Puglia is the region in the heel of Italy’s boot, also called by its Latin name Apulia. With its distinctive food, architecture and atmosphere, the area looks and feels completely different than the rest of the country. Not unlike a Greek island, the sun-soaked landscape is blanketed in ancient olive groves that roll from the Itria Valley all the way down to the shimmering Adriatic Sea. The food in Puglia is always home-grown or locally sourced, so strictly seasonal, fresh and tasty. Meat is typically lamb, though of course fish rules on the coast. Puglia has the highest concentration of olive trees in Italy and the largest output of olive oil. The olive groves seem boundless as you drive past thousands of ancient gnarled trunks along the region’s Roman roads. Puglia is one of the least explored regions of Italy. Tourism has recently started growing, but the area still retains the authenticity of its farming roots and rural, slow-paced way of life.
Bari Vecchia is a walled city located on the south eastern coast of Italy facing the Adriatic Sea opposite Dubrovnik in Croatia. With a population of 320,400 it is the second largest economic center of the southern region of Italy after Naples. The old town center of Bari is nestled around the harbor and the wider residential and business areas spread out from this point into the mainland. Wandering down the narrow alleyways you will feel like you are walking through someone’s living room, or well, everyone’s living room. Entire families from grandparents to babies sit outside their homes chatting, playing, napping. Laundry dangles from balconies and scooters whiz past. It’s not just relaxing and socializing that takes place in the streets. In the mornings they become a pasta factory as women sit at tables outside their homes making the typical Puglian pasta orecchiette. These “little ears” are made by rolling the dough into thin logs, cutting off a chunk with a knife and shaping it by hand—all at an impressively rapid pace. We will gave a go at making orecchiette ourselves! We will have a guided tour of Bari in the morning and time to explore on our own in the afternoon. Get lost in the maze-like alleys in old town, visit the several churches or castle, or meander on the promenade by the coast. We will reunite for dinner.
Alberobello is absolutely unique. The unusual town is constructed almost entirely of a peculiar style of construction unique to this area, known as trulli. These rustic whitewashed buildings are topped by conical teepee-like roofs made from stacked stones without mortar. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the main quarters of the town, Rione Monti and Aia Piccola, are entirely made up of trulli lining the uphill lanes.
In the 1500's, the Acquaviva family, the local rulers within the feudal system, wanted to avoid paying property taxes to the King. They ordered local peasants to build their houses and dwellings without mortar so that, in the event of a royal inspection, the structures could quickly and easily be taken down, and the tax bill would remain low. Using local limestone and some ingenious building techniques, the local population created the trulli, many of which remain standing today (a double achievement given their purpose was to be easy to dismantle!). Fast forward to the 1700s and, after several petitions from discontented citizens about the ongoing treatment and rule by the Acquaviva family, the King granted their wish to become a ‘royal’ town, and therefore free from the whims (and tax-dodging preferences) of their feudal lords. After this decree, unsurprisingly, there was less reason for trulli to be built. However, they stand today as a testament to the lengths the powerful will go to keep their wealth, and the perseverance and resourcefulness of the powerless to make the best of their situation.
Today, in the 21st century, the majority of Alberobello’s residents don’t reside in trulli. Instead, the the town's 1,500+ wonderfully preserved and restored trulli have evolved into souvenir shops, restaurants and accommodation for visitors looking for a unique experience.
For a more authentic sense of what it means to live amongst the trulli, we will head across to the Rione Aia Piccola district, which has 500 or so trulli and is less commercialized. Here we will catch a glimpse of locals who still call these gnome-sized buildings home and elderly groups of Italian men out for a stroll in the streets they've called home long before the tourists arrived. It also affords you the best views over the clustered trulli patches of Alberobello.
Locorotondo is one of the most picturesque hilltop villages of Puglia’s Valle D’Itria (Itria Valley), earning it the official designation of “Borghi più belli d’Italia”, one of the most beautiful villages in Italy. Surrounded by vineyards and olive groves, Locorotondo has been settled since ancient times. Locorotondo is situated in the commune of Bari, Puglia, and has a population of around 14,000. Apart from being famous for being beautiful, it is also well known for its DOC wines and for its circular centro storico (historic centre), from which the name Locorotondo, (round place) derives. Locorotondo is a labyrinth of whitewashed buildings; its quiet streets kept pristine by residents who decorate their balconies and staircases with pink geraniums. Cummerse, tall, narrow white houses with steeply pitched roofs are peculiar to the centro storico of Locorotondo.
There are no major sights, but this means it doesn’t get many visitors, so it’s a delightful place to enjoy a leisurely lunch and stroll the streets. Often referred to as “the balcony on the Valle d’Itria” because of its position 410 meters above sea level, Locorotondo offers views of the countryside dotted with the cone-shaped trulli unique to this area of Puglia. It’s believed that Locorotondo was first settled by the Greeks several centuries B.C. Since the beginning of the 14th century, the buildings have been whitewashed — originally to reflect the sun to combat the black plague of the dark ages. Today, it is a tradition that is kept proudly as a symbol of the town’s culture and history. We will stop for lunch in Locorotondo.
