By Dom Nozzi
Our plans originally point us to western Tuscany for our 2019 Italy trip, but I serendipitously learn on the Internet about the Puglia region in Italy. Having not heard of Puglia previously, I am stunned by the charming, romantic photos of the towns in that region. Our plans quickly change.
We depart Denver at 5:30 am on a Monday. We revel in a fantastic view of the snow-peaked Italian Alps outside our plane window. They are golden in the morning sun. We arrive in Bari, Italy about mid-day on Tuesday.
With four to five hours of time to burn in Rome before our train departs for Bari, we opt to have fun and shoot selfies in Ancient Rome. Trevi Fountains, the Pantheon, Piazza Navona (the best piazza in all of Rome), Campe di Fiori. While strolling, we buy delicious Sangiovese vino, prosciutto, and three cheeses for the train to Bari.
Our airbnb in Bari is embedded in a neighborhood with astonishing medieval charm. For dinner that night in Bari, we visit La Locanda di Frederico Ristorante, where we enjoy very rustic bread, authentic and big flavor olive oil. For the first time in my life, I try horsemeat (“Brascioladi Savallo al Ragu con Pezzetti”). In a red sauce. Stringy. Tastes just like chicken…
Two of the more interesting things I learned about Bari is that it was first settled in about the 7th Century BC. It was also the only European city in World War II that suffered from chemical warfare.
We enjoy a day of enjoyable bicycling in the ancient quarter of Trani (first settled in about the 9th Century) and Bisceglie (inhabited since prehistoric times). We would have loved to spend more time exploring the fantastically narrow and shiny surface cobblestone streets in Trani and Bisceglie, but we need to rush to catch our train (trenitalia) back to Bari. Unfortunately, we do not rush fast enough (the ticket machine refused to accept Maggie’s credit cards), so we miss the train. Fortunately, the trains are frequent enough that we do not need to wait long.
Back in Bari, we find ourselves at Opus Pistorum, a bohemian, quirky, incense-burning wine bar. It is here that we first learn that Puglia produces an enormous amount of wine. We see it sold everywhere. It is reliably delicious.
After the wine bar, we opt for La Tana Del Polpo (octopus) Ristorante for dinner. La Octopus is so world-renowned that reservations must be made days in advance. Since we did not wish to miss it, we opt to be seated at a table in a tiny side room that serves as a supply room and credit card cashing place for the wait staff. It was like being in a broom closet, but the ristorante is so divine that we thoroughly enjoy our “broom closet” experience. Don’t forget to bring your dustpan to La Octopus when you visit Bari! And yes, there is a giant polpo hanging from the ceiling…The place is lively and impressive. The homemade black ink spaghetti with seafood is out of this world, as is the homemade spaghetti with red sauce and a huge fresh fish in the middle of it (Puglia is also a very big producer of seafoods). We top off the meal with a large carafe of a yummy house rosso vino (for 4 euros!).
The next day is a fiasco. I forget my backpack on the train (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!). This huge blunder ruins our day. I am infuriated with myself. What a disaster. But we still find a few snippets of joy. The ancient quarter of Putignano is lovely, the tiny, and the gnome-like “trilli” homes in Alberobello (“beautiful tree”) are very cute.
Our dinner at Paglionico ristorante to end the day is scrumptious. Highly authentic and noticeably local: no menu, very fresh seafood served with homemade pasta, excellent antipasta, and wine served with a ceramic pitcher poured into tumblers rather than wine glasses simply oozed authentic and homey. I have a HUGE fresh octopus as part of my meal.
Maggie was absolutely heroic and went way beyond the call of duty when I realized I forgot my backpack. She completely took charge while I was so stunned and enraged at myself for forgetting the pack that I did almost nothing to help recover it. If it were me, I would have just written off the pack as a loss. What are the chances of recovering a pack on a departed train? Even in the US the chances are nearly zero. But here we also have to contend with the fact that we had a HUGE language barrier. Maggie engages in dizzying four-way cell phone conversations with a train rep, a local policeman who speaks not a word of English, and our hotel proprietor. After a few hours of extremely difficult effort, I miraculously get my pack back.
But it means our day of planned bicycling in the beautiful Puglia landscape is severely truncated. In any event, I am enormously appreciative of how much Maggie did to recover my pack. She is probably the world’s best problem solver. I cannot begin to tell her how grateful I am for her sacrifices to do everything she could to help. I am SO FORTUNATE to be with her!
