“Evidently, the God of the Jews didn’t know Puglia, otherwise he wouldn’t have given his people Palestine as the Promised Land.” – Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Puglia (1194 to 1250 AD).
“Evidently, the God of the Jews didn’t know Puglia, otherwise he wouldn’t have given his people Palestine as the Promised Land.” – Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Puglia (1194 to 1250 AD).
Following the visit to Puglia in Southern Italy I thought it was probably time to review my performance in visiting the Country’s World Heritage Sites.
The World Heritage list has been around for over forty years as a consequence of events in 1954 when the government of Egypt announced that it was to build the Aswan Dam, a project that proposed to flood a valley containing priceless treasures of ancient civilizations. Despite opposition from Egypt and neighbouring Sudan, UNESCO launched a worldwide safeguarding campaign, over fifty countries contributed and the Abu Simbel and Philae temples were taken apart, moved to a higher location, and put back together piece by piece. At last the World was collectively protecting its treasures.
Not surprisingly Italy is the country with the most Word Heritage Sites, it has fifty-three, seven more than Spain which has the second most sites. I have visited half of the sites in Spain but when I reviewed the Italy list I was disappointed to find that I have been to less than a quarter and in this whole fortnight in Puglia I had added only one – the Trulli houses of Alberobello. I was genuinely surprised to find that Lecce, the Florence of the south was missing from the list and to find it marooned on the tentative list where it has been languishing since June 2006.
In terms of cities on the list I have been to Rome several times but my first visit in 1976 was four years before it became the first Italian site to be added to the list. As for other cities on the list I have been to Naples, also in 1976, Florence, Pisa and Siena in 2006, Verona and Padova in 2012 and Venice in 2002, 2003, 2005 and most recently in 2012 because you can never go to Venice too many times.
Which brings me to the final two sites that I have visited, both of them for the first time in 1976 before they were even admitted to the list and which was in actual fact was before there was any sort of list at all! WOW, I feel suddenly old.
The first of these is the Amalfi coastline and its famous death defying drive described so accurately by John Steinbeck: “Flaming like a meteor we hit the coast, a road, high, high above the blue sea, that hooked and corkscrewed on the edge of nothing, a road carefully designed to be a little narrower than two cars side by side.”
The second is a joint listing for the archaeological sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum, two towns destroyed by the eruption in 79 A.D. of the volcano Mount Vesuvius which is surprisingly not included on the list even though Mount Etna in Sicily is.
Well, eleven out of forty-nine is not a good score so it means one of two things are needed to correct this rather poor performance, either I have to spend more time in Italy in the future or UNESCO needs to hurry up and include some of the places that I have already been. They could start with Lecce and Lucca, both on the tentative list, and also Palermo that once applied but after rejection subsequently withdrew its nomination.
“Evidently, the God of the Jews didn’t know Puglia, otherwise he wouldn’t have given his people Palestine as the Promised Land.” Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Puglia (1194 to 1250 AD).
As we waited at Bari Palese airport for the Ryanair flight home we began to review the holiday to Puglia and to come to some sort of agreed assessment.
We had travelled to Italy before, to Pisa and Tuscany, Naples and Sorrento, the islands of Sardinia and Sicily, Rome of course, to Venice and the Veneto and the EPCOT World Showcase, but we had never before visited the far south east, the heel of the boot.
Despite almost being put off by the guide books we liked the city of Bari with its mazy old town and eclectic night life and one thing I would say to anyone thinking of going to Puglia then do not miss out the capital city of the region and don’t be scared off by the reviews.
The food was wonderful and although we didn’t have time to try all of the two hundred varieties of pasta I am certain that they would all be just as delicious as those that we managed to sample – the sea food pastas were especially good. We also liked the pizzas and I have to confess that my favourite meal was the horse meat stew in Lecce but please do not tell my granddaughters.
Our accommodation was generally good – all booked in advance through www.booking.com my favourite hotel booking website. The exception was the awful dump where we stayed in Ostuni, the Nonna Isa bed and breakfast and the best was probably the Grand Hotel in Lecce but that is a tough decision to make.
Along the coast we liked Polignano a Mare and Molfetta but we didn’t care that much for Monopoli but that might be unfair because neither of us were at our best that day on account of the stress of driving in Italy which wasn’t a great deal of fun and one thing for sure is that I won’t be doing that again in a hurry!
Although we didn’t like driving we did like travelling by train and Trenitalia was generally efficient, value for money and on time as we used the railway to travel from Bari to Polignano, to Lecce, Ostuni and then back to Bari with one final excursion to Molfetta.
Lecce was a revelation and the ‘Florence of the South’ did not disappoint us with a wonderful Baroque old town, good restaurants and a vibrant night life and we both agreed that we would really have liked a little extra time in that wonderful city.
