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Madonna del Piatto

Puglia Puglia and Matera in 10 Days

This travel note was written in 2005. We have updated it and checked all hotels and restaurants (February 2018).

Puglia is a region in southern Italy, at the "heel" of the boot. Puglia is sometimes called "Apulia". We visited Puglia in the last half of January 2005. The region is very large and we did not manage to see all we wanted, even though we skipped the seaside resorts (e.g. Gargano area) as they would have been deserted in the winter.

On our way back we drove into Basilicata, the region located at the instep of Italy's boot. There we made a stopover in Matera, which is a UNESCO world heritage site because of the extraordinary cave dwellings, called the "Sassi".

The landscape of Puglia is fantastic, very green at that time of the year. Mostly flatland or low rolling hills with literally millions of century old olive trees carpeting the land as far as the eye can see. Properties are fenced by dry stone walls. There is not a stone below the olive trees. It looks like the farmers have been collecting every single fragment of the yellow-red material for centuries to construct a gigantic labyrinth of walls that dissect the landscape in every direction.

The best known areas for a first visit to Puglia are:
  • the Gargano, a spectacular coastal area, in northern Puglia,
  • the Itria river Valley (Valle d'Itria), located inland between Martina Franca and Ostuni, near Alberobello and the border of the Basilicata region,
  • the Cathedrals and Castles trail, including Trani, Barletta, Castel del Monte (north of Bari - Trani and Barletta are on the coast, Catel del Monte is inland),
  • the Salento in the most eastern part of Puglia, with a marvelous coast and the wonderful capital city, Lecce.
The towns we visited are truly ancient, mostly early medieval, with the exception of Baroque Lecce and Martina Franca. The historical cities are very well kept, generally safe, pleasant to walk around and basic services are available everywhere (restaurants, supermarkets, internet cafe's, banks) may be a little less in the small villages of Salento.

The coast line to the north (the Gargano peninsula) and to the south (beyond Lecce down to Otranto and Santa Maria di Leuca) is very attractive. The Valle d'Itria, inland, offers the best rural landscape, dotted by "trulli", cylindrical buildings with conical roofs often adorned with painted symbols.

What to Eat

The food is very good in Puglia. We had one meal per day in simple trattorie (restaurants), where we could have a large home-style dinner for 15 to 20 euro per person.

We often ordered only one portion of the antipasto misto (mixed appetizer), as that was more than enough for two. The classical antipasto misto consisted of grilled, stuffed and/or fried vegetables, some cheese like the famed Burrata, a little seafood salad may be a few slices of local salami or a piece of quiche.

The homemade pasta is lovely. The ear-shaped orecchiette is often fresh and served with tomato sauce or broccoli rabe and garlic (orecchiette con le cime di rapa). Cavatelli is a rounder variant of the orecchiette and they are delicious with seafood or with the local mushrooms, cardoncelli. The omni-present fave e cicoria, a broad bean puree served with blanched chicory, is filling but light at the same time, a healthy alternative to a pasta or meat course.

Lots of grilled meats are available as second course, often accompanied by blanched vegetables (broccoli or chicory tossed in olive oil). We tried also the traditional involtini al sugo, rolls of meat stuffed with cheese and garlic and slowly braised in tomato sauce.

The Itinerary

This was the itinerary we planned for our January 2005 trip. We live in Umbria and drove down to Puglia. This is a good itinerary but it would need more days and better weather than what we had. Even though Puglia has a mild climate, winter days can be very cold because of the strong winds.
  • Day 1, drive from Umbria to Trani in Puglia, with a stopover in Termoli (Abruzzo). 3 nights in Trani.
  • Days 2 - 3, visit Trani. From here one can make excursions to the cathedral cities of Molfetta, Bitonto, Ruvo di Puglia and Castel del Monte, the extraordinary castle built by Frederick II in 1240.
  • Day 4, drive Trani to Lecce. 4 nights in Lecce.
  • Days 5 - 7, visit Lecce and the Salento area (Gallipoli, Santa Maria di Leuca, Otranto and the breathtaking drive along the coast which joins these three towns).
  • Day 8, drive Lecce to Valle d'Itria. 2 nights in Valle d'Itria.
  • Day 9, Alberobello, Martinafranca, Locorotondo, Ostuni, Cisternino.
  • Day 10, drive back to Umbria with a stopover in Matera (Basilicata).


