#TheLongWayHome part 1 – Puglia weekend
After some glorious days spent relaxing with my family in beautiful Cilento, it was time to make our way to my cousin’s wedding, conveniently arranged for the last Saturday in August in Bari, Puglia. It is kind of right across on the other side of Italy however there is no direct link between the two sides in the south. No direct motorway either. Basically, it is a long way, but we had no choice.
Off we go
We re-packed our Jag, filled the cooler with our water bottles, put sunscreen on and said our yearly, sad goodbyes and we set off. The first detour was via the Maratea coast, an incredibly scenic and somewhat heart stopping road which has nothing to envy to the Amalfi coastal route and actually in my humble opinion, is also way more beautiful. The day was also perfect, with bright colours and a calm, deep blue sea dotted with boats here and there, it mad me even more sad as I pretty much grew up around here and these blues belong to my heart.
Right after Maratea and just before reaching Calabria, we turned inland via Lauria to take the ‘Sinnica‘ statale, another quite scenic drive which is also a little dangerous not allowing for many overtaking points. Not for @bmcboy, who gave me and Amber some extra grey hair and possibly got the first speeding ticket of our return journey. The road takes drivers from the green area of the Noce river (almost dry at this time of the year) and onto the Ionian sea, where the landscape becomes more desert and the colours are bright gold and warm.
We stopped for lunch in Lido di Metaponto, a fairly popular seaside destination I had never visited before. Not a place I would come back frankly, it seemed really run down and despite being still peak season, really quite dead. We stopped in a smart looking restaurant oddly named Blumen Bad Beach right on the beach, not really expecting too much and actually we had a fantastic meal.
The waiter was super friendly and helpful and I absolutely loved my ‘seafood caponata’ while he enjoyed a very fresh tuna steak, brought to the table on the plancha, served with seasonal vegetables. Amber had some welcome grissini and bowl of water, for us a glass of Cantine del Notaio Il Rogito Rose completed a great stop over meal.
We then, despite the heat, decided to visit the Metapontum Greek archaeological sites, small, empty and free. We had missed out on Velia again while in Cilento but we made up (a bit) with Metapontum. We left the sites behind and drove past Taranto towards our destination for the next two nights, in Selva di Fasano.
We arrived in the area close to sunset; the light was warm and it was no longer too hot. We put the roof down once more and drove to our hotel for the next two nights through the olive groves and the trulli hamlets which started appearing more and more regularly. Fasano and Alberobello are world famous for the bizarre traditional trulli, stone dwellings which used to be primarily for farmers but are now turned into luxury boutique accommodations all around.
Our hotel for the next two nights was Tenuta Monacelle on the hills behind Fasano, not far from the sea, surrounded by olive and cherry trees. I absolutely loved this hotel; set in a large woodland area, it is comprised of various buildings, part of them old trulli, the majority modern built masseria (another typical local agricultural building).
The hotel has a beautiful pool, again completely surrounded by greenery, a poolside bar and a pretty good restaurant in the trulli, indoor in the winter but really lovely set outdoor in the summer. Here we had a great dinner of local fresh fish and meat, and a decent local wine, followed by a delicious chocolate ‘bacio‘ dessert. I did not order the famous local pasta dish (orecchiette) thinking I would have had a chance at the wedding the next day;
I refrained again at lunch the following day but I should have! Well, in fact the wedding dinner, held at seaside shabby chic Dos Santos under a bright full moon, had plenty of food but not so much typical apulian food which was a shame (in my humble opinion, then again most guests were local so fair enough). I drowned my sorrows in the burrata, eating about a ton of it from the buffet.
Medieval churches… paradise!
Our last day in Puglia saw us drive around a heck of a lot, without actually making much progress north which is what I sort of had planned for; I really wanted to try and make the most of visiting the region without too much rush. And we actually took it so slowly we did not see as much as I had originally intended. We took our time having one more fantastic breakfast at Tenuta Monacelle, and we made our way on C roads towards Bitonto.
