A Day in… Polignano a Mar, Italy

The dramatic towering cliffs contrast the clear turquoise waters of the Adriatic Sea and are perfect for any shutter-happy tourist. Italy’s Polignano a Mar, is one coastal town in the largest region in Italy,  Apulia (or Puglia in English) known for its picturesque mountain top villages and rolling countryside. The iconic beach town is popular with locals and tourists alike but doesn’t get overly touristy which makes it a fun leisurely beach day. The white pebble beach framed by the natural limestone walls of the Lama Monachile Beach (just to confuse you it’s also called Cala Porte) reminds me of the Grecian or Croatian shore. In fact this region dates back to Greece, back when it was part of  mankind’s first democracy as part of Magna Grecia (ancient Greece). For those who may enjoy Sitges, Spain or Hydra, Greece this has a distinctively similar feel while enjoying its own Italian flair. 

Polignano a Mare was our first stop (after a day of transportation in Bari) on a longer Puglia road trip. From Bari we rented a car and explored the Puglia region and the city of Matera in Basilicata. While we chose to drive, the train between Bari and Polignano a Mare is very straightforward and is roughly 30 minutes and around 3 euros. TIckets can be found on Omio here

If you are also going to Bari, I recommend reading my guide to A Day in Bari

The three areas in Polignano e Mar that are worth checking out are the town center, with many beach shops and restaurants; the iconic Lama Monachile Beach; and the vistas from the cliffside roads.

Parking is easiest to find near the train station or near the Museum of Contemporary Art. After parking or arriving by train, walk through the streets towards the main drag. The initial streets left with much to be desired, I wanted to know why this was such a destination. Then we got into the airy open Piazza Aldo Moro. 

Make your way to the Lama Monachile Beach. The pebble beach can be hard on some people’s feet, but the water and the view are well worth it. While we did not have time to do this during our schedule, there is a boat tour which shows guests around the caves that is highly recommended! Tours can be secured at the tourist office (Via Martiri di Dogali, 2). This is also very close to il Mago Del Gelato (Piazza Giuseppe Garibaldi, 22), which has great ice cream and coffee.

I tried the Polpo fritto Panini, which did not disappoint! Especially as someone who loves seaside New England food! The girl behind me clearly approves of the food too 😉

The restaurant La Pescaria (Piazza Aldo Moro, 6/8), is a true social scene. That being said, expect to wait to be seated. They have a reasonably priced menu with delicious local seafood, local wines and many people watching. Not to mention that the airy beach decor is great to sit around. This region is large in agriculture and you can eat fresh local produce in all your meals.

After spending some time at the beach or getting a boat tour, I recommend exploring the small town. Both Caffè Dei Serafini (Via S. Benedetto, 49) and La Cueva Cafè (Via S. Benedetto, 49) offers ample outdoor space to enjoy a drink while you can people watch. For those who are interested in art and have more time, the Museum of Contemporary Art Pino Pascali (Via Parco del Lauro, 119) provides a scenic respite from the hot sun.

If interested in the region, here are some itineraries for Matera (in the neighboring Basilicata region), Bari, Locorotondo, and Martina Franca

A (half) day in Bari, Italy

The port in Bari. You can see the Lungomare and walkable city wall above.

“Get in, get a meal, and get out.” Is what we heard about this port city, university town and Capital of the Apulia (or Puglia in English) region of Italy. For those who say Italy looks like a boot, this is the capital of the “heel” region. We were pleasantly surprised by Bari when we arrived and spent a half day exploring. The Adriatic waterfront area is beautiful, the weaving streets of the old city were jam packed with historic appeal while still being manageable in a short amount of time. Puglia was once a part of mankind’s first democracy as part of Magna Grecia (ancient Greece), and the region is seeping in history. Do spend the half day recovering from your travels by exploring this transit hub before spending quality time in the picturesque whitewashed mountain top villages, rolling countryside and seaside towns in the Puglia region.

