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Trip Report-Puglia and Matera (8 nights)-last minute trip-mid to late March 2023

Trip Report-Puglia and Matera (8 nights)-last minute trip-mid to late March 2023

Old Apr 20th, 2023, 06:22 PM
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Trip Report-Puglia and Matera (8 nights)-last minute trip-mid to late March 2023

With deep thanks to all for your informative TRs and advice, both of which were invaluable to me. Apologies for taking a few weeks to consolidate my messy notes into a proper TR. Writing it makes me want to take the same trip all over again!

TR is pasted below--for some reason I can't post it as a pdf attachment. Trip report: mid-to-late March 2023 (last minute) trip to Puglia and Matera (8 nights in total)

Apologies for the delay in writing this trip report. I came home to a mountain of work and I’m sorry to say that I let that get in the way of turning the big project of my scattered notes into a proper TR. I’m deeply grateful to all who shared informative trip reports (which I studied and cross-referenced as if I were taking an exam!), to those who provided me with a great deal of essential information in response to my queries, and to those who helped me select among a short list of lodging options (when I was flummoxed) on a very tight timeframe. Many, many thanks truly for all.

Background: in early March I learned that I would be going to Rome for 10 days at the end of March for work (a conference and some consultations with colleagues, which was absolutely fantastic news). I then realized that this would be a chance for me to squeeze in an 8 night trip to Puglia and Matera prior to the Rome trip. I’ve long wanted to visit both places, but it has never worked out to go. I often travel in the summer, owing to my work schedule. And I wilt badly in the heat. So, trips in the summer to Puglia and Matera haven’t been desirable for me. I don’t like going to the beach.

I’m a big planner and an over researcher in general, and so the tight timeframe for planning was hard and frankly made me very uptight. This was compounded by the fact that it was an especially busy time at work. So, lots of late nights of reading and research over the course of the one week that I had for planning and making reservations. Other things that informed my choices include the following particulars. ’m a woman traveling alone; I don’t drive when I travel; and, based on what I read in some TRs, I knew that I didn’t have the patience to deal with public transportation during a period in which it's not terribly robust in these regions. I wanted to get a sense of Puglia and Matera with full knowledge that I couldn’t do the region justice. My view was that if I loved it as much as I anticipated, I would plan a more leisurely trip in the future, along with a companion who drives. Also, I love food, history, architecture, getting a sense of how people live, and talking with locals (who can tolerate my B1/B2ish Italian as much as possible).

Flight: It wasn’t easy to get from the western USA to Puglia. I flew to Rome and spent 10 hours in the Rome airport waiting for my connecting (ITA) flight to Brindisi. The Euro 35 that I prepaid for ITA lounge access at FCO was very worthwhile. The lounge was lovely, comfortable, had good food (what a surprise-it’s Italy), and fast wifi. I met a wonderful Canadian of Italian descent who was waiting for the same flight in the lounge. She was competing in ballroom dance competitions across Italy for the next few weeks. That was a nice start to the trip.

My bases and summary of what I did each day: I decided on three bases. I spent four nights in Lecce, then two nights in Matera, and then two nights in Monopoli. Here are some details on how I used my time in each base.

First stop was Lecce. I love Baroque, small cities, and university towns. For that reason, I wanted Lecce as a relatively long base. Four nights was perfect, not that I would have minded another night or two.

Day 1 from my Lecce base: I spent the first full day and evening exploring the old part of the city by myself—really just wandering from winding street to winding street, stopping to eat, and marveling at the scenery, and people watching. I kept my eye out for the key churches and points of interest. I enjoyed wandering into churches and other points of interest. Most interesting and surprising to me was the Jewish Museum in Lecce. I learned a great deal at the museum (about Jewish history in Lecce, but also throughout the Salentine). I found the two films I watched at the museum so informative. One film highlighted the role of the region as a host to person’s “displaced” (common usage at the time) after WWII. Lecce is a very walkable, flat, lovely small and easily explorable city. It’s beautiful at night. The limestone glows. I loved the Roman ruins and people watching, especially seeing everyone hanging out at night by the ruins on the main piazza.

