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Trip Report Our Trip to Puglia – Land of a Million Olive Trees!

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It’s been 5 years since our last trip to Italy (our favorite country to visit) and we were itching to get back! We’d spent our honeymoon in Italy and vowed on that trip to try and return to that lovely country every five years. We have been blessed to have fulfilled that vow so far, with our most recent 2-week trip being a celebration of our 15th anniversary.

Why Puglia? We chose Puglia as our Italian destination because we’d heard/read that this region was rural, beautiful, and still “off the radar” for most tourists visiting Italy. This fact was confirmed each time we’d tell folks where we were going in Italy and they’d reply, “Where’s Puglia?”

As we normally do for our “big” trips, we started the planning process a year in advance. We do this for multiple reasons, the main ones being: using frequent flyer miles for one or both airline tickets, getting our pick of hotels as there is still availability at most places that far out, trading our time-share for use during the trip (we didn’t do that on this trip), and getting the most out of the fun and enjoyment of the of the planning/research process!

We made our actual bookings (airline, rental car, and hotels) 9 months in advance of our travel date. We were able to use FF miles for one of the tix and paid for the other. As for hotels, we’ve taken trips where we’ve stayed in one hotel/resort and made day trips from there. We’ve also taken trips where we’ve stayed in multiple hotels and jumped around every few days. We made a conscious decision for this trip to follow the latter arrangement. For our 2-week trip, we stayed in 8 different hotels.

Before I get into the actual trip report, here is a list of quick facts about us and this trip:

We are a “young” (38 & 40) couple from southeastern US. We love traveling and have been fortunate to have visited Europe on multiple occasions.

Dates of this trip: May 11 – May 25, 2013.

Airlines used: Delta and Alitalia.

Rental car: Booked online directly with SIXT Rental Car.

Hotels: Because I enjoy their site and to keep all reservations in one place, I made all of our hotel reservations through Booking.com, and was very pleased with that choice. All of the hotels we booked included breakfast, so that was helpful in curbing our dining costs a bit. As you will see in the report, after each day’s heading, I’ve listed the hotel that we stayed in that night.

After-trip reviews: I submitted reviews for each of our hotels on both Booking.com and Tripadvisor. I also submitted reviews for a handful of our favorite restaurants on Tripadvisor. I’ll denote these restaurants in the trip report with “TA” after the name of the restaurant.

I’ve underlined the name of the towns/cities we visited on this journey. I’ve found this helpful on other reports I’ve read, so I decided to use that format on this one.

Unlike on our past trips, we did not keep travel journals on this trip. We considered doing a daily video at the end of each day, but that didn’t happen. That said, the following report is strictly from memory and may not be as detailed as some prefer, but I believe that it gives a good feel and sense-of-place for traveling around Puglia. If you want/need more details on a specific something-or-other, please feel free to do so by leaving a comment and I’ll respond as quickly as possible.

Enough small talk….Away we go!


Who Really Needs A Side-Mirror Anyway!

MAY 11 SATURDAY

The day had finally arrived – we were off to Italy again! Thankfully, it was not too early of a morning as our flight out wasn’t until 10am. Our best friends, and lovers of all things Italian, Giovanni & Priscilla picked us up and drove us to the airport.

We departed Charleston CHS via Delta at 10am. Quick flight (less than an hour) to Atlanta ATL. Longish layover (5-hr) in Atlanta. Lunch at Café Intermezzo, our favorite restaurant at ATL. Departed Atlanta ATL at 4:30pm via Delta. We had an excellent & personable pilot named Tom. He greeted everyone on the plane personally as they settled into their seats in preparation for the flight. I noticed that Delta replaced the word “turbulence” with “rough air” throughout the flight - Funny. It was a 9+ hour (overnight) flight to Rome FCO.

4 glasses of wine + zzzquil + mp3 player = some rest, but no sleep on the flight. I think that it’s impossible for me to sleep on an airplane!!! Mel is one of the lucky ones who can, so she was able to snag some shut-eye.


