Monday 12th May
We took the evening Easyjet flight down to Gatwick, to spend the night in the Holiday Inn. Very comfortable room and a great breakfast the next morning. We wish now that we’d tried the “make your own pancake” facility!
Caught the mid-morning Easyjet flight to Bari, where we picked up our hire car and set off into Puglia. We were soon to discover that being given a free upgrade in the size of car was not such good news as it first appeared. There were to be times when, negotiating narrow hairpin bends in town, we’d happily have paid more money for a smaller car!
We drove along the coast a little way,
just to get the feel of the country, then headed inland to Alberobello. Immediately we were struck by how different the countryside was to most of Europe. It was quite barren, but otherwise dominated by olive trees. It just looked hot, and we really felt we were “abroad”.
We were staying two nights in the Grand Hotel Olimpo. Once checked in we headed straight up into the old town to admire the truli. These were originally designed, centuries ago, to house farm animals and implements but, because they were not taxed, people started living in them. They were every bit as unusual and pretty as we expected, but the atmosphere was tainted a little by the persistent calls from every vendor and shop-owner to come and buy.
On leaving the truli it was still a little early for dinner, so we stopped at a local bar just above the old town for a drink while we pondered which restaurant to try. Our drinks were accompanied by a bowl of olives and another bowl of bready snacks called taralli. We found this was typical of the region – it meets with our approval. We chose a restaurant that was on the way back to the hotel. A nice dinner, but clearly aimed at tourists. The first pasta listed was Spaghetti Bolognese. Wrong on two counts: we were several hundred miles from Bologna, and no self-respecting Italian would ever try to make a ragu stick to spaghetti!
Breakfast proved to be a little disappointing, in that there was a huge selection of every possible sweet cake you could imagine but not a lot else. This proved to be absolutely typical of Puglian breakfasts, and we never got used to them.
We chatted to our fellow guests, a large party of American cyclists who were touring Puglia accompanied by a back-up van. They make a habit of doing this in various parts of Europe.
We decided to do a little tour round in the car, to see more of the local area. First up was a very pretty drive though the hills and down to the coast at Torre Canne. This was a typical Puglia seaside resort. Pretty, but largely deserted because of the weather and with the beach un-swept since the winter.
We then took the coast road up to Monopoli. This was listed in our guide books as worth seeing, and indeed it was. We’d hoped the market would be on, but it was wasn’t. However, the town itself proved to be very quaint, with a castle, spectacular church and a couple of nice harbours. Back at the car we popped into a nearby tiny café, which gave us a warm welcome and the usual excellent espressi before we headed out again.
We went a bit further up the coast to Polignano, another noted beauty spot. Here the streets were really narrow and full of parked cars, to the extent that one right turn needed a three-point to turn to get round the 90 degrees!
Our final call was the Grotto di Castellana. We had a bite of lunch at the Grotto’s restaurant and then bought tickets for an English language tour of the caves. The caves were stunning – well worth the visit. Back at Alberobello we dined at a small local restaurant set in a trulo. They had a four-course meal on special offer which we were unable to resist – or finish!
We were due to stay the night in a Masseria just outside Ostuni. We took a very pretty road across country to Ostuni, stopping to photograph a couple of particularly pretty truli. Entering Ostuni we could see that parking was going to be a problem. We stopped at the first space we saw and were busy trying to work out whether or not we’d have to pay when a man appeared from the adjacent tobacconist, pointed to the space and said “free” – which it was!
Ostuni is known as the White City, for good reason, and we had a lovely wander around. We stopped at a café at the edge of the small central park for lunch, and then made our way back to the car and thence to the Masseria Il Frantoio.
The Masseria was centred on a lovely courtyard, in which our hostess sat us while she fetched cocktails and some of the farm’s own olives. The latter were simply the nicest olives we had ever tasted. We then had a nice wander round the olive groves that surround the farm, before being given a short tour of the little olive museum in the cellar underneath the main house. We came away with a jar of olives and a bottle of olive oil to take home.
Dinner was a set meal, very tasty and with different types of olive oil complementing each course.
Off we set for Lecce, one of the most noted towns in Puglia. We decided to go straight there, find our hotel and then have a wander round the town in the afternoon. Ha!
Lecce turned out to be a mass of very narrow (some barely a car’s-width) one-way streets, a couple of which our sat-nav had as being in the wrong direction. Eventually we gave up trying to drive to the hotel, parked in a nearby tiny piazza and used the Zumo to find our way to the hotel on foot. There we were met by the most helpful receptionist, fluent in English, who detailed a porter to walk back with us to our car and drive it (by the most circuitous of routes) back the hotel.
With almost no on-street parking available, when we were offered overnight valet parking in the hotel’s nearby garage, albeit at €15 a night, we gulped and took it. As an aside, after our day out the following day it was so nice to drive up to the front entrance of the hotel, leave our car in the middle of the street and simply hand our keys to the porter. We just wish we could afford to make it a habit!
We duly spent the afternoon wandering around the town, which proved to be a bit of a disappointment. Its main claim to fame is its variety of churches, in which we had little interest, and the shops were all shut until (very) late afternoon. The day improved when we found a lovely café- come- ice-cream parlour, which we made the most of. We did a bit of shopping, wandered through the small park and eventually ended up back at our hotel.