Arrive into Bari and get settled into your accommodation. Bari, with a large train station for the trek West to East and also a large port offering many ferries on the Adriatic Sea, most tourists stop here as a point of transit onto other destinations. For us, we had international flights from the USA to Rome, and then took the train to Bari. From Bari we were renting a car and exploring the Puglia region and Matera in Basilicata. With all the travel we spent a night in Bari to calibrate to the timezone and get over some jetlag.

The two areas of Bari to explore in this half day are the Murat area, which is the modern and mostly shopping district and the old town, Bari Vecchia, which includes historical sights such as churches, a castle and the old city walls. 

Start your day by walking down the main pedestrian shopping street Via Sparano da Bari. Bari is the city where locals go to get their shopping done and the main pedestrian shopping street Via Sparano da Bari, offers many brands in case you forgot any items. They have Zara, H&M, and Sephora. Windowshop or pickup any forgotten items that you may need for your trip. Take a side track down Via Nicolò Putignani to look at the architecture on Teatro Petruzzelli (Corso Cavour, 12).

Making your way into the previously walled city or Bari Vecchia, the true highlight for me was walking the maze-like streets of the old town. Walk along the former walls of the city, Via Venezia, which overlooks the Adriatic Sea.  Do not miss the 11th century Basilica San Nicolas (Largo Abate Elia, 13). Some of the remains of St. Nick or the original Santa Claus are in the crypt, which makes this a pilgrimage destination for many Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians. The Bari Cathedral or Cathedral of San Sabino (Piazza dell’Odegitria) and Castello Normanno-Svevo (Via Pier l’Eremita, 25/b) originally built in 1132 are both worth a peek inside while exploring. Walk by the iconic pink Museo Teatro Margherita (Teatro Margherita, Piazza IV Novembre) which is situated on the waterfront.

 While we did not get a walking tour, there are many free (or on tip basis) walking tours of the city that may be worth your while to get an understanding of the history of the region. For those who are interested in art and have more time, the Pinacoteca Provinciale di Bari or Painting Gallery of Metropolitan City of Bari (Via Spalato, 19) provides a scenic respite from the hot sun.

Get some dinner at La Tana del Polpo (Strada Vallisa, 50), it has an iconic giant plastic octopus on the ceiling like spiderman. The local restaurant has great service, local wines and fabulous seafood. The great thing about this region is that it is large in agriculture and you can eat fresh local produce in all your meals.

 If interested in the region, here are some itineraries for Matera (in the neighboring Basilicata region), Locorotondo, and Martina Franca

A (half) day in…Locorotondo, Italy

The raised terraced gardens provide the support to the town of Locorotondo (“round place”), which seems to levitate above the flat countryside dappled with wild red and yellow flowers and trullis as you enter the area. Locorotondo, known nationally as one of the “Borghi più belli d’Italia” (one of the most beautiful villages), is a charming town that provides a wonderful site for a leisurely day in the Puglian sun.

Located in the Valle d’Itria (the Trulli Valley) or the ‘top of the heel’ of Italy, Locorotondo is conspicuously charming, with winding roads of white washed houses decorated with bright-red pots of geraniums and wisteria cascading over stone walls.The green and blue shutters provide a contrast to the white marbles and tanned buildings.

Start your day with a coffee from Caffe della Villa in the center of ‘Centro Storico’ and Piazza Vittorio Emanuele. See locals get their coffee while standing. 

The real joy of Locorotondo is leisurely wandering the streets. Take the afternoon exploring the alleyways in the center of town and take in the beautifully curated window boxes and terrace gardens. As a hilltop village, many of the streets offer panoramic vistas of the Trulli speckled countryside. Two such views are seen at gardens of Villa Comunale Giuseppe Garibaldi and also ironically named “Lungomare” (a road next to the sea..) on the adjacent Via Nardelli. 

Via C. Battisti offers one of the most beautiful (and photographed) views in the village

In the ‘Centro Storico’, don’t miss the chance to peek into three churches: Chiesa Madre di San Giorgio, Chiesa San Rocco and the Chiesa della Madonna della Greca. 

We had a lovely local menu of the day dinner at La Taverna del Du (Via Papatodero 3), which is tucked away in one of the side streets. The region is known for orecchiette, which was part of the pre-fix menu. Other fine dinner option are Bina Ristorante Di Puglia (via Dottor Recchia, 44-50) and U’Curdunn (Vía Dura 19) which were both recommended while we were traveling but we were unable to try. 

