If you're a keen follower of Along Dusty Roads, you'll know that we fell a little bit - okay, a lot - in love with Puglia during last year's road trip.
And for good reason.
This delightful southern region of Italy, with its stunning coastline, cute little towns and villages, delightful countryside, and oh so very Italian way-of-life has everything one would hope to find whether it's your first time in the country or sixth.
As with every holiday however, knowing a little more about what to expect (and some insider tips from people that have already been) can be the difference between a good trip and a great trip. So, that's where this post comes in.
Keep on reading to discover 17 really useful things to know before visiting Puglia - and lots of advice to help you plan your own holiday in a glorious part of Italy.
A Week or Two Is Perfect!
If you’re in the planning stages for your Puglia holiday, then you should know that the southern region of Italy - it’s the ‘heel of the boot’ if you look at the map - is perfect for a week and even better if done in two.
If you’re opting for the shorter visit, then concentrate on either having one base in the countryside or a small city (like Ostuni or Otranto) and doing a few day trips to beaches and surrounding towns, or base yourself at two different places in the region for the seven days (such as Polignano a Mare and then Ostuni or vice versa).
If going for ten days to two weeks, then the world is your oyster and you’ll be able to cover a lot of ground and experiences at a really enjoyable pace in Puglia - we opted to do a road trip and recommend this as the best way to explore Puglia.
The food, although delicious, is pretty standard throughout
To those that have travelled extensively in Italy, this won't come as a surprise. Cuisine here is fairly regional, with most restaurants serving a variation on a theme all year round.
Now, don't get us wrong, food in Puglia is delicious. Seafood is plentiful and freshly caught in almost all towns, pasta is handmade, the pizza is divine, olive oil is local, and we never met a piece of bread we didn't immediately inhale. We indulged, and indulged even more - and you should too.
There's no denying however that it can get a little repetitive.
Not a problem if you're only in the area for a week or so, but if you're travelling for longer, cooking for yourselves for a few evenings may become more appealing (and kinder on the waistline).
For any vegetarians out there, you'll be pleased to know that this is not a difficult region to find plant-based food, and even in the fanciest of seafood restaurants you'll find a bowl of orecchiette pasta with a tomato sauce.
LIFE FOLLOWS A SLOWER PACE...
This is a part of the world where the beating heart of community is set firmly in the rhythms of the past.
This means long siestas, shops opening early in the morning and late afternoon (but not in between) and a true sense that however much of a rush you may be in, it really makes very little difference to those that live here.
Sure, it can get a little frustrating when you want to be productive in the afternoon, but instead of fighting it, go with it. Do your sight-seeing in the morning and save the afternoon for beach time, have an extra scoop of gelato for your afternoon treat to tide you over til your late dinner and generally do what the locals do!
...AND EVERYTHING IS JUST SO ITALIAN
Yeah we know this sounds ridiculous; we were in Italy after all. However, having previously only spent time in Rome, Venice and Milan, we weren't prepared for just how Italian Puglia would feel.
Elderly nonnas chatting on the side of the street (each sporting identical haircuts), 'Ape' trucks still being used, as, well, trucks, vespas EVERYWHERE and groups of old men playing cards in the late afternoon sun. It was like watching a movie - and all kinds of fabulous! This is just one of the reasons we fell in love with Puglia.
You really do need a car
As travellers who have spent many an hour (or day) on buses, we're strong believers that you can reach most places with public transport.
Puglia, however, may be an exception to this rule.
Sure, there are trains and local buses, but using them exclusively to get across this varied region is going to take more time than most travellers have. It also means you may miss many of the small coves and cute little towns that make Puglia so wonderful.
Thankfully, car rental doesn't have to cost an arm and a leg. In fact, we got a rental for 10 days for just £250 when booking via AutoEurope - including insurance. And the brilliant part is that Puglia is just made to be discovered on a road trip.