We didn’t like the taxis because generally I resent paying the exorbitant fares but we had no real choice for our last three days in Bari because I had chosen a hotel that was some way out of the city. But it was a nice hotel and they gave me a discount on the final bill and that was enough to cover the cost of the taxi fares so I shouldn’t complain.
La Città Bianca, the White Cities, were a bit of a mixed bag. Ostuni was lovely but busy, Locorotondo was probably the best of them all (in our opinion) because it was less touristy and had a delightful centro storico. The one that we liked least was Martina Franca but once again this might be unfair, it was another day where we were stressed from driving, the weather was quite poor and we arrived in the middle of the afternoon siesta.
And we didn’t like the siesta period very much because every day the towns and villages just put up a collective closed sign, locked the doors and the people retreated to their bedrooms. We have come across the siesta before of course but never as rigidly and as complete as in Puglia.
The highlight of the fortnight was rather predictably the tourist town of Alberobello and our four night stay in a traditional whitewashed, stone-capped Trulli house. Four nights was probably one too many because there are only so many times that you can walk around the same streets but one thing you can do over and again is go to the same restaurant and we thoroughly enjoyed our four meals at the Foggia trattoria where the chef obligingly gave me some important tips on making a perfect risotto.
Other things we liked were the Peroni beer, the ice cream and the Amaretto.
So that is our short assessment of Puglia and as we pulled our list together we both came to the same conclusion. We had enjoyed ourselves but this sort of vacation didn’t really suit our travelling style. For us Italy is a great place for a short weekend break to one of the famous cities but not for driving or beaches so the next time we go to Italy it will be for just a couple of nights or so and we will most likely return to Greece again next year for our main late summer holiday.
If you have been to Puglia and agree or disagree with us then please leave your views and comments.
Click on any image to scroll through the pictures…
After a quiet afternoon in the garden of the Grand Hotel, Lecce we returned to the centro storico and set about finding our hidden restaurant once more. Even though I had marked it on a map this wasn’t completely helpful because we still had to negotiate the spider’s web of ancient streets and just when it all looked completely hopeless again we found it, presented ourselves and were shown to our table.
It was wonderful, and I am jumping the gun here because only five days into our Italian travels I was happy to declare it, without fear of contradiction, the best restaurant of the fortnight. It was full of local people including Gianfranco from the hotel desk who was pleased to see us and came over to introduce us to his wife.
The food was first class but I am going to whisper this – I ordered horse meat described as foal and it was excellent but I really wouldn’t want my little granddaughters to know that I had eaten and enjoyed a ‘my little pony’ casserole!
Delighted with our meal we now walked back to the main square which, this being Saturday night, was brimming over with entertainment. First there was a daring acrobat who was encouraging audience participation and performing impressive balancing acts and then in a side street there was a four piece acoustic combo band who were drawing a large crowd and a mountain of loose change in their payment invitation bowl.
We were hopelessly lost again now in the labyrinth of streets that seemed to loop around in continuous circles designed to stop people ever leaving the city centre until we came across the side door to a church so we slipped inside to where there was a late night service where people were taking it in turn to take the lectern and tell their personal stories. It was a big church and as we crossed the nave and left by the opposite door we realised that it was in fact the Doumo and having established our coordinates at last we left by the main city gate and made our way back to the Grand Hotel for our final night in Lecce.
The next morning the sky was blue, the sun was shining and the temperature was already rising when we took our breakfast in the garden and then packed, checked out and spent our last couple of hours in the Florence of the South in the shaded gardens around the pool.
At midday we walked the short distance to the railway station and waited for our train back to the north-west to our next stop – Ostuni, called “La Città Bianca”, the White City, and as we began to approach it I could understand why because it rose out of the flat countryside ejaculating like a white hot Icelandic geyser and frothing like an Ibiza foam party.
The train arrived in the station and we set ourselves down on the platform and went outside and we could see straight away that we had a problem. It was Sunday, it was the start of the siesta, the station was about five kilometres out of the town, there were no taxis and the station bar was closed. Eventually we discovered a bus timetable that was scorched and disfigured by the sun that suggested that there might be a bus in fifteen minutes or so and so we sat and waited and believe it, or believe it not, there was, so we gratefully climbed on board, paid the modest fare and took the short drive to the main town square.
Here we were met by Giorgio who took us to most possibly the worst accommodation that I have ever booked in Europe – except that is for one in Naxos, Greece which I paid for but refused to stay. The Nonna Isa Bed and Breakfast was a truly dreadful place. Shabby without the chic, one star without the star! I didn’t like it and in a silent sort of way I knew immediately that Kim didn’t either so we abandoned the bags without speaking to each other or unpacking and returned as quickly as we could to the main square to cheer ourselves up and find somewhere for lunch and a glass or two of wine.
