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Puglia: Italy's Hidden Gem (Part II)

Updated on May 24, 2019
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Lana is an aspiring travel writer with a serious case of shutterbug and an insatiable curiosity about the world.

A street in Matera, Italy
A street in Matera, Italy | Source

Spontaneous Architecture

A church carved into the rock at Matera
A church carved into the rock at Matera | Source

6. Matera

Sassi di Matera ("stones of Matera") are the most famous ancient cave dwellings in Southern Italy. It is an excellent example of the so-called "spontaneous architecture": since prehistoric times, the caves were literally dug out of the steep rocky ravine, utilizing the natural landscape of the area as the living space.

Although not technically in Puglia, the town of Matera is just across the state line in the Basilicata region. In the Middle Ages emperors and kings, thirsty for the world conquest (or at least the conquest of an unsuspecting neighbor), often chose the more direct routes through Puglia, Calabria or Campania, making Basilicata a perfect shelter for the early pacifists, war refugees, hermits, monks escaping the "infidel" persecution, and later for the peasant families fleeing from poverty and population pressure. Those refugees and peasants made up the population of Matera until 1952, when 15,000 of the last dwellers were evacuated by the Italian government, and the dwellings were finally declared unlivable.

The undisputed uniqueness of Sassi di Matera made it the site of over 40 films, including Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ". After visiting Tunisia, Morocco, New Mexico and Turkey, Gibson finally found the ancient mystical landscape he was looking for in Matera. In his own words, “Some parts of the city are two thousand years old, and they resemble the landscape that probably existed in the Judea. The architecture of the city, the rocks and the surrounding landscape have furnished us an exceptional background...The first time I saw Matera, I lost my head, because it was simply perfect!"

Sassi di Matera is one of the 365 UNESCO official World Heritage locations.

Sassi are ancient cave dwellings carved out of stone

The ravine of Matera
The ravine of Matera | Source

Such a Charming Italian Town

Monopoli street at night
Monopoli street at night | Source

Official Monopoli Tourism Video

7. Monopoli

Monopoli is a small town in the heart of Puglia, and yet another place entirely unfamiliar to a non-Italian traveler. In the best traditions of the European countryside, it has plenty of cobblestone roads, small picturesque churches and tirelessly gesticulating locals.

What it doesn't have is internet access. Which is cute, but very frustrating when you have a deadline for a school paper. I was holding up the laptop like Moses the 10 commandments while running all over the place under the disapproving glares of the town elders. It was like falling through a hole in a time-space continuum. A glitch in the matrix that transported me to a technology-free world; the world I was ready and willing to embrace immediately after emailing my damn assignment.

The coveted signal was finally found near a local bar, securing me a few minutes online, and a solid B+. At that point I was too caught up in the ramifications of the time-space travel to think straight. I was fully prepared to start chasing the White Rabbit, should something white and furry appear to be running somewhere in a hurry. To my disappointment, the leporid never showed.

Aside from this brutal Internet deprivation episode, Monopoli made for a lovely trip, and it's in the top 9 for a reason: Beautiful, historical and almost entirely devoid of tourist crowds, it's a place where you can experience Southern Italian culture, taste great food (go for seafood - local specialty) and swear to never go on a vacation to Florida again.

Monopoli's old fishing harbor
Monopoli's old fishing harbor | Source

Beautiful Polignano, Puglia

Polignano a Mare shore in Puglia, Italy
Polignano a Mare shore in Puglia, Italy | Source

8. Polignano a Mare

As evident from its name, Polignano's location on the sea cliff ("a mare") is the town's most protuberant feature. Almost hovering over the crystal blue Adriatic waters, Polignano is neither on land nor on sea: it's like a mythical creature, born from the two opposites.

Dating back to IV century BC, Polignano used to be the Greek city of Neapolis. Like other towns in Puglia, it was later annexed to the Roman Empire and became an important port and trade center.

Today it is visited by thousands of people who come to enjoy the warm Adriatic sea, walk through the blindingly white historical center, visit the natural grottoes, light a candle at the Chiesa Matrice Church (built in 1295), dine at a traditional Italian restaurant to the sound of the waves, and even get married!

An Italian wedding in Polignano, Puglia
An Italian wedding in Polignano, Puglia | Source
Trulli of Alberobello are characterized by their dome-shaped roofs.
Trulli of Alberobello are characterized by their dome-shaped roofs.

9. Trulli of Alberobello

Trulli are the characteristically Apulian stone houses built in the 15th-16th centuries. They have unique cone-shaped roofs and are built without using mortar: the stones are simply put together one on top of the other. The origins of that particular architectural style are unclear, but most likely it was done for easy re-location to avoid the property taxes.

Although found all around Puglia, most trulli dwellings are concentrated in a small town Alberobello of only 11,000 inhabitants.

Cool in the summer and warm in the winter, many houses are actually hotels where you can stay for a reasonable price (60 Euro/night) and have a "trulli" amazing authentic Italian experience only Puglia can offer. From individual studios to clusters made up of several trulli to accommodate groups and features like kitchenette, fireplace, a garden or a barbecue, trulli of Alberobello are among the most beloved Apulian attractions, and one of 8 UNESCO's World Heritage Sites located in Southern Italy.


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