I loved the special foods of Lecce—yes, pasticciotto was an amazing and addictive sweet as others have noted here, pizzo (a kind of savory scone-ish pizza bread) was good (but not my favorite), puccia (a sandwich on flat oval bread-these were very good). But the rustico is the thing I am constantly thinking about. I like savories more than sweets in general. could live on rusticos, though they’d probably kill me. They are a hyper buttery flaky savory hot pastry filled with molten bechamel, gooey mozzarella, and sundried tomatoes (though there are some other versions, too). Caffe’ Alvino was where I got my pasticciotto and rustico fix.

The other two days I hired a guide with a driver (more on him below) to take me on two long (wonderful) days of touring from my Lecce base. He returned me to my B&B in the early evening.

Day 2 from Lecce base: the guide picked me up at my B&B in the morning and we spent the day wandering south of Lecce—Gallatina, Otranto, Gallipoli, and Santa Maria di Leuca. Just an overview to be sure, but he was so knowledgeable about art and history, and I found it all fascinating. I had informed him in advance that I’m a “let me see the 2-3 most amazing churches in each place and the one set of great ruins, and then let’s walk around” kind of person (as opposed to an “I want to see everything person”). The guide, the driver, and I enjoyed a spectacular conversation-filled lunch on the water. I had some key food “goals” (yes, that’s me), including trying sea urchin and lots of shellfish. All were delicious. Sea urchin was one of the best things I ever eaten.

Day 3 from Lecce base: the guide picked me up again early and we explored the Valle d’Itria. Yes, could have done that from a more central (northern) base, but I really wanted to be based in Lecce for as long as possible. We had a great day roaming around Ostuni (loved it), Martina Franca (very briefly), Locorotondo (liked it very much), Alberbello (briefly), and Cisternino (where we had another fantastic lunch). Again, I loved it all. And I do think it’s worth an hour in Alberbello despite the crowds and commercialism because the feeling of walking in that trulli village is amazing.

Next morning I transferred to Matera, where I stayed for two nights (details on transfers below). Every single thing everyone here has said about Matera is true. It is beyond amazing and I will never forget it. And I must return! On my arrival day in Matera I took a 3-hour walking tour with Nadia (who is mentioned in this forum frequently) after dropping my bag at my B&B. It was wonderful and so informative. It was a great way to spend my arrival day as I felt oriented and then confident about exploring that night and the next day on my own.

Day 2 in Matera I simply walked and walked and walked (ok, and ate--a lot). I loved it all.

The next morning I transferred to Monopoli. I’m more of a town than a resort person (and I like working towns, provided they are beautiful). That’s why I chose Monopoli over Polignano a Mare. Also, I thought a resort town like Polignano a Mare might feel vacant given the timing of my trip, a concern especially because I was on my own. On my arrival day in Monopoli I just walked and walked in town on my own and all along the waterfront. I found it spectacularly beautiful, charming, atmospheric, and very walkable. It is also beautiful by the water at night. I loved walking along the waterfront and watching the fisherman bring in and sell their catch.

Day 2 in Monopoli I did exactly the same thing as I did on my arrival day. (If I had had one more day I would have taken the train to Bari—next trip I will stay in Bari for a few days for sure).

My final day I transferred to Bari to take the train to Rome. It was a lovely, relaxing, and scenic ride. I opted for first class and I found it really comfortable.

