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Trip Report 7 days/6 nights in Puglia

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{We recently spent 3 weeks in Italy with a two -week transatlantic cruise return. This included Trieste (day trip to Ljubljana) and Verona. We then flew from Verona to Bari. This report includes the 7 days we then spent in Puglia, October 4-10. Upon leaving Puglia, we stayed in Matera (a must see) and then Ischia island and Sorrento with a final stop in Rome from where we departed. Our six nights in Puglia included two bases, one in the country near Cisternino and the other in the amazing city of Lecce. Our report is from emails we sent home}

Day 1 from Bari airport:

Cisternino. When we headed west into higher ground, the scenery changed for the better. We started seeing the ancient olive trees, with their huge, gnarly trunks, that the Puglia region is famous for. We are staying outside this hill town, which, from a distance, is quite unattractive with an unappealing blend of old and new buildings. A closer inspection of the old town revealed a number of nice streets, several nice shops and restaurants, and one nice WWI park overlooking the valley, which unlike much of Italy, was covered with homes. In many parts of Italy, notably Tuscany, they keep most rural land unspoiled, keeping new development to districts near the old hill towns and limiting other building to reconstruction of pre-existing stuff. Here there are few large swaths of undeveloped land.

Trulli Unbelievable. Not a misspelling. A number of years ago, we read about a style of house unique to this region. They are Trullo (or Trulli for plural). Southern Italy has always been an impoverished region, compared to the north. Next week, we will visit a town where people lived in caves, and after WWII, the government was so embarrassed they finally started making them more habitable. Same thing here. These igloo style houses consisted of one or more stone domes, depending on how many rooms. They were very basic living, using the limestone found everywhere here, often as the result of digging a cistern for the house. Today, they have become fashionable, so many are being restored and some are being constructed new. This area literally has thousands of them, perhaps one half or more of all the housing you see. The rest are modern simple square houses resembling Greek villas, probably from Greek influences on the area many years ago. And, almost every house is white.

Our Trullo. We are staying in a Trullo that consists of two apartments, with a half dozen cones. We have two cones, a newer one for the living room and an older one for the bedroom. It is located on what essentially is a small family farm. The back roads, where we are, are lined both sides with tall stone walls and, between the walls, there is only room for one car; fortunately, there is little traffic. The family grows olives and makes oil. Underneath the olive trees, as others do, yesterday they planted a crop of artichokes for December harvest. Although we are well above the sea, Anna who handles the rental for her Dad and Mom says it snows maybe once every 10 years. We asked about local fruits, and tonight we found a surprise basket of 6 different kinds of fruit from their gardens. We can identify grapes, figs, a melon and pomegranates, but are unsure of a couple others.

Day 2:

Martina Franca. Our day Wednesday started in this nearby city that we expected to be a small town. Not the case and, perhaps impacted by Wednesday "market day", the traffic was chaotic. This area, including this town, have few people who speak even one word of English. We found a public recycling center with some extra parking spots, and the lady attendant there was able to say "me same as you" which was her way of saying "do unto others" as she signaled us to park there and pointed in the direction of the market. We bought some veggies for dinner in a market that probably could fill 20 Wegman stores with their produce. We walked around the old town and looked at the block after block of clothing and other items that also were part of the weekly market. The weather shifted from cool with ominous black clouds to sunny and 70's.

Alberobello. This is the closest thing to a Disney experience, with Trulli houses clustered in large sections of this quaint town. Some house shops and restaurants and others are first or second homes, b and b's or rentals. It also means lots of tour buses and tourists. But seeing these fairy tale houses, one after another, street after street, was something we never expected. It's a world heritage site. Even the churches are constructed in the cone-style. Our lunch pizza was in one of these cones. One of the most unusual villages we have ever seen.

Locorotundo. This was a little town that someone online said had the best gelato. We didn't get the name of his place but found a beautiful cafe that has been in business 135 years, and the gelato was as good as we have been getting. And that's really good. As with all these towns, there are grand churches every few buildings, and all have incredible art and none of these churches are cookie cutter. No one was working at the Cathedral, but everything was open to the public including the crypt under the church where they keep medieval manuscripts, fancy chalices and other valuable religious objects and some glass in the floor even showed a pile of bones and skulls. Nice park overlooking the valley and numerous neat streets.