The next day, after we enjoy a walk in Bari, we train to our next base city: Ostuni. Ostuni is known as the “white city,” as nearly every surface in the city is painted white. The city has been inhabited since the Stone Age.
Here are the photos I shot while in Ostuni.
For dinner, our choice is a ristorante that is so famous – so outrageously good for food and ambiance – that it is perhaps by itself a place that makes Ostuni great. Osteria Tempo del Peso Ristorante. DO NOT MISS THIS PLACE WHEN YOU VISIT PUGLIA!! The ambiance is stunning. The ristorante is inside a cave with ceilings and walls of stone and stone blocks. My meal – slow-cooked ribs – are easily the best ribs I have ever eaten. As is the Primitivo house rosso vino we have. This wine is so good that I immediately realize that Primitivo is now my favorite wine grape. It is that good. This turns out to make sense. I have always thoroughly enjoyed Old Vine Zinfandel. Genetically, the Zinfandel and Primitivo grapes are extremely similar—it took some DNA fingerprinting to figure it out—but Primitivo and Zinfandel are actually both clones of a Croatian grape called Crljenak.
The next morning, we walk to the adjacent “new town” section of Ostuni to enjoy the very lively, festive Saturday outdoor vegetable, meat, and fruit market. Here, there are countless stalls of food. At several, very loud hawkers are shouting for customers to sample their wares.
After the market, we somehow miss TWO van runs to the train station (oddly, the Ostuni train stazione is not within walking distance of town, which makes it highly inconvenient for those without a car). We therefore get a very late start to Polignano a Mare and Monopoli.
We arrive in Polignano a Mare, and it is spectacular as advertised. The coastline is incredibly picturesque, particularly the famous cove one finds near the porta to Old Towne. After going down to the beach in the cove, we stroll Old Towne (first settled in prehistoric times), where we find the streets to be delightfully charming and romantic. Even more so for our stroll in Monopoli Old Towne (first settled in 500 BC).
Here are the photos I shot while in Polignano a Mare and Monopoli.
As an aside, one of the statements that is regularly seen on shop and ristorante signs is something we have not seen elsewhere in Italy, or in Europe for that matter. A great many places will seek to lure you to be a customer by assuring you that their food or vino or product is “tipica” (or “typical”). The Puglianese seem to realize that a great many tourists are seeking AUTHENTICITY. They want to sample what is common (or “typical”) for the region. Not something that can be found anywhere.
The next day was a “T” day! Today we Trek Thru The Traffic and The Trullis via our Twizy To Tre Towns! (Cisternino, Locorotondo, Martina Franca). A “trilli” is a very cute, ancient little round stone hut that is found throughout the Alberobello region of Italy. Gnomes or elves or Hansel and Gretle apparently live in them. A “Twizy” is a tiny little rentable electric car. So tiny that the passenger must sit directly behind the driver. This compact car is about a quarter of the size of a standard American car.
We have a lot of fun zipping through small medieval Italian towns and the Puglia countryside with the very adorable ForPlay “Twizy” rental electric car, and it is so notably cute that everyone we passed stopped in their tracks to look at it. So much fun that it is no coincidence that the company name is “ForPlay.” We originally planned to rent electric bikes to visit three towns in the countryside, but then learned that the bikes would cost TWICE AS MUCH as the Twizy! Also, Maggie went on an obsessed mission to drive the Twizy after seeing it parked around Ostuni.
Locorotondo has a population of about 14,000. The city is known for its wines and for its circular structure which is now a historical center, from which derives its name, which means “Round place.”
Here are the photos I shot while in Alberobello, Cisternino, Locorotondo, and Martina Franca.
Today we will rent it again and cruise along the dunes and beaches of the Adriatic Sea near Ostuni.
One amazing thing about the easy-to-drive Twizy is that it is very narrow (one person wide, so that the passenger must sit behind the driver). That means the Twizy can squeeze through the tightest spaces — like medieval Italian cobblestone streets (see photo below). A noticeable delight compared to driving the typical space-hogging American car.
By the way, Italian drivers have no patience for slow pokes. I typically would drive at 75 kph on these Puglia country roads with a 50 kph speed limit, and pretty much every driver passed me as if I was standing still.