Guides:

From Lecce: Giovanni Fasano was my guide. He is the owner of Green Italy Tours. His whatsapp +39 3407678256 and his email is [email protected]. I cannot recommend him highly enough. I feel like I made a friend for life His knowledge, limitless warmth and generosity, professionalism, and his willingness to tailor around my interests and preferences were all beyond belief. He even asked (with my permission on day 2) if he should call a friend who lived nearby to join us for lunch because she and I have some interests in common. It was a real treat and great fun. I have never worked with a guide and frankly I was a little nervous about doing it. I wasn’t sure how it would feel (in the sense of not being able to roam freely, being steered toward tourist traps, spending too much time with someone I didn’t know, whether it would make me feel like a different sort of tourist than I think I am, etc). I could NOT have been more wrong in these concerns. I would work with Giovanni (or the other guides who work for him) in a second. In case this is useful info, I paid Euro 250 per day for his services. (I think it would have been cheaper by Euro 50 per day if I had a second person with me.
In Matera: Nadia Garlatti was wonderful. Cell. +39 347 8548845; e.mail: [email protected]. 3 hour walking tour was Euro 50—very well worth it.

Lodging: I was looking for small B&Bs with personable, helpful owners in the old parts of the city. I knew I’d need some help with transfers, restaurants, and wanted to have some interaction with hosts. I was really thrilled with all of the places I stayed and would stay at all of them again. Two out of three were strongly and consistently recommended by folks in this forum.

In Lecce I stayed at Attico Barocco Bed And Breakfast - Via Giacomo Matteotti, 25 73100 LECCE- +39 392.862.3411- WhatsApp- [email protected]/ www.atticobarocco.com/ . I loved it. The owners were wonderful. I loved the location, their hospitality and advice, and my room was perfect. I reserved the King Superior Room, which had a balcony with a big view. There was a mini fridge and kettle in my room. In Matera I stayed at Torretta ai Sassi; Vico 1° Casalnuovo, Matera; +393801380180 -- I reserved a cave room-it was the Nicchia. The host, Valentina (as I was advised by folks here) was amazing and I passed on greetings from a forum member (which were warmly returned). The view from the B&B itself was beyond belief; I loved the location; and I’m glad to have had the experience of staying in a cave room. There was also a kettle and mini fridge in the room. In Monopoli I stayed at B&B A C-Caste; Chiasso Portanuova, 29, Monopoli, 70043, IT ;
[email protected]+39 347 646 6738. The host Riccardo was amazing—so helpful, kind, and his breakfast was wonderful. He let you choose between sweet or savory (though some guests asked for a bit of both, which he provided). I appreciated the choice since I’m a savory breakfast person. All of my hosts were extraordinarily attentive. I felt very well cared for and safe.

Transfers:

From Brindisi to Lecce the B&B arranged a shared shuttle for me at a cost of Euro 25. Transfer from Lecce to Matera was arranged by the B&B in Lecce with a driver—cost was Euro 170. (Normally it would cost less, as I was told, but the driver couldn’t find a second passenger for the trip, given when I was visiting.) My host at the B&B in Matera arranged a driver to take me from Matera to Monopoli. It cost Euro 100. My host at the B&B in Monopoli arranged my transfer to the Bari train station. It cost Euro 80.

Restaurants for dinner and some other food comments:

I kept lunch very simple on the days that I was on my own. I neglected to take note of the names of the two wonderful restaurants where I ate lunch with the guide on days 2 and 3 from my Lecce base.

Lecce dinners: Trattatoria Nona Tetti; La Putea Osteria e Ristoro (I ate there twice); Pescheria al Colturra. The first two were simple, rustic, and wonderful. The third was a little more upscale—I also loved it, too.

Matera dinners: Soul Kitchen (the panna cotta with crusco and olive oil was unique and excellent beyond belief; the appetizer sampler was very good; the pasta good, not excellent); La Lopa was fantastic (I wish I could have five dinners there-cicerchie soup was great; bacalao main wonderful; dessert of bitter almond gelato with almond biscuit and olive oil was mind blowing).

May I just say that I love, love, love crusco –the all purpose condiment/snack in Matera and Basilicata generally. I brought back some and am worried about using it up. I also love the bread of Matera when cubed and fried in olive oil.

