I’m sitting on a tiny balcony, that juts outward from a rocky cliffs edge and hangs over the ocean. Below me is a deep grotto where the azure waves of the Adriatic sea crash, crack, sizzle and swirl beneath my feet. Along the cliff face is the ancient ‘centro’ of ‘Polignano a Mare’ a medieval town and ancient fishing village in Puglia on Italy’s heel. Old stone buildings cling to the cliff and stare curiously outward to sea with their castle-like arched windows. No real estate has been spared here. Some buildings hang out further than the cliffs themselves, their foundations eaten away slowly over years of oceanic battering. Caves and grottos populate the coastline in Puglia for this very reason.
I’m staying at the ‘Grotta Palazzese’ and, as advertised, my room is ‘sea view’, but can’t say I expected this. I arrived late last night after a 6 hour train journey from Firenze to Roma and then Roma to Bari, then Bari to Poglinano a Mare. Once again I got off the train and began to wheel my Samsonite suitcase over the cobblestone roads making a racket in otherwise tranquil streets. It was dark so I didn’t know exactly which direction the ocean was, so again I relied on my phone. I said I wanted to get away from the tourists… Well this is it… I’ve definitely done that. I wandered the peaceful alleyways past local pizza shops, gelaterias and bars. Not a tourist insight, only locals talking, laughing and kids playing in streets.
Eventually I saw a sign for the hotel. I turned the corner and was immediately blasted by wind and salt as my suitcase began to act like a sail, trying to wheel my away. The street was a dead end which disappeared in to blackness after the hotel entrance. I realised I’d reached the ocean.
I went inside and checked in. Instead of just giving me my key, the hotel guy told me to follow him to my room. To my surprise, we walked back outside and crossed to the other side of the tine alleyway. He clung to my suitcase with one hand and in the other began to unlock giant green wooden shutters that were the last ones at the end of the alleyway right on the cliffs edge. They flung open in the wind to reveal my room. I couldn’t believe the location. After he left me I just stood there for a moment with the wind howling outside and the constant crash and clack of the waves fighting the rocky cliffs.
I looked to my right and noticed another door. Initially, like in most European hotels, I thought it was a door to another room for families who book more than one room etc. However I then became suddenly aware of my geography and realised the door is on the cliffs edge. I grabbed the handle and pulled it forward. The wind fought me and gusted in to the room as I stepped out on what I realised was my tiny balcony that overhangs the ocean. Incredible.
To my left was the grotto lit up with warm yellow lights, illuminating the violent dance of the whitewash below. Blue lights lit up the ancient buildings along the cliff side. It was too much. I grabbed my camera straight away and began taking photos. In the grotto itself lies the hotel restaurant, inside the cave. I can see the bar and the overhanging lamps dance in the wind casting an improvised light show inside the grotto.
The wind howled as I crouched on the small balcony, shoving my camera between the rusty railing bars to hold it in place. Even the photos can’t quite capture the noise, wind and whole experience of the Adriatic Sea crashing in fury beneath you.
After settling in I began to wander around town looking for a place to eat. This was more difficult than I thought. I always feel self conscious going in to foreign places alone, asking for a table for one. I peered in to the many restaurants I walked past. They were either packed or totally empty. Neither of these was a situation I wanted to be in. I continued to walk between the flood-lit stone walls of the ancient part of the city, looking at menus… Not a word of english, only Italian. Fantastic… except I’m not recognising what seems to be some very regional cuisine. I start to do laps around trying to decide where to go. I finally decide, I’m just going to pick somewhere and walk in. I almost begin to miss the tourists and familiar signs of tourist areas all begging you, in english, for your attention to their ‘authentic Italian’ restaurant.
