Puglia – some call it the heel of Italy, others the salad basket or bread basket of Italy. Whatever you want to call it, you’re guaranteed to fall in love with this region in the south east of the country, especially if you base yourself in the gorgeous town of Polignano a Mare on the Adriatic coast.
There can’t be too many prettier seaside towns in Italy than Polignano a Mare. Its medieval old town features houses built into limestone cliffs and caves high above the deep blue waters of the Adriatic. Throw in beaches, cracking food and gelato, Roman remains and long sunny days and you won’t understand why so few foreign tourists visit.
Don’t leave it all to the Italians – go now!
It’s ideally located if you want to explore more of Puglia, and is served with its own train station a ten minute walk from the old town. This is great if you want to visit Bari (30 minutes), Ostuni (25 minutes) or Lecce (1 hour 20 minutes), while for those with a car there are hilltop towns and trulli villages a 30 minute drive inland.
It was a different kind of train we took on our first day there – the tourist train along the streets of town. Tacky it may be, but for €5 each we went from one end of Polignano to the other, saw the sights, got our bearings and had a laugh as the “train driver” whistled and waved at everyone in a skirt we passed.
Polignano’s favourite son is the easy-listening crooner Domenico Modugno, famous for singing Volare. You’ll know the song from its Gypsy Kings cover version and it’s since become a terrace anthem at football grounds across the UK – it was Italy’s entry in the 1958 Eurovision song contest, surprisingly coming only 3rd.
There is an amazingly realistic statue of the great man by the seafront with his big hands and showman pose. It reminded me of the Lancashire town of Morecambe and it’s statue of comedian Eric Morecambe.
The old town was once surrounded by city walls and a moat – these have gone now but the Roman gate, the Arco Marchesale, still stands. We walked inside and straight away found ourselves in the main square, Piazza Vittorio Emanuele.
This is a good little suntrap, and the bar underneath the clock in the photo above is a great place to stop for a Spritz (Prosecco, Aperol and Soda water) or two. The square soon filled up with locals as there was a wedding at the adjacent church. Alleyways off the square lead to panoramic viewing balconies from where you can see the caves along the coast and the town’s main beach, Cala Porto.
Although this beach looks gorgeous from above, it is quite rocky and can get a bit busy especially at weekends. A better bet for beach-lovers is Cala Paura, a 15 minute walk away from the old town over the impressive Roman bridge, Ponte Lama Monachile. The road along this bridge is closed at weekends to allow the mainly Italian visitors to perform the passeggiata – the posey walk before dinner.
Cala Paura is a quieter beach with two little pebbly bays sheltered by cliffs. If you’re lucky you might see the local ragazzi putting on a show and swallow-diving from the cliffs. Unfortunately, we missed the Red Bull Cliff Diving competition which has been held in Polignano a Mare in the past which would have been some experience.
I’m not sure if this is an English trait or if it’s just me, but when I go to a restaurant I like on my travels, I always go back. Infermento on Piazza San Benedetto was one such place. It trebles up as a wine bar, microbrewery and restaurant and it does all three functions perfectly – I’d say the first night I ate there I had one of the best meals of my life.
It’s just as popular with locals as with tourists which is always a good sign. The menu is in Italian only – I always thought I knew enough of the language to get by, but embarrasingly had to ask the friendly owner to translate nearly everything for me. I chose fillet of beef with local red wine sauce (primitivo) for €14 and was in heaven. And the salad? I’ve never been too bothered about salad before, but the rucola (rocket) leaves were five times as big and full of peppery flavour compared to the limp rubbish we get in UK supermarkets.
To finish off, it has to be gelato, and this town has something of a reputation for the stuff. Gusto Caruso on Via Martiri di Dogali produced the best I’ve ever had in my life and has loads of fruity and chocolatey flavours – I remember my mascarpone and pear cooked in port ice cream being particularly good.
Polignano is not a particularly late-night kind of town, although there are a couple of lively bars in the old town past Piazza Vittorio Emanuele. There are a handful of bars to watch the thousands of swallows, that live in the caves inside the cliffs, put on a nightly show. After a few days in Polignano, you might wish you could stay and live here too.
If you fancy a visit after reading this, I can’t recommend Malù Bed & Breakfast (www.bebmalu.it) highly enough. On Lungomare Domenico Modugno, all rooms are named after different Modugno songs, and breakfast is served on the rooftop terrace overlooking the old town and its cliffs.
We were in the Volare room, which had a balcony with breathtaking views of the Adriatic – our only disappointment was finding out the real title of Volare is in fact Nel blu dipinto di blu.
Ryanair fly from Stansted to Bari and Brindisi. Polignano a Mare is 40km from Bari and 70km from Brindisi and is linked to both cities by train.