THERE'S AN ABUNDANCE OF ITALIAN TOURISTS
Although Puglia has not yet experienced the explosion of tourism so faced by the likes of Cinque Terre on the opposite side of the country, the days of it being an off-the-beaten-track destination are firmly in its past. In fact, after we'd booked our flights and started doing some research, it seemed like everyone was off to Puglia this summer!
There is a silver lining however - outside of Polignano a Mare, the vast majority of tourists are Italian, which means that although there's still a healthy dose of grey nomads and tour groups, at least you'll still feel like you're in Italy.
IT EXTENDS FAR FURTHER THAN OTRANTO...
When we were researching this trip, it took some time before we released just how large the region of Puglia was, as most people who had blogged about it stuck firmly to the east coast.
In many cases this was a time-related thing - after all, if you only have three days, you don't want to spend hours in the car. However, we just want to make clear that there is soooo much more to Puglia than just Polignano, Ostuni, Alberobello, Lecce and Otranto!
If you've got more than a couple of days, we implore you to head all the way around the coast to the city of Gallipoli, especially if you're a beach lover.
the lido is king - and bloody confusing
And, if we're honest, kind of annoying.
There are some fabulous beaches in Italy, and we happen to be of the opinion that everybody should have access to them. Unfortunately, in Puglia (as in many areas of Italy), large sections of beach along the coast are either completely inaccessible without paying a fee (many of which tout themselves as beach clubs), or covered in privately owned pay-to-play sun loungers. These are usually called ‘lidos’ and it means that those of us that make do with a oversized sarong and artfully crafted piles of sand have no choice but to bed down together along narrow slithers of sand that provide 'public access to the sea'.
It's a thorny issue in Italy, and whilst you may see some brave Italians placing towels right at the water's edge, directly in front of the lido’s sun loungers, technically they're on private property and could be moved along. It unfortunately meant that we pulled up to what we thought as a beautiful beach area on a couple of occasions, only to find it a horrendous explosion of signs, sunbeds and people, meaning we didn't even get out of the car.
If the somewhat nuanced rules of these beaches become a little too much for you, consider visiting one of the 'free beaches', or spiaggia libera. Although significantly rarer, they at least allow you the opportunity to plonk your towel wherever you damn please!
YOU HAVE TWO AIRPORTS TO CHOOSE FROM
Flying into Puglia? You have two choices - Bari in the north, and Brindisi about a two and half hour drive further south.
For those travelling from the UK, Bari is the obvious choice.
The flights are more plentiful and a little bit cheaper but in all honesty, if you're doing a full Puglia-loop road trip, it really doesn’t matter too much which one you fly into, or out of. To check flight availability and prices, click here.
Oh, and you do know that 'Apulia' is just 'Puglia' in Italian right?
Tip | Read our guide to Bari for ideas on things to do and where to stay.
You can stay in a trulli
The trulli dotted across the Puglian landscape are a curious structure.
Present for hundreds of years, these cone shaped dwellings have a history that although widely discussed, continue to mystify historians as to their true origins. Were they the result of Greek invasion or deforestation? Or could it be the heavy tax laws of the 17th century, when any permanent structure incurred a significant levy - being able to topple your trulli with the removal of a single keystone would have been of tremendous benefit to poor farmer!
Perhaps we'll never know, but that doesn't make their existence - and experience - any less of a Puglian must.
Tip | You can also rent trullis on Airbnb, and we found booked a lot of our accommodation on the site. Take a look at some of the best Airbnb options in Puglia for inspiration, and you can get up to £20 off your first booking by signing up via this link.
FOR A QUIETER TIME, AVOID AUGUST
This shouldn't come as much of a surprise. Kids all over the world have holidays during specific months of the year - choose to take yours at the same time and you'll be sharing the beach with noisy adolescents and everything from restaurants to boat tours will be chock-a-block with tourists.
Obviously, we're not saying that to avoid the crowds you have to head over to Puglia in the dead of winter (although we're sure it would lovely, that ocean deserves to swum in!), but by opting for late June or mid-September, you'll get the fabulous weather, but with fewer people, cheaper prices and emptier beaches!
There's no escaping the 'coperto'!
