Unlike some other southern seaside regions of Italy, Puglia [poo-lyah] or Apulia (in Italian) often doesn’t get the fame it deserves. But believe me, there is a lot to love about this place. It’s located in the south-eastern tip of Italy, bordering the Adriatic Sea and Ionian sea, the Strait of Otranto and the gulf of Taranto. Throughout history, due to its long coastline leaving it open to invasion, the region has been stamped with many footprints but it is the Greeks that have left the clearest mark in the region’s DNA. Whitewashed hilltop towns, mazes of narrow medieval streets, unique UNESCO-protected trulli district and crystal clear costal beaches are just some of the things you can expect when visiting Puglia.
Please Note: This is Part 1 of a three-part blog post sharing my 72 hours trip in Puglia (Lecce, Polignano a Mare, Alberobello, Ostuni, Savelletri & Locorotondo); this post focus on exploring Lecce & Polignano a Mare. Click here for Part 2 (Alberobello, Ostuni & Savelletri), here for Par 3 (Locorotondo & Polignano a Mare).
SATURDAY AM - Lecce
If Puglia were a crown, Lecce would be the crown jewel! Often referred to as the ‘Florence of the South’ Lecce is no picture-perfect art town with trophy gardens; instead it dazzles with magnificent Baroque architecture, rich history and charming streets.
Some of the most popular tourist sites include:
(Cathedral of Lecce)
(The Bell Tower, next to the Cathedral of Lecce)
(The Bishop’s Palace and the Seminary Palace)
Tip: If you are planning to visit the inside of these buildings, try to avoid visiting during the Italian siesta time (usually between 1pm-4pm). Nevertheless, if you love photography that might just be the best time to visit because you get to have the whole square to yourself!
Castle of Charles V, a place that has truly stood the test of time. Built in the Middle Ages, it was strengthened in the 1500s and occupied by many including Charles V and the Orsini del Balzo family. It might have been a majestic place at one point in time but today it seems a bit empty.
Tip: Worth a visit if there are other exhibitions going on, if not I would skip it, especially if you have limited time.
(Inside of Basilica di Santa Croce)
These attractions are all within walking distance inside the old town area and the best way to explore is by foot as the streets are quite narrow. There are also other places that you can visit slightly outside the old town area such as Church of Santi Niccolo e Cataldo or Saint Giovanni Cathedral.
Tip: If you are travelling to Lecce by car, you can do what we did and park the car next to Porta Napoli monument; it will take you less than 10 mins to walk to the centre of the old town.
When Ben & I are travelling, one of our favourite things to do is to have long lunch and people watch! This time we found a cute little café with both inside and outside seating called 00 Doppiozero and decided to settle in the sun.
Two Aperol spritzes later, we were ready to order some food (I have to admit that the service was a little slow). One of the specialties in the region is Orecchiette (ear shape pasta) but unfortunately, it was not on the menu so we ordered a ham salad and a Salsiccia sausage dish instead.
The salad was delicious; the savoury ham balanced out the juiciness of the lettuce perfectly; the peppery kick from the rocket also adds extra flavour to the freshness.
Bathed in the juice from the sausages and tomatoes, the potatoes in this sausage dish were to die for! The sausages were extraordinarily tasty too.
Another specialty in the region is caffè in ghiaccio con latte di mandorla, which translates to espresso with ice and almond milk in English. A lovely, sweet alternative to an iced expresso!
After 5 hours of appreciating Baroque architecture in Lecce, we continued our journey to Polignano a Mare. The plan was to spend the night in Polignano a Mare and come back to explore it more on the 3rd day.
SATURDAY PM – Polignano a Mare
After about 90 mins on the highway from Lecce we arrived at the outskirts of Polignano a Mare old town, where our Airbnb was located. Our Airbnb was a cute little split level apartment beautifully decorated with rustic furniture and ornaments. Only 5 mins walking distance from the old town, it makes a perfect spot for a speedy siesta before a quick stroll down the town!
Think crystal clear water and cliffs pitted with caves carved by the sea over centuries. Picture a Mediterranean white-walled town, perched on a high cliff and peppered with beautiful café & restaurants. This is Polignano a Mare, the ‘pearl of the Adriatic’. More excitingly, Polignano a Mare is also the home to this social media famous cave restaurant - Grotta Palazzese; where our dinner was booked. Here is a short video of us being guided down to the restaurant form street level.
We were immediately wowed by the view and impressed by how nicely the restaurant was integrated into the cave. There are two levels for dining and tables are allocated on a first come, first served basis. We were very lucky to be seated with a table next to the cliff with an unobstructed view of the ocean to enjoy the sunset.
Tip: To get a good table, I would suggest anyone who is interested in visiting the restaurant to book the earliest dining session (i.e. 7:30pm) and arrive at the restaurant slight early to be at the front of the line that forms.
Live music, crashing waves, champagne in hand and great company, time seemed to slip away. As the sun slowly set the lights get brighter and the restaurant eventually transformed into a magical theatrical space with different coloured lighting. For anyone who likes photography, make sure to bring your camera when you go to the bathroom to take a full view shot of the restaurant.
In terms of the food, you have the option of choosing a La carte (ave. €35-40 per dish) or a 4 / 5 / 6 course set menu (€120 for 4 course set menu). I personally think the food itself was only ok, especially given the price but the overall dining experience was incredible; truly one of a kind!