The White City. That's the apt name for Ostuni, a hill town that overlooks the Adriatic from a mile or two away. As soon as we found the first big public square, we knew this was our favorite town today. We are using GPS and we're directed to an area to park. As we got out, the man who hands our parking tickets told us in Italian he could only speak Italian or German. We opted for Italian and with his help, as if he were our language instructor and with some humor, he made us repeat after him that we were miles from the city center and we could park much closer and gave us directions, which we largely recalled by his hand gestures. Once in the right area, we found lots of interesting little streets, all very clean, endless stairs and beautiful flowers everywhere. And lots of cute restaurants, with reasonable prices that indicate a very busy night life. The one drawback was lots of tour bus groups, many of them Germans today. And, again today, we probably saw no more than half a dozen Americans in all the towns combined.

Day 3

Lots of Cones. This morning started with a find of two more fruits at our door that we could not identify. They were small and peeled, looking similar but in two distinct colors, bright plum and bright orange and loaded with seeds like a pomegranate.  Perhaps a prickly pear with the pricks removed. We then drove 45 minutes or so and saw the cone-style Trulli homes in every direction for miles and miles, although part of this trip brought us past more rural farms with virtually no other traffic. Aside from a farm with a lot of very large black donkeys and another with some sheep, we saw few animals.

Conversano. Our first stop was a village called Conversano. It was very quiet. There was a castle but it was not open. We went through the imposing gates of Villa Garibaldi. There was no villa but a beautiful park and grounds that we assume once were part of a villa. Inside the park there were public restrooms, and, in the men's room they had squat toilets, basically a ceramic lined hole in the ground, but not sure why they bothered with doors since they were all full-size see-through glass. There were a few interesting streets and a dozen churches in a very small space. The men of the city seemed to gather in the large square near the castle; one smaller square had only three produce vendors making up a very small market day. Outside a striking Municipal building, workers were hoisting up huge early Christmas decorations that covered a square twenty or more feet into the air.

Pulignano a Mare. Down by the sea, we once again re-joined tourists, but judging by one very large parking lot right on the Adriatic, the summer crowds must be overwhelming. One of the entrances to the old city was a beautiful arch bridge, under which a wide stone path leads to a cove and a popular and scenic very small swimming beach. And there were swimmers, even at 70 degrees and sun, sometimes turning cool with passing clouds. The city sits high up on rocky cliffs. It was very clean and polished, with fancy shops and restaurants and nice vistas and a few promenades at the end of many streets. This city is famous for one restaurant that is in an open grotto or caves in the cliffs overlooking the water. A meal here will set you back hundreds of dollars; and judging by the two stern-looking men dressed in black suits, looking like Secret Service agents, at the entrance at street level, they take their place very seriously.

Monopoli. This was the best find of the day, except our GPS parked us quite a way from the historic center of Monopoli. Another seaside city but a little less fancy than Pulignano, perhaps because it has always been part fishing village. Both seaside villages were largely white and had a Greek island architecture feel. Walking through town, it was a surprise to see the open portal to the area, protected by a massive sea wall, where fishing boats are kept. All the boats, from small to large, are painted the same blue color. Street after street, the homes and businesses were well kept. In many Italian villages, they come to life around 7 pm, after an afternoon siesta of several hours when most stores and many restaurants are closed. Choices in the afternoon are usually limited to simpler or tourist-oriented dining. Here in the city center we found an old palazzo (palace style mansion) that housed a restaurant and had an inside courtyard open to the blue skies. We decided to splurge on what turned out to be our best pizza so far. They started us with a thick focaccia-like pizza bread and fabulous green olives. We ordered a bottle of local wine. Everything perfect and the splurge was only $23.50 euros or about $27. And in this part of Italy, there is zero tipping. There are seven churches in this old town. The most bizarre was the Purgatory Church featuring statues of skeletons as well as real ones, all dressed up in glass cases. But the main cathedral is simply one of the most spectacular churches we have seen in Europe, and that is saying a lot. Every color of marble covers every bit of this massive church. We were asked to stop taking photos, which is unusual in Italy, and then realized that they were preparing for a small funeral.

Day 4:

Road to Lecce. Sad to leave the Trullo home. We left in pouring rain and thunderstorms and headed south on the autostrade, a very narrow (no shoulders) 4-lane highway that runs along the Adriatic. The road is not in very good shape, so perhaps the reason for no tolls. Built up areas looked mostly terrible with lots of Communist-style housing like you see in parts of Eastern Europe. However, surprisingly, there was a lot of agricultural land that went right up to the sea in many areas. Parts of the autostrade were flooded from the morning's heavy rains, and rather than post warning signs, police pull out in front of traffic and drive down the middle of the road to slow everyone down. The introduction to Lecce with traffic-clogged streets was not a good one.

