Visited Puglia in September 2016

Apparently I’m failing to catch up with my backlog of blog posts, but here is another belated post on our holiday in Puglia. We traveled there in September 2016.

The schedule was as follows, with times and prices for train (and one bus) tickets mentioned for one person:

  • Thu 08th: Rotterdam Centraal 14:58 → Paris Gare du Nord 17:35 (€ 35)
  • Fri 09th: Paris Gare de Lyon 06:28 → Milano Porta Garibaldi 13:50 (€ 39), Milano Porta Garibaldi 14:18 → Foggia 21:35 (€ 35)
  • Sat 10th: Bari, Grotte di Castellana, Polignano a Mare
  • Sun 11th: Polignano a Mare, Monopoli, Egnazia, Fasano
  • Mon 12th: Alborobello, Locorotondo, Martina Franca, Ceglie Messapica
  • Tue 13th: Ostuni, Cisternino, Ceglie Messapica
  • Wed 14th: Oria, Torre Guaceto (beach), Brindisi, Lecce
  • Thu 15th: Lecce
  • Fri 16th: Acaya, Roca Vecchia, Baia dei Turchi (beach), Galatina, Alezio
  • Sat 17th: Otranto, Castro, Grotta Zinzulusa, Specchia, Corigliano d’Otranto, Alezio
  • Sun 18th: Punta Pizzo (beach), Ugento, Gallipoli, Alezio
  • Mon 19th: Manduria, Punta Prosciutto (beach), Manduria
  • Tue 20th: Taranto, Massafra
  • Wed 21st: Massafra, Matera
  • Thu 22nd: Matera, Altamura
  • Fri 23rd: Altamura, Gravina in Puglia, Bari, Bari Centrale 21:00 → Milano Lampugnano bus station 08:45 (Flixbus € 29)
  • Sat 24th: Milano Porta Garibaldi 14:40 → Paris Gare de Lyon 22:38 (€ 39)
  • Sun 25th: Paris Gare du Nord 12:25 → Rotterdam Centraal 15:02 (€ 49)

The train journey was okay, but it’s frustrating that the journey takes relatively long due to parts with low-speed track and transfers. The railway from Lyon to Turin may pass through gorgeous landscapes in the Alps, but it turns that TGV into a snail. The route from Bologna to Foggia wasn’t fast either but featured a lot of scenic views. At some places it’s track runs at a distances of less than 50 meters from the coast. More about railway efficiency later in a different post.

I decided to focus this trip on the Salento peninsula, the southern part of Puglia. The northern part I saved for another trip. I revisited many places which I had already seen in 2013 but which Stephanie had not. While I did see all the highlights, I still have the feeling I missed a lot of things. In particular, I wish I had seen more of the natural environment, beaches, coasts and sea. In hindsight, I would have reduced the distances traveled and the relative share of city sightseeing a bit more. I wouldn’t have missed some iconic beaches such as Torre dell’Orso and Torre Sant’Andrea.

A big disappointment was the uncooperative weather, which was quite bad on several days with lots of clouds and rain. This is very unusual for September in Puglia. Even more unusual was the large amount of snowfall and freezing temperatures in the winter of 2016 to 2017. Climate change I guess.

But don’t get the wrong idea: we greatly enjoyed our holiday. We visited many beautiful cities, ate delicious food (too bad I didn’t take notes so I could replicate everything at home) and relaxed at some marvelous beaches. Meeting again with one of my former CouchSurfing hosts, Michele, was one of the best moments.

One word of warning to other travelers: beware of opening hours of museums, archeological sites and other places of interest and study them carefully! I knew from experience that opening hours are fishy in southern Italy, but I allowed myself to be unpleasantly surprised during this holiday far too frequently.

Beach of Polignano al Mare
https://www.flickr.com/photos/avanloon/34208831772/

Now, let’s walk down the schedule and evaluate it. In Bari we hired a car to visit the Castellana Caves. Highly recommended indeed, I don’t remember visiting such a large and beautiful show cave before. Polignano a Mare is a bit touristy, but is a nice village perched on top of a cliff on the coast nevertheless. We didn’t have time to hang out on it’s beach in the first photo here though. Monopoli has a nice historic center, but several places of interest such as the castle were closed. The archeological site of Egnatia and it’s museum show the relatively well preserved remains of an ancient Roman city. Recommended.

