Tag Archives: Polignano a Mare

Italy and Puglia, Polignano to Lecce

Tea Towel Map of Puglia

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.

Shuttered Door Polignano a Mare Puglia Italy

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.

Lecce Puglia Italy

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.

Ostuni Puglia Italy

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.


Italy and Puglia, Speedos and Siestas

Polignano a Mare Puglia Italy

Close by to the statue of Domenigo Modungo we passed the iconic and most photogenic beach of Polignano, a small cove carved out of the rocks with a part sand, part stony approach to a sheltered bay, just perfect for swimming and sunbathing but we didn’t stop there but continued our stroll along the coast to a small beach where fishing boats were drawn up onto the grit and sand and where Italian holidaymakers were enjoying the sunshine and men were strutting around looking for a mirror to admire themselves in and women were working on impossibly deep summer-long mahogany tans.

Interestingly, regardless of shape, most of the men were wearing Speedo swimming trunks.  These are generally associated with energy and fitness, speed and grace, but are not entirely suitable for less athletic body types that include those that are overweight, those that are wrinkling or sunburnt or those in the throes of a mid-life crisis.

On the other hand for those of us like me that are in peak physical condition they are perfect for the beach and that’s why I like to wear them when going on holiday or visiting the pool.

The fashionability of Speedos varies greatly in different parts of the world.  They are commonly worn by men of all ages in Asia, Australia, South America and mainland Europe and in China and Japan men almost exclusively wear them as swimwear.  In some countries, Speedo-style briefs are often compulsory in public or resort swimming pools, in France for example it is common to see “slip de bain obligatoire, shorts interdits” or “swimming briefs required, no shorts allowed” because this is considered to be a matter of hygiene and public health, as shorts which might have been worn as street wear prior to entering the pool may be dirty and pollute the water.

It’s a strange thing that the French, who as a Nation are unlikely to win any prizes for personal hygiene get almost hysterical about observing excessive standards at the lido.  The Los Angeles Times once reported the shocking results of a series of polls and studies that over 50% of French men and women do not take a bath or shower daily and 40% of men and 25% of women don’t change their underwear daily.

To be honest I think I could happily live in France!


After a quick paddle in the sea we retired to the back of the beach and to a seafront pizzeria and bar and we sat in the shade for a while with a couple of Peronis and some plates of grilled fish and local pasta and then we made our way back the way that we had come towards the old town.

It was hot now and the time was approaching the afternoon siesta as we returned to the hotel through curiously deserted streets as though someone had declared a national emergency and everyone had left town.  The concept of an afternoon siesta is not something that I am unfamiliar with but I think that I can say that I have never before seen it so rigidly observed; not in Spain, France or even Greece but here in Polignano and all across Puglia the whole place closed and nailed itself down for the afternoon.

Across the streets abandoned laundry remained hanging on overloaded balcony rails, starched and bleached by the sun, occasionally a loose shutter kissed a window frame and a whispering pigeon looked for a shaded spot to spend the afternoon.  Sitting on the balcony it was so quiet that I could hear the paint lifting and splitting on the wooden doors, the gentle creaking of rusty shutter hinges, the squeaking complaints of rattan as sleeping residents shifted a little in their balcony chairs and the faint crack of seed pods in the flower planters.  It was hot under the full glare of the sun and breathless too, without any sort of breeze as we sweltered away  in pizza oven temperatures of mid afternoon.  Luckily I had a good supply of cold Peroni in the room fridge!

After a couple of hours of shutdown and inactivity life started to slowly return to normal and the little town began to stir into life once more.  Shutters rattled open, washing lines were cranked inside, car ignitions began to chatter, Lambretta scooters croaked into action and sleepy people began to reappear from their front doors.  The hotel reception opened for business, shops began to open and within a short time normality was fully restored.

Later in the evening we returned to the old town for the last time because we would be leaving in the morning and then we ate at a restaurant of Kim’s choice and had a posher, more up-market and more expensive evening meal than I am generally comfortable with.  There was no street entertainment tonight but there were a lot of young people hanging around the streets outside our accommodation making a lot of noise and we were glad of the fact that our room was on the back and not affected by the noise of the street chatter and the revving engines of the scooters.


Italy and Puglia, Domenico Modugno and the Eurovision Song Contest

Polignano a Mare Puglia Italy

Polignano al Mare

After an unusually late night we slept on and after a simple breakfast in a cramped dining room we left the hotel and made our way back to the old town with the intention of passing straight through and making for the beaches to the north of the town.

