Puglia (or Apulia), the southern Italian province referred to as “the heel of the boot” first entered my consciousness more than ten years ago when a friend from San Francisco up and moved there on the initial leg of his retirement.
In an email now deep in the archives, Will wrote: “Puglia is excellent. And by the way, not too expensive, my friend […] I have a very spacious apartment in a nice section […] excellent weather and the food almost never disappoints.”
I’ve since lost touch with my friend; perhaps Puglia was so good that it drew him in. But before it did, he planted a seed.
As our 15th wedding anniversary approached earlier this year, Audrey and I considered a handful of regions in Italy in which to celebrate. While we could have returned to Tuscany, the original scene of the crime, we aimed to explore somewhere new to us. Puglia came up often, reigniting the embers of my friend’s correspondence.
Along with the neighboring province of Basilicata, Puglia would serve as the setting of a road trip to celebrate the occasion. Equipped with a rental car reservation for late September to early October and no plans other than a bed and breakfast reservation for our first night in the provincial capital of Bari, we set off with a touch of abandon and two maps – one physical, one digital.
During our Puglia travel research, we were grateful for and overwhelmed by all the recommendations we received. Particularly thanks to our Puglian friends Franca and Gianni, there was plenty to sift through. We allowed the chance twists and turns of the road — “let’s pull over here…maybe we should stop here for the night” — to serve as our sorting mechanism.
If you’ve never been to Puglia, maybe the following photos, experiences and stories can draw an image in your mind’s eye — and help you plan a trip of your own.
How to use this experiential travel guide to Puglia
The following experiences are in chronological order. If you have 7-10 days, you can conservatively accomplish something similar, or pare back a few destinations to make the trip more leisurely and manageable. We include suggestions of notable restaurants and accommodation in Puglia to help round out your itinerary.
We will also publish a companion article devoted solely to Puglian food, a crucial dimension to any Italian experience and a unique one given the province’s history and location. Similarly, we will also cover Italy’s Basilicata region in a separate piece.
1. Find your way home by walking the medieval old town walls of Bari.
We get lost. It’s a fact.
On our first night in Bari, after a long four-course meal accompanied by a carafe of Puglian wine, we got turned around on our way home and stumbled upon a ramp that took us atop the medieval stone walls surrounding the old town. It may not have been the most direct way home that night, but it proved a beautiful and romantic diversion. The medieval old town glowed on one side of us while the Adriatic Sea lapped on the other.
“Now, why haven’t we heard more about Bari before?” Charming, alive, good food. Spend a night or two in Bari, or as we did bookend your trip with a visit there.
Where to eat: Vini e Cucina, via Vallisa 23, Bari. What to eat: The standard offering, scribbled on a chalkboard, is a four-course meal focusing on seafood. The grilled pulpo (octopus) was tender and perfectly cooked. For an introduction to Puglian food, this is a good place to start.
2. Rise early and jog the coast along the port of Bari.
Run, jog, walk. Whatever method you choose to carry yourself, make an effort to get up early and trace the coast around Porto Vecchio. This will prove essential to your health, particularly if you’ve overdone it as we had with too many courses the night before. You’ll also find fishermen stocking the seafood market from their boats, fresh from the morning’s catch. A few others choose to sell direct on the stones next to the promenade.
3. Take a photo of laundry hanging in every old town. Begin with Bari.
Everyone around the world does laundry. (Don’t they?)
In Italy, laundry unfurls like pastel banners in the breeze of medieval alleys and it dries in the warmth of Mediterranean light. Those flags of everyday life are accompanied by voices of local families. The curtain is pulled back on Italian life and the backdrop feels cinematic. This is culture of the unofficial sort, beauty and poetry embedded in a task many of us consider mundane.
4. Meet the Adriatic Sea at Polignano a Mare.
We confess to not going into the water here. (Later we did). However, we enjoyed watching others dodge the chop and waves and take in the fading warmth of the season by sunbathing on the rocky beach of the cove at Polignano. It’s as if they said, “I know winter is coming, but I won’t allow it. Not yet.”
This is one of three distinct views to catch in Polignano a Mare. The two others are from the opposing cliffs above.
Where to eat in Polignano: Osteria dei Mulini, via Mulini 2, Polignano a Mare. Located just inside the old town walls. What to eat: Orecchiette di grano arso or “burnt” flour orecchiette with tomatoes, bread crumbs, anchovies + purè di fave e cicoria or pureed fava beans topped with sautéed chicory.
