Having a native Italian as a girlfriend is a gift that keeps on giving. Not only do I have the humongous advantage of having someone in the house who can cook Italian food exactly as it should be – 100% fresh ingredients and always al dente – I also have the incredible fortune to have a reason to visit Italy every year.
We fly back to see family, friends, and to double in weight whilst we’re there. The food is out of this world, and completely unlike any Italian food you’ve eaten at the Italian restaurant near you that doesn’t have a single Italian person on staff.
Not only is the food outstanding – honestly, you’ve not tasted a tomato until you’ve tried it picked fresh and matured underneath a Mediterranean sun – the entire country is beautiful. It’s green, pretty much everywhere; and where the grass disappears and the ground dries up, the landscape is replaced instead with olive groves as far as the eyes can see.
Oh, let’s not forget that the sea is pretty much as beautiful as it looks on postcards. It’s blue, clear, and almost always warm, too. Just thinking about the days spent on the beach in Italy make me wonder why I don’t somehow convince Franca that moving there permanently would be the best thing for everyone. Well, for me, at least.
Ignore The North, Embrace The South
It’s hard not to love Venice, Florence, Rome, and all of the other hundred northern cities and towns that I could type right now; but for me, the region of Italy that beckons me the most towards it is the south. Life is so much happier there, regardless of how the locals might occasionally grumble that life is actually much harder than it is in the north. But, that’s an argument for another day.
What the south encapsulates for me is a more relaxed attitude to life. Undoubtedly, everyone I’ve ever met in the south is hardworking, but they don’t let work get in the way of enjoying their life to the fullest.
You only have to travel around some of my favourite towns in the southern region of Puglia to understand why that is.
Franca’s hometown of Alberobello has the distinct privilege of being one of the few towns in the southern half of Italy that has been awarded a place on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Why? Because nowhere else in Italy that you can find an entire town centre full of houses with cone-shaped roofs.
Looking out across the old town as the sun reflects off the sun-washed and white-painted stones is mesmerising, and on a clear blue day makes for some special photographs.
What I love most about this small town isn’t the uniqueness of the setting; instead, it’s the slow almost treacle-like pace at which life tends to go. People slowly meander around the town, happy and content with their slow-paced walk, stopping to talk with the faces they know (in fact, almost every face), much like people used to promenade around town in their Sunday best in the 19th century.
When people go to lunch, the town stops. A number of souvenir shops will remain open; but for the most part, everyone goes home to eat a large lunch with their family.
Everything about the town is a prime example of the slow lifestyle that I – and many others – are travelling to Puglia to experience.
Polignano a Mare
Another place that I love and adore that also shares several similarities to Alberobello is the historical coastal town of Polignano a Mare.
It has the same slow pace, great views, plus the huge added bonus of having one entire side of the town brushing against the warm blue sea that looks so inviting. What I also love about it is how friendly the people are. In the shops, in the restaurants, and down the alleyways between stone houses – which are older than most countries – are the people. They smile, share, and smile again when you stumble over the few words you know in Italian.
The friendliness of southern Italians is legendary, and you’ll find it in other towns too, such as Monopoli.
Further down the coast from Polignano a Mare is another of my favourite seaside towns. Called Monopoli, it’s more of a city than a town, with a large shipping port too. It has a castle, old churches, and little boats in the marina, all painted in bright colours that have faded and been repainted, time, after time, after time.
What I love most about Monopoli is arriving late in the afternoon, just before the sun goes down.
Arriving just in time to spend an hour or two at the beach, after the sun has been warming it up all day, it is the best. People who’ve been at the beach all day are starting to leave, so it’s slightly quieter too. Also, Monopoli under the pink light of dusk is an exceptional thing to see.
Coming out of the water to then walk around Monopoli at night is a memory I’ll cherish forever. The city takes on a new life as the children return from school and fill the old streets with noise. Curtains bellow out of windows, from which the smells and sounds of Mama’s cooking waft straight into my pathway, teasing me with every scrape of a fork on a slowly emptying plate.
Away from the coast and further in land is the last of my four favourite destinations in Puglia.
Grottaglie today is a city built on the success of its ceramics industry, and if you ever get the chance to visit, you really should see the exquisite, handmade pieces that can be found in several workshops open to the public. But, that’s not the first reason why I love this town.
Several years ago, a regular street art festival called Fame Festival would irregularly take place. International artists both known and unknown were invited to explore and bring some much needed colour to the newer parts of the town, especially to the graying concrete apartment blocks and plaster-covered walls that have become so faded due to the sun.
On our last trip there in 2013, we had the fortune to see a number of newer pieces, some of which I know to no longer be bringing smiles and questions to the lips of the the older “nonni” of the town.
Honestly, when I think of Puglia, I struggle to think of anywhere else that makes me smile so much. Nowhere else can I picture myself being smiled at, offered delicious fresh food, and whilst being surrounded by beautiful countryside, historical towns, and wonderful, warm seas.
Actually, I think I might book myself a flight there now, and you should, too.
Would you like to visit Puglia? Have you ever been? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!