View on Google Maps.
View: https://www.google.com/maps/d/embed?mid=1doEbj95GaofsQIf5xDLpbKp-jc0HO8S9

On this page, I have listed several towns in Puglia. I have given some description and listed some accommodation and restaurants. I have marked with an asterisk the towns which we visited, the hotels we stayed in and the restaurants we ate at.

I have also included some information on places we did not visit. Places where we did not visit but I have contacted the owners are marked with a (V), meaning that the address is verified.

This is by no means comprehensive of the many attractions of the region. Opening hours have not been verified, so they have to be taken as an indication.

Places to see in alphabetical order

*Alberobello
Alberobello is the best known village of the Valle d'Itria because the buildings are mostly trulli, 1500 of them. It is very touristy, dotted with tacky souvenir shops and signs in Japanese. It is worth going to only because the drive through the area is fantastic. Leaving from Cisternino in the morning, we first went to Alberobello through Locorotondo. After visiting the village, we followed signs back to Locorotondo, and turned right following a white sign pointing to Agriturismo Green Park. That's one of the most panoramic and rather deserted roads of the Valle d'Itria. It's narrow and fenced in by stone walls almost all the way but easy to drive. Follow signs to Agriturismo Green Park and as soon as you see them, follow signs for Martina Franca. On the East side of the valley, the road from Ostuni to Locorotondo is also quite spectacular.

alberbello-trulli-6330.jpg

Alberobello

In Alberobello, visit the trullo sovrano (sovereign trullo) at Piazza Sacramento in Alberobello. The 15m (50 ft.) structure, the only true two-story trullo, was built during the 16th century as headquarters for a religious confraternity and became later the private house of a rich family. The trullo sovrano is open daily from 10am to 1pm and 3 to 7pm, charging 1.50 euro per person, which includes an interesting short guided tour.

Accommodations
  • Hotel dei Trulli, Via Cadore 28, accommodations offered in authentic trulli with pool and garden.
  • Hotel Lanzillotta, 31, Piazza Ferdinando IV
  • Trullidea Case Vacanze: www.trullidea.it, self catering accommodations (vacation rentals) in renovated trulli.
Barletta
The first town worth a stop after the Gargano, Barletta has a Romanesque cathedral that is greatly overshadowed by the town's most famous monument, a 5 meter tall Colossus statue cast in the 4th century. A relic of the sack of Constantinople by the Venetians (along with the four bronze horses that now top St. Mark's Basilica), its identity is still a mystery.

Castel del Monte
The extraordinary 13th-century Castel del Monte, is one of the finest existing examples of Swabian architecture. Frederick II's favorite hunting lodge, it is an octagonal stone castle with eight towers and eight trapezoidal rooms on each floor. Stunningly geometric and purely Gothic, it dominates a lonely valley outside of Andria.

Castellana
This is a small town, home to a series of caverns that have been carved out over the centuries by water streaming through the rocky soil. A wide stairway leads you down through a tunnel into the largest of the cavern labyrinth called the Grave. From here, a series of paths winds for over a kilometer through other underground rooms filled with fascinating shapes of stalagmites and stalactites. The journey into the earth ends with the majestic Grotta Bianca.

You can visit the Grotte di Castellana only on guided tours, usually one per hour until early afternoon Contact them for more information. Bring a sweater because the average underground temperature is 59 F (15 C), all year long.

Accommodations
  • (V) Agriturismo Montepaolo, Contrada Montepaolo 2, Conversano, www.montepaolo.it. If the place is really as in the pictures, this is the most attractive looking agriturismo I have seen in the middle-low price range.
Ceglie Messapica
This village is mentioned in several guides and websites only because of this restaurant.