Lecce. Once we found the historic city center and its medieval walls, the weather cleared and we had another day with blue skies and 70's. We met our landlady Valentina who showed us our medieval apartment built with stone and high arches, only a few minutes from Lecce's best public square. Although Valentina had limited English skills, she first took us to an area where we could park for free and then gave us a walking tour of the large vibrant and busy city center. This included intros to merchants she knows. Her best intro was to a young couple who started a home-cooked takeout business just two weeks ago. They made us a huge platter of ravioli stuffed with fresh grouper, a hefty serving of three vegetables, to counter our pizza and gelato diet, two fresh pizza breads, a dozen meatballs and a lot of tasty tomato sauce. This set us back 13 euros. After those veggies, we opted for two small gelati, one from a historic marble-clad cafe recommended by Valentina and the other from a place that just looked right and the proprietor was busy making the next batch. And he had flavors you don't see elsewhere like egg cream with ginger and lime and ricotta and caramel. Lecce has 20 churches just within the old center. Most would be considered magnificent cathedrals anywhere else, very ornate inside and out, and some only a 100 feet from each other. We visited the city's castle that featured art exhibits, including Andy Warhol. This is among the nicest of the European old cities we have visited; good restaurants at reasonable prices are aplenty. They even a theatre that is a Roman-style amphitheater. 

Day 5:

This was our warmest day, highs in the upper seventies and not a cloud in the sky. Today’s drive eventually would take us to the southernmost point of Italy's heel. The bottom of the heel has few of the hills associated with much of Italy, a lot of narrow roads, ancient olive trees and a lot of unattractive boxy development. The one good thing was also little traffic. Three of the four towns we decided to visit were along the seaside, one on the Adriatic, one in the Gulf of Taranto and the other on the Ionian Sea.

Otranto. You can tell this Adriatic city gets very busy in the summer. They have partly completed a nice new 4-lane highway, with new pavement, something very unusual in this part of Italy. Yet on this gorgeous October day, there were few cars and few people. In fact, we had the run of the Castle, pretty much by ourselves. Large observation areas provided great views of the scenic modern marina below. This castle had numerous beautiful rooms, each with a massive fireplace. They showed a film in one room, even furnished with 3D glasses. Walking the streets of the old city made you feel like you were in Greece, white villas and shops. We almost seemed surprised to see Italian food at the very Greek looking restaurants. There is history here, Turkish Muslims, 18,000 strong invaded the town in 1480 and executed all males over 15; and woman and children were sold to slavery. There were 813 "survivors" of the massacre and they hid in the Cathedral. When they refused to accept Islam, they were all beheaded. That main cathedral here was not surprisingly spectacular. It was unusual that they did not allow passage over most of the 900 year-old tiled mosaic floor, but they are said to be one of the finest in the world. There was one side altar behind large gates, and behind the altar in tall glass frames, there were hundreds of bones and skulls, the 813 martyrs from the Turkish massacre. The crypt under the church held another large chapel with beautiful columns and arches.

Specchia. Our landlady recommended a visit to this small inland town. Perhaps because it is one of the few hill towns around, and, although not elevated much, it is the highest ground in the region. It had mostly modern development around it with a very small well-kept historical center, pretty much one main street with a few quiet well- preserved ancient alleyways and a nice historic square with large palazzo. There also was the requisite gorgeous cathedral and a couple of smaller churches and a few restaurants. There was an old olive oil factory underground but access was closed when we were there so some wedding photos could be taken. Actually the entire Main Street, normally open to traffic because this is such a quiet historic center, was closed off by police because of a big wedding in the Cathedral. We watched as dozens of very well dressed people, seemingly the whole town, exited the church to toss millions of pieces of very small candies at the newlyweds, let off dozens of white and pink balloons and explode confetti on them as they headed to their cute antique VW convertible all decked out in flowers. 

Santa Maria di Leuca. This small city is the end of the line, and we knew before hand not to expect the usual historic center. Although in a generally impoverished region of Italy, the thing that stands out as you come in from above is a community of lavish villas, the kind you might expect to find in Greece, all square but some like mini White Houses. This city was also reminiscent of Nice, France, although not as large, but with its long boulevard along the sea leading to the expected fort that would have protected it from invaders. Because it is so wide open to the sea, there is a large sea wall. Few restaurants or stores were open, but we got the best seat in town at a restaurant with only a few other patrons, and we had our first seafood (swordfish) of the trip. One big difference with Nice is that there was little beach, a lot of rocks, and framework all along the rocks where they install huge decks and create, during the summer months, something akin to wall to wall sun loungers as on a cruise ship. Glad we were here in October. The city was beautiful, and this may have been the biggest surprise so far.

