Italy’s Best Kept Secret?

Exploring Puglia, a lesser visited region of Italy

Altamura’s Corso leading to the town gates

Italy is, without a doubt, my favourite European country to visit. I’ll never forget my first visit, taking a city break to Rome, my breath taken away each time I turned a corner only to be met by more beautiful buildings or ancient ruins.

Since then, I’ve been to many of the main cities and tourist destinations there – Milan, Lake Garda, Florence, Venice, Bologna, Naples and the Amalfi Coast…but when my friend moved to the country to take up a teaching position in a small town in the South, it gave me the opportunity to explore a lesser known part of this beautiful country.

My friend had moved to the town of Altamura which lies in the region of Puglia, known in English as Apulia, sitting in the ‘heel’ of Italy’s ‘boot’. To get there, I flew to Bari, the principle city of the area. Bari is mainly known for its port. It is possible to catch the ferry from here to a variety of other European countries including Greece and Croatia as well as there being a number of cruises departing from here. As the one of only 2 cities in the region with an, albeit small, international airport, it is also seen as the gateway to the stunning coastline of this part of Italy.

While I would spend time exploring the city of Bari during my visit to the region, today, after arriving early and with the rest of the day to spare, my friend was taking me to her favourite nearby seaside town, Polignana a Mare. For a small fee, I dropped my suitcase at Bari station’s left luggage and we hopped on a local train for the 50 minute ride down the coast.

Polignano a Mare

Beautiful sea views at Polignano a Mare
Cala Porto beach flanked by cliffs

Polignano a Mare is a charming seaside town perched on a cliff overlooking the Adriatic Sea. We walked through the winding, narrow streets, visiting some of the small boutique gift shops along the way to the clifftop viewpoint offering beautiful views across the bright, blue sea. Looking back towards the town, we could see the small, white pebble beach of Cala Porto below.

Looking back at Cala Porto beach form the clifftop and below, enjoying an afternoon at Polignano a Mare

After drinks at one of the many cafe bars in the town, we took a stroll down to the beach enjoying the late afternoon sunshine before walking back to the station and returning to Bari.

Altamura

The cathedral in Altmura

From Bari, it was another 90 minute train journey on the local train to Altamura where my friend had a small apartment on the outskirts of the town. The following day, she took me on a tour of the area starting with a walk through the city gates onto the ‘Corso’ – the main street running through the medieval town. Along here, lies the beautiful Altamura Cathedral dating back to the 13th century.

After looking around the cathedral, we walked through the maze of back streets leading off the Corso to a small bakery at the Santa Chiara Monastery where we bought some traditional Altamura cakes. Tette delle monache – which literally translates as “nun’s breasts”! – are soft, filled cakes.

Pastries and cakes at the bakery

We tried one filled with nutella and one filled with pistacchio and went to sit in the park o the edge of the city to eat them before having a further wander around the town.

Meeting the baker!

Altamua is famous for its bread, so much so that it is often referred to as the ‘City of Bread’, so I couldn’t spend the day there without trying some. The bread, ‘Pane di Altamura DOP’ is baked in a ‘forno antico’ or antique oven, the oldest of which, Forno Antico Santa Chiara, dates back to 1423.

Visiting the Archaeological Museum

We looked inside the bakery to meet the baker and watch the bread being placed into the oven to bake before taking a seat out in the courtyard and ordering a selection of bread and cheese dishes for lunch.

That afternoon, we took a stroll to the National Archaeological Museum of Altamura. This small museum had a range of exhibits showing its collection of artefacts from the area dating back thousands of years. There was also an interesting exhibition on the ‘Man of Altamura’, the fossil of a neanderthal man found in a nearby cave.

The Cathedral at night and above, locals stroll up and down the Corso in the busy evenings

That evening, we returned to Altamura’s Corso which was now bustling with life as the locals visited the many shops, cafes and bars lining the street or paraded up and down the street deep in conversation with their family and friends. We called into a local restaurant for a delicious pizza.

Pizza!
Nutella filled croissants for breakfast

We began the next day with a ‘cornetti’ breakfast at Stile Libero, a cafe on the outskirts of town – possibly the best nutella filled pastry I had ever tasted! Then we walked the short distance to Altamura station to catch the train out to the city of Matera.