Restaurants
  • Al Fornello da Ricci, Contrada Montevicoli. The Michelin starred restaurant gets conflicting reviews; some enthusiastic, some disappointed. Italian traditional dishes re-visited, as to be expected in this type of place.
*Cisternino
Recently declared one of the most beautiful villages of Italy by the National Association of Italian Municipalities (borghipiubelliditalia.it), Cisternino has a tiny historical center of whitewashed houses. Conveniently located between Ostuni and Locorotondo, the village makes an ideal base to explore the Valle d'Itria.

Accommodations
  • *B&B Masseria Marangiulo, Contrada Marangiulo. Rooms and apartments in beautifully restored trulli. Garden, swimming pool, the best B&B we found during our trip.
Restaurants
  • *Ristorante Pizzeria Da Tonia, Via Locorotondo. A no-frills family run trattoria catering to the locals. We went there three times and were never disappointed. The orecchiette were fresh and homemade, the appetizer abundant and delicious, the meat courses well prepared and of excellent quality. Unsophisticated and highly recommended
  • Macelleria Demola Vincenzo and Arrosteria del Vicoletto, Via Giulio II. This is the town's butcher shop where they also roast the meat and serve in the attached arrosteria (a small restaurant serving mainly grilled meat).
Gallipoli
Gallipoli is a picturesque fishing port, a medieval town reached by crossing an ancient bridge.

Accommodations
  • (V) Bed & Breakfast Sosta a Levante, Viale Panorama 37, Matino, www.bebsostaalevante.com. The B&B has several good reviews on the internet.
Gravina in Puglia
A Castle town built on the edge of a deep ravine. Of interest are the cave churches of San Michele dei Gratti and the Madonna della Stella in the archeological area of Botromagno.

Restaurants
  • Osteria di Salvatore Cucco. This neotraditional restaurant gets good reviews on the Internet.
Grottaglie
An ancient Albanian settlement and the centre of Puglia's earthenware production since the 10th century.

*Lecce
If you have the opportunity to visit this lovely city, you cannot fail to be impressed by the exuberant decorations on its facades. The local honey-colored sandstone is so soft to work with that the local artisans created in the past a local Baroque style (barocco leccese) as ornate and intricate as some of the spectacular work seen in Noto and other locations in Sicily. The better known and more flamboyant of the local architects Antonio Zimbalo, also called the Zingarello (gypsy), crowded the facades built under his supervision with bizarre cherubs, monsters, flowers, fruits, beauties, and beasts.

Start your visit at Piazza Sant'Oronzo, site of the most important local Roman ruins, a 25,000-seat amphitheatre from the 1st century BC and a column which originally stood in Brindisi to mark the end of the Appian Way. St. Oronzo, for whom the square is named, now stands atop the column guarding the area.

From the piazza, walk through Via Umberto I to the Basilica di Santa Croce. This ornate display of Leccese baroque architecture took almost 1 1/2 centuries to complete. While it had been started in the mid-15th century, it was not completed until 1680. The top part of the facade is a classical example of Antonio Zimbalo's work, decorated with a mix of pagan references and Christian symbols, including dragons, cherubs, winged Harpies, and pot-bellied mermaids. Atop one column is an ancient symbol of Christ's Passion, a mother pelican pecking at her breast, the blood flowing down to feed her fledglings. In stark contrast with the outside "stone population", the interior is laid out in a simple and austere Renaissance style.

Adjacent to the church is the richly ornated Palazzo del Governo (Town Hall). On the other side of the church is the Celestine monastery, which is far more restrained.

Corso Vittorio Emanuele I and Via Palmieri are the two main streets of Lecce's city centre, where most of the other monuments are concentrated. Down Via Vittorio Emanuele, the Duomo stands in one of the loveliest piazza of Italy. Curiously, the Cathedral has two facades. On the opposite side of the cathedral is the Bishop's Palace (Palazzo Vescovile) and the Seminary, built between 1694 and 1709 by Giuseppe Cino, a student of Zimbalo. Make sure to go to see the delightful baroque well, in the seminary's courtyard (admission 1.50 euro).

Stroll down Via Palmieri, stopping to watch artisans working on paper mache or on the local sandstone in their shops. Eventually you will reach Piazza Falconieri, dominated by the splendid Palazzo Marrese, whose portal is flanked by two caryatids and whose balcony rests on gloriously carved shelves.