Cheers to a leisurely day in Locorotondo! 

If you are exploring the Southern region of Italy, check out my itineraries for the Martina Franca and Matera.

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A weekend in Matera, Italy

‘Tragically beautiful’ Matera has gone from rags to riches over the past century.  Evacuated in the 1950’s for rampant poverty and disease; Matera was awarded the UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 1993 and 2019 as the European Cultural Capital. 

While other cliffside towns are built on top of the deep ravine, the houses and entire sassi is built into and complementary to the preexisting caves.  With hundreds of years of layers placed in one building it is hard to differentiate when different additions were added. 

Matera has been inhabited since the Paleolithic time. In ancient times, cave-dwelling (not to be confused with cavemen) settlers moved into the tofu rock caverns of the steep ravine. During the Neolithic Revolution these early dwellers learned to breed animals and eventually became herders and farmers, which they remained until the 20th century. Eventually more people moved in and the community of cave-like dwellings became known as the Sassi (Italian for “the stones”). You may recognize it as the backdrop for Jesus walking with the cross in Mel Gibson’s 2004 movie, The Passion of the Christ

Having never had a ‘golden era’ for art and culture, Matera’s development has never been preserved in a time period. History has not been destroyed to glorify ornate palaces and city buildings stuck in time when the city flourished (such as Florence during the Renaissance and Venice in the Middle Ages). Therefore each house, or one could even say the city as a whole, has been continuously developed in a way mirroring the continuous human development. 

In the 1940’s Carlos Levy, physician, painter and author was sent to exile in the south of Italy for anti-Fascist sentiments. Shocked by the rampant malaria and cholera he described the region as “a schoolboy’s idea of Dante’s Inferno” in a book about his year in exile. This propelled Matera into the public eye as Italy’s “la vergogna nazionale” (‘Shame of the Nation’). Levy’s book can be compared to Jacob Riis’ How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York which propelled the United States to create social reform nearly a half century before. 

Accommodation: We stayed in a carefully renovated, beautiful cave hotel called Corte San Pietro. I would recommend this distinct experience. If you want to read about a few of the other unique accommodation experiences in the south of Italy I wrote about it here: A Trulli, a Cave, and a Masseria oh my!

Getting there: this is the hardest part. Matera was a part of a week-long vacation in the Puglia region of Italy. We chose to take a train to Bari (so that we didn’t have to drive from Rome) and then rent a car. Renting a car is the easiest way to get around this region of Italy. There is a regional train that services Matera from Bari and runs everyday except Sundays. 

I would recommend reading Carlos Levy’s book ‘Cristo si è fermato a Eboli’ or Christ Stopped at Eboli, about his year in exile in the Basilicata region of Italy. 

My friend, Jen, from World On a Whim, recommended a ten day vacation to the Puglia region and Matera. We spent two nights and two days in Matera, and we felt that was the perfect amount of time. 

Friday: 

Arrive into Matera. No amount of scrolling through photos prepared me for the utter awe that I felt when I arrived at the top of the sassi and was blasted with 180 degree falling views of the ancient ravine. Definitely take some time to let it sink in. In our case, we were in a car and that minute went on too long and we were quickly interrupted with honking from a car behind us! Nothing like modern traffic to bring you back to present. Get settled into your accommodation and get dinner in the sassi for your first night. 

Saturday:

Start your morning in the new town at no frills Caffè Schiuma di Rocco Luigi Schiuma (Via T. Stigliani, 92). Spend a little bit of time walking around the Civic Center of the new town of Matera. I am recommending this, because I personally think it is interesting to see the more modern developed sections as a comparison to the Sassi. 