I pass a small restaurant with some people at a table, but not overly crowded. It advertises Gnocchi al Pesto on the black board so I walk in. If only I’d known how my my choice of restaurant would unfold to be one of the best experiences yet…
I walk in and say my usual ‘tavola per uno’, They laugh and joke that there isn’t one because the restaurant’s basically empty. I laugh with them and sit down at a typical small Italian table with red and white chequered table cloth. I order my pesto and Vino Rosso and sit there as a group of people sit watching a TV that’s on the wall. It’s some ridiculous game show. I remember now, from my last trip here, that Italian TV is essentially game shows… Just game shows and news!
The gnocchi arrives and its fantastic! The owner keeps telling me to ‘Mangia’ and offering other dishes. God knows how anyone could eat more than this. Slowly more people arrive in the restaurant and all seem to be friends or family of the owners. They join the small tables together and sit down. I feel like I’m in an Italian family home. I don’t feel awkward or out of place. I feel welcome and privileged to be witnessing this.
The chef brings out a giant plate of spaghetti with oil, garlic, basil and sun-dried tomato (he explained the ingredients to me, following every sentence with “hai capito” – “You understand?”). I’m so full from my Pesto, but it looks amazing. They look at me and tell me I have to try it. The owner runs and gets me a small plate and serves me up some. She also gets me another glass of red wine and we all cheers together. We then begin chatting and drinking. The red wine keeps flowing endlessly, and then eventually Limenciello and cake. As we all get drunker, everyone jokes and laughs. It’s like a beautiful animated Italian comedy, all of them characters. My Italian was in full swing as none of them really spoke english. They saw my camera and asked me to take photos of them and even offered to show me around and stay at their ‘casa’ if I had no where to stay. It was such a great experience, Sipping Liminciello with a group of crazy locals, eating incredible local food. They closed the restaurant but told me to stay to continue drinking with them, which I did.
Eventually it got late and after joking about if I was getting back to the hotel on my Kangaroo, we said arrivederci and left. I promised to go back before I leave and drink with them again. I return to my room and lay on my bed staring up at the ancient sandstone arched roof as the wind relentlessly batters the walls.
Once again, had I not chosen that restaurant, or decided not to eat alone (I was moments away from deciding on a take away pizza in my hotel room) the night would not have been nearly as eventful. This is another experience that would not have happened and a testament to always force yourself out of your comfort zone when traveling. Always take the Road Less Travelled! Polignano a Mare is an incredible place that awes you at every street, every corner and every strip of quintessential coastline. Old Italian ladies hang out colourful washing on their balconies over the blue Adriatic Sea as Vespas buzz by and groups of men sit outside the bars drinking espresso and watching the world go by.
See my gallery below for photos of my first day here!
Hotel: Grotta Plazzese – Via Narciso 59, Polignano a Mare, Puglia. Italy
Hot to get here: From Rome, take the train bound for Lecce to Barri Centrale (they run every hour). From Barri, take the local train, which will be bound for ‘Brindisi’ and get off at Polignano a Mare. For more information see the Trenitalia website: www.trenitalia.com
How Much: It’s now October and it’s cost me a total of $500 AUD for 3 nights including breakfast. See www.expedia.com for current rates
Food Prices: The local restaurants are VERY cheap. You can great a great pizza for 5 euro, half a litre of wine for the same. Pasta is about 8-10 euro
Where to Eat?: Of course, my fiends at La locanda di Mauri – Via San Benedetto, 32. Ph: 346 7835100. Here there is no menu. Just tell Francesca or Mauri what you want and they’ll be happy to accommodate! Also the friendliest place I’ve been in italy!
Where to Buy Some Great Local Stuff: ‘Buongustaio – Prodotti Tipici Pugliesi’ – Via San Benedetto, 49 (basically opposite Mauri). http://www.buongustaiopugliese.it
How to get around? Polignano is very small and easy to get around on foot. Or you can hire a bike or Segue. Local trains between the coastal towns run reguarly.
Best time to visit? Well now, October, in my opinion. Not many tourists and the temperature is between 25-30 Degrees celsius.
Want more information? Email me: firstname.lastname@example.org