Matera

Spectacular view – my first glimpse of Matera’s sassi
A busy main square in Matera, and below, exploring the city

Matera is actually just across the border of Puglia, in the region of Basilicata. After a 40 minute train journey from Altamura, we arrived in the ‘new’ part of town and took the short walk down to the historic centre. The main square at the entrance to the centre was flanked by a variety of restaurants, cafes and tourist information centres all of which we initially bypassed to walk to the nearby viewpoint over Matera’s ‘Sassi’.

The Sassi di Matera, is made up of two districts of the city built into the caves. Once known for its poverty and slums, the area has been regenerated over the last few decades with Unesco declaring it a World Heritage site in 1993.

Exploring Matera

The first view of the ‘Sassi’ is absolutely breath-taking. Before going to explore further, we signed up for a tour of Matera’s Underground. We booked the tour at one of the tourist information booths in the square and had only a short wait until the next English-speaking tour. The tour was quite short and once down in Matera’s underground, there wasn’t a lot to see but it was interesting to hear about how the city overcame difficulties in supplying water to its residents and seeing parts of the system used.

Taking a walking tour of Matera

After dinner at a cafe bar in the main centre, I took a walking tour of the Sassi. This was a great way to see the area and learn about its past. As part of the tour we visited a ‘casa grotta’ reconstruction to see a cave dwelling which had been set up as it would have been when it was once lived in by large families 60 years or more ago and the tour also allowed us entry into some parts of the Sassi only accessible on a tour including an old church built into the caves.

Another beautiful view over Matera

Matera is a great place to just wander around and it is easy to lose yourself in the winding maze of streets built into the caves. There a are a variety of museums, galleries and churches to explore in the city and we visited a photography exhibition that we just happened to stumble upon as we walked through the city as well as taking a look inside the Cathedral of Saint Mary della Bruna and Saint Eustace.

Bari

A table with a view and, below, more views along the waterfront

We took another trip out of Altamura the next day, this time, back to the region’s capital, Bari. Bari is a charming Italian port on the Adriatic Sea and we began our visit with a stroll along the waterfront and along the old city walls stopping for drinks overlooking the sea.

Strolling by the city walls

The highlight of our visit to Bari was a walk around its Old Bari or Bari Vecchia with its maze of narrow streets winding past medieval buildings and opening out into busy squares and courtyards.

Bars and restaurant in the old town

We visited the Basilica di San Nicola then made our way back to the main square, Piazza Mercantile where we had dinner at one of its many restaurants and grabbed an gelato for dessert.

Gelato in Bari’s old town

Bari offers a great mix of the old and the modern and we made our way back to the main station along Via Sparano, the main shopping street in the newer part of the city where we found all the usual high street stores including Sephora, H&M, Zara and Pandora.

Gravina di Puglia

My final trip out from the town of Altamura was a solo trip to Gravina di Puglia. My friend was busy working and recommended I take the 10 minute train ride out to this town which, similarly to Matera, is built into a series of caves.

An evening trip to Gravina di Puglia for dinner at Sottofondo

We’d already been one evening for dinner at one of its restaurants, Sottofondo, which randomly specialised in oven baked potatoes with a variety of fillings. We had views of the caves from the restaurant terrace and it looked like an interesting town to explore further.

Filled jacket potato dinner

Gravina Cathedral

Unfortunately, and unknown to me, Gravina seemed to close down on a Monday and within minutes of my arrival just before midday, everything closed its doors – churches, shops, restaurants, cafes and museums, all closed!

Exploring Gravina and, below, a cave church of Gravina

Despite this shutdown, I was still able to happily spend a few hours just wandering around, seeing the Cathedral from the outside, wandering around the narrow maze of streets and enjoying beautiful views of the cliffs and caves surrounding the area.

On the viaduct across Gravina creek and, below, exploring across the creek

On my way back to the station, I took a detour across the viaduct at the entrance to the town which spans Gravina creek and leads to the ancient remains of the Madonna della Stella church. From here there were also amazing views of the town of Gravina built into the cliffs opposite.

It was a shame I had inadvertently visited this historic town at a time when many of its attractions were closed but it had still been worth a visit.

While the region of Puglia and its ancient towns and cities don’t get the publicity that major cities like Rome and Milan or regions such as Tuscany and Amalfi get, I’d definitely recommend visiting the region and exploring its less touristy and very much authentically Italian towns.