Puglia is a region in Southern Italy, the heel of the boot. I was always attracted to it, because I knew of its impressive artistic heritage and great cuisine. And I am so glad I finally went!
The region also has some of Italy’s best beaches, but this itinerary is not for the beach-lovers among you – we visited Puglia in April and didn’t exactly get beach weather.
If you want to discover some of the most interesting sites in Puglia, this blog is for you. The itinerary is designed for the time-poor traveler who has four days to enjoy the best Puglia has to offer. It will take you to visit mysterious castles, villages that seem to have popped out of a fairy tale book, Baroque cities and picture-perfect coastal towns.
First things first: you WILL need a car for this self-guided tour around Puglia. While distances are not huge, with little time on your hands you don’t want to rely on public transport.
On Day 1, arrive in Bari, the region’s capital, and spend the day enjoying its historical center and great food. I have already covered the city in another blog you can find here. If you are interested in off-the-beaten-track destinations, you don’t want to miss this city.
On your second day, visit the super interesting Castel del Monte in the morning and then Alberobello and its trulli in the afternoon, before heading back south to Lecce.
On Day 3, reach the capital of Baroque architecture, Lecce. You will fall in love with its incredible artistical heritage.
On your last day, on your way back to Bari, stop at the coastal towns of Monopoli and Polignano a Mare and spend the day relaxing, eating seafood, sunbathing and savouring delicious gelato.
Puglia is a true Mediterranean gem, and I hope this blog will inspire you to consider it for your next trip to Italy.
CASTEL DEL MONTE
Puglia knew its period of greatest splendor under the reign of the Swabians. Frederick II, in particular, loved this region very much. He was an enlightened ruler, who loved the arts, architecture and culture – in fact, he is responsible for some of the greatest fortress we can see in Puglia today (including the renovation of the Castello Normanno-Svevo in Bari).
Puglia’s most beautiful and certainly most mysterious castle is Castel del Monte. From its hilltop location, this iconic landmark dominates the countryside around Andria.
Historians are still debating the purpose of the building. Some say it was a residence, but it wasn’t as grand as other palaces of the time. Others say it was a fortress, but the lack of a moat and its exposed location seem to suggest otherwise. A hunting lodge, a temple, a Spa… theories about the castle abound, and many of them have merit. Some even believe that the shape of the building, which resembles the crown of Frederick II, suggests Castel del Monte was nothing but a monument to the Emperor. This place is intriguing to say the least.
The castle is full of interesting symbolism, starting from the number 8 – which we find everywhere, from the shape of the building (an octagon) to the number of rooms in the interior and the details in the decoration. I was excited to learn that the octagon, a figure halfway between a square (a symbol for the earth) and a circle (a symbol for the sky), is thought to represent a passage between the two – definitely an interpretation fit for the ego of an emperor.
If you are going to visit one castle while in Puglia, make sure that castle is Castel del Monte. And if the place looks familiar, it is because it was used as a set in many movies. It also appears on the Italian one-cent Euro coin.
ALBEROBELLO AND ITS TRULLI
As you approach Alberobello, conical stone roofs start to appear all around you. This sun-drenched town in the heart of Puglia is famous the world over for its unusual dwellings, the trulli. (Which explains the hordes of tourists you will have to endure if you want to visit the town.)
So, what is a trullo? It is a dry stone hut, very popular in this area and characterized by a conical roof. It’s a rural dwelling, thought to have been brought to Puglia many, many moons ago from the Middle East. Initially, the trulli acted as temporary shelter or warehouses, but over time they evolved into dwellings. Alberobello has 1,500 of them. As I walked around the town’s Rione Monti, I couldn’t help but feel like in a fantasy land… or in the Smurfs’ village. Even the church here is built in the shape of a trullo!
The reason the trulli are so popular around here is that they were a very clever way to avoid paying taxes: these dwellings are very quick and easy to disassemble, which came in handy when the tax inspector showed up.
What about the pinnacles and the symbols on the roofs? Here’s where it gets truly interesting. The pinnacles are thought to be tantamount to a signature left by the builder to distinguish his work from others’, whereas the drawings are meant to protect against evil forces. These symbols are connected to ancient beliefs, Christianity and even the Zodiac. You can get up close and personal with the roofs, by visiting many of the shops offering access to their terraces free of charge. The views are EVERYTHING!
