We got our first taste of Puglia as we looked out on the crystal blue coastline during our short flight from Bologna to Bari via Ryanair. After surviving the Italian rush of who could be first off the plane no matter where you were seated we headed to pick up our wheels.
We had originally considered public transport for the 2 weeks but as we were going to be travelling between towns most days we decided to go with hiring a car. We hired through Alamo whose local agent was Locauto Rent. Having worked in car hire in a past life I can say they made the usual stress of hiring a car very smooth and once we got to the top of the queue we were on the road in no time.
Originally it took me a while to decide between Monopoli and Polignano a Mare. Both seemed to have their own charms. With Polignano seeming to be the better known but Monopoli being larger I eventually went with accommodation in Monopoli. Mainly due to the ease of car-parking but also that Polignano was only a short train journey or 10 minute drive. Just a half an hour and €2.90 on the train from Bari, or 5 minutes and €1 from Polignano.
Once we got our bearings and I remembered I was now driving on the other side of the road we hit for Monopoli – but with one quick pitstop first at the Abbey of San Vito only 3km north of Poligano a Mare.
This natural harbour is a beautiful spot full of the small colourful fishing boats seen dotted along the coast. Nice spot for a dip in its crystal blue waters or glass of vino.
Once we reached Monopoli we parked up and headed to our B&B. For parking the best two places were by the harbour front at the Piazzala Cristoforo Columba and along via Proccacia. There were a mix of free spots (white lines) and pay by meter (blue lines) and we always seemed to find a space without issue.
Monopoli unlike most of it’s neighbouring coastal towns that appear as laid back beach resorts, seems to have a busy city centre that sprawls out yet still retains its charming historic centre and fishing tradition. It sits overlooking the blues of the Mediterranean as it has down for hundreds of years. You can easily imagine how it would have been centuries ago.
As for first impressions of Monopoli, it was love at first sight when I stepped past the large fortified walls to where I caught my first glimpse of the narrow white alleys. It was early in the afternoon and the town was desserted. It was as if we had the place to ourselves. The coastal villages are different to those you see in Northern Italy. The white moorish looking buildings line the narrow alleyways. The sea looks even more blue crashing up amongst the white walls perched over the water.
Like so many towns on the Adriatic, Monopoli’s history has been influenced by its east-facing position, its fortified sea-front walls and castle tell many a story. Founded by the Greeks, taken over by the Romans and various invaders, Monopoli was a thriving port town under the Byzantines and Normans. In the 1400s it was annexed by the Republic of Venice, and enjoyed a centuries-long affluence that put it in league with other maritime powers like Amalfi, Genoa and Venice. It’s position in Puglia between the seas, made it strategic and prosperous.
Monopoli has a rich heritage of customs and traditions. One of the most important dates for them is 16 December which celebrates the feast of Madonna della Madia where it is said her image floated into the port with the beams that were the used to repair the roof of the damaged cathedral. Every year the miracle is reenacted by locals.
We chose to stay within the heart of the city at Casa de Palmieri, Vico delle Palme, 14. Just off the beautiful Piazza Palmieri, down a little arched alleyway. We were hosted by the amazing Maria who was beyond welcoming. Our room was located in a renovated building that still managed to keep some of the old original details in the walls. Had a small balcony in the bathroom. We had access to great roof terrace and what was an amazing breakfast with the best cakes and cappuccinos of our trip!!! I also had my first taste of apricots/albicocche. So tasty and fresh.
When I get to a new place I always love to just head out, walk and get lost around the streets. We headed out from our B&B towards the small old port “il porto vecchio” where the traditional Gozzi boats in their eye catching blues and reds can be found. Definitely one of the most photographic spots. This port is where the town’s saint is said to have arrived. Take time to admire the “Martinelli Meo-Evoli” Palace.
Following the harbour walls we made our way to Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II, a large modern style Piazza with monuments to those fallen in the great wars.
We headed towards the city’s cathedral, never missing sight of its bell tower as we made our way. The tower was built in 1693 and at over 60 metres high it certainly stands out amongst the city’s skyline.
The Baroque-Romanesque cathedral was built in 1693 and dedicated to the previously mention Madonna della Madia. If you enter then you should visit the Chapel of the Beams (Cappella delle Travi). The beams or wooden trunks from the raft upon which the Madonna’s image arrived in 1117 are preserved in a large cupboard here.