5. Watch fishermen knot giant fishing nets in the port town of Monopoli.
Although I understand that commercial fishing now dominates the world’s waterways, including in the Roman-Venetian living history museum that is Monopoli, it’s heartening to see independent fishermen still play a role. Amidst the tiny fishing boats along the old port, watch veteran fisherman mind the knots and fix the holes in their fishing nets in preparation for tomorrow’s catch.
6. Enjoy the back streets of Monopoli during la pausa.
La pausa (“the pause”) is the Italian institution version of siesta and nap time. After the “storm before the calm” as people leave work, a stretch of stillness descends on Italian towns from noon until 4:00 PM. We found ourselves roaming the streets of Monopoli just as the streets emptied for lunch; the remarkable old town and coastal promenades were ours almost entirely.
Road trip note: Public parking is often free and more easily found during the pause since everyone has gone home for lunch. It’s an excellent time to take advantage and find a place to eat.
7. Stumble upon a 2nd century Roman amphitheater at night in Lecce.
Lecce is most known for its Baroque architecture, something opulent and grand and looking as if it has just popped out of a 3-dimensional fairy tale book. This is especially true at night when buildings are lit and details laid bare.
The huge 2nd century Roman amphitheater on the edge of town reminded us of the depth of history and the many layers of civilizations buried just under our feet in this part of the world.
Where to eat in Lecce: Osteria Da Angiulino, Via Principi di Savoia, 24, Lecce. Local specialties, friendly owners (a few words of Italian does wonders), and reasonably priced. Be sure to call ahead and make a reservation as there is a line out the door before this popular place even opens. What to eat: We went for the traditional orecchiette con sugo alla ricotta forte — orecchiette in tomato sauce blended with strong, local ricotta cheese. Homemade, hearty and inexpensive.
8. Steal a kiss on the beach at San Foca.
Whether or not it happens to be your 15th wedding anniversary, it’s always a good idea pull the car over along the coast, walk barefoot in the sand together, breathe in the fresh sea air as you explore, and steal a kiss.
9. Walk the cliffs at Roca Vecchia and Grotta della Poesie.
Recent archaeological finds date the ancient site of Roca Vecchia and Grotta della Poesie as far back as to the Bronze Age. Now the area serves as a popular swimming hole. The ancients apparently knew where to party. Modern Italians, too.
Go to the cliff side and watch, if you can stand it, as your fearless-of-heights wife tests your nerves by going right up to the cliff’s edge for a better view of what’s below. (Spoiler alert: A 200-foot drop and the sea.)
10. Stalk stray cats through Italy’s easternmost city, Otranto.
During Roman times, Otranto served as an important port for all trade headed east. Nowadays, it’s known more for wide beaches and a picturesque old town overlooking the Adriatic Sea. Unfortunately, the 11th century cathedral and its renowned mosaics were closed during our visit because of the pause. We opted instead to follow a group of stray cats who happily served as our impromptu guides.
Where to eat in Otranto: La Pignata, Via Rondachi 12, Otranto. One of the most delightful meals of our trip, including a discovery that Primitivo Rose (yes, that’s like white zinfandel) is an appropriate match for local seafood and pasta dishes. What to eat: The highlights of this meal were a starter of cozze gratinate (gratinated mussels) and Vellutata di Ceci e Fagioli con Pomodori Secchi e Gamberetti (mashed chickpeas and beans with sundried tomatoes and prawns).
11. Soak up the coastal route south from Otranto to the tippy tip of Italy’s heel, Santa Maria di Leuca.
In all our research prior to our trip, why hadn’t anyone told us the drive south of Otranto was so beautiful? We almost skipped the coastal route for something more direct. What a missed opportunity that would have been.
If you have a car, do it. Take a little time, pull off the road frequently to satisfy your curiosity, breathe the air, take photos. Be sure to check out the 16th century watchtowers and elaborate, colorful 17th century Moorish palaces like Santa Cesarea Terme along the way.
12. Celebrate your 15th wedding anniversary with a sunset Aperol spritz at Torre Vado.
There seemed no better way to end a beautiful drive along the Puglian coast than with a sunset Aperol spritz at the tip of Italy’s heel. Our trip was meant to celebrate 15 years of marriage. This moment captured us as we were and are, taking stock at an unassuming port-side cafe, sitting in plastic chairs and soaking up a perfect sunset.
Where to sunset Aperol spritz: Albergo Ristorante Pizzeria Al Porticciolo, Torre Vado. Other than the view to the sunset over the sailboats, there’s nothing spectacular about this place. Maybe that’s what made it so special.