Alborobello is busy with tourists who mainly come for the trulli, traditional houses in Puglia’s countryside. It was interesting, but apart from the small museum I felt I missed a tourist guide to understand where to look and what I was seeing. Locorotondo and Martina Franca offer nice historic centers. The same goes for Ostuni and Cisternino, which we visited during the following day.

Oria lures you in with a stimulating view of it’s historic center overlooked by a castle on a hill. When we got there we disappointed to discover that the castle wasn’t open for visitors. The beach of Torre Guaceto easily compensated for this, because of it’s clear waters and remote location near a nature reserve. Brindisi and Lecce are a must for everyone visiting the Salento, especially the latter has the most exquisite historic center of the region with awesome architecture. Do visit the Museo Archeologico Provinciale Francesco Ribezzo in Brindisi and the Museo Provinciale Sigismondo Castromediano in Lecce if you like archeology.

Castle of Acaya
https://www.flickr.com/photos/avanloon/34259856271/

Acaya is a small, quiet village with a lovely castle. Unlike Lecce’s castle (also worth a visit) almost all rooms and the roof are accessible. As icing on the cake, it had an exhibition about archeology while we visited there. Roca Vecchia is worth a visit for its archeological site (closed when we were there) and the Grotta della Poesia, a sinkhole near the coast. We continued to Baia dei Turchi, a beach further south sheltered by a forest. We saw Galatina for a few interesting church buildings.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/avanloon/33580285883/

Otranto has a nicely preserved walled historic center next to a picturesque beach and harbor. We went further south to Castro in the hope to catch a boat and see the coast from the sea, but the weather prevented us from doing so. The Grotta Zinzulusa is a cave nearby which provided an alternative activity. Specchia was supposed to have an interesting historic center, but there wasn’t much to see. Do visit Corigliano d’Otranto to see its castle. We were given a guided visit there by an entertaining older Italian man who spoke surprisingly good English.

Punta Pizzo is a nice beach south of Gallipoli, even though the clouded weather worked against us again. I wanted to see the museum in Ugento, but that was closed in the afternoon. Gallipoli, which has an historic center on an island, took the rest of our time for that day. Unfortunately it was a bit too busy with tourists for my liking.

I had been looking forward to visit the archeological park of Manduria and was disappointed to see it was closed. We entertained ourselves with a wine tasting at the Consorzio Produttori Vini close to the site and then went to beach of Punta Prosciutto (yes, a beach called after a ham…). The weather shoved clouds in our faces, but on a sunny day you will agree that the nickname “Maldives of the Salento” is justified for this lovely beach.

Taranto’s historic center has an extraordinary position on a small island flanked by the sea and an inlet, connected to the mainland by short bridges. It absolutely shouldn’t be missed for it’s magnificent archeological museum. The fact that this museum was actually open (it was under renovation in 2013) compensated all my disappointments with stuff that was unexpectedly closed.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/avanloon/34260231631/
https://www.flickr.com/photos/avanloon/34281278651/

Massafra is worth a visit for its center which curiously split in half by a ravine. It has a castle, but it turned out access is quite restricted there without the ability to go to the roof. Matera is just over the border with Basilicata and has much more to see. It features a lot of rock-cut architecture, visiting it is recommended.

In Altamura I hoped to learn more about how they make their famous Altamura bread, but I didn’t manage to find a cooking course there. The cathedral alone is worth a visit though. Gravina in Puglia has an interesting archeological museum and a scenic view of a ravine to the west of its historic center, but just like Altamura I think we missed some things because we didn’t know where to look. We ended our journey in Bari’s historic center, another must see. We had to take a Flixbus to Milan though, because the TrenItalia train was cancelled. The Flixbus actually had WiFi, something the trains don’t have.

Finally, a word about Puglia’s official tourism website. It’s hard to navigate this website, the quality of its information varies and isn’t always up to date. Most annoyingly, some information isn’t available in English and you frequently find dead links to non-existent pages. It’s an embarrassment. Dutch city marketing websites such as the one of The Hague are miles better. They should get their act together and design a better website.

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