It is hard not to notice the large Largo Cattedrale, part of the closed Cathedral square that was said to have been built to protect the church goers from the wind.
Following the alleyways we made our way back to the beach at the Porto Vecchia. Here there were plenty of tourists and locals cooling down in the crystal waters.
At this point we followed the fortified walls back along the sea, choosing to take the seafront option getting a lovely aspect of the sea crashing on one side but having the imposing walls on the other. The Old town is dominated by the castle and walls which are in good condition. Along the side of the castle we passed under the arch was originally an entrance to the town.
We stopped at Punti di Vista, a nice little bar that had an amazing location right beside the castle with views of the harbour peaking through the arch. A really good spot for people watching and a couple of chilled glasses of wine of course.
It was only when we decided to head back to the B&B that we noticed the doors of the castle were open. For free entry we were able to get an amazing aspect of the renovated fortress. Entering the gateway you are met by a dark cooling space. With various levels and open exhibition and exhibitions it’s easy to imagine the place full of soldiers preparing for defence.
The castle built in 1552. Castello Carlo V was erected by the Spanish rulers of the time as a stronghold on the sea. Heading up the ramp to the top you can freely walk the sentry walkways to and from the lookouts giving you an amazing panoramic view of the sea and rooftops of Monopoli.
There are no shortages of good food spots here. We got our first experience of Puglia’s passegiata when we headed out at 10 to find the streets full. Despite knowing about the late eating habits of the Italians, I was still amazed by how busy the streets were with family, hugging and greeting each other with small children all out to experience the evening. It became one of my highlights in each of the towns. Seeing how they all compared. We had picked a few possible dinner locations particularly around Piazza Garibaldi earlier on our walk – However there were queues in all for them and when our hunger got the better of us we ended up at La Locanda dei Mercanti. Place was crazy busy but food (went with pizzas) was good as well as service.
For day two in Monopoli we headed to Poligano a Mare. We decided to drive as we wanted to head to the beach for after the town After spending a few hours in the town we decided to head south of Monopoli to the picturesque town of Savelletri. Here we decided to take advantage of one of the beach Lidos -Lido Baia del Sole. Throughout our 2 weeks we used our beach time was mixed between free beaches Torres as well as some days in the paid beaches – Lidos. It usually depended on the mood. If we wanted the extra facilities the Lidos offered we went that way.
On our way back from the beach we spotted that the local restaurant Piazza Palmieri in our Piazza was actually the number one listed on TripAdvisor. Usually I wouldn’t always go by this but the location and menu appealed to us so we went with it. We headed out early in the hopes that we would get in without reservation. We didn’t get a spot out on the piazza but got a lovely window seat which was later opened so we practically were!
I really enjoyed out meal which was mushrooms and roast aubergine, followed by prawns and orrichiete washed down with puglian Five Roses Róse. The meal was very reasonable considering the setting, meals and great service it definitely seemed higher quality.
I had spotted a beautiful wine bar, Tuttoapposto on our previous night strolls that was full of locals with a large window view out onto the harbour and amazingly it was empty! Delighted we settled in for the night at our perfect spot for a few bottles of Cava Brut.On our way back to the B&B we found the city huming with life well into the early hours. I always love the sense of knowing we are going in the right direction but still having a sense of slight confusion as we eventually get there. Unknown to us we came across a Piazza Palmieri from the left side along a charming lane which leads to the sea.
This Piazza with it’s historic buildings and church always gave us such a grand sense every time we passed it. Led me to wondering how it looked in the Palmieri family’s heyday, definitely something different to the sleepy square we always found.
Even though it was the first city of our trip, we always agreed that Monopoli was one of our favourites and had an “authentic”feel. It was easy to imagine the city centuries ago and having barely changed. It is almost like we are in another time, back to simple traditional ways. Sitting on Puglia’s Adriatic coast around 30km south of Bari, Monopoli is a lovely town for a day trip, possibly in combination with Polignano a Mare just up the coast, mixing a dip in the sea with a good lunch and a wander around the old town centre.
Monopoli -An ancient port, beautiful streets, sandy beach and good food galore – what more could you want.