Out of the town we were soon dropping down onto some rocky limestone outcrops, erosion scarred, potholed and potentially spectacularly dangerous but leading seductively down to a perfect azure sea and adjacent rocky coves pitted with sea caves and with a rewarding view of the old town of Polignano rising vertically out of the sea in alternating cream, buff and beige strata like a chocolate layer cake.

Behind all of this was a tall statue of a man with arms theatrically outstretched as trying to attempt flight and this turned out to be the singer/songwriter Domenico Modugno who is perhaps the most famous son of Polignano who after a career in show business went on to become a member of the Italian Parliament.

Domenico who? I hear you ask.  Well, let me tell you that Domenico is renowned for writing and performing what is claimed to be the most famous, most copied, most successful ever Eurovision Song Contest entry (even beating ABBA)  and most lucrative in terms of revenue, Italian popular music songs of all time.  Think about it…have you got it…

“Nel blu dipinto di blu” or most popularly known as “Volare”

Despite its success the entry surprisingly only came third in the 1958 competition after France and Switzerland but was later translated into several languages and was covered by a wide range of international performers including Al Martino, David Bowie, Cliff Richard, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, Luciano Pavarotti, The Gipsy Kings and my personal favourite Dean Martin.  I might be wrong here but I don’t think any of these musical giants ever recorded cover versions of ‘Waterloo’?

Volare Domenigo Modungo Polignano a Mare

I like the Eurovision Song Contest.

In the 1950s, as Europe recovered after the Second-World-War, the European Broadcasting Union based in Switzerland set up a committee to examine ways of bringing together the countries of the EBU around a ‘light entertainment programme’.

In January 1955 the director general of Swiss television came up with the idea of an international song contest where countries would participate in a single television programme to be transmitted simultaneously to all countries of the union. The competition was based upon the existing Sanremo Music Festival held in Italy and was seen as a brave technological experiment in live television as in those days it was a very ambitious project to join many countries together in a wide-area international network. The suggestion was approved at a meeting held in Rome in October 1955 and it was agreed that the first contest would take place in 1956 in Switzerland (probably as a reward for coming up with the idea in the first place).

Seven countries took part, each submitting two songs and this was the only contest in which more than one song per country was performed. The 1956 Contest was won by the host nation with a song called ‘Refrain’ sung by Lys Assia (probably as a reward for coming up with the idea in the first place).

The United Kingdom first participated at the Contest in the following year. The BBC had wanted to take part in the first contest but had submitted their entry to the after the deadline had passed. The UK has entered every year since apart from 1958, and has won the contest a total of five times. Its first victory came in 1967 with “Puppet on a String” by Sandie Shaw.

There have been fifty-seven contests, with one winner each year except the tied 1969 contest, which had four.  Twenty-five different countries have won the contest. Italy has won the contest twice in 1964 and 1990.  The country with the highest number of wins is Ireland, with seven.  Portugal is the country with the longest history in the Contest without a win – it made its forty-fourth appearance at the 2010 Contest.  The only person to have won more than once as performer is Ireland’s Johnny Logan.

Norway is the country which holds the unfortunate distinction of having scored the most ‘nul points’ in Eurovision Song Contest history – four times in all, and that is what I call humiliating. They have also been placed last ten times, which is also a record!

For many years the annual Eurovision Song Contest was a big event in our house usually with a party where everyone would pick their favourite song and would dress appropriately to support their chosen nation.  In later years no one ever picked the United Kingdom because the only thing that is certain about the competition is that being the unpopular man of Europe we are unlikely to ever win again and every year there is a ritual humiliation with a predictable low scoring result. 

After we had admired the statue of Domenigo Modugno we moved on to the beaches.

The Eurovision Song Contest Party…

Italy and Puglia, Polignano a Mare

Polignano a Mare Puglia Italy

“There can’t be too many prettier seaside towns in Italy than Polignano a Mare. Its medieval old town features houses built into limestone cliffs and caves high above the deep blue waters of the Adriatic…. Don’t leave it all to the Italians – go now!”  Richard Field – WordPress Blogger

As soon as we arrived at the old town we understood our mistake – we had walked towards the sea when we should have walked away from it and if we had gone in the right direction then our accommodation was no more than one hundred metres or so from the centro storico but we had enjoyed the walk and at least it had given the town time to start waking and opening up.

