Living and working in Italy as an English teacher, many of my students and friends were from the Italian region of Puglia. During our conversational English lessons, they would search for the words to describe their beloved hometowns and show me photos of seasides and grottos with water a shade of blue I had only ever seen in my imagination.
But when I mention Puglia to friends who are not from Italy, my comments are usually met with a blank look. “Puglia is the heel of the boot of Italy,” is how I often explain it, which helps orient them, but no one has ever told me that they had made a trip to this region. Sometimes people know of Puglia because of the famous trulli buildings with their iconic conical stone roofs, or they’ve heard of Lecce, a well-known city in Puglia sometimes called the “Florence of the South” due to its baroque architecture. Puglia in English is Apulia, ironically, which sounds more Italian to me than the Italian version, and is somehow no more familiar.
My students from Puglia convinced me it was worth a visit, but getting there was another story. This particular part of Italy is not as well connected via train as other areas, which might partly explain why it isn’t as commonly known to foreigners. My travel companion and I – a good friend living and studying in Italy – finally concocted a somewhat adventurous plan. We would take BlaBlaCar, a ride-sharing service, to Puglia after work on a Friday, and then train home the following Tuesday, as there were more trains available earlier in the day, and it would be easier to find our way to the train station in daylight.
Our adventure fell on Easter weekend, and we found ourselves speeding south toward Puglia in darkness with two young Italians headed home for the holiday to their hometown, the capital of the region, Bari. Our destination was Trani, not far from Bari, and our driver dropped us in front of our B&B and bid us farewell, but not before gifting us with his number in case we wanted to go clubbing with him and his friend.
While I appreciate the opportunity to make friends with locals on our ride share experiences, fortunately, we had other priorities. As soon as we put our bags down in our lovely sea-themed B&B we felt like we were on vacation, despite still being in the same small country as we were a few hours before. We stepped outside for a stroll, breathed in the salty air, and breathed out all of our pent-up anxieties from our daily routines. The relaxed tempo, the warmer weather, and being able to savor a view of the seaside almost everywhere we went was exactly the experience we had hoped for.
Trani’s seaside includes a small harbor with views of fishing boats and beautiful rock formations, and from the historic part of town, sweeping views of the Adriatic Sea framed by bright buildings reflecting styles you might find in Puglia’s neighbor, Greece. There wasn’t a beach but we didn’t mind, as it encouraged us to get to know the town better.
We spent the weekend doing as the locals do – strolling, people-watching in the piazza at the Cathedral of San Nicola Pellegrino, having wine at the seaside, and eating. I’ve found that where there are few tourists, the food is usually much better, and we only ever saw two other foreign tourists.
In fact, there are so few tourists, we caused a bit of a scene whenever locals found out we were foreigners, and it was an adventure communicating with our new friends in our broken Italian.
As we got to know Trani better, we were fascinated with its history interwoven with the many cultures that came through its port, and we arranged a tour at the 13th-century fortress not far from the cathedral. We also learned from our guide that the iconic building pictured on the one-cent Italian Euro coin was Castel del Monte, which was relatively close to Trani, and he could set up a tour for us. Getting there, though, required a bus to the city of Andria, a good walk through the city, and another bus to Castel del Monte. And then repeating the trip to get back to Trani.
Our schedule on Monday was open, so we decided, why not? But while our transportation plan seemed reasonable, it assumed the bus system to be reliable. We were naively unaware of the adventure we were embarking on. We got to Andria uneventfully, but our walk to the next bus stop was hot and long, and taught us a lesson of the wealth of a town like Trani in comparison to the more industrial inland city of Andria. After a lengthy wait, our bus to Castel del Monte finally appeared. We were the only ones on the full-sized city bus, and our driver appeared to be making up for lateness by speeding through the country roads, catching air a few times as the bus squeaked away, free from the weight of its normal load of passengers, and making me wish for seatbelts. We watched grove after grove of olive trees fly by us as we acclimated to the dry but gorgeous warm tones of the Pugliese countryside.
Despite my concern, our bus driver did eventually slow down enough to let us out at Castel del Monte. We gaped up at the perfect octagonal-shaped building on a green hill in the middle of the countryside, its particularity and mysticism immediately obvious. Our guide was waiting for us and began the long process of explaining the complex cultures, astronomy, and geometry that had inspired the castle built by Emperor Frederick II in 1240. The architecture was based on the number eight, with eight sides, and eight towers, each with eight sides, and an eight-sided courtyard.
Despite the challenge of getting to Castel del Monte without a car, the tour was fascinating and completely worth the challenge. The castle is yet another example of the incredible history to be experienced in Italy, and the opportunities that open up when you get off of the beaten path. The small bus that picked us up at the castle was more appropriately sized for just the two of us and was exactly on time.
When we arrived back in Andria, we were relaxed, having accomplished our goal for the day, and we found a nice restaurant to enjoy a late lunch that cost us next to nothing and gave us a break from the hot sun. The family of the restauranteurs was visiting the restaurant while we were there, and we made friends with their curious little girls sitting at the next table. Our bus back to Trani was a little late, but we enjoyed gelato at the store next to the bus stop and we were content. I took the time to enjoy the scenery on the bus back to Trani, marveling at the rows and rows of olive trees as far as I could see, a sight not found in Northern Italy, where we lived.
We finished our trip to beautiful Trani unremarkably, just relaxing and enjoying ourselves. Our train home was on time and comfortable, and our minds were open and happy, content to relax and enjoy the ride and ponder my gratitude for my students and their passions for their hometowns. Since my trip to Trani, I have returned to Puglia once for the wedding of two close friends in Lecce, which I blogged about. After the wedding, I joined a friend and we explored the Pugliese city of Taranto. My trips to Puglia have never lacked adventure. Check back on the blog, as I will be writing about Taranto soon!