We couldn’t be bothered to go out to eat so we sampled the hotel’s own restaurant instead. It was very expensive, but we did discover how to make it a little cheaper and at the same time keep Pat, a vegetarian, a little happier. Almost universally the Puglian meals follow the pattern we’d encountered in Alberobello of four courses – Antipasto, Prima, Seconda (main) and Dolci (dessert). The first three tend to cost roughly the same and are roughly of equal size, but you are not required to have all of them. So for the rest of our trip I tended to skip the Prima (largely vegetable dishes), and Pat the Seconda (largely meat dishes). The food alone would bring us both back to Puglia, and it’s not often we can say that.
Sharing the restaurant was another large group of Americans – not cyclists this time but a wedding party. One of them was to be married in the cathedral next day.
Dramatics over breakfast when it was discovered that the bridal veil had been lost! It had cost $1500, specially designed to go with the dress, and no doubt law suits would follow.
The weather was looking good, so we could follow the nice trip out we had planned. First up was La Cutura gardens. These were fabulous, particularly the huge collection of cacti and other succulents.
Then it was back in the car and a short hop over to the coast, to Otranto. Here had a nice walk along the pretty sea-front before detouring to a café for some lunch out on the small terrace.
We’d heard from some of the Americans how pretty the road down the coast was from here to the southern tip of the peninsula, so our afternoon was spent following it. It was indeed very pretty. We had to pause in Porto Badisco to take a couple of photographs, and again for a longer stop by the Canalone del Ciolo where we walked below the bridge to take more photos, then over the bridge to the café for a beer.
Continuing down the coast we rounded the point at Santa Maria di Leuca, where the Adriatic and Ionian seas meet and mingle. That was journey’s end, so after a brief stop we headed back to Lecce.
We asked our friendly hotel receptionist where she recommended we dine, and ended up at a lovely little restaurant whose name we can’t remember. The food, mostly local specialities, and wine were excellent, and we were glad it was not too far back to the hotel.
This was to be our longest drive of the trip, though still not very far – over to the Ionian Sea and up via the coast to Matera.
We headed straight for Gallipoli (the other one), where we parked up and, after photographing the local fishermen selling the catch off their boats
had a nice stroll all the way round the walls of the old town
before heading into its centre. A coffee and a quick tour of the shops and we were back on the road.
As it was such a nice day we thought we should pay an overdue visit to a beach, so headed for Porto Cesareo.
The beach was lovely, the sun was shining, there was a beach café in just the right spot for lunch, and we’ve become quite practiced at sitting outside admiring pretty scenery over nice food and drink. All very pleasant at this time of year but we could picture from the number of umbrella stands exactly how crowded it would be at the height of summer.
Then we were off to Matera, via Taranto and a drive across the little bridge by its Castello. Matera was to prove challenging!
Colin had carefully located our hotel, and what appeared to be the nearest street parking, on the satnav, and had plotted a route there. The route, however, took us down narrower and narrower streets until we came to a barricade beyond which the street was closed off. It took us quite a few minutes to do a 10-point turn, after which we retraced our route. We circled a bit more but were unable to get anywhere near where we wanted to be, so in the end we parked near the edge of the town and used the satnav to walk to our hotel. Even that proved difficult, but we eventually made it.
The hotel receptionist marked out on a street map the only way to get from where we’d parked to free parking not far from the hotel, so we collected the car, followed the tortuous route through the most unlikely streets and amazing turns, and parked up with a vow not to move the car again until it was time to leave. Then we settled in our room.
What a room! Matera is famous for the houses carved out of caves, and that’s exactly what our room was. We also had a nice shared patio with a view over the old town.
We decided we’d have dinner in our hotel’s restaurant, which was outside, down some steps, along a bit and up a lot more steps.
We were greeted by a couple of charming waiters, anxious to practice their English. The other guests were another party of American cyclists who had arrived a day or two early to have a look at Matera before starting their cycle trip. The Americans really seem to have discovered Puglia.
The couple in the room next to ours had recommended a guided tour of the town, which our receptionist was happy to arrange. This was fascinating, as our guide (young, swarthy, male – how does Pat do it?) was a local and full of local knowledge.
Lunch was focaccia purchased from a small baker. We then took advantage of the continuing lack of rain showers to have our own wander round town, to include a few shops of course.
For dinner we walked a short way uphill to a recommended restaurant. It was a fitting meal for our last night in Italy. The atmosphere was friendly and the food and drink excellent. We actually spent most of the evening speaking French, as our host spoke it fluently, it was the native language of the couple at the next table and we find it easier than Italian.
Our last day, and with little to report. A nice breakfast on the restaurant’s terrace
was followed by an uneventful drive back to Bari airport and an equally uneventful couple of flights to Gatwick and then Newcastle.
Overall we had had a really good holiday. The weather was disappointing, but the scenery, the towns and the people more than made up for it. We’d happily go back.
Having quickly polished off the jar of olives we’d brought home, we contacted the Masseria Il Frantoio and were delighted to find that they did orders overseas by post. To lower the unit shipping costs we ordered eight huge jars of olives. These are disappearing rapidly as well!
More photos from our trip are here.