Monopoli dinners: La Locanda Sul Porto and Piazza Palmieri—I loved both restaurants. I ordered generously and had three course fish dinners that were unforgettable. Had a really simple lunch at a locals place recommended by my host—Cima di tapas (had a great oricchette pasta with cima di rapa/rapini and an excellent, simple vegetable involitini)

Other dishes that I loved in Puglia: I ordered cooked chicory and fave bean spread everywhere and I also loved polpo (octopus) alla pignata.



Summing up: Many thanks again to all for their generosity in helping me plan this trip. Apologies for the delay in this report. I cannot wait to return to Puglia and Matera—not sure when that will be. But it must happen again. Next trip I will surely also stay in Bari (my driver from Monopoli to the Bari train station really fired me up about Bari) and I will stay in a masseria.
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Old Apr 20th, 2023, 07:12 PM
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Wow, thanks so much for this incredibly helpful report! Sounds like it was a wonderful trip. I really appreciate the restaurant and transfer details. How early did you make dinner reservations (or did you)? I hope you enjoyed your time in Rome as well.

I have booked a car, but now I'm second-guessing that. I think the cost for private transfers and a few day trips would only be marginally more. [FWIW, I decided on 3N Matera, 2N Monopoli, 2N Locorotondo, 4N Lecce, 1N Bari. This will be after almost a week in Naples.]

Where to next?
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Old Apr 20th, 2023, 07:31 PM
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Hi Leely2, Thanks for the feedback. It was fun to write (hard to post though, but that's me). I was smiling thinking about each part of the trip when writing and reviewing notes. I loved Rome--again. It really was a wonderful trip. You'll love your trip and I can't wait to hear about it.

Re dinner reservations in each location my hosts made them for me (which I really appreciated--I could have done it, but each one asked if I'd like them to do it, and I thought that then the restauranteur would know that I was a guest of someone they knew, which seemed like a plus). I always asked for 830pm reservations. A few nights I ended up showing up 15 or 20 minutes early and that was no problem.

On the car vs the guide and transfers, I appreciate the dilemma, especially with petrol and car rental prices being so high. For me it was an easy decision because I am a very timid, inexperienced driver. Also, with all the details one has to keep in mind during a trip with moving parts that seems like another things to have to manage with directions, ZTL zones, and narrow ancient streets. But of course there's more flexibility.

The layout of your trip sounds marvelous. I would have loved another night in Matera (next time) and I thought Locorotondo was really charming (was a beautiful town that was also inhabited by residents rather than just tourists, and the landscape outside it was lovely, with isolated trulli seen in the distance). And Bari I really want to see--not least because of the books of mystery writer Gabriella Genisi (who has a great female protagonist). Also, next visit. And my driver from Monopoli to Bari was from Bari and he really sold me on the city. He was delightful. And a week in Naples--WOW. I love it there. I hope you have wonderful travels and can't wait to hear about your experiences. Apologies again to all for being so pokey in getting to my write up.
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Old Apr 20th, 2023, 07:42 PM
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Fantastic, helpful report.
I’ve long wanted to visit and I think your strategy would suit me.
Really glad you posted this and glad it was such a great visit.
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Old Apr 20th, 2023, 08:07 PM
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so pleased that it's helpful Adelaidean!
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Old Apr 20th, 2023, 11:00 PM
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good report, concentrated details and a clear view that people make a holiday, so if on your own talk to every one
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Old Apr 21st, 2023, 01:50 AM
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Thanks for sharing your trip with us. The detail is great. As a solo female traveller, did you ever feel unsafe? Also, in restaurants, was it ever a problem that you were a sole diner?
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Old Apr 21st, 2023, 06:04 AM
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Thanks for what you said (and have earlier shared in TRs in connection w/this trip), and agreed on the uplifting aspects of trying to engage with people when traveling.
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Old Apr 21st, 2023, 06:25 AM
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Originally Posted by studenttobe
Thanks for what you said (and have earlier shared in TRs in connection w/this trip), and agreed on the uplifting aspects of trying to engage with people when traveling.
Oh, what a great, detailed report! I like your travel sty.e. We visited Puglia once about 15 years ago and kept returning since we loved it so much!

