|All photographs by Maureen Stone|
Our next move was a 40-minute scenic bus ride ($2.68 per ticket) north from Ostuni to Martina Franca, another of Puglia’s scenic hill towns. The main entrance to the historic city center was at the gate of Santo Stefano, an easy 15-minute walk from the bus stop. At the tourist information office adjacent to the gate we obtained a good map with easy directions to “Villaggio In” (www.villaggioin.it) , a recommended travel company located on Via Arco Grassi that rents apartments in the old town. Arriving without reservations we were offered an upgrade by hosts Daniella and Allesandra to a two-bedroom, two-bath apartment on the nearby Via Magli for the normal $98 per night price of a one-room studio, including daily maid service and continental breakfast. We relished the advantages of off-season accommodations for three nights enjoying a downstairs country kitchen, bed, and bath combined with a separate upstairs bedroom, bathroom and small balcony overlooking a street. All was quiet save for the bongs of the bell tower of the nearby Basilica of St. Martin, which sounded each quarter hour from morning until evening.
Our visit in Martina Franca accidentally coincided with the three-night “FestaNatale,” a quieter version of a German-style Christmas market. Booths were set up in the city squares where, despite cold and slightly damp weather, locals turned out to enjoy delicacies from freshly made mozzarella to roast suckling pig, salami, local Salento and Primitivo wines, dried fruits, nuts and chocolates. Children were offered rides on a Christmas train that circumnavigated a city park opposite the main square and “BabboNatale,” the Italian answer to Santa Claus, welcomed children and their parents in his own little house within an interior city square. Parishioners from the church opposite the festival conducted a reverent evening candlelight procession in the park singing hymns to St. Mary on the Feast of The Immaculate Conception, a local holiday.
The Trulli and Alberobello
An easy 20-minute train ride from Martina Franca station brought us for a day trip to Alberobello, the UNESCO World Heritage Site founded in the 1400s and famed as the capital for Puglia’s unique white cone-shaped houses, called “Trulli,” which also dot the farmlands surrounding many of the towns. There are more than 1,000 of these little stone buildings in Alberobello and we learned it is possible to stay in one. A great discovery was the company owned by the Palmisano family called “Trulli e Puglia” (www.trulliepuglia.com). It is located on the Via Monte San Michele in the heart of Alberobello’s old town, down the street from the historic Church of St. Anthony. Mimmo Palmisano and his brother Lorenzo have completely renovated 12 historic trulli over more than 25 years in the family business started by their mother Cosima and father Pietro.
“Puglia is a region that is going to explode,” said Mimmo, who spoke good English and was as proud of Puglia—and of his relatives in New Jersey—as any host we met on our visit to the region. Mimmo’s company offers accommodations in their own pristine Trulli starting at about $90 per night per person including breakfast. The company also arranges cooking classes with “Mama” Cosima, walking and bike tours of the area, wine tastings and other experiences of Puglia. Guests are welcomed in the company’s café on the Via Monte San Michele with glasses of fine local wines. Mimmo Palmisano himself was a wealth of enthusiastic information about the history of the trulli, originally built as small homes for farmers to avoid hefty taxes levied on larger houses by wealthy noblemen. The roomy two-bedroom trulli we visited included a rear patio with comfortable seating to enjoy a small garden and barbeque. The visit made us wish we had made plans to stay in one.
Polignano a Mare
We spent our final three nights in the coastal resort city of Polignano a Mare after a scenic two-hour public bus ride across central Puglia from Martina Franca. Polignano a Mare, 30 minutes down the Adriatic Coast from Puglia’s capital city of Bari, is a riot of stone buildings perched in the compact town center on dramatic cliffs overlooking the sea. Most of them are small hotels and residential houses favored by Bari residents for summer and weekend getaways to the seaside. A waterfront pedestrian walkway along the top of the seawall provides commanding seascape views and a feast for photographers. Grottoes and coves can be visited in warm weather on boat tours, and a dramatically situated town beach is accessible by steps leading down from the cliffs. We posed for pictures at the sea wall under the large statue of the town’s favorite son Domenico Madugno (1928-94), who gained international fame in 1958 as the composer and singer of the hit song Volare.
Our host for three nights at the comfortable, four-room Santo Stefano Bed & Breakfast (www.santostefano.info) was Domenico Ruggiero, who proved to be a helpful guide with good maps and useful suggestions. Our stone-tiled, arched double room with a fridge, flat-screen TV and private bath with shower was $78 per night during off-season, with rooms priced in the $92 to $131 range per night during summer high season. Key attractions, in addition to the welcoming innkeeper, are Santo Stefano’s rooftop breakfast and sunbathing patio with its commanding view of the Adriatic and the town rooftops. The daily breakfast includes fresh breads and pastries, as well as cereals, fruits and yogurts prepared by Domenico, who had worked previously as a cook. Only cash is accepted to settle accounts.
We also enjoyed drinks and a majestic seafront view on an afternoon visit to the four-star Hotel Covo dei Saraceni (“Cove of the Saracens”; www.covodeisaraceni.com). The hotel features a fine dining restaurant with a wide outdoor canopied deck facing the sea where a buffet breakfast is served, inclusive in the room rates. Some rooms and suites have private sea-facing verandahs. Varying with the seasons, rack rates here for superior doubles range from $179 to $235, with junior suites from $248 to $340 and full suites from $319 to $496.
Our splurge dinner was in the Antiche Mura (“Ancient Walls”), a popular seafood restaurant in the town center. A four-course meal for two in this well-lit cavern space included mussels, squid pasta, fresh locally-caught grilled fish, chocolate cake and espressos with cordials for about $120, including tip. We walked off our meal the next day with a 45-minute hike each way to the neighboring waterfront village of San Vito, where colorful fishing boats dot the harbor. Over coffees in the “Locanda dei Benedettini” restaurant, a former Benedictine monastery facing the harbor, we enjoyed an informative conversation in English with a former ambassador from Norway who had retired to Polignano a Mare after meeting and marrying a local woman while they were on work assignments in Africa.
We later visited Polignano’s Pino Pascali Museum of Contemporary Art (www.museopinopascali.it), considered the most important in Puglia for the support of young Italian and other European artists. While the somewhat zany works on display here may not please traditionalists, art lovers in search of wildly imaginative modern imagery will find their fill here.
Bari and Home
On our last day in Puglia we took the efficient, modern commuter train from Polgnano a Mare for a day trip to the capital city of Bari. While the city was undeniably lively, with much activity in the park opposite the train station including a small Christmas market, we were happy to have chosen not to stay overnight in the city. The information office next to the traffic circle at the train station was very helpful with hotel, map and sightseeing information. We found the hotels we visited modern, cold and much less appealing than our chosen accommodations elsewhere. The main appeal for Americans is likely found on the Via Sparano di Bari, the wide pedestrian-only shopping street lined with fashion shops that connects the park opposite the train station to the old city (“Centro Storico”) about a mile to the north.
We found the Basilica of St. Nicholas, Bari’s patron saint, closed in the historic city center within the labyrinth of narrow residential streets. The waterfront promenade along the Adriatic is a worthwhile sightseeing stop, at the back of the old town, and the former Norman fortress facing the sea gave insight on how Bari was defended over centuries from sea invasions. We were disappointed, however, to discover that the former seafood market on the Bari waterfront had been converted to unappealing souvenir selling stalls.
When we inevitably return to Puglia we will consider flying in and out of Brindisi, the southern city we found more appealing and accessible than the congestion of Bari. That said, we found easy connections by train and bus from Polignano a Mare to our flights home from the Karol Wojtyla Airport, about 30 minutes north of Bari and named after Pope John Paul II.