The drive was yet again, beautiful: in the morning sunshine we drove through olive groves and trulli, masseria and farmhouses, with the shimmering Adriatic sea and the coast in the distance. We arrived in Bitonto by lunchtime, and the heat was by now pretty stifling. We parked and walked in search of the old town and the cathedral.
This area of Puglia is known for its ‘white cities’, due to the white stone used to build the old towns and their heritage. Bitonto was just such a white city. The tower, the cobbled streets, and the lack of people was a great way to appreciate it; just a shame that most places were closed and sadly, the amazing Romanesque cathedral was also closed at lunch. Its facade is simply stunning, with rich stonework, gargoyles and ornate portals, I can’t begin to imagine its interior.
We managed to also find one of the few places open to have lunch and how good Sale in Zucca was! We shared a tagliere of cold cuts and local cheeses, some grilled vegetables and the obvious glass of local wine. Not sure why the waiter did not give us the full menu (the table next to us had it, after we had ordered).
This meant I missed out on the last opportunity to have orecchiette! yet no big deal, the food was delicious, and we closed the meal with a truly good semifreddo with peach and hazelnuts.
We left Bitonto to the next stop at Ruvo di Puglia; while @bmcboy and Amber relaxed under the trees in the shade playing with the water fountain, I went in search of the old town and the cathedral. Also closed, what a gem it also was! Smaller than Bitonto, but beautifully preserved. I loved waling back to our car through the tiny alleyways of the medieval town, so quiet at this time of the day.
Back in the car, we made for Castel del Monte, picking some wild figs along the way and leaving behind the most amazing amount of prickly pears I have ever seen, their yellow and red fruit beautifully plump. Castel del Monte us a must, but sadly we only saw it from the distance. Such is the fame of this incredible, strange and mysterious Federico II castle, that you have to park a mile or so off, take a shuttle bus, leave the dog in the car… not feasible.
We drove off, and aimed for Trani, where we stopped for a little longer, just as the sun started to cast long shadows. What a sight! I had been meaning to visit for years and this beautiful seaside town did not disappoint.
When I say beautiful, I refer of course to the old town; most of the modern towns are unfortunately pretty boring and mediocre in Puglia as for a lot of other Italian areas (sad but true, how have we managed to ruin our heritage I am not sure).
The Trani seafront is graced by one of the most impressing Romanesque cathedrals of Europe, with its beautiful bell tower and the white stone, golden in the late afternoon sun. I visited the church too, its crypts and the main section. Majestic, high rise Romanesque naves and windows, a peaceful atmosphere. I donated some money to its preservation fund, wishing I could help more. Heritage, needs more help than human kind.
Finally, time to decide where to stop for the night and we drove not far from Trani to Barletta, which I had heard was also worth visiting. With our usual car + dog requirements in mind, I booked a Best Western slight on the outer side of town. Hotel dei Cavalieri turned out to be a great move as we could relax without having to drive back into town, benefiting from their shuttle service (more like a private taxi on demand!).
We got also lucky as we got a room upgrade for an unknown reason. We made our way to town for the evening and walked around yet another very beautiful ‘white city’ old town, as the night was closing in. The areas right around its cathedral (another fine example or Puglia Romanesque) were absolutely heaving, while slightly further out towards the seaside it seemed dead. We did not find the place we had been looking for (1980) and stopped, tired and grumpy, in a pizzeria right under the bell tower.
Pizza was mediocre and forgettable but to eat and look at some Medieval monument for me it’s just bliss. I peeked into the church as we left, it was still open for sunday evening mass and really quite full of people. I managed a quick dash in the under croft where roman mosaic floor has been found (and why not, just some more heritage), and then we walked back to pick up point with an ice cream.
The next morning it was time make our way back north leaving Puglia behind. Rushing, we got a take away breakfast at the McCafe’ next door, surprisingly good (it’s Italy after all, and McDonald’s have to pull out all the stops and well done to them, I was impressed as it was an authentic Italian breakfast!).
The Long Way Home was now properly starting.