About those cruschi: Were there strands of the peppers hanging in stores or markets that you could buy, or did you buy them already packed and already fried? My addiction began near Andria, at Masseria Barbera, and they gave me a big bag filled with them. I'd not heard of these peppers before. By the time our second trip to the area came around, we made a special trip to Senise, cruschi heartland. i bought about 5 long strands of the dried peppers at the azienda specializing in them, outside the town of Senise (quite a caper trying to find the place on Google maps!). We ended up spending lots of time with the owner, and I took home an amount that filled a carry-on bag (also added a loaf of Matera bread). Those peppers hung in my pantry for years, even as they shriveled up to a fraction of their original size. So I am now planning a return to the area, to stock up next fall. But I wonder if you sa them for sale in Matera, on the long strands, or should I plan a trip to Senise itself? I know you were there long after the harvest, and I will time my visit closer to harvest time (Aug-Sept)...but just curious..

https://www.saveur.com/article/Kitchen/Sweet-Heat/

There was a wonderful article in that magazine in 2009, written by Francine Prose about her trip to Basilicata, but it is no longer online. That article sparked my own trip to Senise.


Last edited by ekscrunchy; Apr 21st, 2023 at 06:29 AM.
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Old Apr 21st, 2023, 06:34 AM
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Hi KayF: Most welcome. And in re your questions: 1) I never felt unsafe during my trip, even when walking around town at 10/11pm. I always took a walk through town or along the waterfront after dinner. I am very security conscious in general when traveling alone (and when at home), and so I appreciate your question. But the fact that there were so many people always sitting and talking in piazzas, on the steps of churches or perched on the edge of great Roman ruins, in outdoor cafes (even though it was chilly during my stay), and walking and talking in the old town and along paths on the waterfront made me very comfortable walking for long periods outdoors. My concerns about personal security (in addition to other concerns) did influence my planning. For example, I wanted to stay in small B&Bs where I could count on contact and advice (and assistance if needed) instead of in Airbnbs (since sometimes—though not always in my experience—the key is dropped off and you are on your own). I also didn’t want to stay in large hotels since sometimes you can “get lost” as a guest since there are so many different staff, and you don’t come to know anyone in particular whom you feel is looking after you. Also, I chose to stay in towns/small cities since I was concerned a bit about whether more resort/beachy towns would feel deserted, creepy or depressing in the shoulder season when I was traveling. I admit that I was (now I realize) irrationally concerned about staying in the historic (that is, not the “new town”) area of Matera in a cave room in a cave hotel. Despite looking at so many photos, I couldn’t wrap my mind around what it would all feel like in terms of personal safety (and I had a sense that it would be creepy in some way with bats flying around—NOT true of course). Indeed I even asked folks here whether the place I had chosen would feel OK in terms of walking back alone after dinner. As it turns out, my concerns were completely unfounded. I felt perfectly safe and comfortable walking and staying where I did, and indeed walked quite a bit after dinner with great comfort and pleasure. 2) In terms of eating dinner alone in restaurants that felt very comfortable everywhere. I enjoyed attentive, friendly service everywhere I went. Generally when I travel alone (as I do frequently, often for work, though always in big cities), I bring my kindle (e reader) with me to dinner, and tend to read for part of the meal, which is really relaxing. (Small funny story: years ago I was in Edinburgh on my own. I booked myself a table at a very posh restaurant that I had read about (can’t remember it’s name now). It was I think owned by the Missoni family, so it was very high style. I had this moment—seems silly now—where I felt “wow, I arrived—I am eating at this fancy restaurant.” I brought a newspaper (seems old fashioned now) to read during dinner. It was the Financial Times, which is rather large in scale. I was enjoying some wine and appetizers and reading the newspaper happily. All of a sudden a group of waiters rushed to the table and started banging on it. I looked up. Turns out my newspaper had caught on fire from the votive on the table. I had not noticed. There went my feeling of being very cosmopolitan cool. Hence, the kindle now I also think that staff in hotels and restaurants have gotten more used to women traveling alone, so there are no awkward questions about why you are alone.
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Old Apr 21st, 2023, 08:25 AM
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Ekscrunchy: thanks for the feedback. I can see returning again and again for sure.

