A week in Puglia, Italy

by Karen Bradbury
Stripes Europe

There’s something about being in Italy's Puglia (or Apulia) region that makes you feel like you've reached one of the more distant corners of the earth. Its arid, largely flat territory occupies the heel of the boot, an area you're not likely to stumble upon unintentionally as you tour the country's population centers. 

Although it’s known to swarm with tourists during the high season, a visit to the region on the cusp of November was that perfect state between bustling and deserted shops and restaurants, warm and sunny days and a broad choice of accommodation at low season prices.

My six-day, self-guided tour of Apulia treated me to stunning sights of natural and man-made beauty, and the presence of the crystalline waters of the Adriatic Sea made it all the better.

The splendor of the cities

In tune with the suspicion I wouldn’t pass this way again anytime soon, I aimed to take in as many cities as reasonably possible. From good to great, I would rank them as follows: Brindisi's slightly dilapidated state was countered by a wide and handsome waterfront. Otranto charmed with the turquoise waters of its beach in the heart of the city, imposing fortress and houses tumbling down the side of a hill. Although Bari had a slightly daunting, big-city aura to it, a labyrinthine old town, tree-lined boulevard and monumental architecture earned it a thumbs-up. Lecce, an overwhelming Baroque fantasy of churches, statues and altars made me think of the frosting on a wedding cake. Monopoli, a working-class city with a hidden old town, seemed a tale of two halves. Polignano a Mare, with its cliff-top houses overlooking the deep cleft of a beach, was the charmer of the lot. Gallipoli, with its old town on an island separated by a causeway, dozens of churches, and miles of sandy beaches struck me as an authentic place populated by kind and considerate people and somewhere I could be happy to live.


The train from Lecce to Otranto | Photo by Karen Bradbury. 

 

 

Tiny trains

Although a rental car would have broadened my horizons, public transportation generally got me to where I wanted to go. Most of my travel took place by train. The further south I ventured, the less frequent the service, and the tinier the trains grew. The journey from Lecce to Otranto involved two connections at far-flung stations, and by the time I boarded the last train, it consisted of just a single carriage with me the sole passenger. At postage-stamp-sized stations, train conductors invariably saw to it I disembarked and boarded the train I needed to continue my journey. The one place I wanted to go but couldn’t reach was the boot-heel’s southernmost town, Santa Maria di Leuca. No bus or road that looked safe enough to walk along seemed to connect it with the train’s last stop in Gagliano del Capo.


The blue waters of Polignano. | Photo by Karen Bradbury.

Dead ends

My preferred means of exploration, walking, didn’t always serve me well in Puglia. A walk along the coast just north of Otranto took me along a pretty but treacherous and entirely deserted path. Coupled with the thick morning fog, it seemed too much brooding solitude. And a walk past San Vito’s monastery south of Polignano was stymied by a busy motorway. 


The beauty of the water in Puglia lies within the bright blue boats. | Photo by Karen Bradbury. 

Top experiences

Puglia’s best moments came spontaneously— a long stretch of sandy beach I had all to myself for an afternoon dip. Sampling the type of ice cream known as spumone, a far cry from the Americanized version of my childhood. I had time for quiet contemplation of the sumptuous Baroque church atmosphere. Stumbling upon rousing live music and dancing crowds within the walls of an ancient fortress, I then feasted my eyes on that blue, blue sea.  

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