Gallipoli. As we headed north on the west side of Italy's heel, we were surprised at the large size of what we had expected Gallipoli to be. It was mostly newer development, even some large buildings, but the old city was almost like a fortress island, actually a peninsula. A huge castle guarded the entry, and fishing boats were inside another large breakwater. This medieval city, much smaller than Lecce where we are staying, but fairly big nonetheless, boasted 18 churches, two right next door to each other. There were many nice homes, many again with a Greek feel, and there were two older gentlemen, almost in postcard pose, weaving what looked like some type of fish net. Lots of nice looking restaurants. There was a long breakwater and a walkway all around the old town.

Day 6:

It was even warmer today with some sun an clouds but 82 degrees. We decided to visit two historic towns within 15 miles or so of Lecce.

Galatina. We first headed for Galatina and almost left since GPS could not place the old town, and we couldn't find anyone who could speak any English to re-direct us. We finally found a beautiful park full of mostly men and grabbed the only vacant parking spot. The park was next to the historic center, and we quickly found an info center with a printed walking guide in English. Our first stop was a beautiful little pastry shop, been there since 1740, and every purchase is wrapped in fine paper. The eclairs, heavy and cream filled, were among the best we ever had. Oddly, directly across from this little shop, was an automat with machines selling everything from dozens of coffees to hot meals and even drug store items. The streets were beautiful with many palazzos, two with private chapels, most in great shape. When we returned to the park area and our car, we noticed, the nearby square empty, the park virtually empty and our car one of the only ones there. Not sure if the crowd we found on arrival was resting before going to church (there were two nearby). We guessed the women were home cooking, but don't they go to church?

Nardo. Not sure if it was a Sunday effect, but this old town had maybe a half dozen people total anywhere to be seen. And we walked a dozen or more medieval streets. It was almost as if this fairly large historic center had been abandoned. There were some prominent buildings, and old paintings showing wealthy merchants hundreds of years ago. It was flanked by a castle and associated walls with an adjoining botanical garden. There were many streets and many churches, two of which were huge and magnificent, but few businesses. A lot of buildings were for sale or rent; some were undergoing restoration. In the middle of one of the squares, we found a beautiful cafe with surprisingly great gelato. The cafe generally kept its historical feel but someone creatively added three bar stools made out of old bicycle seats.

Will Miss Lecce. The Sunday effect on Lecce was the opposite of Nardo. There was so much pedestrian traffic Sunday night that it felt like Disney World (and there was even a Mickey and a Minnie in the main duomo (cathedral) square. Literally thousands of people. We followed some of the crowds to an area just outside the historic center where there was a night time market with mostly clothes. There were dozens of African sellers of bags, watches, etc., on one street, and they quickly put their things in knapsacks when the police arrived, and then there was an animated discussion with them and police about where they could sell their wares. It seemed the police couldn’t
agree. We had a hard time finding fresh bread on a Sunday, so we inquired in a sandwich shop that had "bread" or "pane" in its name. The young lady put on two fresh gloves, wrapped two small loaves of baguette in fancy paper, placed them in a gift-like bag with handles and charged us the equivalent of $1.75. Meanwhile, across the square in this generally inexpensive food town, McDonald's was mobbed, with lines out the door, even with a side takeout window on the sidewalk, and they charge more than $7.50 for a Big Mac.

Day 7:

Midura, Oria and Taranto. We decided on a few side trips on our trip to Matera. We elected to go the "scenic" route, which, for the most part, was on narrow roads, full of litter, mishmash development and quite a few prostitutes, often sitting at the side of a country road, seemingly by themselves on folding chairs. The first stop was Madura, a not so scenic small town with a couple of large wine "factories", where, we were told, you get get something like a gallon of wine for $1.50. That compares to gas that's over $5 per gallon. There was an old center with a castle, but so many cars clogging the small town, we couldn't wait to leave. We didn't plan on Oria, but it was the first hill town we had seen in several days, and we could see it from far away, although it was a few miles out of our way. We walked through a nice hillside park up to the castle and then discovered a decent medieval community that had zero tourists. We stopped in at the typically grand Cathedral, and then headed to Taranto on the seaside. Taranto is said to be crime-ridden, with so much corruption that massive industries have made the city the most polluted in Europe. What we found was a seaport, much larger than expected, with part of it looking much like the northern part of the New Jesey turnpike with oil refineries and other heavy industry. But the city center had many streets with beautiful apartment houses that resembled the near perfection we have seen in Barcelona. There was a nice promenade on the waterfront and a bridge to the old city. A significant castle is at the entrance. And we walked some of the old streets a bit, under sunny, skies in the 80 degree range.

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