After so many visits to Northern Italy, it was high time to take a look at Southern Italy. We’ve heard from our Italian friends that both parts of the country were totally different. This may not be a surprise since they were different countries/nations not so long ago. So a birthday surprise took me to a region in Southern Italy – Apulia or Puglia. It was time to check if this part of the country was really so beautiful and picturesque, with great food and drinks, and with smiling lovely locals.
This article aims to be a guide to some of the top places to visit in Southern Italy and Apulia. My friend Ana and I chose Bari as our base (also we flew in and out from there) and traveled daily to different towns in the region. That’s how we visited Alberobello, Matera, and Polignano a Mare. Below you will find what is so special about all those places and tons of photos Ana captured. 📷
We explored Bari and its restaurants every night when we got home (an Airbnb room in an apartment in the center itself) from our day trips inside Apulia. Bari is magical and romantic at dark and it’s a real delight to walk its tiny cobblestone streets. If you’re lucky, you’ll spot old-time Italian cars (Fiat) and motorcycles (Vespa) and stolen kisses in the arched hallways.
If you walk around Bari during the daytime, you’ll enjoy the fish market and the non-stop trade, accompanied by bumping few sepias into the ground (to release all its toxic poison). You will be delighted by the tremendous amounts of fragrant flowers in the shops or at improvised gardens in front of some houses. You will wander the cobblestone streets and take in views, people chatting cheerfully, or friends enjoying a sip of wine.
If you visit the city in the night, you will get lost in the tiny streets, you will enjoy the fresh breeze or some mouth-watering typical for the region pizza. We were lucky to dine in different places each night in Bari, to take different little streets to our accommodation, and to also enjoy it during daytime for half a day.
Alberobello is the main reason for this visit to Italy. My friend Ana showed me three pictures: lake Como in Northern Italy, the picturesque Cinque Terre, and a charming little white hut with grey stone roof. I hadn’t seen something so cute in a while so I picked that place without hesitation. It turned out to be a trullo – traditional Apulian hut, once build as permanent dwelling or a storehouse of agricultural laborers. And guess what – there are still hundreds of trulli, preserved to line up in shining ranges and amaze your eye!
You can walk around trulli and even admire some from the inside! They may look tiny but they actually used to accommodate a whole family with children, sometimes including stock. Dry stone manages to keep it cool inside in summer and warmer in winter (not that they suffer bad winters in Southern Italy). We met an old lady whose mother used to actually live there, in a trullo, and she explained to us how life in a small rock house is not always a pleasure – it could be very crowded. Sometimes they had to move the whole hut when there were tax enforcers coming to collect more money from the poor farmers.
In love with trulli
Trulli have some magical mystical signs on their roofs which contribute even more to your love towards the trulli. Romantics can even stay in a traditional trullo or dine on a terrace overlooking the whole Trulli Magicland. We just walked and walked, and walked to absorb as much as possible from the atmosphere and take all those photos. The wind provoked our photogenic minds, the white color invoked our purest thoughts.
We finished with typical sandwiches (pucci) from this part of Italy and some tea. Navigating from and to the train or bus stops is quite easy – just ask “Trulli?” on your way there, and then remember the route for your way back. A magical place we highly recommend – the trulli in Alberobello will easily get you fall in love with them!
Matera is technically in another region of Southern Italy – Basilicata, but its proximity to Apulia makes it easy to get to from Bari. While Alberobello has its trulli, Matera has its sassi. Sassi are cave dwellings that are carved into sandstone (or calcarenitic rock, boring). They are believed to be used as houses to ancient people, but people lived like that until the 1950s. The sassi are built along the river canyon, over Gravina river.
Sometime then the Italian government forcefully tried to move out people from the old-school sassi to the developing modern city. There were sick from the cavemen and their lifestyle, often accompanied by decease. We explored a sassa from the inside – you won’t believe how they used to accommodate families with up to 10 children, their stock, and baggage in a tiny space. The sassi, hewn in the rock used to have mindful ventilation, but definitely not sufficient.
The story of sassi
The new buildings and the old dwellings create a magical beige atmosphere. You can walk for hours and never get bored by the atmosphere. Prepare for some steps, uphill and downhill. Mostly, prepare for some mesmerizing views and ancient spirit, incorporated in every little detail. Allow yourself time to have a glass of wine or an ice-cream – it can get really hot around.
Sassi di Matera can be explored by a motorized ape (Italian three-wheeled vehicle, named after “bee”). Our wonderful driver and local guide Vito made sure we know all the stories from his local perspective, we managed to buzz around and take the ape viewpoint. Exploring a town with so many levels is not an easy task, neither by foot nor by ave. But it was well worth it both ways. You can spend days and feel like a real sassi inhabitant or an ancient person. History reveals itself in front of your eyes!
Navigation from train station – ask for “Sassi?”, give yourself 20 minutes to and from the old town and its sassi.
Polignano a Mare
You must have heard the song “Volare” by the famous Italian singer and songwriter Domenico Modugno. Well, Polignano a Mare is his birthplace, and probably the place where he composed a lot of songs. And there’s a reason for that. The whole village is just so picturesque and inspiring – a dream for every artist I’d say!
