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July in The Mezzogiorno – 3 weeks in Southern Italy: Amalfi Coast & Puglia

July in The Mezzogiorno – 3 weeks in Southern Italy: Amalfi Coast & Puglia

Old Sep 12th, 2014, 03:18 AM
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Saturday, July 19, Polignano al Mare, Monopoli

We left the hotel in Lecce after 9 and were in Polignano by 10:30, autostrada the entire way and signage was fine including going around Brindisi.

The Hotel L’Abbate (right off the Conversano exit of the SS16, €80) is a modern 4 star just like the last two we stayed in with no charm but serves it’s purpose. The room was large, clean, great bathroom, TV, free wifi worked great, AC, lift, mini fridge and lots of safe off road free parking. A perfect place from which to explore the region. The room wasn’t ready at 10:30 (duh, they were still serving breakfast, but they had it ready by 11). It’s on a busy two lane road so you can’t walk into Polignano but it is literally as 3 minute drive. You go over the highway, over the railroad tracks, first right and there are three large parking lots (1.50€/hr). The one with the children’s playground and public WC has a path that leads to the old town (5 minute walk).

The parking ticket machines in the Polignano lots had an extra step involved that was a bit hard to figure out. Before you put your money in you need to type in the three numbers in the middle of your license plate, then you put the money in until you reach the desired amount of time, then press the button for the ticket. We’d never come across this before and we saw several people over the next few days who apparently also had not run across this. But someone helped us the first time, we helped others, and you figure it out.

We explored Polignano for a couple hours, which is really all it takes to walk around the historic center as it’s quite small. But it’s charming and there were plenty of restaurants. Outside the historic center are blocks and blocks of apartments and it seems a lot of them are used as vacation homes/rentals for northerners coming in the summer for the beach, perhaps that’s why there are so many restaurants. There were certainly lots of vacationers in Polignano but they did seem to be more the ‘rent a place for a week and go to the beach’ type, than foreign sightseers. There are lots of viewpoints looking out to sea and back to the town. The town is built up on a cliff (not terribly high) and there are a lot of underwater caves you can see from the viewpoints. Right in the center of town is a cove beach and there are other beaches at the ends of town. The sea is unusually clear and quiet thanks to the protection of the rocky ridges.

The old center was once surrounded by a moat and a city wall. Arco Marchesale, is the main entrance of the old town which opens onto Piazza Vittorio Emanuele, the main piazza. There are two interesting churches and several shops and a couple of restaurants. Polignano has two interesting ‘sights’. In a piazza in the area outside the historical center there’s a statue of Domenico Modugno, the writer of the famous song Volare, born here in 1928. Then, within the historic center, there is an unusual “poetic” staircase with a quote from Torquato Tasso, and other bits of poetry painted on the walls (Shakespeare, Mark Twain, Emily Dickinson, Poe, etc.)

We decided since we’d be back in Polignano each evening of our stay that we’d go explore Monopoli during siesta. Unless you want to shop or visit church interiors (which we generally don’t) then siesta is not a bad time to visit towns that involve driving, as it’s so much calmer and easier to park. Siesta is observed all over southern Europe but it’s especially long and noticeable in Puglia. Everything starts to close down around 12:30 and by 1:00 every city and village looks like a ghost town. Shops, churches, and tourist sites are all closed, buildings shuttered, piazzas are empty. Even most restaurants and cafes close down. Things don’t start to re-open till 4:00 or later. I will say that we were always able to find some place open to get at least light food, drink and gelato during siesta. So it’s not that you can’t have lunch during this time, but choices are limited. I actually like exploring towns during siesta, but they definitely have a different feel than they do later in the day. Most towns don’t really come alive until 7:30 or 8pm when the passeggiata begins and restaurants open for dinner. One town (Trani) had a sign that said parking regulations were enforced between the hours of 21:00-02:00.

While shopping isn’t a major purpose of my travels, I do like to look at (and sometimes buy) things but Puglia has virtually no shops that looked interesting – very different in this respect than anywhere else in Italy. So normally not having shops open during siesta would be a negative but here it didn’t matter much.