MAY 12 SUNDAY
Hotel: Viasparano (Bari).

We arrived in Rome FCO at 10am. There was a 3-hour layover before we departed FCO at 1pm via AlItalia. We arrived in Bari BRI, our final destination, at 2:30pm. All of the luggage made it!

We took the Tempesta Bus from the airport to downtown Bari (Bari Centrale). We drug our luggage across the busy, fountained round-a-bout plaza to Via Sparano (one of the main shopping streets). Within the first block, we were greeted on the sidewalk by the owner of our hotel. He let us in and showed us around the lobby. As the owner hiked up the stairs, Mel and I crammed ourselves and our 2 big pieces of luggage into the tiny elevator and rode it to the 7th floor. We got settled into the large, modern-furnished room.

Showered and refreshed, then went out to explore Bari a bit. The main shopping street, Via Sparano, had lots of high-end shopping stores. There was also a large Nespresso store (Mel has a Nespresso machine and loves it)! Many young folks were hanging out on the streets and in the parks. There’s a university in downtown Bari.

We made it to the historical center/old town. We wandered the quiet, winding streets. We stopped for snacks and cocktails at a bar/restaurant right on the waterfront. There were lots of young kids playing soccer in an enclosed field nearby. We ate dinner in the historical center at a restaurant named La Uascezze. It was good, but way too much food! We grabbed a gelato on the walk back to hotel.


MAY 13 MONDAY
Hotel: Fra I Sassi Residence (Matera).

Not too early of a wake-up today. Ate breakfast in the room, then took the Tempesta Bus back to the airport. We picked up our rental car from Sixt Rental Car counter inside the airport. Enzo, the rep at the desk, was very helpful. [I was excited to use Sixt when I’d booked months in advance, but leading up to trip I’d read about some customer service and bait/switch issues. I contacted Sixt on the telephone to clarify a couple of things about my rental and unfortunately experienced the sketchy customer service first hand. Ultimately, we were very, very happy with our choice of Sixt and I would definitely use them again.] It was a quick, easy process. It took us a while to find our car in the multiple rental lots. We found it and it was a sporty car, an Alfa Romeo Giulietta. Mel figured out the in-dash navigation system while I scoped out the pre-trip dents, scratches, and dings on the car so I wouldn’t get blamed for them later on.

We hit the road – off to Matera! Nice, quick, 1-hour trip (over the regional border of Puglia and into Basilicata). We arrived in Matera and found that there were some tight streets to navigate. The car’s Navi system had a hard time locating the hotel, so we decided to park and walk to find it. A nice guy at a nearby TI office gave us a city map and directions to our hotel. Leaving the car parked where we left it, we walked to hotel. Before we checked-in, we were offered fresh-made cafés/cappuccinos – delightful, and what a nice touch. Domenico, the proprietor, was really friendly. We had corresponded via email when I confirmed the reservation/parking situation a few weeks before the trip.

We walked back to car so that we could bring it to the hotel to park it there and unload our luggage. As I was pulling the car out of the tight parallel-parking spot, I noticed that the side mirror had been flipped back in an awkward position and that the mirror was now missing. We soon found the shattered mirror lying in the street. In the short time we’d been parked there, someone had side-swiped the mirror and rendered it useless. I was able to jerk the mirrorless side-mirror back into place, and we threw the shattered mirror into the glove box. Lesson learned – ALWAYS flip in your side mirrors when parking the car! I had a feeling that the car would be damaged in some way during our trip (it is Italy, after all), so it was nice to get that bit of business out of the way on day one!