Accommodations
  • *Centro Storico B&B, Via A. Vignes 2b. Large rooms with vaulted ceilings. Some have no en-suite bathroom. Some have a kitchenette. The young owners are very helpful and kind.
  • (V) Bed & Breakfast Prestige, Via Santa Maria del Paradiso 4. Good reviews on Venere. Some rooms have a lovely view on a nearby church (I do not know if the church has a bell that rings all night!). The B&B is in an old building with no elevator (46 steps).
  • Cameracaffe, Via Papatodero, 27 (Angolo Piazza Partigiani). Looks very modern (we like classical) but neat.
  • (V) Setur B&B, Viale O. Quarta, 21.
  • (V) Bed & Breakfast Villa Diana, Strada Provinciale Merine-Lizzanello 1, www.villadianalecce.com. This B&B gets the best reviews on the Internet, but it is out of town and is an attractive rental condominium rather than a B&B. They do not do breakfast service but they stock up the fridge in the apartment for you. They have a large garden, pool, tennis court. It is an ideal place for a bigger family and if one wants to use Lecce as a base to visit the rest of the area without the hassle of having to drive in and out the historical city.
  • Bed & Breakfast Cavallino, Piazza Virgilio Marone 8. This B&B has very good reviews, but it is out of the historical town and in a modern building.
  • Hotel Delle Palme, www.hoteldellepalmelecce.it. Reviewed as the best affordable hotel in town.
  • Hotel Risorgimento, Via Augusto Imperatore 19. Charming old style hotel.
  • Hotel Orsa Maggiore, Litoranea per Santa Cesarea 303, Castro Marina. Friendly modern hotel on the coast with an acclaimed restaurant.
  • Hotel Panoramico, Via Panoramica, Castro. Clean and simple hotel on the coast with sea views.
Restaurants
  • *Alle Due Corti, Lecce, Corte dei Giugni 1. A simple trattoria serving well prepared home food. This is the place to try tajeddha (layered potatoes, rice, and mussels), ciceri e tria (boiled and crisp-fried pasta with chickpeas) and pezzetti di cavallo (stewed horse meat in tomato sauce).
  • (V) Trattoria Cucina Casareccia, 19 Via Colonnello Costadura. The trattoria is a converted family dining room and it still has the feeling of a private house. Very popular with locals and tourists alike, serves all the traditional specialties of Puglia using grandmother's recipes.
  • Villa della Monica, Via S.S. Giacomo e Filippo 40
Miscellaneous
  • *Panetteria Valentina, Via Petronelli 3. A gourmet shop where you can find a large selection of local preserves such as cotognata squares of solid quince jam, ricotta forte fermented aged ricotta which tastes somewhat like old pecorino but is spreadable, pizzi a red bread made with tomato, onion and olives or pucce a delicious olive bread. Beware of the olives, they are mixed whole (with the pit) in the bread and you do not want to spend part of your holidays visiting a dentist!
  • Salumeria, Via Fazzi, near Piazza Sant'Oronzo. For a delicious burrata (mozzarella filled with cream) and spicy pork sausages.
  • *Il Fornaio, Piazza Sant'Oronzo 23. A bakery selling good cookies, almond pastries, and a variety of traditional breads.
  • *Automat Service, Via San Lazzaro 15. The only guarded garage close to the old town (10 min walk), where you can park your car for a reasonable rate.
*Locorotondo
Locorotondo is nicknamed "the balcony on the Valle d'Itria" because of its spectacular valley views. This small village of concentric streets lined with whitewashed buildings is well known within Italy for its wines. Primitivo and Salice Salentino are rich and complex robust wines, costing a fraction of the better known Tuscan wines of similar quality.

Restaurants
  • Trattoria Centro Storico, Via Eroi di Dogali 6
*Martina Franca
A lovely little town scattered with Baroque palaces and endowed with one of the most romantic piazzas in this side of Italy.