Another problem with trying to do much exploring or sightseeing during siesta is the heat – usually July in southern Italy would be so hot that walking around mid afternoon would be brutal. But not this July.

Anyway…. We didn’t have good directions for Monopoli so just took the centro exit and drove till it looked like we were ‘close’ to the pedestrian area. There seemed to be plenty of free on street parking so we just stopped and it turned out we were only about 2 blocks from the start of the old town.
Monopoli (population about 50,000) is larger, and nowhere nearly as enchanting as Polignano (population about 16,000). There are several nice old churches, and it has a harbor/port area, and a good number of winding streets with Greek looking architecture, but it was just kind of blah compared to Polignano. We walked around for a couple of hours and had a very good lunch on Piazza Garibaldi (Premiato Caffe Venezia) in the historic center.

We had a nice long, cool siesta and went back into Polignano around 6:30. The parking lots were a little more active than in the morning but we got a spot. By the time we left at 9:45 all three of the lots were jammed, as was the one to the left of the road we come in on which was totally empty in the morning. We walked around looking for restaurants that appealed and settled on the one just inside the main gate on Piazza Vittorio Emanuele – “Bella Mbriana”. Two pages of pizza possibilities, including some really interesting options like pizza with zucchini flowers. The special that night was octopus. It was already half full at 7:30 and they were turning people away by 8.

The town certainly is hopping in the evening, every street and alley had people wandering around, all the restaurants were full. Outside the gates it was even more crowded. The piazza and streets outside the gate look pretty historic, at least in the dark. Everything very well lit.

The bar/gelateria just outside the gate (Mario Campanella Il Super Mago Del Gelo on Piazza Garibaldi) specializes in whipped cream. Prices listed for gelato are both with and without whipped cream. I had a medium nocciola with cream for 2.10€. Excellent and quite large for the price.
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Old Sep 12th, 2014, 05:15 AM
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Continuing to enjoy reliving our trip there 2 years ago. Absolutely loved the gelato at Super Mago. We had some issues with the meters in Polignano. One time we needed a couple hours and ended up with 12.
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Old Sep 12th, 2014, 05:26 AM
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In Italy the "siesta" is most generally called the "pausa".
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Old Sep 12th, 2014, 05:38 AM
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Also: There are 60 million olive trees in Pugia. For hundreds of years they supplied an extraordinary amount of fuel for lamps and other kinds of non-edible uses. That intense plantation monoculture persisted some years beyond the advent of electrical power but not much beyond it. The inability to find a sustainable and diversified economic base for Puglia has been a very vexing problem and a lot hopes are invested in tourism.
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Old Sep 12th, 2014, 05:53 AM
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This is the cutting down of olive trees near Lecce to create a sanitary corridor to halt the spread of tree infection that bilboburger referred to:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worl...-industry.html
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Old Sep 12th, 2014, 06:04 AM
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bilbo - what do you mean by 'pink euro'?

Not sure what the correct word for this is where you come from, but in Europe the rainbow flag and the colour pink are associated with the gay/lesbian community. When consumerism is associated with this group then you have the "pink pound" or the "pink euro" affect. Hence parts of the UK, Brighton, Central Manchester and Blackpool have had significant pink pound expenditure which have resulted in some drab area becoming both gayer (in all meanings of the word) and wealthier. Similar Galipoli.
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Old Sep 12th, 2014, 06:05 PM
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Thanks for the explanations - I knew pink was associated with the gay community but hadn't heard the term 'pink euro' (or dollar).

Interesting about the olive trees. Really didn't notice any large scale disease - but there sure were tons of trees. I hope it doesn't cause too much damage.

