Just to spice things a little, and with worthy reason, as you’ll find out later, I wrote the title of this post to be more in keeping with the ‘crime and mystery’ genre of writing. You see, in the south of Italy, not everything is as it seems…
Hey, enough of the intrigue, for now let’s get on with the good travel stuff.
As you’ll remember from my previous two posts on Apulia – we’re on a family vacation and have so far visited some cool spots, including San Giovanni Rotondo and the capital of the ‘trulli’, Alberobello. Now we are heading to our villa for eight nights, near Pulsano on the Gulf of Taranto.
The thing to know about route-planning and driving in Puglia is that there are very few fast roads and a whole lot of slow roads. To cope with the sluggish traffic, I suggest to draw on one’s deepest reserves of zen for the journey and simply and calmly ‘go with the flow’.
Accidents are unfortunately commonplace. I think it must be either the summer heat or the southern fiery temperament, or a cauldron mix of both, that leads to some fairly rash driving decisions on behalf of a few local speedsters.
If you happen to be racing along too, then you had better be prepared for some ‘Mario Kart’ style action. It is quite likely that you’ll meet young Davide and Riccardo travelling parallel in two small cars in the opposite direction. They’ll be showcasing their rally driving prowess and Formula One credentials to their girlfriends Giorgia, Sara, Emma, Aurora and Chiara. Be ready to yank your wheel hard and head for the gravel at the side of the road. We did, and blew a tyre in the process. More later. Yikes.
Pulsano is quite remote in some ways, and therein lies its attraction. I wouldn’t say the town has anything particularly special about it, but because it is so ‘local’ the visitor can enjoy a good dose of authenticity in every shopping foray or encounter with residents.
We planned a BBQ that night, so stopped at several emporia to buy supplies. There was the 1960s style family butcher with metal bead curtains, the aroma-filled market hall with its three greengrocer tables laden with local produce and the corner store jammed with enough everyday goods to supply the entire town in the event of a, quite possible, two-week national strike. In each, we were served with a friendly greeting, sound advice and a good helping of generosity in terms of time and patience. And the prices were fantastic. Peaches were €0.15 a piece, lettuce was €0.30 and a 500 gram T-bone was under €10.00. While we were shopping, I grabbed a steaming, delicious espresso for just €0.85. What a pleasure.
We were met in Pulsano’s ‘Lido Silvana’ beach area by Francesco, the owner of our new villa home. He handed over the keys and explained the ins and outs of the property. Job done. Let’s get fired up and cooking, crack open the wine and relax before tomorrow’s full day on the local beaches. We enjoyed a mix of activities while in Pulsano – swimming, sightseeing excursions, some great dining experiences and best of all, time spent visiting old friends.
Let me tell you of few of the places you simply have to go:
Polignano a Mare
Now it doesn’t matter where you are staying in the Puglia, but you really should visit this charming seaside town. It’s situated around 30km south of Bari and is a historic fishing port built on craggy limestone cliffs, riddled with crevices and caves. The town is very popular with Barese (people from Bari) on the weekends, but slightly quieter during the week, so that’s the time to visit. The Centro Storico, or Old Town, has plenty of artisan stores with uniquely designed and locally stitched summer fashions; and lovely cafes and trattorie serving quality Apulian specialities like chunky Apulian sausage, scallopini of veal with white wine sauce and, of course, wonderful seafood fresh from the Adriatic.
We were on a culinary mission however. The Grotta Palazzeze is a unique four-star hotel right on the cliff-edge of the old town, and certainly it’s worth a stay, but our visit there wasn’t for that purpose. We were there to experience their unique restaurant. It lies in a subterranean grotto system, directly beneath the property, and is one of Italy’s most unusual restaurants. You dine, deep inside the cavern, suspended above the rocks on a wood and steel platform, over the crystal clear waters of the Adriatic with dramatic views of the cliffs and horizon.
In the height of summer, the cave’s natural air-conditioning keeps you cool and fresh, while your privileged status as ‘a diner with a reservation’ (make sure to book early) ensures you look and feel inwardly chilled too. Don’t make the mistake of turning up in beach-wear. That’s not how Italians do lunch at a place like this. Dress casual but don’t dress down and you’ll feel like a ‘rock’ star – as is the restaurant itself of course. The food is very good and seafood is naturally a feature, but it is the overall experience you’ll write home about, not simply the cuisine. Lunch will set you back at least $150 a head, probably more, and locals don’t dine there with any frequency, but it is one of those places where you just gotta do it.