13. Stay in a converted palace in old town Gallipoli.
When we pulled into Gallipoli and made a late reservation via the Booking.com app we weren’t expecting to stay in a palace and given a sprawling room whose balcony windows opened onto the ochre-washed light of the old town. It was a welcome surprise upgrade; the owner hadn’t even been aware it was our anniversary.
Where to stay in Gallipoli: Palazzo Flora, Via D'Ospina, 19, Gallipoli. The garden courtyard of the palazzo is terrific. Breakfast was abundant and fresh, one of the nicest along our trip. Rooms range from €50-€82/night depending upon the size of the room…and the number of frescos inside. If Palazzo Flora is full, find another hotel in Gallipoli.
14. Enjoy a plate of mussels and a carafe of sparkling wine at Lido Conchiglie.
Although you go to eat seafood, the experience is more about the atmosphere. Burly fishermen-looking guys serve as waiters and dish out heaping piles of sea urchins, mussels, fish, and other seafood. While the menu is written on paper tablecloths, the best approach is to point and shoot at the piles of fresh catch out front or to someone else’s dish nearby. For lunch, be sur to arrive early so you're sure to get a table.
Where to eat in Lido Conchiglie: La Maruzzella, Via Cristiforo Colombo, Lido Conchiglie (just outside Gallipoli). What to eat: Best was the huge bowl of mussels and clams. The seafood sampler was acceptable, but perhaps a little over-grilled. Sparkling wine from the tap also a nice touch.
15. Turn back the clock and visit Salice Salentino after the pause.
Our initial intent in visiting Salice Salentino was to source some on-the-ground information about wine tasting. Instead, we found a town stuck in time. Salice Salentino is the town that time forgot. Everyone else seemed to forget about it, too — except the old men at the local bar and a handful of people on bicycles crossing a desolate main square.
I appreciate old towns like this because they exist on their own terms — not for the tourist, not always spiffy, yet certainly authentic in an untouched sort of way. Salice Salentino is also of the same name as the Italian DOC wine made from the Negroamaro grape, one of the many wines we’d enjoyed along our trip.
16. Buy wine from a gasoline pump dispenser at Produttori Vini Manduria.
Watch locals line up at the wine pumps with their 5-liter jugs for a few Euros fill-up. If you aren’t in the market for pumped wine, you can also taste wines from a local lineup that includes Manduria Primitivo (the local zinfandel-like grape). If Primitivo is too heavy, hot, or fruitacious for you, try a Primitivo Rosato (rosé) that goes especially well with a mezzo plate or seafood in a light red sauce.
Where to find the wine consortium: Produttori Vini Manduria, via Fabio Massimo 19, Manduria.
17. Admire magical olive groves in red clay soil.
Clay-pan olive groves dot much of the landscape of inland Puglia. I’m sure the chunky clay soil is essential to the character of the tasty olive oil that run rivulets through notable Puglian cuisine.
As I indicated to my sister in a lengthly dozen-email exchange about Puglian food, “Everything is fresh. But — and I've been thinking about this a lot — the magic, persistent ingredient: olive oil. You get a sauce with a couple of pomodorini [cherry tomatoes] and a bunch of olive oil. And it's incredible. It's as if the olive oil is a flavor activator. And the olive oil here is very good.”
18. Admire the trulli, Puglian stone huts, in the Itria Valley.
If the Hobbits had to suddenly take up residence in southern Italy, they’d likely do so in the trulli dotting the countryside of the Itria Valley. Many of these stone hut structures — often dating to the 14th-15th centuries — were originally built to house agricultural workers or as storage buildings.
Why this style of home became so popular is still a bit of a mystery, however. One appealing theory posited: people built trulli so they could easily dismantle them before the tax collector arrived.
How’s that for a clever tax dodge?
19. Make a new friend at a Masseria (Tourism Farm).
In Puglia, a working farm that also serves as a bed and breakfast is called a masseria. (Think of it as Puglia’s version of what Tuscans call an agritourismo). The masseria we stayed at, Masseria Ferri, included not only our very own 450-year old trullo, but also a friendly dog named Tommy who remained by our side for the stay.
We recommend a picnic dinner with a glass of Primitivo wine while watching the sky change color. Kicking back at a masseria is an excellent way to rest the mind at the end of a road trip. Masseria Ferri also makes its own cheese, wine and olive oil. Note: At the time of our stay (off-season, early October 2015), the price for a double was €70/night (including breakfast) for a trullo suite that includes a small kitchen.