The Sassi is best explored on foot. The whole city is walkable, so definitely pack good shoes because the incline and roads have been smothered over from so many pedestrians. I would recommend starting at Casa Noha (Recinto Cavone, 9) for a foundation of the history of Matera. They have multimedia displays, large video projections on the walls, and you move from different rooms to make the exhibit a little more interactive. Spend a few hours walking around the two Sasso Barisano and the Sassi Caveoso. Sassi Brisano is where all the shops and hotels are, whereas Sassi Caveoso is mostly caves. Briefly check out the Church of Saint Mary of Idris (Via Madonna dell’Idris). Make your way to Cathedral of Saint Mary ‘della Bruna’ and Saint Eustace in the Piazza Duomo. This cathedral is the highest point in Matera and is the middle point between the two Sassis.

In the early evening, get into your car and head to sunset at Asceterio di Sant’Agnese (Contrada Murgia Timone, 75100) or Belvedere di Murgia Timone. We plugged this address into the GPS, but had to park a little away in a parking lot. Make sure to leave to get settled before sunset and explore the green area and the isolated caves in the area. 

Your accommodation should be able to recommend some restaurants based on your preferences. We ate at Da Zero (Via Madonna delle Virtù, 13) and loved the pizza. I would recommend getting an evening glass of wine at Enoteca Dai Tosi (Via Bruno Buozzi, 12) in one of the cozy alcoves. To enter you take a steep set of stairs into a cavernous interior that was a former cistern for drinking water. 

Sunday:

Get a coffee and pastry at Caffè Vergnano 1882 (Via del Corso, 78) then ONLY if you are as big of a nerd as I am, I would recommend going to Museo di Palazzo Lanfranchi (Piazetta Pascoli 1). The Palazzo itself is intriguing architecturally speaking. Yet, I truly went just to see Carlos Levy’s moving large installation portraying the poverty in the 20th century that led to his book. 

The museum is located in Belvedere di Piazza Giovanni Pascoli (Piazzetta Pascoli) which offers a wonderful view of the Sassi from the new town and should not be missed. Again, spend your day walking around the Sassi. I went to the La Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario (Vico Solitario, 11), which I realize is the 3rd museum in two days but I truly wanted to see what it would actually feel like to live here back in the 20th century.

Get a cocktail at Area 8 (Via Casalnuovo, 15) this area, which encompasses Enoteca Dai Tosi, can be very lively at night with college students and it’s great for people watching. 

Cheers to a great weekend in Matera!

If you are exploring the Southern region of Italy, check out my itineraries for the Locorotondo and Martina Franca.

Thank you to my friends Jen and Allison for being my travel companions! Check out Jen’s blog at worldonawhim.com

A leisurely day in…Martina Franca, Italy!

Walking around the center of town in Martina Franca. Take in the beautifully crumbling baroque facades.

Located in the Puglia region of Italy, at the top of the heel, Martina Franca is an ancient town known for its fine food, home-grown wine, textiles, soccer and opera music. The white sandstone buildings are tanned with age and rooftop crevices provide space for wildflowers to grow. The green and blue shutters provide a contrast to the white and tan marble  buildings. Where some see signs of decay and decadence, most tourists will enjoy the genuineness of Martina Franca. This beautiful town provides a wonderful site for a leisurely day in the Puglian sun. 

Start your morning at Bar Adua for a coffee and pastry. The family owned business has been around since 1936. If you have the chance, try capocollo, a kind of cured ham that is the pride of the town.

Walk along the alleyways in the center of town and take in the beautifully crumbling Baroque buildings. In the ‘Centro Storico’, don’t miss the Palazzo Ducale, Piazza XX Settembre, Piazza Maria Immacolata, and Basilica di San Martino, a church built in the 18th century in the Late Baroque style.

Afternoon:

Visit the I Pastini winery. Out in the rolling hills of the Valle d’Itria, I Pastini offers tours and wine tasting at reasonable prices and sells wine to take home or to be shipped. Take the tour and learn how the farming community has lived in Southern Italy for thousands of years, and how wine is made. This region is known for red-wine grapes called “Susumaniello,” which is one of the world’s rarest wine grapes. The vineyard uses the region’s iconic truli in its original capacity, as a farm shed.

Similar to the Italians, take a siesta before the evening. 

