is a town of two halves.  The old town out on the peninsula and then a modern town set around it.  The new town doesn’t have much to it and we didn’t stay there long.  The old town again walled but it’s location and a stunning sandy beach makes it somewhere to stay and enjoy the sunsets and many places to eat.  We found however that we had to book the best places in advance.  So keep that in mind if you have somewhere recommended.  Just drop in during the day and book at table.  There was a lovely fish market near the bridge in to town which did fresh fish and shell fish which was served raw but using lemon to sterilize the food.  We didn’t taste it but looked great.

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From here we were unsure what to do, originally we were going to stay around here for a few nights but last minute changed plans and decided to go to Matera for what was one of the highlights of the trip.  It was a 3 hour drive from Gallipoli so you could take your time and continue your travels up the coast but we didn’t have the liberty of time.  Matera was seen as the Shame of Italy in the 1950’s due to the conditions in which thousands of people lived.  They survived in caves around the mountainside on a massive scale and it is the longest known continuously occupied location in Europe.  There have been a number of films shot here including the ‘Passion of Christ’.  You can now stay in the old ‘Sassi’ as many of the old caves are slowly being converted back to hotels and accommodation.

It is very different to what it was but is a amazing place to hike around and is still not quite on the tourist trail so although busy is not full of people.  It is changing though with much of the hillside being developed and it is the City of culture in 2019.  There is lot’s to do here from eating some amazing food to hiking it off by taking some wild trails up the other side of the valley where you get spectacular views back across the town.  The town was also supported by a complex water system and a highlight is visiting one of the many underground cisterns where they stored the water.  We stayed here 2 nights which is needed to do it justice and you won’t believe the size of the place.

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From here we drove straight back to Bari and the airport which was only a hour away although we took a detour to a very strange location called Castel Del Monte another world heritage site and is a castle which is a perfect octagon which serves little purpose other than a striking castle on the hillside.  It had no real defensive capability and is miles from anywhere.  It is worth a visit.  We had originally planned to stay in the area which is again a national park region but we were glad we just paid it a day’s visit.

Top Tips

  1.  Stay in a Masseria as they are affordable and small enough to feel boutique.  They vary in value but we used a combination of Trip Advisor and Booking.com as well as magazine reviews to find them
  2. Read some of the blogs on the areas, we read the Never Ending Voyage and Personal Puglia which both offered some good tips
  3. Eat the food, not only is the breakfast amazing with a range of local cakes but the dinners are filling.  Look for the house appetisers which are normally a selection of starters and are a meal on themselves.
  4. Rent a car for the journey, although you can get around easily by train this affords you the luxury of being able to stop off anywhere along the coast for a quick swim.  We rented a convertible Fiat 500 from Europcar
  5. Don’t plan the whole journey especially if out of peak as we changed our minds and it helped make our journey.
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