Road trip note: We used Masseria Ferri (closest town: Martina Franca) as a base from which to explore various destinations in the Itria Valley. All notable towns are nearby; it's easy to visit several in one day.
20. Go for the garlic…as big as your hand in Alberobello.
The town of Alberobello offers a motherlode of trulli. You’ll find its UNESCO old town made up almost entirely of these traditional Puglian homes. The town's popularity, however, means vast crowds of tourists. So be sure to begin your visit on the northern side of the old town where things are a little less touristy. There, you’ll find families who still live in their 400-500 year old trullo homes.
If you go in early fall, you’ll also find elements of the harvest like walnuts or chestnuts, or as we did, gargantuan garlic heads drying in the open air. When we asked the woman drying it, she told us that it’s sweet garlic and can be sliced and eaten raw in salads.
21. Marvel at small towns with big architecture, like Martina Franca.
Like so many towns in Puglia, Martina Franca was another that made us wonder why we hadn’t heard more of it before.
Architecture in Italy had always been a thing, but the Renaissance re-ordered it and took it up a notch. Martina Franca stands as a fine example of Baroque and Rococo style. Our suggestion: park on the edge of the old town and just get lost in its alleys and plazas. Although we did not eat in Martina Franca, the restaurant menus looked formidable and tempting.
22. Hang with these dudes at the open-air market in Cisternino.
Shop like a local, too. Buy black chick peas, a wheel of cheese (or two), a string of peppers, and some smoked meat. And take a photo of the guys who sell it all to you.
Local outdoor fresh markets are on rotation in the region and appear in a different town each day of the week (e.g., in Cisternino on Mondays, Martina Franca on Wednesdays, etc.), so just ask around at your hotel or nearby tourism office to find out which town is hosting the market for that day. Note: go early in the morning as open-air fresh markets usually wind up around lunchtime.
When you finish shopping, drop your goodies off in the car and explore another beautiful old town.
23. Watch grandmothers as they watch you from behind their beaded doorways in old town Ostuni.
Grandmas in kitchens peering through the beaded door curtains. They peer from upstairs windows, they stand on balconies. Grandmas, Italian grandmas everywhere. Pay attention and you’ll see them as you make your way. They watch, they survey life, and they see you.
It’s one of the life features we loved about Puglia. Old towns were well lived in with grandmothers poking their heads out of doors to say hello, scold their errant dogs, and mind the laundry. Children’s giggles echoed off cobbled pathways and the smell of home cooking slowly permeated the air just before lunch.
Why go to a museum when you can see life as it has been lived, and it is lived today?
24. Take a dip in the Adriatic Sea…even in October.
Even in early October, graced with sun and favorable currents, the Adriatic Sea is worth a dip or wade.
Perhaps we were just plain lucky with the weather, but we found late September/early October a perfect time to explore this region. Plenty of sunshine and warmth, and no crowds.
Along this stretch of coastline south of Bari you'll find divers – some in wet suits, others without — ranging for octopus (pulpo) along the rocky coast. Vegetarians, turn away. The rest of you pulpo-eaters, this is where lunch and dinner have come from. Divers clean the pulpo and strike them against the rocks, so they’re tender by the time they make it to your plate.
25. Chat with a family drying homemade pasta on the streets of Bari.
A friend on Instagram suggested we seek out “the orecchiette ladies,” local women in Bari whose morning ritual consists of making the signature ear-shaped Puglian pasta. On our final morning, just before heading to the airport, we wandered through the old town in search of the ladies. Instead, we were lucky enough to meet Grazia and her daughter Maria. Grazia had just finished making three kilos of hand-made orecchiette for her family and neighbors and was drying it outside her home on a wire rack, around which Audrey and I puzzled about.
Through broken Italian, we had a conversation with Grazia and her daughter and understood how they make the orecchiette and prefer to serve it. The favorite: the traditional, orrechiette con cime di rapa (with turnip greens).
Now, before any more time passes, I owe Grazia and Maria a copy of the photos we took. I must put them in the mail, since they don’t have an email address.
A fitting way to close from Puglia.
Our Puglia and Basilicata Road Trip Itinerary (Map)
If you travel to Puglia, take some of our advice and find a few of your own adventures. Let us know how you get on. And if you come across a guy from San Francisco named Will somewhere on your travels in the province, don’t interrupt him. I suspect he’s still having the time of his life.