Re the cruschi--I love your story (and thanks for the links to the saveur article--I love Francine Prose--too bad the on-line link is no longer working). A suitcase full of cruschi and a loaf of bread-sounds like heaven. In Matera, I only saw the packed bags of fried cruschi in several stores (not as many as I would have imagined). I saw none of the strands. I'm hoping that once I work through the 4 bags that I purchased I can at least order more bags on line to tide me over. Wonderful that you'll be in region close to harvest time. I'd love to visit Senise sometime.
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Old Apr 21st, 2023, 09:04 AM
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Originally Posted by studenttobe
Ekscrunchy: thanks for the feedback. I can see returning again and again for sure.

Re the cruschi--I love your story (and thanks for the links to the saveur article--I love Francine Prose--too bad the on-line link is no longer working). A suitcase full of cruschi and a loaf of bread-sounds like heaven. In Matera, I only saw the packed bags of fried cruschi in several stores (not as many as I would have imagined). I saw none of the strands. I'm hoping that once I work through the 4 bags that I purchased I can at least order more bags on line to tide me over. Wonderful that you'll be in region close to harvest time. I'd love to visit Senise sometime.

Thank you! I thought this trip report had been lost and, indeed, I found iti only with a Google search, but it no longer appears to be in the Fodor's archive.
So for what it's worth, here is one of my early reports about Puglia/Basilicata. (I don't think I reported here on later trips to Puglia/Basilicata, including the one to the farm in Senise; those were on the late-lamented Chowhound.com)

PUGLIA AND MATERA: FROM PANE DI ALTAMURA TO PEPERONI DI SENISE..

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Old Apr 21st, 2023, 09:24 AM
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Thanks for sharing-I loved reading your TR and following some of the great links w/in it. I've downloaded for future tripping planning purposes. (And I, too, miss chowhounds.com)
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Old Apr 21st, 2023, 09:51 AM
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I loved reading both of your reports! We stayed in Polignano a Mare for ten days and did not find it touristy. We mingled with locals who were so kind to us. We had many wonderful moments with helpful locals all over town. Our laundromat experience makes us smile.
I had a hard time in Matera. Perhaps it was because our guide’s focus was on the extreme poverty of those who had lived in the caves. The govt moved them to modern high rise apartments, quite an adjustment for them and their community.
I do want to return to Puglia.

Last edited by HappyTrvlr; Apr 21st, 2023 at 09:53 AM.
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Old Apr 21st, 2023, 11:57 AM
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Thanks v much HappyTrvlr! And great to know re Polignano a Mare. I will hope to visit that town during a future visit—it sounds like you had such a great experience there. I had planned to do so from Monopoli (at least for a few hours), but sometimes not being in motion feels good. And on Matera-I appreciate what you said. It was indeed a tragic policy that caused a great deal of harm. In a different and superficial vein, I’m a real film buff, so it was fun for me to see some of the locations in Matera where various films or scenes were shot.
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Old Apr 21st, 2023, 12:04 PM
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Thanks for your additional responses on this thread, studenttobe, as well as the story about you, the restaurant and the Financial Times. Pretty funny.
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Old Apr 21st, 2023, 01:01 PM
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Great report!

