Exploring Puglia On A Budget
Stretching along the side of Southern Italy’s heel, the coastal region of Puglia is an unspoilt gem of beautiful beaches, little known cities, and architectural wonders. It doesn’t have the reputation of Tuscany’s Florence or Veneto’s Venice, so is only starting to be discovered by British and European tourists. For now this makes holidaying there wonderfully cheap, and exploring Puglia on a budget an affordable and immensely rewarding experience.
Roman Candle Tours recently published a guide to the best beaches in Puglia along with a foodie feature into the best of southern Italian cuisine. In today’s post, we’ll be sharing our expert recommendations for how best to explore Puglia on a budget, factoring in places to see, excellent value accommodation, affordable transport, and not-to-miss cuisine.
Arriving in Puglia
Bari, the regional capital of Puglia, doesn’t have the household-name attractions of some of its southern counterparts. Naples, for example, has the world-famous sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum; Palermo prides itself on looming under the imposing figure of Mt. Etna; Bari, other than its twelfth-century basilica and Saracen influenced architecture, is mainly about the atmosphere. What Bari can pride itself on, however, are its excellent transport links.
Companies like easyJet and Ryanair operate cheap international flights into Bari airport. Trenitalia, Italy’s main rail provider, runs an affordable and efficient regional train service operating up and down the coast and west into the Southern Italian heartland. For those of you taking your budgeting to the next level, Flixbus runs a well-connected coach service with links all across the country.
Further south in the region, Brindisi airport offers a smaller, though equally affordable range of options. And for backpackers and travellers who have more time to spare than money, Brindisi’s port runs reasonable ferry services with routes up along the Adriatic and across to Greece (should you wish to cast your Mediterranean net further).
Where to stay in Puglia
As a base from which to explore Puglia on a budget, Bari ticks all the boxes. Its old town, a whitewashed maze of winding labyrinthine streets, medieval churches, and spacious squares, is a wonderful place in which to lose yourself. And lose yourself you will: for it was designed expressly to confuse invaders from the coast, scattering their forces before they had any hope of banding together.
Bari’s old town also has fantastic accommodation. From my own experience of travelling Puglia on a budget a couple of years ago, I’d recommend checking out the B&B Corte Zeuli. Its centrally situated suites are perfect for lone travellers, couples, or small groups, and its owner, Paola, is an exemplum of southern Italian hospitality.
Upon our arrival, Paola cooked us an impromptu meal of pane pomodoro: a deliciously simple dish of juicy ripe tomatoes on ciabatta bread, doused with a healthy drizzling of extra virgin olive oil and sprinkling of salt to taste. After this, she gave us a short tour of her phenomenal Renaissance-era home before divulging all her personal recommendations for the area (recommendations based on over half a decade living in Bari).
Every morning Paola prepared a delicious continental breakfast with freshly made cakes, a selection of cereal, and home-concocted strawberry juice. When we left, she even regaled us with gifts on the condition that we one day return visit. Book ahead and you can get some wonderful deals, safe in the knowledge that you’ll receive a five-star experience for a budget-friendly price.
Things to do in Puglia
1) Take a beach trip
If you’re visiting Puglia in the summer, set aside at least a couple of days to explore the region’s coastline, rightfully ranked amongst the most beautiful in Italy. We’ve already written about some of the best beaches to visit in Puglia (see the link at the top of the page), and even if getting to some of them might take a lengthy train ride, the journey is always well worth it.
Just south of the city of Lecce, Torre dell’Orso boasts over a kilometre of golden sandy beach sloping gently down into clear turquoise waters. Yet further south, right near the east side of the Italian heel, Porto Badisco is a coved haven of white sand and inviting warm waters. If you’re looking for something a little closer when travelling Puglia on a budget, however, then check out the two coastal towns of Polignano a Mare and Monopoli.
Polignano a Mare
Just 20 minutes on the train from Bari Centrale is the cliff-top town of Polignano a Mare. Spend the day wandering around the medieval town, basking in the sun, and soaking in the sound of the Adriatic’s waves crashing rhythmically against the rocks. When the heat gets too much, make your way down to Polignano’s small beach and set up camp between the rocks for the afternoon.
It’s easy to eat cheaply and cheerfully in Polignano. If you don’t fancy a sit-down meal at a restaurant, the town is full of focacciarie: small bakeries selling freshly baked focaccia slices topped with melted cheese, olives, and slices of tomato. The place most raved about by the Italians is this place near the station.
Just after Polignano a Mare on the train-line running from Bari, is another coastal town overlooking the Adriatic: the charming town of Monopoli. Its twelfth century Duomo is worth a visit, and wandering the sun-blasted streets of its medieval centre gives a good impression of authentic Southern Italian life. But don’t let Monopoli’s sites occupy more than a couple of hours; its main attractions are the sand and shingle beaches.
Come on a Saturday and take full advantage of the town’s food and fleamarket. It’s perfect for stocking up on picnic supplies for the beach, bursting with fresh fish, fruit, and vegetables. Or duck into one of Monopoli’s many restaurants, all of which offer reasonable, good quality cuisine based around freshness and simplicity.
The train journey from Bari to Monopoli takes just 30 minutes and will set you back a mere €3.20. And one more thing: the town has nothing to do with the family-favourite board game. Despite the pronunciation.
2) Visit the UNESCO world heritage site of Alberobello
Since 1996, the town of Alberobello has been recognised as a UNESCO world heritage site because of the famous trulli huts that line its streets. These rural storehouses, now often transformed into fashionable accommodation, were built not from mortar but from stone with grey, conical roofs. The most popular theory explaining their strange design is that they were intended to circumvent the stringent, high taxes imposed on properties, being quick and easy to dismantle whenever the tax inspector came knocking.