Take a passagiata, or evening stroll to Cafe Tripoli. Enjoy an ice cream, coffee, or pastry (or all three!). Cafe Tripoli is the oldest cafe in Martina Franca.  It is the most bustling, and is very popular with the locals, which is always reassuring to tourists. I visited during Easter week, and enjoyed a zeppole, fried dough Easter pastry that is filled with custard and topped with confections and jams. Get a seat outside to soak in the ambiance and watch the locals on their passagata.

End your evening wining and dining at Ristorante Torre di Angelucco. Angela the chef and owner will take pride in explaining the whole menu to tourists, and she will make recommendations based on each diner’s desires. This quaint place will not disappoint you! The wine was inexpensive and the food was fabulous and reasonably priced. All of the fish entrees are great, along with the seasonal local vegetables.

If you are exploring the Southern region of Italy, check out my itineraries for the Locorotondo and Matera.

A trulli, a cave, and a masseria oh my!

View from the courtyard of our stay in Masseria Santa Lucia.

Your first question is probably: what’s with all these weird words in the title? The answer: they are different types of accommodations that we tried while in the Puglia and Basilicata (the heel and instep) regions of Italy. My main reason for travelling to these destinations were a) I kept seeing cool instagram photos from Matera, and b) my friend Jen from World On A Whim mentioned that the city of Matera is the 2019 Cultural Capital of Europe.  So we set a date (really it’s all around my school schedule) and booked our flights. Here is a brief list of the accommodations that we stayed in:

What is a Trulli?

Photogenic Tullis. Alberobello is filled with camera-carrying tourists taking pictures of the trullis, some of which have been converted to use by the tourism industry as gift shops, museums and high end restaurants.

A Trulli is a small hut-like building with a conical roof which gives it the appearance of a hobbit or troll house.  The uniformly white bases of these iconic structures are constructed from limestone masonry and are topped off with a wheat-colored dome-like roof.  Theses idiosyncratic homes are plentiful in the Puglia region of Italy. The largest collection are located in the town of Alberobello, which is well- known for their signature Trulli houses. The region’s abundance of limestone, karst and calcareous sedimentary was utilized to create the mortarless houses. Why mortarless? As the 18th century population increased, people created the commune of Alberobello.  The local Count didn’t want to pay taxes for a new development to the Spanish Viceroyal of Bourbon and therefore requested his citizens to create housing that was easy to dismantle and fool the tax assessors.

If staying overnight, I would recommend either staying in the new part of Alberobello or outside in the countryside. While we really enjoyed walking around and seeing the trullis you could enjoy a day-trip here and move on.

What is it like staying in a cave?

While other cliffside towns are built on top of the deep ravine, the houses and entire sassi are built into and complementary to the preexisting caves.  With hundreds of years of layers placed in one building it is hard to differentiate when different additions were added.

Tragically beautiful Matera has gone from obscurity to fame over the past century.  Evacuated in the 1950’s for rampant poverty and disease, Matera was awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 1993 and 2019 European Capital of Culture recognition.

View of the room does not give it justice. Definitely great sleep was had here, staying in a cave provides that not much natural light will wake you up in the morning.

Matera has been inhabited since the Paleolithic time. In ancient times, cave-dwelling settlers moved into the tofu rock caverns of the steep ravine. Eventually more people moved in and the community of cave-like dwellings became known as the Sassi (Italian for “the stones”). We stayed in a carefully renovated, beautiful cave hotel. I would recommend this unique experience.

If you are looking for a more in depth weekend itinerary for Matera, please find it here: A weekend in Matera, Italy.

What is a masseria?

A “masseria” is an Italian version of a plantation or hacienda. The name masseria is known mostly in the Puglia region of Italy. From the 16th to18th century,  masserias were the farmhouses in which workers and “pedrones” (English: master/boss) would reside while harvesting large farms. Italy has a number of farmhouses which are still on functioning farms and which are available as lodging alternatives. We stayed at a converted 16th century farmhouse. The owners made the best meal of our vacation, with fresh ingredients from their gardens. For a uniquely satisfying experience, I would recommend staying in a farmhouse in any region of Italy for one or two days . Research agriturismo.it or bookings.com for farmhouse lodging options.