Accommodations
  • (V) Villaggo In, Via Arco Grassi 8, www.villaggioincasesparse.it. This is a complex of renovated self catering accommodation spread through the old city centre.
Restaurants
  • *Ristorante ai Portici, 6 Piazza Maria Immacolata. Gets good reviews in Internet, we found the appetizer nice but the mains were mediocre. The location is lovely, on the main Piazza, so it is certainly pleasant in the summer.

martina-franca-6624.jpg

Martina Franca

Monopoli
An atmospheric old town on the sea with remnants of its Venetian past.

Accommodations
  • B&B Onofrio Contento, contrada Cristo delle zolle 227.
*Ostuni
Ostuni, known as the White City, is definitely one of the most stunning towns of Southern Italy. Clinging onto three hills at the edge of Le Murge, the old centre is a spiral of whitewashed houses with dramatic views towards a sea of olive trees and farther away the blue Mediterranean. For the beach, the natural reserve of Torre Guaceto is not far away.

Restaurants
  • Osteria del Tempo Perso. It has good reviews in Internet and from the Gambero rosso.
Accommodations
  • (V) Agriturismo Masseria Salinola, l’Ospitalità in Puglia c.da Salinola - Strada SP 29 per San Michele Salentino 1,5 Km 72017 Ostuni (Brindisi). www.masseriasalinola.it.
ostuni-6347.jpg

Ostuni

Otranto
An ancient coastal town famous for the mosaic floor of its cathedral, a phantasmagoria of fantastical creatures: elephants, peacocks, mermaids, cats with human feet, centaurs, and a horse's body with three human heads.

Restaurants
  • Ristorante Da Sergio, Corso Garibaldi 9. A good local fish restaurant.
Accommodations
  • (V) B&B Antico Camino, Via Tripoli 35, Muro Leccese, www.anticocamino.it. This is a simple countryside accommodation, suitable to visit the Southern Salento during the summer.
otranto-mosaics-6517.jpg

Otranto, mosaic floor in cathedral

Polignano a Mare
A small port with a tiny medieval centre on the edge of the limestone cliffs. Try the caffe-nocciola gelato at the Super Mago del Gelo ice cream shop.

Porto Cesareo
Another small seaside resort.

Accommodations
  • Hotel Lo Scoglio, Piazza N. Sauro, Porto Cesareo
*Santa Maria di Leuca
The only reason to go there is to see the place that was formerly named the end of the world as this is the southeastern tip of Italy and nothing else was known beyond this landmark in ancient times. It's a small village with a nice marina and few bars and restaurants completely shut off in the winter when it was only populated by windsurfers

*Trani
Comparisons between historical towns in different regions of Italy are not very meaningful , however if Lecce is to be called the Florence of the South, certainly Trani could be named the Gubbio of Puglia. An immaculate medieval town with an attractive fishing port, lovely medieval quarters and, literally perched at the edge of the water, one of the most spectacular cathedrals of Italy, dedicated to San Nicola Pellegrino.

Restaurants
  • *Trattoria da Miana, Via Sinagoga, 54. The most memorable meal of the whole holiday and probably of the whole year. A one year old establishment offering neo-traditional feather-light treats for a smashing price. The mixed appetizer consisted of 8 different warm entries, the pasta was fresh and fragrant, the sweets delicate but unpretentious. Very highly recommended.
Vieste e the Gargano
Vieste, with its excellent beaches, is the holiday capital of Gargano. If you're here in summer, visit the Gargano on weekdays to avoid the crowds; the towns of Rodi Garganico, Peschici or Mattinata might be fractionally less crowded, except in August when all Italians are on the seaside.

From Rodi Garganico begins one of the most spectacular Italian roads, the coastal route around the Gargano promontory. As you drive up to heights of 1000 mt, to your right will be the Foresta Umbra (Shady Forest), a natural reserve harboring ancient pine, oak, beech, chestnuts and thousands of other species of plants. To your left will be one of the most pristine stretches of the Adriatic Sea, lined with crystal-clear waters, gleaming white beaches, and many trabucchi, rustic fishermen's taverns serving freshly-caught fish. Heading east, stop in Siponto to see the 11th-century church of Santa Maria, situated in a quiet pine grove surrounded by Roman ruins. Continue east, past Manfredonia, embarkation point for the Crusaders, and on to Monte Sant'Angelo, one of Europe's oldest and most revered Christian shrines. On the road from Peschici to San Menaio, you'll will admire Lo Zappino dello Scorzone, Italy's tallest Aleppo pine. Seven hundred years old, it measures several meters around at the base.