And I've never heard the term pausa for the afternoon rest. I've always heard it called siesta, whether in Spain or Italy.
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Old Sep 14th, 2014, 04:13 AM
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Sunday, July 20 Ostuni, Cisternino


We were on the road by 9 and easily found Ostuni. It is very impressive as you approach on the road. Unfortunately there’s no really good place to get a photo of it. Most of the online/postcard photos of the city from a distance appear to have been taken from a helicopter. We just followed signs for ‘centro’ and got to a block or so from the ZTL (could just make out a sign in the distance) and there were a few spaces left in the white lined area (free) so we took one. Not only does free parking save a few eruo, but you don’t have to worry about getting back to your car by whatever time you calculated you would. The next few blocks had blue spaces and then there was a parking lot just before the ZLT. A block further is the very large Piazza della Liberta with a huge obelisk dedicated to Saint Oronzo and a large civic building and small church.

From there two streets lead into the historic core. We took the lower one which opens out (after a nice WC) to the promenade which extends all the way around the historic core and has nice views of the blindingly white city and the countryside sloping down to the Adriatic. Very nice. We walked a ways around it, and even down a road away from town hoping for a good view but you’d have to go a pretty far distance to get the views you see when driving so we turned back and entered the old city.

Again, I think expectations play a huge role in how much people like a place. I’d read some so-so things about Otranto and so was pleasantly surprised and really liked it. I read nothing but lavish praise for Ostuni so when it turned out to be “nice, but not spectacular” I was a bit disappointed. It’s a very nice place, and the views from afar are hard to surpass, but wandering the streets in the old town it looks like many other white towns in southern Europe. But not anywhere near the ‘top’ picturesque-wise. We wandered around for a couple of hours and felt we had seen enough.


Since it wasn’t even mid day yet we next headed for Cisternino, which was quite well signed from Ostuni. I had very little info on Cisternino compared to the other towns, and no good map. The large scale print map and the iPhone map app got us there no problem but then were no help with where to park or where the historic core was. We followed ‘centro’ signs but didn’t see an obvious place. It was approaching 1pm –which is good, traffic is light during siesta – but we were getting tired and I almost said lets just skip it. But we stopped at a hotel and G went in and asked directions. Like most men he is against asking directions, but I pointed out that I’ve been putting up with his speaking Italian at me for the past two years so now was his chance to actually use it. He was given a handy map and told to go back a few blocks and park on via Maggio XXIII. We easily did this and saw a tree filled promenade just ahead. Again,white spaces. However, the blue spaces are free from 13:00-16:00 which is when we were there. The old town rises on a hill from there.

The first eatery we came to looked expensive and almost empty but just after that was ‘our kind of place’ – on another promenade overlooking the valley below, we took the last of the shaded tables (no linen tablecloths but plenty of people at this place) and we got great mozzarella, lettuce and tomato sandwiches (on warm bread) plus Fanta, Water, and Iced espresso con crème all for €9.

We then spent the next couple hours wandering Cisternino. It was great. I liked the maze of old white streets much better than Ostuni (and there were no tour groups, in fact hardly anyone other than people at the several restaurants that were open). Granted Ostuni only had one tour group, but overall was much more crowded.

By a little after 3 we had covered just about every street in the historic center and were ready for a siesta ourselves. Less than half an hour back to the hotel, via the E55, well signed to get back to the highway on roads through miles and miles of olive groves and only a few crazy Italian drivers on our tail.

At 5 pm the parking lots in Polignano were fairly full but we got a space. The beaches were also still full but people were leaving. We wanted to eat as early as possible so as to catch the sunset which was around 8:15. No one serves before 7. We ate at the Balconneta which is, on one of the ‘balconies’ (terraces) overlooking the sea. Pizza was excellent, huge salads. Sunset was pretty nice, not spectacular but you could watch it drop into the sea with Polignano in the foreground. Making me wonder how you can see the sun SET on the EAST coast of Italy. But I have the photos to prove it.
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Old Sep 14th, 2014, 10:06 AM
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Still enjoying your report, Isabel. We enjoyed Ostuni and thought the walls were amazing, but I agree it's not as intimate as the smaller towns. And it's indeed hard to get a good photograph of the city--I rummaged around in some fields on the eastern side to try to find a good shot but never really accomplished it.