I'm also a solo female traveler, but so far all of my solo trips have been European cities where I feel comfortable enough to explore on my own. There are places I'd like to travel - more remote locales, places where safety is an issue, or countries where it's not common for women to spend a lot of time unaccompanied - but I don't love tours. Did you have any concerns about spending a lot of time alone with a guide?

I generally don't love the thought of being alone, in a car, with an unfamiliar man. (I know that's really unfair to all of the perfectly decent male tour guides out there). I'm also a strong introvert and I don't love the thought of having a guide's attention focused solely on me for hours at a time! Was it exhausting to have to make conversation with someone all day long? I guess I'm just looking for tips and anecdotes from other women who have traveled solo and used guides.
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Old Apr 21st, 2023, 01:24 PM
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thanks Leely2!
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Old Apr 22nd, 2023, 05:10 AM
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Originally Posted by studenttobe
thanks Leely2!

Memejs:

I don't think you should have any concerns. To what country are you thinking of going solo? I've not done many solo trips with guides/drivers in Europe (had a driver in Spain not long ago and he only spoke if I asked him a question; driver very different from a guide, or driver/guide) but did them a lot in Asia.

Once in Vietnam, the guide talking incessantly about dates and history in a boring way. I just told him I'd rather ride and look at the scenery and he must have been relieved not to have to give his spiel. As I mentioned recently, I just rented my first car solo in Europe after many, many visits there. It was fabulous, and easy. I think a good guide will have a sense of how much you want to talk and will not become overly chatty. Ride in the back and stay quiet if you like... (I've come a long way since I was nervous going to a restaurant in Paris alone!) These are guided trained to deal with all sorts of clients, from all over....get some good recommendations and I think you will be fine. Do not miss out just for that reason! OR, forget the guide and go alone; rent a cr or use trains and buses...

I don't think there are many remote places in Europe anymore so you will not likely be the only foreigner.

Last edited by ekscrunchy; Apr 22nd, 2023 at 05:12 AM.
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Old Apr 22nd, 2023, 07:59 AM
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Hi memejs, Thanks on the TR. I understand your concerns fully and have wrestled with them when I’ve planned trips to locations that are not well served by public transportation, or where the landscape otherwise means that going it alone is not possible or safe.

I, too, feel that big (overnight, large group) tours are probably not a good fit for me. Indeed, I’m not inclined to go on this type of tour. I have, however, had good experiences with one day small group tours on two occasions. And I would not rule out that kind of experience in the future. In Scotland many years ago I took a small group day tour to the Highlands (from Edinburgh), and that worked out well. It was the only way that I could see at least see a bit of the Highlands in the time I had. When I did that, I researched companies a lot (mostly on TripAdvisor) and found one that did this kind of tour in a small van (that held around 6 people). The information provided indicated that at various points during the day you would be left on your own, such as to find a place for lunch during a stop in a small town, with instructions to be back at the van at a certain time, left alone to explore one or two castle ruins or a small town, etc. The solo time appealed to m. I mostly kept to myself during that particular tour (principally because I was “talked out” and tired, having been at an intensive multi-day conference in the days prior), and it worked out well enough. It wasn’t my favorite travel experience ever, but it was comfortable enough and worked well in terms of the options that were available to me. I also took a van tour/hike to Mt Etna in Sicily, and that was delightful. On that tour I engaged with the others in the van (they were all Italians, and I was feeling expansive and relaxed that day) and the volcanologist guide (all of whom were beyond patient with my Italian). So, I wouldn’t rule out 1-2 small group day tours during a trip, especially when they are the only option in terms of logistics (and/or cost). I’ve also had good experiences with small group cooking classes at someone’s home. Often I’m the only person who is in the cooking class without a traveling companion, but the activity of cooking and drinking together (and usually going to the market to look around and purchase ingredients) really breaks the ice for me (and is fun). Once I met another solo traveler in a cooking class (the others were part of a large family traveling together), and we ended up going out to dinner together the next night. This is because we came to talk about the fact that there was one restaurant in town that offered a very appealing multi course tasting menu, but only for tables of two. So, out of necessity we went together and it was a nice evening, and we were both clear that we would not otherwise be hanging around together during the rest of our trip.)