After lunch, I recommend heading a few kilometres further south to Monopoli – it has some of the most beautiful beaches in the region. We stopped at Lido Sabbiadoro, which had excellent facilities and great service. Lying back on our loungers on the carefully prepared sands while sipping a fresh Aperol Spritz rounded off a lovely day.
Castellaneta Marina and Castellaneta
I know a thing or two about these two municipalities because my eldest daughters are half Italian and this is the area where their family still live. Both places are situated on the other side of the Gulf of Taranto from Pulsano and are actually better connected, with fast roads to both Bari and Brindisi airports. On this trip, we visited for the day and very enjoyably caught up with some old friends and family. But it would certainly be worth staying longer, and it is an ideal base for a full week’s vacation for an overseas visitor.
Castellaneta Marina is a small coastal resort, primarily used by locals but with growing numbers of upstate and overseas visitors during the summer months. The Castellanetani are friendly and welcoming and the beaches are very attractive with golden sands and extensive, well-managed facilities. The sea-bed here is very gently sloping so affords a relatively safe environment for younger children – which suited us perfectly.
As with all coastal areas in Italy, the many private beaches are interspersed with public stretches of sand, but for the visitor the facilities of the private lido are really worth the investment. There is always a bar and a restaurant, sport and recreation areas, deck chairs and of course the ubiquitous ‘ombrelloni’ (‘big umbrellas’). You’ll pay about €50.00 for a couple of beach recliners and umbrella (half that if you leave your arrival until mid-afternoon), but it’s worth it for the convenience. Meanwhile, in the bar, there is usually someone up for an hour or two of ‘Barraca’, a card game somewhat like Canasta, that is played in these parts. It’ll likely be accompanied by a delicious toasted slice of focaccia, an oven-cooked pizza-type dough speciality, impregnated with coarse sea-salt, rosemary, thyme, cracked pepper and fresh cherry tomatoes; oh, and oozing rich olive oil.
The town of Castellaneta itself lies inland, some 20km from Castellaneta Marina, and is rather more remarkable. It’s an ancient hilltop labyrinth on the very edge of the ‘Gravina’, a huge ravine and geological wonder that dominates the topography the area. A gentle walk through the old town and its white-washed houses will bring you to the perimeter of the gorge; and the views are truly spectacular. Years ago I trekked to the bottom and along the valley. Quite something to experience. It’s almost silent down there and there are few tourists, so you get to appreciate the magical landscape very personally.
Castellaneta still plays homage to its most famous son, Rudolph Valentino, with a museum and statue bearing his name. Ancestors of Dan Castellaneta of The Simpsons fame were also from here.
D’oh! I’m not sure what Homer would make of the heritage side of things, but I’m certain he would enjoy the bars around Piazza Principe di Napoli and the administrative buildings of the commune. They’re especially popular at night after the locals have completed their evening passeggiata along Via Roma. Raffo, the local beer of Taranto, is really very good and street-side tables add much-need extra capacity.
Taranto – the city of two seas
Taranto is the capital city of the province of Taranto and a major trading centre. It lies between the ‘Mar Piccolo’ or ‘little sea’, with its old fishing and naval port; and ‘Mar Grande’ or ‘big sea’ with its modern commercial port. Historically, the city gets its name from Taras, and was the principle settlement of the Spartans in their Greek colony of Magna Grecia. The city has also given its name to a certain spider (not found here by the way) and the frenetic dance, ‘La Tarantella’.
I’m not sure I’d spend my entire vacation here, but it is a fascinating city and absolutely worth a visit or short stay. It’s a ‘must’ to dine at the seafood restaurants down near the old port. They line the harbour and are some of the best eateries in Puglia. We spent an evening at Trattoria Locanda San Guiseppe on Via G Garabaldi, dining on local orrechiete pasta and fresh seafood. With wine included, the bill for six came to just €110.00. Result.
Ostuni – La Citta Bianca
Our trip to the Ostuni area was very special indeed. The city itself is a cracker and you really should visit. It has everything you could want in a medieval town and is a destination in its own right. Great ramparts, narrow back-streets, whitewashed buildings, a great cathedral, incredible sea views and much more.
It was also the day we caught up with writers Tom Weber and Orna O’Reilly-Weber aka @tompalladioink and @OrnaOR. I know both of them well from various press trips back at Insight Vacations, so it was an absolute delight to meet them on their home turf in the lovely Valle d’Itria. You can learn much about Puglia from Tom’s personal blog – the Palladian Traveler – he’s always a reliable correspondent.