As I walked around this picturesque town, I knew at once I was in a very unique place. Alberobello is simply stunning and, despite the bus-loads of selfie-taking tourists, it has to be part of your Puglia itinerary.
LECCE, THE SOUTHERN LADY
Lecce may have couple late to party, but it is now fully recognized as one of Italy’s great art cities – città d’arte. The city is often nicknamed the “Florence of the south” and it isn’t hard to understand why: when planning my itinerary around the city, I found it a bit overwhelming at first because of the sheer amount of sites that are worth seeing.
To begin with, the city features not one, but two Roman amphitheaters – a very rare occurrence even in Italy. The most spectacular of the two occupies a huge chunk of Lecce’s main square – Piazza Sant’Oronzo. A big part of the structure still lies underground.
The theater is not the only sight worth seeing in the square. Here, you’ll find a variety of buildings and styles. My favorite was Il Sedile, right next to the amphitheater. This elegant building dates back to 1592, when it was built to house the city government.
But none of this is what Lecce is famous for. The Apulian city is best known for its exquisite Baroque architecture, which relied heavily on local stone. Its yellow-ish color gives the city a beautiful glow.
The best examples of Baroque in Lecce are the extraordinary Chiesa di Santa Croce (of course under renovation when we visited), the adjacent Palazzo dei Celestini, with its exquisite façade, and the nearby Piazza Duomo. Here, the complex of the Cathedral, its bell tower and the Palazzo Vescovile make for the most beautiful Baroque square in Italy. I spent half an hour just looking around and marveling at the incredible elegance of these buildings.
Take the whole day to explore the city’s remarkable landmarks. If you are into photography, you will fall in love with Lecce. The color of the stone and the way it contrasts with the blue of the sky makes for some incredible shots.
With 865 kilometers of coast, Puglia is full of pretty seaside towns. Our trip wasn’t in the summertime, so we left out the beach towns of the Salento region and focused on the area southeast of Bari, the region’s capital.
For this tour, I suggest you visit Monopoli and Polignano a Mare. Coming from Lecce, the first of the two you’ll encounter is Monopoli – a little gem of a town developing around its postcard-like old port full of fishing boats bobbing in the tide. I found the buildings around the port to be simple, yet extremely elegant – in particular Palazzo Martinelli, built in Venetian style.
From here, Monopoli’s mighty coastal fortifications begin. Start at the Castle of Charles the V, right behind the old port, walk down the walls and stop at the Bastion of Saint Mary. This is a very pleasant walk, just inches away from the bright blue of the Adriatic. I really enjoyed strolling around Monopoli’s historical center, with its alleys flooded with light bouncing off the white walls and green shutters. The Cathedral has an impressive bell tower you don’t want to miss.
Jump in the car and drive a few kilometers north to Polignano a Mare, where you’ll spend the rest of the day. Lunch has to be at Pescaria, serving mouthwatering seafood and fish plates. My sandwich with tuna tataki, pesto and buffalo mozzarella was to die for. Also try a frittura for €10. To avoid the ever-present lines, come here for a late lunch.
Polignano a Mare is one of the prettiest Mediterranean cities I have seen in my life. It is famous for being spectacularly perched on high cliffs overlooking the Adriatic. Each terrace provides a new and more exciting photo opportunity here. Imagine waking up and opening the windows to see this every morning!
Get a gelato at Il Mago del Gelato and walk down to the impossibly attractive Lama Monachile, a small pebble beach surrounded by cliffs that becomes very popular in the summer.
- Day 1: Arrival in Bari (if you couldn’t get there the night before) and spend the day exploring the city.
- Day 2: Pick up your rental car and drive north to Castel del Monte, which you will visit in the morning. In the afternoon, head south to Alberobello. If you are not tired, reach Lecce.
- Day 3: Discover Lecce and its impressive artistic heritage.
- Day: Drive from Lecce to Bari, stopping at the postcard-like seaside towns of Monopoli and Polignano a Mare.