Interesting that you liked La Balconata in Polignano--my husband thought the pizza he had there was the worst ever! Nice location, though.
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Old Sep 15th, 2014, 07:02 AM
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I am still confused about the siesta/pausa. I understand shops being closed, but Italian lunches last far past noon. Is it just that MOST restaurants are closed in smaller villages, but in larger towns this is not necessarily the case? I care nothing about shopping, but a lot about lunch!
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Old Sep 15th, 2014, 10:37 AM
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There were restaurants open for lunch in every Puglia town we visited (most of the same ones as Isabel did). Fewer in the smaller towns (like Locorotondo), but we always found a good place to eat. Virtually every shop and church was closed from 1 to 4 or 5.
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Old Sep 16th, 2014, 03:40 AM
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aprillilacs - I noticed in your report that you didn't like La Balconata. Both of our pizzas were quite good, I suppose it depends on what you get (or maybe how busy they are, etc.). We liked the one on the main square better but the first night there I thought it was just 'OK'. We ended up going back on our last night because it was pouring rain and we didn't want to walk around looking for something else, and that night the pizza I had was fabulous.
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Old Sep 16th, 2014, 03:43 AM
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Oh, about the siesta - I think a lot of restaurants must just not open at all before dinner time. So many were closed at 1 or 2 in the afternoon- they couldn't be 'done' with lunch by that time so I guess those places just don't do lunch. Also, some of the coastal towns look like maybe they only those places during peak tourist season which must be August because in July things were pretty quiet in some places. But as april says, we always found somewhere to get lunch but the shops and churches, etc were always closed and streets very deserted - noticeably more so than in other places we've been that also observe the siesta such as south of France, central/northern Italy, etc.
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Old Sep 16th, 2014, 07:19 AM
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We were there in late September and a lot of the coastal towns were pretty quiet with few places open.
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Old Sep 16th, 2014, 08:31 AM
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Anyone been in early-mid June?--I am thinking about a stay in Monopoli and wonder if it will feel too "pre-season." I like quiet without a doubt, but in towns that come to life in summer, it can be a tad too quiet.
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Old Sep 16th, 2014, 11:43 AM
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Great report! I've been to almost all of those places in the last 20 years of frequent travel to Italy. A few years ago we stayed two nights at the same hotel as you did in Paestum. Nice place, but the rooms needed a little work. My last trip to the region was all over Puglia and Matera and I just loved all those towns. I envy your ability to take so much time off at once to travel (I can only take a week or two).
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Old Sep 17th, 2014, 02:51 AM
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Kristina - I think it was because of your report and recommendation that we choose that hotel - and it was great, we really enjoyed it. I've read many of your trip reports and found them very helpful.

Yes, I am fortunate that I can take 5 or so weeks at a time - although it has to be in the summer. I sometimes envy people's reports about time in May or late Sept/ Oct. but all in all I guess I'd rather have the amount of time I do even if it is in the summer.


Yorkshire - I can't for sure of course, but I think mid June would be great. None of those towns are so tourist dependent that they 'close up' or anything like that. I just think perhaps there are a few places right by beach areas that may only open in August. Monopoli has 50,000 people. Although I'm curious why you are thinking Monopoli over Polignano.
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Old Sep 17th, 2014, 04:12 AM
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I've ridden a bike around the place in June, the beech resorts are dead and I've been the only visitor in more than one hotel. All the attractions are open (churches, castles, museums)
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Old Sep 17th, 2014, 06:54 AM
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Thanks all! Sounds like June should be fine.
Isabel, I read good things about both Monopoli and Polignano, and they are so close together it could end up as either one. I had my eye on an apartment to rent in Monopoli, and I thought it might have more of a workaday feel (if that makes any sense--less of a holiday place than Polignano).
bilboburgler, I will be asking about biking once the trip gets concrete.
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Old Sep 18th, 2014, 12:34 PM
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yorkshire - I think you are right about Monopoli having a more workaday feel if that is what you are looking for. While I wouldn't call Polignano "touristy", I think in summer it gets a lot of Italians from up north who come to rent apartments for a week or more at a time or who have seasonal homes there. Off season I think it would be pretty quiet. In July there were plenty of people there.
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