We arrive in Lecce and tour Old Towne by bike. I cannot stop taking photos. The Baroque architecture is overwhelmingly richly detailed. A spectacular place to bicycle or walk. Because of the rich Baroque architectural monuments found in the city, Lecce is commonly nicknamed “The Florence of the South.” The city was settled at least as far back as the 3rd century BC.
Here are the photos I shot while in Lecce.
Our first dinner in Lecce is at Tormaresca Ristorante. The meal is a wonderful 3-course meal paired with 3 wines made by our Tormaresca ristorante here in Lecce. Homemade pastas, ricotta, fresh cheeses, anchovies, fresh greens. Our BnB is literally next door to the ristorante.
I have never eaten or drank so well over the course of our several days so far on this trip as on any European trip I’ve ever gone on.
Our plan to daytrip by train to Francavilla Fontana and Taranto is, to some extent, a disappointment. Francavilla has had far too much of its medieval architecture lost and replaced by utterly unlovable mid-century modernism. The Internet reviews of Taranto are so hideously awful that we decide it is not even worth a visit, so we backtrack by train back to where we came from. Instead, we visit Mesagne and Brindisi. Both towns have medieval quarters that are reasonably pleasant but not in the “wow” category.
Brindisi was an Ancient Greek settlement predating the Roman expansion.
Brindisi played a role in the slave wars of the Roman Empire. Spartacus, the slave who led the slave army, had intended to march his army out of Italy and into Gaul (now Belgium, Switzerland and France) or maybe even to Hispania to join the rebellion of Quintus Sertorius. But he changed his mind and turned back south, under pressure from his followers, for they wanted more plunder. Although it is not known for certain why they turned back when they were on the brink of escaping into Gaul, it is regarded as their greatest mistake. Perhaps their many victories made them overconfident, or perhaps they believed that they would escape to Sicily as planned, and could plunder more in the meantime. There are theories that some of the non-fighting followers (some 10,000 or so) did, in fact, cross the Alps and return to their homelands. The rest marched back south, and defeated two more legions under Marcus Licinius Crassus, who at that time was the wealthiest man in Rome. At the end of 72 BC, Spartacus was encamped in Reggio Calabria, near the Strait of Messina (the “toe of the Italian boot”). Spartacus’ deal with Cilician pirates to get them to Sicily fell through. In the beginning of 71 BC, eight legions of Crassus isolated Spartacus’s army in Calabria. With the assassination of Quintus Sertorius, the Roman Senate also recalled Pompey from Hispania; and Lucullus from northern Anatolia where he was campaigning against Rome’s most obstinate enemy Mithridates VI of Pontus. Spartacus managed to break through Crassus’s lines, and escaped towards Brindisi, but Crassus’s forces intercepted them in Lucania, and the slaves were routed in a subsequent battle at the river Silarus. After the battle, legionaries found and rescued 3,000 unharmed Roman prisoners in their camp. 6,600 of Spartacus’s followers were crucified along the via Appia (or the Appian Way) from Brindisi to Rome. Crassus never gave orders for the bodies to be taken down, thus travelers were forced to see the bodies for years, perhaps decades, after the final battle.
In the 1960 blockbuster movie Spartacus, starring Kirk Douglas, the slave army attempted to escape Italy and return to their homelands via the sea, and Brindisi was their chosen port of escape. Spartacus arrives in Brindisi with the fifty million sesterces to be delivered to Tigrane Levantino, leader of the Cilician pirate naval army that ruled the sea at the time. However, when Levantino reaches the slave camp at Brindisi, he claims that Crassus has paid the pirates more than Spartacus has offered. The higher Crassus offer convinces the pirates to abandon their earlier agreement to bring ships to Brindisi to allow the slave army to escape.
Here are the photos I shot while in Francavilla Fontana, Mesagna, and Brindisi.
The next day finds us taking two very slow trains from Lecce to Otranto (also known as “OH! Tranto). The trains are so slow, I call them “snail” trains. They are the opposite of the bullet trains found in Italy.
Part of the history of Otranto is grim. In 1480, Mehmet the Conqueror sent an Ottoman fleet to invade Rome under the command of Gedik Ahmed Pasha. This force reached the shores of Apulia on 28 July 1480 and the city was captured in two weeks on 11 August 1480. Some 800 citizens, known as the “Martyrs of Otranto,” were beheaded after refusing to convert to Islam.
