The Puglia region
Puglia occupies the 'heel' of Italy in the South East of the country. Unlike Tuscany, Puglia has only recently been visited by British travellers, and the beaches, bars, restaurants and markets are predominantly popular with Italians; either locals or holiday makers from the North who come to enjoy the renowned Puglian cuisine, soak up the sunshine, stroll around centenary olive trees, and bathe in the clear, calm sea. As rightly described in the Telegraph, Puglia "feels like an older, more timeless Italy ... it remains rural, eccentric, often very beautiful, and best of all entirely without pretension".
Puglia is steeped in history as it has been occupied by Greeks, Romans, Normans, Swabians, Spanish, Turks and Bourbons. This is reflected in the architecture, cuisine and many dialects of the area.
Puglia's fertile soils have made it the agricultural heartland of Italy, and much of the flat land is given to vineyards, olive groves, almond and fig orchards. The locally produced olive oil and wines are excellent as are the fruit and vegetables, whilst the long coastline means there is an abundance of fresh fish and shellfish. The region's strong traditional values are reflected in its culinary dishes which are simple but strong in flavours. In recent years Puglia has evolved a unique modern style of cuisine and wine-making, and its new wines have made a name for themselves, fighting their corner with the better-known vineyards of Italy, and indeed the rest of Europe.
Byzantine, Romanesque and Baroque architecture is much in evidence throughout the region, in particular in the churches and cathedrals of Trani, Barletta, Bari (the region's capital) and Lecce (often referred to as 'the Florence of the South' and famous for its particular style of Baroque architecture). All these towns can be easily visited from Monopoli as can the UNESCO World Heritage sites of Castel del Monte, a 13th century castle built on a peak with magnificent views over Puglia's Murge pleateau, and Alberobello, a small town one part of which is wholly composed of 'trulli' - the story-book-like XVI century rural dwellings with conical roofs, often adorned with ancient Pagan and Christian symbols.
The town of Monopoli
Monopoli is a prosperous fishing port located between Bari and Brindisi. The old town (the 'centro storico') with its castle, cathedral and many churches, provides a treasure trove of typical Puglian architectural styles, and although some of the churches are rather neglected and washing still hangs from every balcony, it is a vibrant place, where the locals still far outnumber the tourists, and offers a wealth of restaurants serving the gastronomic delights that Puglia is famous for; all within a 2 square kilometre promontory surrounded by bright blue sea. Fishing trawlers arrive daily at the port, whilst fishermen can be seen beating octopus on the rocks to tenderise it. A short stroll away is the daily fish, fruit and veg market, leading into the new town, with its busy grid-like street system lined with shops and bars.
Throughout the summer months Monopoli and its many surrounding rural villages hold food festivals ('le sagre'); all the locals turn out to sample local dishes sitting at make-shift restaurants either in the squares or harbour.
The crystalline turquoise waters create a spectacular backdrop to the town. Monopoli's coastline is rugged with numerous rocky coves and small sandy bays. The beaches that are within walking distance from the apartment (Porta Vecchia, Lido Bianco, Porto Rosso) are good for families with young children but can be crowded in August. The beaches up to a kilometre south along the coast such as Lido Cala Paradiso, which has a restaurant and facilities, and Tre Buchi are quieter and very beautiful, and still offer very easy access. Even more coves are found continuing along the coast (La Colonia, Porto Camicia, Porto Marzano, Porto Ghiacciolo, Lido Santo Stefano), and after a few more miles is the area of Capitolo, where several commercially owned lidos and beaches are found, with private facilities, bars, restaurants and dancing till dawn.
Monopoli's coastline with its many natural harbours is perfect for snorkelling and other watersports. There are thriving rowing and sailing clubs, and boat trips along the coast can be organised. There is also a tennis club where non-members can play for a small fee. Guided bike tours can be organised or you can simply hire a bike to explore the area at your leisure. A botanical garden, la Lama degli Ulivi recently opened just a few kilometres inland from the centre of Monopoli. The garden is home to over 2000 species of plants, and two ancient chapels carved out of the rock. Guided tours are available Monday to Saturday but must be booked.
Inland from Monopoli rises the limestone Murge plateau with the idyllic Valle d'Itria running through it. The rolling hills are divided by dry stone walls and covered in vineyards, olive groves and orchards, brought to life in Spring with wild flowers. The area is scattered with the famous 'trulli' dwellings, 'masserie' (large fortified farm houses) and 'chiese rupestri' (chapels carved out of rock). Here lie various small medieval towns of interest, such as Conversano, Alberobello, Locorotondo, Ostuni, Martina Franca and Cisternino; most of them occupying hill top positions with magnificent views of the valley and coastline, and all with old parts with narrow cobbled streets and whitewashed houses. Of particular elegance, Martina Franca is an 18th century town with many Baroque and Rococo buildings, and host to an annual international music festival in late July and August.
The spectacular limestone caves 'Grotte di Castellana' are definitely worth a visit, being the longest in Italy. The highlight is the Grotta Bianca (white cave) composed of white alabaster adorned with stalactites. For those with children, the safari park in Fasano is a must, where elephants, giraffes, zebras, lions, tigers and bears all roam free.
Heading south-east along the coast from Monopoli are the ruins of the Graeco-Messapian town of Egnazia, dating from 13th century BC. By Italian standards, these ruins are not spectacular but the location by the sea is pretty, and there is a museum with mosaics and other finds from excavations.
Continuing along the coast towards Brindisi is the Riserva di Torre Guaceto, a protected marine reserve which is home to migrating birds and turtles. There is a visitors centre with information on walkling and cycling trails.
Immediately north-west of Monopoli along the coast, lies the town of Polignano a Mare. Originally built by the Greeks, it is spectacularly located on a rocky promontory over the sea, and features a picturesque and well preserved old centre.
Further up the coast, 40 minutes from Monopoli, is Bari, the capital of the region. Bari is a major port and university city with large palm lined avenues and squares, and a particularly long sea promenade. The city is divided between the the new and old towns. The railway station is located in the new town, as are the art and archeological museums, theatres and many shops. Via Sparano da Bari, itself lined with the designer shops Italy is famous for, runs through to the old town, which has recently undergone a minor renaissance with the restoration of many medieval structures. Here in the labyrinth of winding streets with sea on 3 sides, can be found 40 churches, more than 120 shrines, the castle, a cathedral, and the particularly famous Basilica of San Nicola, where the relics of St Nicholas are buried, having been stolen from Myra (Turkey) in 1087. This remains a crucial site for Catholic and Greek Orthodox pilgrims.