Through the main gate was a different world from the Polignano of residential apartments and rows of parked cars as we entered a pedestrianised old town of sun-bleached, weather-splintered walls, flowers spilling down over balconies and shining limestone pavements worn down by the passage of travellers over hundreds of years. Narrow alleys looped around the town which sometimes took us to a new discovery and at others simply returned us to somewhere familiar.  It was only small of course so within half an hour or so we had walked virtually every street and agreed it was time for a break.

We selected a place with gently rippling parasol shade overlooking the Adriatic Sea called the Balconette and ordered wine and beer.  We were sat close to the door of the restaurant and there sat an evil looking chap with bad feet and crutches who was clearly the owner and who was barking out orders and keep a tally of orders, payments and tips.  He was an objectionable man who we both took a disliking to and a combination of this and the fact that I am certain that we were overcharged  we vowed not to return despite the excellent view.


On the way back we dropped into the church which was mostly unremarkable but traditional – except the candles!  Traditionally a votive candle is lit in memory of someone and I have always thought there is something special about lighting a beeswax candle, or even a tea light and standing back and saying a little prayer or dragging up a memory or two.  I was often in the habit of lighting a candle for my dad.  Sadly these little candles seem to be increasingly replaced with a box full of flickering bulbs that, having paid your money, remain lit for a while and then after a pre-determined time simply switch off. 

A few years ago I remember going into Florence Cathedral and the heat from the thousands of candles was completely overpowering and I am sure that a little accident could easily have led to a raging inferno so I expect that this has something to do with health and safety.  I decided to find out and although I couldn’t find anything specifically relating to Italy or the Catholic Church I did find a UK website providing ecclesiastical insurance advice that advised against unsupervised candle burning so I am guessing that I am correct in my suspicions.  Alternatively, maybe it just saves on redecorating costs because all of that smoke must make a mess of the ceilings and they are going to be a real chore to repaint every few years!

Earlier on during the siesta we had found a supermarket that had been closed of course so while Kim returned to the balcony of the room it was my job now to find it again and bring back some appropriate supplies.  This was easier said than done because it was quite a bit further away than I normally like to walk for a supermarket and I had no idea of the most direct route and it took several attempts to find the right street and the shop.

After an hour or two on the balcony soaking up the late afternoon sunshine we returned to the old town in the evening and walked around the streets once more this time under the waxy glow of the street lights rather than the full glare of the sun and we took a while to agree on somewhere suitable to eat and eventually decided upon a traditional but untidy little trattoria with outside tables where we enjoyed a very reasonably priced meal of salad and pizza and a jug of house red wine.

Although it was getting quite late there was a lot of activity in the Piazza Aldo Moro (named after an ex Prime Minister of Italy) where there was music and a crowd of people.  It turned out that this was a sort of junior dancing festival so we wandered across to join in.  I would have liked to have seen a demonstration of the tarantella which originates from this region of Italy but instead we got young children performing dances from the movie ‘Grease’ which I have to confess was rather good and I suppose there is a tenuous Italian connection through John Travolta.

One thing though I did find perplexing; it was close to midnight and some of these children were no more than eight to ten years old!  I remember when I was a boy of that age being sent to bed by no later than eight o’clock and I wondered at what time are Italian children sent packing to their bedrooms with the lights out?  But then again I suppose they had been sleeping most of the afternoon during the siesta so even at midnight they were still full of energy.  It was certainly getting late for us so we walked back to the hotel and spent the last half an hour of our day on the balcony with a generous glass of amaretto. 


Italy and Puglia, Bari to Polignano a Mare


The sun was shining when we woke early on our first full day in Italy so we dressed quickly and made our way onto the streets of Bari where the city was beginning to stir into life especially along the Corso Cavour where the roads on either side were like deep shaded ravines and uniformly straight as though cut with the precision of a cheese wire.

We swiftly bypassed the modern streets of the new town and made our way back to the old town, Bari Vecchia,  home to many of the city’s churches and historic buildings but an area which until recently had a somewhat dubious reputation among the locals and was even considered a no-go area due to high levels of street robberies and petty crime.  However, a concerted effort by the city to attract tourism has led to a clean up and improvement and we didn’t feel threatened at all.

Early morning was a good time to be visiting Bari Vecchia where the residents of the crooked streets were preparing for the day ahead.  Washing lines were being loaded and cranked into position high up across the alleys and lanes and strung outside windows like bunting as though in anticipation of a parade or a carnival, stretching across the streets, smelling sweetly of soap powder, dripping indiscriminately and swaying gently backwards and forwards above the secret doorways and back alleys.