Drivers are an easy option when you are looking to get from point A to point B (or even to make a few stops along the way). Generally speaking, they are not trying to engage in conversation (and the norm, I think, is for the passenger to sit in the back seat, which further reinforces that sense that this is essentially a long taxi ride that you book in advance). And they are not providing narration in re what you are seeing. In some cases, however, being a sort of chatty person as I am—and depending on the vibe from the driver and the language— I have in fact engaged the driver off and on on conversation. I’ve enjoyed those experiences a lot. In Italy and Latin America (where—gross generalization, I know—the average person tends to be friendly, seems to like to chat, and seems to find that fact that you are genuinely interested in and respectful of their country/region/lived experience—this seems to have gone well, and I have found the on and off periods of conversation rewarding. But it is perfectly fine not to engage.

In re concerns about personal safety—I absolutely share your sense of caution. I have only used drivers that were arranged by my lodging (and when traveling alone I only stay at small B&Bs, where I feel that the owner is involved with my stay, including arranging a driver for transfers when public transport is not an option). That provides me with peace of mind because the owner is connecting you with a driver whom they know and use with other guests. The only other way in which I have gotten connected to a driver is when they come highly recommended by a number of people in this forum or others, such as TA (i.e., I don’t hire drivers based on aggregated on line reviews, which I fear could be manufactured in some cases, or at least I am not sophisticated enough to know when they are). So, the approach I’ve used has given me peace of mind about being with a driver alone.

Regarding using a guide as I did on my most recent trip to Puglia. (In this case there was both a trained guide and a driver.) There, too, I relied on advice in this forum and elsewhere, and I struck up a correspondence with the guide before my trip. I asked who exactly would be my guide and wrote to that person (since I didn’t want my guide to be outsourced through a consolidator). I did share my expectations in advance, indicating likes (for me that includes conversation, trying to speak some of the time in Italian, that I like to discuss politics, food, art, history) and also dislikes (shopping, a great abundance of long church/museum/ruins stops in each place). If I wanted to indicate that I’m more of an introvert and prefer to have a good bit of quiet (rather than constant patter) and that I would enjoy a quiet lunch on my own, I would be perfectly comfortable sharing that information with a guide in advance. (I imagine any good guide would appreciate that info—perhaps even welcome it as it’s less work—and any good guide would adjust accordingly).

In terms of safety, again, that is a very important issue and I share your sense of caution. Here, too, I feel like getting recommendations either from the owners of B&Bs or small hotels (rather than just aggregated on line reviews) is very important to me. On a trip several years ago, I visited two different mountainous regions in Ecuador where I wanted to hike a bit (this was after a work trip to Quito, where I was very comfortable in the city on my own exploring for a few days). I had the B&Bs where I was staying (which were in turn recommended by a friend who had stayed there previously) arrange my transfer by drivers. Public transport was not an option. And I wrote to the B&B owners where I was to be staying in advance, telling him I wanted to hike a bit, but would not be comfortable doing that on my own. One owner offered to take me hiking over the course of two mornings (for a fee), and that was lovely. We mostly hiked in silence as he spoke no English and my Spanish is extremely limited. In other region I visited, the owner of the B&B arranged a hiking guide for me for a one day hike. I corresponded with the owner and learned that this guide was frequently used by guests, including solo female guests. He assured me that it would be that guide only, not someone else at the last minute. Because the B&B was highly recommended by a friend who had stayed their recently that made me comfortable. That, too, was a good experience, and we chatted a little bit off and on during that day.

I provided the examples above to suggest that there are ways that at least I have improved my comfort in terms of hiring drivers, using guides, and occasionally being part of a small group when I am traveling to places where I can’t just hop on a train or bus to do the thing I want to do.
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