We parked right in front of hotel, unloaded, and settled in for our 2-night stay at this lovely place. Had a leisurely lunch close by at Le Botteghe (very good), then walked back to the hotel to meet Nadia for our tour at 3pm. As we waited, we enjoyed watching and photographing a nesting pair of kestrels (pretty birds that migrate up from Africa) in a hole in a nearby building. The tour group = Nadia + us + 2 other American couples traveling together. It was a terrific tour, lots of walking/climbing, interesting sights, gorgeous vistas, neat frescos, cool cave houses. The tour lasted at least 2 hours, maybe 3? Nadia walked us back to our hotel after the tour. She was very friendly and so knowledgeable about her hometown. Like many folks on Fodors who have taken her tour, I HIGHLY recommend Nadia! (Nadia’s contact information: nadiagarlatti@tiscali.it).

After the tour, we did some souvy shopping, then headed on to dinner at Baccus Ristorante, also close to the hotel. As it was early, we were the only patrons in the entire restaurant. The owner/chef (we named him Mr. Baccus) was very personable and prepared us a delicious meal, which we enjoyed with a yummy bottle of red wine. Then, back to hotel for the night.


MAY 14 TUESDAY
Hotel: Fra I Sassi Residence (Matera).

We slept in this morning, then ate a nice breakfast at the hotel. Domenico made sure that there were specific gluten-free items available for Melissa. We set out on foot to explore the city of Matera. There was a large, main piazza in the city and we enjoyed milling around there. Mel wandered on her own for a bit, while I sat with the locals in the piazza - people watching and resting my feet. Walking again, we happened upon a health food-type store and ended up buying a couple of gluten-free beers, which we sipped as we strolled along.

We walked up the hill to see the old fort closer up. It was being restored/refreshed, so we didn’t get to go inside. Up at the fort, we finally captured a good photo of a “black-jay” bird. That’s what we call this particularly pretty black and white bird we’ve seen in various parts of Europe. Back down in the city streets, we came across an older gentleman playing an accordion on the sidewalk. He played beautifully and I took a fun picture of him and Mel.

We continued our walk and stopped to take some photos at a very picturesque spot that offered great panoramic views of the city. An older, local gentleman happened to be walking by and stopped to speak to us. He was cute little man with a warm smile and happy personality. He spoke no English, but was determined to explain what we were looking at. He pointed to an area and explained that this was the place where he’d grown up. He must’ve liked us because he asked that we follow him up the hill for a better vantage point. We laughed as he took a couple of photos of us with our camera. We thought that that would be the end of our conversation with him….but oh no, he was set on giving us a tour of the old cave houses in the area. We politely tried to turn down his offer, but he would not take no for an answer. He gently took Melissa by the arm and led us on a tour of lots and lots of the old cave house – some that had been beautifully restored and others that had been untouched for years. It was all very interesting, and although it seemed to go on and on, it was a real treat to be led on an “off the beaten track” tour by a friendly local. At the end of our tour, I took some nice photos of him and Mel. He asked that we mail him copies of the pictures, so we asked him to write down his name and address, which he did.

After our long hike around we were hungry for lunch. In my pre-trip research, I’d made notes of a few restaurants that sounded good. We set off to find Osteria Pico. It was not an easy place to find, but we eventually did so. The hunt was worth the effort, as it was quite delicious.

After lunch, we found our way back to our hotel and rested for a while. Recharged, we went to wander the city some more. We grabbed an outside table and enjoyed vino and bar snacks at Vittorio Veneto Caffe, right on the main piazza. It was a great spot for people-watching as the evening passeggiata was in full swing.

Not long after our snacks, we decided that we were hungry enough to eat dinner. We ate dinner at 19a Buca Winery, which was (strangely enough) located directly underneath the main piazza. It was an interesting, cave-like (yet modern) place that seemed to go on and on. The service was great and so was the food. After dessert and paying the bill, we did a self-tour of the underground putt-putt course that was the namesake of the restaurant (19a Buca means 19th hole). Quite unique.

Bellies full, we found our way back to our hotel through the maze of streets and stone stairways.

To Be Continued....

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