Polignano a Mare is just a 30-minute train ride from Bari and will capture you with its charismatic old town, the high terraces with views towards cliffs overlooking the sea, and last but not least – its ice-cream. We were actually quite lucky to visit it, because the initial program we created didn’t include it. But the happy consequence of bad weather on Sunday, which led to staying half of the day to explore Bari during daylight, which led to squeezing Alberobello in half a day, which left Monday for Matera and Tuesday half-day for Polignano a Mare. Great luck!
So Polignano al Mare provided us with the great views from its raised-on-the-cliffs old town, we managed to get lost (again) in its little charming streets, we even attempted visiting a Michelin restaurant nestled in a rock cave. Not that it was super expensive, but the reviews were quite bad so we opted for a seafood pasta lunch in a typical restaurant and we couldn’t be happier with our choice.
On a recent Erasmus+ project in Southern Italy, Bistra visited Lecce to take part in an ecological photo exhibition in a very cool off-beat community space named Vecchio Stampo (“The Old Mold”). The community hub hosts different events and helps the people from the neighborhood get together and create cool stuff.
The walk around the old town of Lecce turned out to be an improvised wine tour, combined with getting lost in tiny streets and buying some artisanal notebooks made of local papers. Being able to get sober and still like the sunny experience in the city, I can say Lecce is a great choice for a half day or a day tour. But don’t limit yourselves to churches and historical landmarks, go and taste that Negro Amaro, check out the open-air markets and buy something to support local artists.
The town (or was it a village) of Novoli is the perfect example of how you can immerse yourself in a non-touristy Southern Italy. Maybe you won’t find anything special there, but I had some time to chat with locals at the big (and only) supermarket, to check out the bars where the same people go for a drink every evening for years, and to enjoy empty streets and abandoned places. The owners of a local shop were so friendly and wanted to help me with my request so much that they called a friend to help them translate, as our Italian-Spanish communication was getting out of control. That is Italy, totally off the beaten path!
Gulf of Taranto
If you have a chance (which means transport), make sure you head to Gulf of Taranto to enter another world. Nature is just stunning and there’s a chance you’ll find yourself on a nice sandy beach, enjoying the sun and practicing different water sports. Our dream team of Erasmus volunteers with Greenrope association cleaned the dirty and polluted with plastic and whatnot part of the beach, after that, we headed to the private part of Lido Gandoli to immerse ourselves in photography, kayaking, standup pedaling, and whatever our hearts wanted.
Gulf of Taranto is so rich in sea life and has the perfect conditions to host an amazing biodiversity but it needs us, people, to start considering our impact on nature and think more of how we harmed the surrounding flora and fauna. Increasing the awareness is one of the main goals of WWF Policoro so you can visit the sea turtle rescue center and get to know you can help sea turtles and other sea life survive. We did a bit of orienteering in the surrounding woods and on the amazing huge pristine beach and even the nasty rain didn’t ruin our fun!
Transportation and accommodation
If there’s one thing tricky about browsing Southern Italy, that would be the transportation. If you, like me and Ana, decide to move around by public transportation, you should have some things in mind.
First, there are plenty of private train companies. That means, for bigger places like Bari, that you’ll have different train stations or different train terminals. This contradicts my understanding that if you have a train station, you can catch any train that stops there. The good news is that in most cases, different stations and terminals for different companies are situated very close to (or next to) each other. But you have to go to the right desk to buy tickets. We talked to very kind representatives at the ticket desks, who even helped us find timetables and offices for other companies. Do not take this as granted as it’s not their obligation to know about the competition.
If it is Sunday – keep in mind most of the train companies don’t work on Sunday. We did a research and found bus alternatives – but they also had their own station and ticket desks (inside a coffee shop). Sunday schedules are much looser so plan ahead if you want to wander across towns in Apulia on Sundays.
Bari airport to town – there is (guess what?) a private train company option or the public transport bus which connects the city and the airport. If you buy tickets in advance it’s a bit cheaper than if you buy from the driver. Those little tricks, right?
And some more tips: there’s a bus station right at the train station in Bari. Don’t ask me which one. 😜
We suggest that you find accommodation in Apulia with booking.com. For other good deals, head to Airbnb (this link will give you 26€ travel credit when you sign up, by the way). You can discover real gems on site, but this goes with the risks of not finding a place to stay at all.
So, after my first visit to Apulia and Southern Italy, I can say three things that impressed me the most:
- It is very beautiful from nature and historical points of view. You can’t go wrong if you’re an outdoor person or history buff and visit this region.
- Food and wine are fresh and delicious and you’ll feel like they’re prepared just for your taste. Pamper yourself with that.
- The art of living – people know how to live a joyful life, so we can just follow the locals and their relaxed pace of life and enjoy it to the fullest.
All the beautiful photos were taken by my dear friend Ana Lyubenova. This trip to Southern Italy was my birthday surprise from her! I absolutely adored every minute of it and highly recommend going to Apulia with good friends to complete your experience!
Have you ever been to Southern Italy? What amazed you the most? Let us know in the comments below!