Nevertheless, despite our slowness, our snail speed gives us time to better enjoy the pleasant, interesting views one finds along the way in the rural, southern Italian countryside.
Otranto turns out to be a cute little place. In this city we are at the eastern most point of Italy. Otranto has an adorable little medieval old towne and a large castelle. We are on the waterfront of the Adriatic Sea. The water is crystal clear.
Here are the photos I shot while in Otranto.
We also learn, during our travels in Puglia, that Puglia is a place where a little tubular round cookie known as a “tarralini” is found in pretty much every stop and ristorante.
Our last dinner in Lecce is at “00” Ristorante. Very tasty eggplant paragiana and sausage in a very friendly ambiance.
We train to Bari from Lecce. We train from Bari Centrale to Bari airport. We bus 1.5 hours from the airport to the UNESCO heritage site of Matera, Italy – home to the sassi cave dwellings.
It is the final destination for our Italy trip. Matera is extraordinary. Every little cobblestone street and medieval building is divine. The views are breathtaking. Maggie and I would call this one of the most important cities to visit in Italy. Our bnb is amazing and the location puts our front door across the piazza from the duomo. Our view of the ancient town from our balcony must be seen to be believed!
A worthy conclusion to an unforgettable trip.
For dinner, we dine at the highly recommended La Lopa Ristorante. We enjoy superbly delicious homemade fettucine with sausage and Italian mushrooms, pumpkin soup, and pumpkin parmigiana. The cave ambiance is, of course, spectacular. A very popular place that filled up quickly after we arrived. We probably set Italy records by arriving at the ristorante at the unheard of early time — 7:45 pm — and leaving at the unheard of “brief” length of stay — “only” 90 min.
Thought to be one of the world’s oldest towns, Matera dates back as far as the Paleolithic times. There is evidence that people were living here as early as the year 7000 BC. Fodor’s notes that Matera is the only place in the world where people can boast to be still living in the same houses of their ancestors of 9,000 years ago.
In the 1950s, the government of Italy forcefully relocated most of the population of the Sassi to areas of the developing modern city. Beset by extreme poverty and riddled with malaria, the unhealthy living conditions were considered inhuman and an affront to the modern new Italian Republic of Alcide De Gasperi. However, people continued to live in the Sassi.
On Saturday, we walk the extraordinary medieval Old Towne Matera. We enter a number of homes and churches that are large holes dug into the limestone rock within the city walls. Very damp and cool inside. We stroll quite a large number of highly photogenic, charming cobblestone stairways.
For dinner, at the very local and authentic Taverna La Focagna, we enjoy a spectacularly delicious cutting board of veggies, Bufala cheese, and olive oil, as well as homemade pasta with sausage and sun-dried tomatoes and mushrooms. Their Primitivo house vino is superb!
The stroll to and from the ristorante was heart-warming, as we were delighted to find ourselves embedded in the wonderful Italian tradition of a “passeggiata,” where huge numbers of citizens in the community walk together along city streets. Such a thing gives me hope for the future of humanity. Tragically, Americans are a nation of loners that utterly lack such an experience.
The next morning, we check out the four wall tiles on a street next to the Duomo showing representations of rebellious citizens attacking and killing their ruler, a count who they had grown to despise. We then opt for a guided walking tour, which turns out to be impressively informative and enjoyable. The tour ends with a Primitivo tasting at a town shop. We then ride a van to Belvedere on the other side of the canyon next to Matera, where Mel Gibson had filmed the crucifixion scene in his The Passion of Christ movie. We hike along rocky cliffs and sandy paths to inspect several cave dwellings formerly lived in by monks.
That night, we dine at La Gattabuia Ristorante. We eat their utterly superb Beef Tartare, their supremely delicious homemade pastas, and their Aglianico wine – which is a big, bold, hearty red wine said to be like Nebbiolo. Again, on the way to our ristorante, we find ourselves with the wonderful community passeggiata!
After dinner, my entire body was smiling.
Here are the photos I shot while in Matera.
For our two weeks, we are very fortunate to enjoy sunny weather in the 60s. More challenging is the ristorante hours, as on several occasions, we learn that our target ristorante is closed – particularly on Sundays, when hours tend to be very limited or the place is simply closed that day.
In sum, do not miss Puglia in your travels to Italy. Much splendor and joy are to be found there.