I find that generally things always seem better after wine and we returned to the room, unpacked, sat on the roof terrace (well, roof actually , without a terrace) had some more alcohol and then returned to the old town where there was a food festival taking place tonight.
Despite all of the gastronomic offerings we decided on a pizza and a jug of red wine and after picking up some more mosquito bites each we walked back via the main square where there was a cookery demonstration taking place that we couldn’t possibly hope to understand and then returned to the Nonna Isa where we went straight to bed and tried to get to sleep as quickly as we could so that we didn’t have to endure the dreadful place any longer than absolutely necessary.
It was a hot and humid night and without an adaptor specifically designed for southern Italy hotels we couldn’t plug the anti-insect tablet machine in and to make matters worse sleeping with the windows open simply invited the mosquitoes to drop by and, as we discovered later, the problem with lying on top of the sheets with no clothes on meant that we were laid out like an all-you-can-eat buffet table for creepy-crawlies.
I don’t like all-you-can-eat buffets much myself because I invariably overload the plate and consume too much and regret it later and mosquitoes it seems have the same lack of self restraint because in the morning Kim was suffering from thirteen irritating bites. I had only a couple and considering how many Peroni beers I had drunk the previous day I took pleasure from imagining that the little blighter that got me would most likely be suffering from a monster headache and was hanging over a mosquito toilet somewhere puking up and saying over and over, ‘never again, never again!’
The Grand Hotel Lecce offered an appropriate grand breakfast and we lingered over the first meal of the day at a table in the garden and in conversation with a member of the hotel staff who spoke excellent English on account of the fact that he had worked for a couple of years in a hotel in Bournemouth and was pleased to be able to practice his second language with us.
Our first job this morning was to buy a plug adaptor so that we could recharge the Kindle, the camera batteries and the mobile phones and this proved to be much easier than I imagined it would be.
We found the hardware store and they knew exactly what we required and within a couple of minutes we had what we needed and a spare to be able to pass on to some other English hotel guests who had the same problem and they only cost a very reasonable €2 each. Later I suggested to the hotel staff that they should buy a few and sell them for at least twice as much and make a nice profit but perhaps I should have kept this brilliantly simple idea to myself and taken it to the Dragon’s Den. Anyway, panic over!
So now we could relax and enjoy Lecce. Because of its prevailing Baroque architecture Lecce is sometimes called the Florence of the South and it demonstrates that although the Renaissance left fewer calling cards in the south of Italy than in the north it didn’t completely pass the region by. Lecce is completely unexpected and seems oddly out of place and the answer to it is the stone – a type of limestone that is soft enough to be worked easily with a chisel.
This famed material allowed the builders of sixteenth century Lecce to indulge themselves in their Baroque fantasies and so ornate is the masonry work it is difficult to gauge where architecture ends and decoration begins and everywhere we walked there were nymphs and mythical beasts, gods, warriors and heroes, animals and serpents all carved with great care but subsequently disfigured by age, weather and pollution into sometimes barely unrecognisable lumps of pitted rock.
First we went to the Piazza Doumo and the walked along the main street until we reached the main square, the site of a Roman amphitheatre, half buried now below the modern city and next to a pharmacy where, ignoring the historical aura of the city, Kim dealt with her personal priority and went inside and bought some cream to deal with her insect bites.
After the main square we slipped into and dissolved into the side streets and made our way to the Basilica di Sante Croce, said to be the most beautiful church in the city and it may well have been but unfortunately for us the builders were in and the front was covered in scaffolding. We went inside but, and I have to agree with Kim on this point, it wasn’t a whole lot different from any other catholic church/cathedral and once outside the door, ignoring the beggars sitting on the steps and back into the sunshine I immediately forgot all about it.
Leaving Sante Croce we returned to the main square and then passing swiftly through the main shopping streets (phew!) we arrived at the sixteenth century trapezoidal castle with free admission and some almost interesting displays about papier mache religious modelling which didn’t take very long to look around and soon we were back outside in an adjacent park and then back into the old town.
We stopped for a drink now and agreed that it might be a good idea to try and find the restaurant where we had booked a meal for eight-thirty this evening. This was a lot easier said than done and for those people who think that Bari is an easy place to get lost then take it from me they should visit Lecce! Anyway, we had a lot of debate and conflicting suggestions about how to find the place but after twenty minutes or so and a lot of disagreement we found it and we declared it an honourable draw even though we were both secretly claiming a sort of Google-Earth victory.
