The early morning breakfast was quiet. We sat on the terrace restaurant of the hotel enjoying the view of the Adriatic Sea and Bari spread out below us. A gentle sea breeze fluttered our white tablecloth in the air.
We had a plan to visit the five small towns of Puglia. I had prepared a map on Google Maps to chart out the route and prepared a table of distances a few days earlier. Finally, the time had come to explore. But first a Puglia style breakfast. The day begins with fresh mozzarella and Campagna tomatoes in this part of the world. This area is famous for focaccia made with local extra virgin olive oil. Focaccia is also served for a Puglia style breakfast.
Puglia is on the southern coast of Italy sandwiched between the Adriatic and Ionian Seas. The region is called the heel of the boot of Italy. Since the region borders the sea, you are hardly ever too far from the shoreline. Some of the towns are in the hills and valleys of Itria. The best season to visit Puglia is spring or fall (autumn). It gets really hot in July and August. We were there in mid-September. The high temperature varies between 68 and 80F (20-27C) and the low temperature varies between 53.6 / 66.2F (12-19C). It was less crowded as the peak of the summer season was over. Since it was the beginning of the off-season, prices were not as high as you would expect during the high season.
While doing my research, I had come across many names of villages and towns one should not miss when visiting Puglia. I wish we had more time to cover all of them, but I had to cut it down to a manageable list for the three days that we were going to be in the area. We still had to visit the Amalfi coast, Naples, Pompeii, and Mount Vesuvius during our trip to Italy.
We began our exploration moving away from the sea to the town of Alberobello. We were hoping to reach there early to avoid the crowds and hot midday sun. We miscalculated on both counts. The mid-morning sun was already hot and the town was busy with tourists sporting T-shirts from the Greek Islands. We had seen 2-3 cruise ships lined up in Bari harbor very early that morning. A lot of the cruise ship tourists take day trips of the region before they move onto the next port of call in the early evening. The drive from Bari took us through vineyards and olive orchards. It was a single lane highway with orchards and vineyards lined up on both sides. Bordering the orchards were cactus-like bushes. We had noticed these bushes, unfamiliar to us, growing the day before also. These succulent-like plants were sporting red fruits on the edge of their leaves. We kept wondering what it was. It turns out they were Barbary figs or cactus figs.
It took us 51 minutes to reach Alberobello from Bari. Alberobello is famous for the cone-shaped trulli homes. They are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The trulli have plastered white round walls and are topped with a grey stone roof. There are about 1,500 such trulli. On this hot day, they reflected sunlight from their white walls and made everything look very bright. We walked around looking at the charming huts and trying to find a street san tourists. Cars are not allowed on these narrow cobblestoned streets. It’s a long hike from the streets below where the cars are allowed to park. The pretty little streets climb up or vine around the trulli. We climbed on a terrace observation point on the top of a trullo (singular form of trulli) to get a bird’s eye view of this beautiful town. Most of the trulli have been converted into souvenirs shops or boutiques. On the north side there are some homes where people still live. We came across some private property signs. Some of them are used as Airbnbs. I was a little disappointed that not a lot of people live there. But once we actually went into some of them, we wondered how anyone could have lived in these huts! The story is that the trulli were built to avoid property taxes by local peasants to use as a loophole in the tax laws.
Our next stop was the town of Locorotondo. It’s about a 10-minute drive from Alberobello. It’s known as the most beautiful village in Italy. The old village is set atop a hill. Rotondo means round in Italian. The village is circular in shape. The white painted houses straddle narrow streets and alleys. We reached there just after lunch time. The town was so peaceful and quiet. It was the riposo (siesta) hour. It being a hot day there was hardly anyone on the streets. There were a handful of tourists wandering the streets or just sitting under the shade of an umbrella at local restaurants enjoying cool white wine, that Locorotondo is famous for. We picked up a map from the visitors’ center and wandered the streets. We were charmed by the stark contrast of the white homes with colorful boxed flowers on the windows and next to the doors. Most of the dark windows and doors were closed against the hot midday sun. The only place specifically on our agenda was the 19th century gardens Villa Comunale. The views from this vantage point of the valley below were beautiful. Below us was the Itria valley covered in olive orchards, vineyards, and farms dotted with trulli. We picked up slices of pizza from a little joint and sat on a bench under the shade of a tree for a very late lunch. If someone had asked where we ate the best pizza in Italy we would have chorused together “Locorotondo.” I am not sure whether that was because we were famished or because it just was our first pizza in Italy on this trip.