At Tom’s suggestion, our rendezvous for lunch was at the ancient Masseria Corrone, set among the typical olive trees and Mediterranean scrub of the Corrone district, just 10km from Ostuni.
Tom and Orna know the owners, Maria and her daughters, so we were welcomed with gusto and a delicious jug of rosato, rose wine from the region. This is organic farm-to-table in the definitive sense. Beef, lamb and poultry; extra virgin olive oil; vegetables; freshly baked bread; and rich caciotte cheeses; all produced on their farms. It was clear that Maria’s menu suggestions were not be questioned, and I’m glad we didn’t! We sat at a rustic table for eight, and ate and drank everything on our ‘Cuppitedda’ (a collection of simple dishes each recapturing old or typical recipes of the region). Eventually, we could consume no more. It was an afternoon to remember.
Our next stop was at Villa Allegra, just a couple of kilometers west of Ostuni, the stunning home built from plan by Orna and Tom. I’ve seldom seen such a lovely setting. Our kids swam in their pool while we enjoyed good conversation; and their chilled Prosecco. We sat on their beautiful terrace overlooking more olive-tree clad hills and lapped up the late afternoon breeze as it stirred the balmy heat of mid-summer.
I heartily recommend the Ostuni region. Next trip to Puglia I think we’ll stay there and spend more time in the Salento peninsular.
So… that brings us back to the title of this post… and it relates to the sad story of our Range Rover.
You will recall the blown tyre? Well, while replacing it with our rather shoddy spare, I somehow managed to snap the locking nut. We replaced the damaged tyre next day, but despite the valiant efforts of the tyre people, couldn’t get it back on the vehicle without this tiny but shattered masterpiece of Land Rover technology. It cannot be done. If the security lock is broken you have no choice but to go to a main dealer and have it replaced. The only Land Rover main dealer in Puglia is in Bari.
So, on our final day, with my wife and youngest dropped off in Brindisi for their flight back to Geneva and my eldest ensconced with the Italian family in Castellaneta (I hope you are managing to follow this), I set off with our three youngest for Switzerland. Our planned route was via Bari (for the spare part), to Rimini overnight and then via Milan back to Geneva.
We got to the dealer in Bari OK, and after much delay and complication with passports, checking of car security documents and road licence paperwork, we were finally issued with a new locking nut. Hoorah. With great generosity they got under the car, fiddled around and switched our tyre free of charge. Off we went north.
To cut a long story short, after four hours or so the kids were tired so we went online and picked a hotel from Booking.com. At 17.30, we pulled into our last-minute night stop at the Sealion Hotel in Montesilvano, near Pescara. We had a great stay and the hotel was lovely… but next morning when we checked out at 08.30 am the car was gone. Cue tears from the kids. CCTV picked it up, departing the hotel car park, undamaged, at 04.30 am.
Now, call me Sherlock, but the old brain cells start working overtime on occasions like this. We’ve got both keys and the car was locked. Something fishy seems afoot. No-one knew we were going to stay here, so unless someone actually happened to be sitting in the hotel car park with a digital receiver and full set of key-cloning equipment when we arrived, then something else must be in play… Hmm. Wait a minute… we’re only four hours north of Bari… Damn.
The hotel was great; very helpful and gracious in fact. The Carabinieri (the elite army police force) were similarly sympathetic at 10.30 am in their heavily fortified HQ: “Signore, ormai la tua auto è quasi certamente in pezzi e venduta per pezzi di ricambio” (Sir, by now your car is almost certainly in pieces and sold for spare parts). Oh great.
Elvis got it right when he sang the lyrics of ‘Suspicious Minds’: ‘We’re caught in a trap, I can’t walk out, because…’. Right. we couldn’t walk out because… hello… Geneva is 894 km away and the kids are only 6, 6 and 8 and we don’t have hiking boots.
So, out with the credit card, get lift to Pescara airport; no flights. Onto the Internet, jump in the rental car, drive like Davide and Riccardo non-stop to Rome, plead with the security to jump the line and board our Alitalia flight to Geneva with four minutes to spare. Holy Moly.
Did all this spoil our vacation in Apulia? Not for a moment. What a fantastic destination. We had a great trip and enjoyed amazing time with family and friends. Check my other ‘Road to Apulia’ posts, or Tom Weber’s posts, and you’ll see it’s true.
Would I recommend driving to southern Italy? Yes, by all means – but make sure to take a separate steering-wheel lock; and most definitely stay clear of car dealers in Bari.