Polignano a Mare
Polignano a mare is a town of Greek origins. It is located on a deep gorge overlooking the Adriatic sea on a steep rocky cliff of karst nature. Because of the karst nature of the cliff there is a number of caves on the sea that were inhabited by the prehistoric men. Of these, marine caves the Palazzese grotto, is the most enchanting one and should be seen. The historic centre of Poligano a mare is well preserved. Its network of alleyways winding among the typical white houses and small courtyards, lead to terraces with amazing views over the Adriatic sea. The pretty historic centre is a lovely place for a wander or an aperitivo on one of the small piazzas. Beneath the old town is Cala Porto, a small white pebble beach surrounded by cliffs with clear emerald water. It’s incredibly photogenic. It’s also known as Lama Monachile for the bridge that you must walk over to reach it. We will arrive in the late afternoon, settle in and have dinner. The following day is entirely free. The ocean may very well be warm enough to take a swim. Spend the day in Polignano, researchh and create your own adventure or join me for an early morning adventure in nearby Monopoli … just a 10-minute train ride away. I think I will leave early in the morning and head to the ocean with the goal of photographing fishermen. Founded by the Greeks, taken over by the Romans and beset by various invaders, Monopoli was a thriving port town under the Byzantines and Normans. In the 1400s it was annexed by the Republic of Venice, and enjoyed a centuries-long affluence that put it in league with other maritime powers like Amalfi, Genoa and Venice. It's position in Puglia between the seas, made it strategic and prosperous. The Porto Vecchio still harbors fishing boats as it has done for hundreds of years. Visit the beaches and inlets where the colorful crafts are docked and where fishermen still mend their nets. The Old Town is dominated by its still-solid castle, built in 1552. Castello Carlo V was erected by the Spanish rulers of the time as a stronghold on the sea. The octagonal fortress was isolated when it was built, then the town crowded in around it. The other distinctly visible monument is the cathedral and its towering belfry that rises high above the town. The Baroque-Romanesque church was built in 1693 and has frescoes depicting the four gospel-writing apostles. We can join together for dinner in Polignano a Mare.
Bloggers, “Along Dusty Roads” capture Estonia beautifully. They write: “Driving through the beautiful Valle d'Itria, you will see Ostuni long before you arrive; the vast 'White City' rising high above the ocean of olive trees that sweep through this verdant area of Puglia. Built atop a hill to protect from invaders, Ostuni is a certifiable labyrinth. A maze of alleyways, staircases and arches, of houses built upon houses, of hundreds of years of history laid out before you in a way no map can truly explain or capture. Dead ends and pretty little gardens, glimpses of the Adriatic sea, green doors and bright blue skies; everything and nothing may lie around the next corner you take. Ostuni is a city for explorers, and a place to be devoured slowly over a couple of days. It's a city for historians and for those that simply like to stroll amongst beauty and spontaneous Italian moments.It is a city that should be on every Puglian itinerary.” We will have a day and a half free to explore Ostuni … both independently as well as with a private walking guide. Spend the free day exploring Ostuni or catch a cab to the Adriatic to spend the day at a local beach … the ocean is just 14 kilometers away.
Known as “The Stone City” and “The City of Caves” Matera is a sight to behold. The city has quite literally been dug out of the rock, and when you first view it from one of the many lookouts, you’ll feel like you’ve travelled back through time. After all, this is the third-oldest continually inhabited settlement in the world after Aleppo and Jericho, which also explains why it’s often used to film movies set in biblical times! The southern Italian city has been home to someone for at least 9000 years. Prehistoric in nature, Matera is suspected to be the earliest inhabited place in Italy, people dug their houses straight into the caves and rocks in the side of the ravine, created a cobbled together city filled with winding staircases, streets that run on top of the houses and caves after caves after caves connected by underground tunnels and passages. In fact, this was such a remote and impoverished corner of Italy, that people lived in the caves with their livestock without electricity or running water until the 1950’s when finally a book was published catapulting Matera into fame and shaming the Italian government into building new, modern houses above the Sassi and forcibly moving everyone out of the caves.
Located on the slope of a rocky ravine, the landscape is dominated by cave dwellings, zigzagging staircases, and early churches that hold some incredible frescoes. Arrive in the newer part of Matera, and you will wonder what all of the hype is. It looks similar to many other Italian cities. But once you venture down the undulating stairway of thousand-year-old stones you enter another world, revealing the ancient cityscape of converted cave dwellings also known as Sassi.
The Matera landscapes and skylines are breathtaking, filled with a craggy mosaic of spires and uneven rooftops. It’s especially gorgeous at dawn and dusk as the sun breaks over the stone filled Sasso center. The opportunities for awesome Matera pictures are endless. The best walks here are the aimless ones – up alleys, down lanes – threading among the homes and Matera's 155 cave churches, which were mostly built in the 11th and 12th centuries and now deconsecrated. At times it seems there are almost as many lookouts as churches in the sassi. As if this ancient city with its caves isn’t enough, Matera is situated over a ravine. This topography makes the city perfect for hiking and exploring. The bend of Matera’s main road through the Sassi empties into the Parco della Murgia Materana, a mini Italian version of the Grand Canyon, where we can hike through many of the cities nearby ravines which wind through a network of caves, picturesque hills and peaceful streams.
We will have three nights in this magical city. Plenty of time to explore on our own, and also with two private guided walks through the Sassi and a hike further afield. Without a direct train line to Matera, the city has a delightfully non-touristy vibe. This situation won’t last forever since Matera has been designated the 2019 European Capital of Culture in Italy. It’s inevitable that the crowds and trains will come in droves.
Karin Mallory Presents: Intimate Trips to Italy is truly a labor of love. Love of a country. Its history and its people. Its landscapes, villages, cities, buildings and art. Its food. Its culture and tradition. Travel with me in very small groups of adventurous, fun and curious travelers. I look forward to sharing some of my favorite spots. And discovering others together!