Where to go in Puglia?
We visited Puglia this Summer, having wanted to go for quite some time. Situated at the heel of Italy, we knew it was an area rich in history and beautiful produce. We flew from Gatwick to Bari, and started our adventure. If you’re thinking of visiting Puglia, this hopefully will provide you with some tips and ideas.
First, from the airport, we took the Bucci e Tarantini bus to Matera (about 5 Euros each, 1 hour journey). Matera is in Basilicata, and has a fascinating history. Originally a wealthy town built on a series of dwellings built into the rocks, the town’s fortunes dwindled to such an extent that it became a cause of national and even international concern in the 40s and 50s, such was the extreme poverty of the slums there. It was written about by Carlo Levi in “Cristo si e fermato a Eboli”, where he highlighted the horrific conditions (there was a 50% rate of infant mortality and malaria was rife). Eventually, the government was forced to do something, moving the inhabitants to new housing. This came with its own problems. Matera was the first town in Italy to rebel against the Nazis, was made a Unesco World Heritage site in 1993 and will be European Capital of Culture in 2019. You can read more about Matera here.
If that hasn’t made you want to visit, then the food will. We found that Puglia in general has fewer foreign tourists, and Matera, in particular attracts many local and national tourists. For this reason, the food is still excellent (we have found in other parts of more touristy parts of Italy the food to be a bit disappointing). We ate at Kiev a couple of times, a simple little cafe at the foot of the town, where the menu offered a range of tapas type plates, from fava bean pure with turnip tops, chickpea broths, plates of prosciutto, burrata (creamy mozzarella) and melon. Lovely service and very reasonable.
Articolo 21, in the centre of Matera, had a really unusual menu. We had a delicious melanzane parmigiana, beetroot and yoghurt salad, fava bean puree, and a speciality of the region, deep fried sweet chillies. The service here was so friendly.
Each evening, the town is full of Italians doing their “passeggiata”, chatting to each other, having an ice cream, generally being sociable. Here we had one of the best pistachio ice creams we’ve had in a long time.
We stayed in a brilliant air bnb apartment, built into the caves, with a terrace over looking the town. The landlady picked us up from the station, offered lots of advice on where to visit and even arranged for her uncle to take us back to the bus!
So, back on the bus to Bari airport to collect our hire car. We then drove for about an hour and a half to a villa near Carovigno, and from here visited a number of beaches and towns.
This is a little town, originally all trulli houses (the little whitewashed round houses that wear pointy hats). They had a very efficient parking system going on here for visitors, and the little cobbled streets were extremely busy with tourists from all over. We weren’t overly impressed with this town, despite its cuteness, as it is full of souvenir shops. It is most likely better to visit out of season (we were there in August). So on we went.
What a beautiful town! A mix of Roman and Norman architecture, this elegant town with its amphitheatres and lovely restaurants has to be visited. We took the train from Carovigno, which took about 50 mins (we love Italian trains) and had lunch at Torre di Merlino. We had read about it and it had good reviews. The food was pretty creative and the wine good, the service extremely friendly. We had raw lobster, octopus, tuna and one of the best tiramisus ever. Not everyone was up for some of the more adventurous items on the menu, but the waiter was only too happy to offer for a simple orecchiette pasta dish. It is on the expensive side, so check out the menu beforehand.
One morning we drove the a beach called Prosciutto (not entirely sure why the beach is called “ham”!). The clearest sea we’ve seen in a long time, but incredibly packed. Beaches in Italy are split between a majority (it seems) of privately owned beaches where you pay to lie on a lounger, often packed in like sardines, or find a tight spot on a public beach, usually in a less attractive location, and sadly not as clean as it should be. That said, if you have some time, go out of season and ask the locals, you’ll find some beautiful, quieter beaches. Prosciutto beach did have a gorgeous beach cafe in the trees behind the dunes, with nice and simple plates of food and chilled Peroni (we didn’t realise that Puglia is the home of Peroni).
From here we drove to Gallipoli for the evening. A beautiful sea side town, with glorious sunsets. As the sun sets, the locals come out and crowd the town’s streets – the atmosphere is buzzing. There is a fish market, with lots of tables where you can choose your fish and watch it being cooked in front of you – we wished we could spend the night there as this was really special. We would definitely recommend Gallipoli as a place for a long weekend – plenty of relaxation and good food along with enough historic buildings to keep most happy.
Ostuni is well worth a visit – a buzzing and beautiful town. The cathedral is on a tiny square and it’s a place where you can wonder the cobbled streets down to the sea. We ate lunch at Al Solito Posto, a very busy, cool looking restaurant with a beautiful copper pizza oven. No pizzas available at lunch, though, which seems to be the way in Puglia (and perhaps across the rest of Italy). We asked for a table (in our best Italian) and the very officious head waiter told us to wait and whirled off. He didn’t look at us again for about half an hour, and we were considering leaving when a charming waiter with a smiling face and little round glasses came to our rescue. “I have a table – one moment while I clear”. Rushed off his feet, he cleared the table and his equally friendly colleague took us to the table. The food here was excellent. Orecchiette (little ear shaped pasta – a staple in Puglia) with tomato sauce, linguine with pistachio pesto, smashed white fish and bottarga (grated fish eggs), superb coppa salami and the creamiest burrata. Go here (if you can get past the manager :)) .
Our final 2 nights were spent in Bari. Most guide books don’t really recommend a visit, unless you have an early flight and need a place for the night. But we definitely recommend it. We stayed at Hotel Mercure – a chain that can be a little samey, but this one is situated in the beautiful gardens of an old villa (Villa Romanazzi Carducci), with swimming pool and an extremely chilled feel. Food is good (but comes at a price), especially supper which can be eaten in the gardens. It’s about a 20 minute walk from the centre.
Bari is very much a working town, with relatively few tourists. The evening passeggiata takes place as in all Italian cities, and is a bustling, friendly affair. Locals come out with deck chairs and sit in groups on the sea front, gossiping and laughing. We ate at Bianco Fiore, an attractive little restaurant not far from the sea front, decorated in blues and whites. The menu is on the fine dining side, and we were the only people there at 7.30pm (we are SO British). Slowly the restaurant filled – with couples. We stood out as a family with teenagers and what turned out to be a pretty romantic destination, but the service was very friendly and we had some good food (prepare to pay a little more here).
Bari has countless gelateria – row upon row of mouthwatering ice creams. We tried quite a few… and still find ourselves opting for a scoop of delicious pistachio and one of dark chocolate sorbet.
Bari is a great place to spend time wondering along the little streets. The Cathedral houses St Nicholas’ bones (that’s the original Santa Claus). The crypt where he lies, is a fascinating place with women in headscarves praying and some crying. The bones are rumoured to weep a sweet liquid once a year, and this liquid is sold in the cathedral. …
Bari is a great place for reasonably priced eateries. Food is good and the wine superb. The wines of Puglia are just wonderful, mostly consumed in Puglia and then the rest of Italy, so many are unknown to us in Britain. The grape varieties, negroamaro and primitivo, make superb wines, and it’s worth a trip to Puglia just to taste these!
Our last snack before heading to the airport was at Mastro Ciccio, a cheap and cheerful pizza and foccaccia joint, which was pretty good (the kids loved it). We then had a white knuckle ride in a taxi to the airport and headed home.
We loved Puglia. The towns are wonderful and the people open and friendly. And as we are generally pretty obsessed with food, it is certainly a place that suited us.