As a day trip inland from the Gargano, drive to Lucera, dominated by Frederick's massive Fortezza Angioina, a pentagonal castle with 24 defense towers studding its half km of perimeter walls. The simple Gothic cathedral is one of the few intact examples of Angevin architecture in Italy, and the amphitheater, dating from the 1st century BC, is among the oldest Roman ones in existence. Troia, only 25 km away, has a fine cathedral, combining classic Romanesque architecture with detailed Oriental carvings.

Accommodations
  • Hotel del Seggio, v. Vesta 7, Vieste. This hotel has good reviews on Tripadvisor. Pool, a good restaurant and sea views from the rooms.
  • Hotel La Bufalara, Via Uria, Isola Verano, Ischitella. This hotel is located in a pine grove on the strip of land between Lake Varano and the sea. Pool and restaurant.
  • Hotel Apeneste, Piazza Turati 3, Mattinata. Small, simple hotel with a pool, tennis courts, a private beach and a great restaurant.
Matera: The Cave City (Basilicata)
Visiting Matera is a unique experience. For millennia, people of this area has carved dwellings directly into ravines and gullies made of tufa, the characteristic honey-colored soft stone. Most cave cities are in Puglia, including Ginosa, Massafra, and Muttola. But Matera, the most dramatic, lies 20 km across the border in Basilicata, the instep of Italy's boot. Up to the 1950s people lived without electricity or running water in the cave-homes in Matera. Some had constructed front-room facades onto their cave entrances, but despite the squared-off front rooms, the homes inside were true caverns. Between the '50 and '60, the population was relocated en masse by the government to a modern town on a plateau, just above the ravines. The old town became known as I Sassi, "the Stones".

Most of the houses are excavated on two ravines and are named the Sasso Barisano and the Sasso Caveoso, the more rugged and untouched of the two. Visitors might spend an entire day wandering the Caveoso, getting lost in the maze of alleys, stairs, dead ends, and courtyards. Certainly the people of the Sassi needed much help form the sky, as every few cave-houses there is a cave-church. The rock-hewn churches are very ancient, often Byzantine. Santa Lucia alle Malve has frescoes of the 10th century. Santa Maria de Idris is carved into a huge rock pinnacle overhanging from the lip of a gorge.

Accommodations
Restaurants
  • Il Terrazzino, Vico S. Giuseppe 7. Very attractive terrace overlooking the Sassi. Simple local food at reasonable price. The antipasto is excellent and the cakes are homemade.
matera-6776.jpg

Matera

Termoli
Termoli is in Molise and we made a stopover there as it is half way between Assisi and Puglia. We were attracted by some good looking pictures in a glossy magazine and were badly disappointed. Expect a concrete laden lungomare with dispiriting block shaped hotels and a run down town.

Accommodations
  • Hotel Garim, Lungomare Cristoforo Colombo 132. We stayed at Hotel Garim, which with lemon yellow and bright blue decor, is as un-charming as any of the others. The service is very friendly though and the breakfast is ample. The rooms are small but clean and they all have sea view.
Acknowledgments
Thanks are due to the following sources of information: Slowtrav.com and Slowtalk.com, Newsweek Budget Travel, Venere.com, Tripadvisor.com, Initaly.com, The Rough Guide, Viaggiare bene del Gambero Rosso, The Touring Club Guide to Farmhouse Inns, Conde Nast Traveller magazine.
About the Author
© Letizia Mattiacci, 2005, updated 2018

Letizia owns the Agriturismo and Cooking School Alla Madonna del Piatto, near Assisi and publishes articles about Umbria, its foods and traditions on her blog and in the American In Italia Magazine.

She has also published a colorful cookbook, A Kitchen With a View, which has deserved press mention in The New York Times and L’Italo Americano.
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