If there was a crime problem here then it didn’t seem to concern the locals who clearly live by an open door code of neighbourliness. Elsewhere there were steps and pavements to be swept, food to be prepared and shopkeepers were arranging their pavement displays, women were shopping to be sure of the freshest produce and old men were selecting shady corners in which to pitch a chair for the remainder of the day and everywhere motor scooters zipped past, engines cracking like machine gun fire, making deliveries regardless of any pedestrian right of way.

Bari Italy Puglia Street Sweeping

At the harbour someone had done a lot of clearing up and all of the debris from the previous night had been removed and now in place of the beer vendors there were marble slabs alive with fresh fish pulled only recently out of the sea and on the quayside a man pulverising an octopus to break down the skeleton and to tenderise it.

Unfortunately we didn’t have a map and Bari old town has a reputation of being a place where it is easy to get disorientated and very soon we lost our bearings and we groping our way around the back streets, which was a bit of a concern because I didn’t really wasn’t to miss breakfast.  We stumbled along and peered down untidy narrow streets searching for an exit, all of them care worn but with brightly colour-washed buildings with ancient coats of paint which have blotched and been blurred by successive harsh summers resulting in a glorious wash resembling water colours in the rain, everything running, leaking and fusing together. 

Puglia only manages 2% of total annual tourism in Italy and Bari was clearly not a tourist city but instead a traditional Italian living and working city with shabby narrow streets, brightly colour washed buildings with little shops and small bars. 


Eventually, with probably more luck than we were entitled to, we found our way out of the labyrinth of narrow streets and on to a main street that we thought we recognised and shortly we were back at the hotel for late breakfast and then for checkout.

Leaving the hotel we walked to the central station which seemed much closer now that we were absolutely certain where we were but when we got there was a ninety minute wait and Kim reminded me that I should have checked the timetable in advance and there was no arguing with that so we walked back into the parks and fountains of the university district, found a bar and just waited.

After a couple of beers it was time to go back to the station and after the inevitable uncertainty of platform location and  eventual reassurance that we were catching the right train we boarded the green and cream Trenitalia carriage with worn out and tired blue plastic seats and began our journey south and east.

Puglia one of the most fertile regions of Italy produces more olive oil than the rest of the country combined, most of its fish, 80% of Europe’s pasta and more wine than the whole of Germany.  It is an agricultural region and once out of the sprawling environs of Bari we were soon passing through fields of grape vines all sweating away under swathes of plastic sheeting that was rippling gently with the slight breeze and the thermals.  But more than grapes there were olive trees, hectares and hectares of olive trees, which shouldn’t have been surprising because after Spain, Italy is the World’s largest producer of the olive and accounts for 16%  of global production (just for the record – Spain provides 40% and Greece is third with 10%).

Because of this fertility and associated wealth the region has historically attracted attention from a host of envious invaders throughout history, all of them leaving indelible footprints in the soil and it is this which shapes modern Puglia and makes it delightfully different from the rest of Italy. Colonised by the ancient Greeks in the eighth century BC, then came the Romans and then the Byzantines swiftly followed by the Saracens, the Normans, the Spanish and the Bourbons until it finally became part of modern Italy as recently as 1861.

After twenty-five minutes or so we arrived in Polignano a Mare just after midday and we took the short walk from the station to our booked accommodation only to find the door locked, reception closed and a sign saying that it would open again at four o’clock.  That was three hours away and we really didn’t want to be wandering about with our bags all of that time so ignoring the code of the siesta I phoned the hotel number and made contact with the owner who was slightly (well, very actually) grumpy about being disturbed from their afternoon rest but eventually reluctantly agreed to come back, open up and book us in and we were grateful for that.

After we had approved of and settled into our top floor room with a large balcony in the blistering afternoon sun we left the hotel and walked in the direction of the sea.  This turned out to be a mistake because we had gone in completely the wrong direction and fairly soon we were in the middle of the residential area where everything was eerily quiet as the people of Polignano had locked themselves away behind closed doors for the afternoon.

I had read about this but wasn’t sure that I believed it until now; everywhere was closed and bolted down.  From behind the doors and shutters we could hear the clatter of cutlery and the popping of corks as families sat down together for their midday meals but on the streets there was not a soul to be seen. 

Eventually we found a pavilion bar in a park where the owners were enjoying a family meal but broke off to serve us a beer and give us directions and eventually by an energy sapping circuitous route we found our way back to the hotel and to the old town only a short distance from our accommodation but in exactly the opposite direction to that which we had taken an hour or so earlier.

Hardware Shopping Polignano a Mare Puglia Italy

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