It was about two o’clock now and not surprisingly the city started to close down all around us so we left the city by the main gate next to the Asian supermarket that probably never closes and after stopping off at a bar at a traffic junction where I picked up a couple of more mosquito bites because I had forgotten to put any repellent on we returned to the hotel and spent some time around the garden and the swimming pool.
My travels in Italy…
The plan today was to catch the one o’clock train to the city of Lecce in the Salentine peninsula right in the heel of the boot of Italy and just about as far as you can go in the country with the next stop east being Albania.
With a morning to while away, after breakfast we checked out, stored our bags and set off for one last walk around Polignano but this time we ignored the tourist old town and slipped instead into the chessboard, grid pattern streets of the adjacent residential quarter. This was the old part of the new part if that makes any sense with narrow criss-cross streets and sharp right-angled corners.
At this time in the morning there was more washing of clothes, more scrubbing of steps and more food preparation as housewives prepared fresh pasta and then left it out in the sun under wire mesh to dry. I don’t suppose the people of Polignano get many northern European tourists wandering about in this part of the town and as we walked there were looks of bewilderment and suspicion as we carried on towards the sea through confusing streets bristling with local endeavour. Our favourite moment was when a mobile hardware store clattered over the uneven cobbles, dangerously overloaded and looking as though it would surely topple over at any moment. It reminded me of Mr Tuscon’s mobile shop that used to stop in the village where I lived when I was a boy.
And then it was time to turn our backs on Polignano and say goodbye, we had liked it here but we had to make our way back to the train station. The automatic ticket machine was broken so I worried about how to buy one and we had a wait of about one hour so we found a bar and I had a beer and forgot about the problem for the time being.
The train arrived on time and soon a ticket inspector was lurching from side to side along the carriage in time with the side to side motion. He already knew of course that the Polignano ticket machine was out of order so we purchased our tickets from him in a rather long winded and inefficient triplicate form palava which made me wonder why Trenitalia don’t issue hand held tablets to their staff.
The journey to Lecce took just about seventy-five minutes and the train stopped several times along the way. In between the towns the train clattered through mile after mile of olive groves which stretched out endlessly towards the horizon. There are an estimated fifty million olive trees in this region of Italy and some are said to be almost a thousand years old. Here were gnarled old trees with heavy branches supported by stout stakes and I think some of them may actually have been even older than the Roman Empire.
After a while the train began to enter the suburbs of the industrial port town of Brindisi. Maybe we should have stopped there for a while but as with Bari the guide books were less than flattering making it sound like Middlesbrough or Pittsburgh and so we let it slip past. Brindisi marked the end of the Roman road, the Appian Way but where Roman Emperors stopped (Julius Caesar apparently declared this to be the end of the World) and where Crusaders left Europe as they set off for the Holy Land we carried on a few kilometres further to our next destination.
The railway station in Lecce was hot and busy but outside the main entrance we walked straight into the siesta time again and the streets were as deserted as an abandoned ghost town. I wasn’t going to call for a taxi of course and although I was taking a bit of a chance here after my sorry performance in Bari, I told Kim I was absolutely confident of the hotel location and then I had a massive stroke of good fortune when I came across the entrance barely one hundred metres from the station.
This was the Grand Hotel, Lecce, or perhaps more accurately, the Once Grand Hotel, Lecce because although we immediately liked it, it had a slightly faded elegance, was past its best and was clinging on by its fingernails to its once grand status. But it had a wonderful room full of proper furniture, crisp linen on the bed and a well stocked basket of complimentary bathroom essentials.
There were a couple of important jobs to do now so we walked into the city to find somewhere that we might like later to eat and to find a supermarket for some wine. We dipped into the outskirts of the city as far as the Cathedral but we wanted to save the sightseeing until tomorrow so after spotting some likely dining establishments we walked out of one of the city gates and with another stroke of luck found a supermarket almost straight away.
For the rest of the afternoon we sat in the sunshine in the garden around the swimming pool and drank some wine and then upon going back to the room came across a problem – the standard UK/European plug adaptor doesn’t work in Puglia because for some strange reason they have a different socket system in the south of Italy so four days into our travels and we couldn’t charge anything up and the hotel was unable to help except to give directions to a hardware store somewhere on the edge of the city. It was a problem but it would have to wait until tomorrow to get sorted out.
Later we walked back to the centro storico and in contrast to the siesta period it was vibrant and busy with lots of trattoria to choose from but there was disappointment when we found one that we really liked but it was fully booked and couldn’t squeeze us in. We found an alternative which was fine without being memorable and when we had finished Kim was so determined to eat in our first choice that she led me round and around in circles through the confusing streets and getting hopelessly lost in the process until by chance we found it again and then booked a table for the following evening.