The first few times we ventured to a restaurant we couldn't understand why we were getting charged an additional fee. We'd established that there were service charges levied in many restaurants but the rules of their application didn't seem clear - a google search revealed all...
The vast majority of restaurants in Italy (and almost all we came across in Puglia) charge something called a 'coperto'. This is an additional fee, charged per person, that is applied to the bill irrespective of what you eat, how much you spend and where you sit. Generally it ranges between one and two Euro per person, which may not seem very much if sitting down for a large evening meal, but will make you think twice if just nipping in for a quick cheap and cheerful lunch. The charge should be noted in the menu or signs outside.
Note that the coperto tends to increase the closer you are to big tourist destinations or plazas - yet another reason why it's always a good idea to explore some hidden streets! It is also almost certain to be higher (or supplemented by a 'terraza' charge) if you choose to dine in the outdoors space provided by a restaurant, rather than inside.
You can nip across to Matera
When we were planning the first leg of our road trip, one place kept popping up - Matera.
This remarkable city, one of the longest inhabited in the world - and 2019 European City of Culture - is a no-brainer when planning your Puglia road trip. Of course, it's not actually in Puglia (something that embarrassingly took us a while to realise), but don't you dare let that put you off.
We've created a lovely little guide to Matera, full of things to do, where to stay and how to get there - and of course, lots of pretty pictures!
English is not that widely spoken
Not a surprise given that it's not an English speaking country, but definitely one to note if you're used to travelling in the north of Italy or other popular tourist destinations in Europe.
The larger hotels will be fine, as are hostels, and fancier restaurants should have at least one member of staff who can speak English. But in small eateries, tiny towns, petrol stations, even our car rental depot, we had to rely on our limited Italian.
See it as a fun way to learn a little more about a country, spend some time before your trip learning some basic Italian (a phrase book might come in handy - this is the one that we used) and have fun chatting with locals - you'd be amazed how far a little of the local language can go!
You're better off making your own breakfast
Breakfast in Puglia (and perhaps all of Italy) is not a fancy affair. Sure, you can have a glass of guilt-free prosecco at ten in the morning - and trust us, we saw this happen A LOT - but beyond this, it's croissant and coffee. Fine on the odd occasion, but if you're anything like us, when we holiday we actually enjoy having a big breakfast of eggs, fruit and all the trimmings.
Always Stay in the Old Town
Every single town and city in Italy has an 'old town', a wonderful place of crumbling facades and labyrinthine streets, now returned to ancient splendour by those who left for the new town many years ago.
Naturally, this is where the tourists flock, and for short stays, by virtue of sights and amenities, where you'll likely spend most of your time. It's practical - but they're also so beautiful. We found the most photogenic to be in Gallipoli, Locorotondo, and Ostuni.
If you stay outside of the big tourist cities, prices can be pretty cheap
Not long after booking our flights, we began the arduous task of weighing up various accommodation options - unfortunately, that search began in Polignano a Mare. Not keen to shell out a small fortune, we couldn't believe that the best Airbnb could offer for £100 a night was a shoddy looking apartment in a not-so-great location. We thought Italy was supposed to be more affordable than that?!
It wasn't until we began searching elsewhere in the region, in tiny towns we'd never heard of - tiny towns many Italians had never heard of - that we discovered exactly how far our money could go.
Obviously, if you're in Puglia on a short trip (especially if you don't have a car), you'll inevitably end up in the larger tourist spots, but if budget is a real concern, do look around. Simply heading a few kilometres out of town or opting for a beautiful place in the countryside can save a small fortune and open up some amazing travel experiences.
There's excellent weather all year round
We visited in late September and were amazed at just how wonderful the weather was. Beach days are shorter than the height of summer but with plenty of days breaching 28C we had ample opportunity to top up our tans, and bar one stormy day in Gallipoli, never had to change our plans because of bad weather.
And whilst the winter months certainly require a jumper or two, you'll still be able to enjoy most of what the region is famous for - just with a little more time to discover pretty little towns rather than secluded coves.