The next stop on our itinerary was Ostuni. Sitting atop a hill, the white painted town of Ostuni is famous for its charming old town and distant views of the valley and Adriatic Sea. Now our path was bringing us closer to the coast. The gate to the old town was some distance from where we had to park. There were tuk tuks or auto rickshaws available to take the tourists up into the old town. The charge for a brief round of the town was at the discretion of the driver. So, we decided to depend on our own two feet. It was a bit of a climb on the cobblestoned streets. The town is enclosed within high walls and you enter through an arched gate. In the 17th century when Puglia was hit by the Plague, the town asked its residents to paint their homes white with limestone dust mixed with water. The belief was that the limestone prevented illnesses as people noticed that the white homes had less illness. Even today the residents are asked to paint their homes white to keep up the tradition and charm of a white town. By the time we reached Ostuni, I was feeling tired due to the heat. All I wanted to do was sit in a place with shade and a view to have a cool drink. We sat at a quiet restaurant enjoying the view of the valley and the shimmering blue water of the Adriatic Sea in the distance. The late afternoon sun was hot. Ostuni was less crowded than one would expect. The white painted houses were connected to each other by stairs and archways. The narrow lanes would disappear from view somewhere in either a dark alleyway, a piazza, or, if you pursue one such lane, it would surprise you with a view of the blue sea in the distance. Ostuni is famous for its Gothic Cathedral and its rose window. One view that I wanted to capture was that of Ostuni from the distance – the white city surrounded by a medieval wall rising from a hilltop into the sky. I wasn’t able to capture it. The narrow busy road leaving the town made it difficult for us to stop to get a proper picture.
We left for Monopoli about 38 minutes from Ostuni in the early evening hour. Monopoli is a port town. Now we were right back to the sea. I think Monopoli was one of my favorites. We collected the map and started walking. We walked the lanes and bylanes. The town was waking up from the siesta hour. We saw people coming out with towels slung on their shoulders heading to the town’s beaches. The doors and the doors to the balconies of homes were open to let the sea breeze in. People had come out of their homes to collect their now sun-dried laundry hanging outside. They were chatting with their neighbors. We came upon a vendor selling Barbary figs from a massive tub full of these fruits. Since we had never tried the fruit we stopped in curiosity to watch. As I mentioned earlier, barbary fig bushes were everywhere. We had even noticed streamers and banners made with Barbary leaves hung in the streets. We were fascinated by it. The vendor offered us a fig. Since we were clueless how to even eat it, he opened one and popped it in his mouth to show us how it’s eaten. I have to admit, neither of us cared for it much. We wandered around the streets with no purpose in mind. We discovered charming homes and viewpoints from where to see the Adriatic Sea. We finally made it to the Port of Monopoli. The port is small, charming, and surrounded by homes and restaurants. The small blue boats of the Monopoli fishermen were neatly anchored in a line. It’s no wonder Monopoli was my favorite.
We had one more coastal town to cover that day. The driving distance between Monopoli and Poliano A Mare was only 15 minutes. We thought we would have enough time to see the town before sunset. But when we reached there it was crowded. The famous bridge was blocked off. It was teaming with tour buses. We decided to postpone our exploration till the next day as it was going to be on our way. We made our way back to Bari and our hotel.
(Just a little note about parking. We had been advised not to rent a bigger car because of the parking issues. We had somehow ended up with a small SUV even after booking a compact sedan. To be honest even with a bigger car we had no issue finding parking. There were metered parking lots everywhere. Parking was cheap. It cost just one Euro per hour. If there was a problem, then it was the language. The first time we used the meter we couldn’t understand why the meter was rejecting the coin. A nearby shop owner came out to help us and explained that you have to enter the license plate number. After that it was a breeze).