Sunday, June 5, 2016

Puglia (and friends)

For the first time in a year and a half I've taken more than two days off and I decided to use this freedom to go wild take a very relaxed spin through southern Italy - specifically the regions of Puglia and Basilicata both because I am a box checker who can't stand to not have visited all the regions of the country where I'm posted and because I was too lazy/indecisive to make plans in time to go anywhere else. But my stunning lack of planning paid off in a great trip!

First, some details:

If you're looking at a map, Puglia is the region encompassing the "heel" of the Italian "boot" and Basilicata is the "instep".

map from here

The best way to reach the regions is a direct train from Rome Termini station to Bari Central station. No one had any touristy recommendations for me in Bari so I just used it as a hub to visit Polignano a Mare, Matera (in the neighboring state of Basilicata) and Lecce. So, in order:

Polignano a Mare 
So much beautiful! You really need to see this town. You may have already seen it in pictures, but here's one more to jog your memory.

I highly recommend the hotel I stayed in, Relais del Senatore, which was beautiful and has the perfect location. And pretty much every fancy travel site ever recommends the Grotta Palazzese restaurant (reservations are pretty much mandatory). Other than that you can and should spend some time wandering the historic center, swimming at the most beautiful/uncomfortable beach ever (seriously, the water was ice and walking on the rock beach was a form of foot torture), and try taking a boat to the coastal caves. I recommend a two night stay.

See that down there? It's rocks. Lots of rocks.

But who needs sand with this view?


I was not at all sold on Matera before I came - and had so much difficulty arranging this trip that my expectations were very low, but it was such a great visit in the end. I would highly recommend Matera (for anyone who doesn't have mobility issues - there are LOTS of stairs).  It's a historic town built into a series of caves. There are tons of intriguing restaurants and hotels so I really don't think you could go wrong, but just for reference, I stayed at La Corte Degli Agostiniani and it was lovely.

The only caveat I have is that basically every building in town has is really, really damp (what with being built out of caves and all). It was kind of uncomfortable being indoors - imagine eating dinner in the bathroom after a shower and you'll appreciate what I mean so I'd say one overnight, with as much outdoor time as you can manage, is the best way to enjoy the town. Or even choose a more modern hotel just outside the sassi (stones) area. All in all Matera was one if my favorite towns in Italy so far.

My original plan was to do a day in Lecce followed by a day in Alberobello. (Lecce is a regional hub, with a historic city enter. Alberobello is home to the famous trulli huts.) In the end, after sleeping in a cliffside stone hotel, followed by a stay in an actual cave (and of course tired from all the trains and buses and hauling my rolly bag all over creation) I just flat-out rebelled against my tourist instincts and stayed two nights in Lecce, leaving Alberobello for the next time, or maybe never. I know, I know, that's a bit sacrilegious given that Alberobello is supposed to be the thing to see in the South, but I'd heard it's actually really touristy and not worth more than a couple hours and after all, it's my vacation and I'll waste it if I want to, right?

So, long story short, I saw Lecce. It was nice, really quiet, not much to do actually but there are a number of good restaurants (of which I highly recommend Povero) and I spent some quality time shopping, something I never really get around to at home. If you go I would use it more as a hub to see the surrounding beach towns, unless like me you just can't be bothered.

Technically this wasn't one of the cities I set out to visit, but since I had two 'layovers' to fill I ended up hitting the town to check things out.  First tip - there's luggage storage at the train station starting at six euros. Once you're free of encumbrances you can take a pleasant walk to the seaside (lungomare), the historic fort, or down the main shopping street which basically starts at the train station. It isn't tourist stuff but they do seem to hit all the price points, from H&M to Prada. I found a fun Greek restaurant near the university and came across a fish and chips place and a pasticceria that both seemed promising though by that point I was full.

For travel purposes keep in mind as well that not all trains and buses leave from the same place - there is a city metro stop just outside the central train station that can take you to the airport (buses sometimes leave from the airport to Matera, etc). There's also the regional train station located in the same piazza. Just ask around. 

That's it! Happy traveling and I promise to write soon with a bit more on the logistics of traveling between these spots.

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