Alberobello is home to 1,500 trulli, many of which have been converted into quaintly decorated museums and souvenir shops. They’re free to visit and, despite the flourishing tourist trade that’s built up around Alberobello, well worth exploring for their architectural curiosity alone. The bus journey from Bari to Alberobello takes just over an hour and will set you back a mere €4.20.
3) Explore Lecce: “The Florence of the South”
Travel two hours on the train south from Bari and you’ll arrive at the architecturally stunning city of Lecce. The city owes its ornate baroque aesthetic to the influx of wealthy religious orders towards the end of the sixteenth century. Spend a few hours wandering around Lecce’s medieval centre and you’ll soon appreciate the extent to which they left their mark.
Lecce’s Basilica di Santa Croce boasts one of the finest floral facades in Europe Lecce while its modest limestone Duomo is densely packed with seventeenth century artoworks. The city’s rich in Roman remains too, not least its amphitheatre, which is still used for Christmas nativity scenes, and its theatre—the best-preserved in Puglia.
Lecce’s beautifully fashioned buildings have earned it the nickname “The Florence of the South”. Where Lecce wildly differs from Florence is in its prices. Lecce is perfect for those exploring Puglia on a budget because here you can sample some of the finest Salentino cooking—including taieddha(oven-baked rice, potatoes, tomatoes, and fresh mussels) and pezzetti di cavallo (Leccese horse stew)—for incredibly reasonable prices, rarely paying over €10 for a main.
4) Set out to sea around the Tremiti Islands
Visit the Tremiti Islands today, and you’ll have a hard time believing this Adriatic paradise once served the purpose of an offshore prison colony. It was here that the emperor Augustus banished his daughter, Julia, after learning of her numerous sexual scandals, and here, some 700 years later, where Charlemagne exiled his father-in-law after ridding him of his eyes and limbs.
The islands retained this function until the late eighteenth century, by which time they had become so sparsely populated that the Bourbons saw fit to import 200 single women from Naples to bolster the declining population. There’s little trace of this ancient Alcatraz now though. The only people disembarking at today’s Tremiti Islands are wide-eyed Italians and in-the-loop tourists, looking to take full advantage of the summer sun and turquoise surf.
The best way to do the Tremiti Islands on a budget is to treat it as a day-trip from the mainland. Accommodation on San Nicola, the main Tremiti island, is costly, as is eating out. Renting a private boat to take you around the islands is also expensive, so you’re far better off hopping on one of the ferries for San Domino and picnicking there with your own provisions purchased earlier from the mainland.
The best ways to get to the Tremiti Islands from Bari are either to take the train north to either Vieste or Termoli in the region of Molise and then get the ferry across, or to book into accommodation at either town and set off early in the morning. You can book your ferry tickets here.
5) Take a trip across to the neighbouring region of Basilicata
Admittedly this one’s not technically in Puglia. But the proximity of the region to Basilicata’s breathtakingly beautiful stone city of Matera means that your time travelling Puglia on a budget might be your best and only chance to see it. The journey from Bari to Matera takes just over two hours (on the Ferrovie Appulo Lucane line) and costs just €4.90: an absolute steal considering Matera is regarded by some—myself included—as the best destination in Italy.
Once dubbed la vergogna nazionale “the national shame” on account of its dilapidated cave dwellings and extreme poverty, the last few decades have seen Matera pull off a resurrection trick worthy of Lazarus. Its hive of tech start-ups, recently settled in its stone sassi, are attracting money to the city that’s fuelling a vibrant bar and dining scene and, with its numerous cave hotels, an upmarket tourist industry of luxury troglodyte living.
To see Matera unspoilt and in all its splendour, you should get there quick. Matera has recently been announced as European capital of culture for 2019, meaning it’s likely to skyrocket in popularity as more and more tourists come to discover its cave churches and rupestral houses. For further information and a more detailed itinerary of Matera published by Roman Candle Tours last year, click the link at the top of this section.
6) Wine and dine on the finest food in Puglia
A warm southern Mediterranean climate and vast swathes of arable land make Puglia a culinary paradise for foodies in search of fresh produce. What’s more, because not many tourists visit the region, it doesn’t have the usual tourist trap restaurants like you find in Venice’s Piazza San Marco or Florence’s Piazza del Duomo. This is especially true in Bari, where the only clientele are discerning locals and savvy tourists.
Bari’s old square, for example, is home to a friggitoria, or fried food eatery, called Cibo, which serves panzerotti (deep-fried dough pouches stuffed with mozzarella, pancetta, and fresh tomato sauce) for only €1.50. In Florence, where I’m based, you’d expect to pay anywhere in the region of €3.50 to €7. So having got such bang for your buck, you can treat yourself to a couple of similarly reasonable cocktails on the piazza, watching traditional Italian life play out in a way that’s almost unchanged for generations.
If you’re looking for a gastronomic souvenir to take back for a foodie friend, it doesn’t get more authentic than a bag of freshly made orrechiettepasta, rolled out by the town’s women on their doorsteps. Just don’t make the same mistake I did and leave it in the cupboard for a few weeks after you get home.
We hope this article has provided some useful tips for travelling Puglia on a budget. Be sure to keep an eye out for the next article in our budget travel series. It’ll be bursting full of indispensible advice for how to make the most of your holiday in Italy, keeping off the beaten path, doing “only as the Romans do”, and trading in tourist traps and pumped up prices for lesser-known gems known only to locals.