When you finally see the Puglia sign, that’s where the journey really begins. Even if you have already driven for 8 hours coming from Milan, and another 400 kilometers await you to touch Santa Maria di Leuca, heel of the boot. There, we will be a little more than halfway through the journey, because by making a quick count, at the end of this tour we will have driven more than two thousand kilometers, to Taranto and back. On board a Panda 4X4.
The Italian holidays are those of car queues, destination sea, with summer music hits in the background. Crosswords and gossip magazines to read on the beach, long evenings in the square and afternoon naps, card games and ice cream cones. Those of a journalist are working holidays in search of these little stories, to live, write and publish, just in time for all the others to leave for the holidays in search of advice. Like these, collected in a diary on the road, stage by stage, from five-star resorts to carts with fresh coconut pulled on the sand.
Sunset on the salt lakes
The first thing you encounter when arriving in Puglia just off the motorway exit is not the sea but two large lakes, a few hundred meters away from the salt water. Here eels are caught and oysters are grown and therefore it is a destination for fans of the genre – and little else. Lake Lesina and Varano are not exactly an internationally renowned tourist destination and this means a look at Puglia far from the luxury destination and nightlife of the rest of the region – for that you have to go much further south. In the village of Lesina at aperitivo time, the elderly in bars drink a “peroncino” (the 25 cl bottle of Peroni beer, a kind of signature drink here in Puglia) and play cards. But after hours and hours of driving we park, upset, to try the seafood sandwiches with salicornia, octopus or grilled capitone of the trendy Lake Cafe in Lesina, awarded by a local guide as the best Street Food in the region in 2021. There is wind, silence, the boats are moored at the pier and it almost feels like we are at the sea. Almost, because from there to the Gargano there is still an hour’s drive along the strips of land that separate the two basins from the Adriatic. Cultivated fields and deserted country roads follow one another, spartan campsites, hotels that have seen better years and few, few people. At Torre Mileto we stop for a minute of meditation together with campers and locals waiting for the sunset on the beach, as if it were an event. Why? The Adriatic coast faces east and is famous for its sunrises, but where the sun never sets into the sea. Seeing a sunset from the shoreline is rare. It will be 15 exhausting days, and they have officially begun.
Of trabucchi, fields and footballers
Rodi Garganico is the town that acts as the gateway to Gargano, a wooded promontory overlooking the sea that in the 1960s became a destination for national tourism, today also for Germans and French. Bed & breakfasts, campsites and tourist villages seem to belong to another era, but the sea with its beaches and coves has not changed its charm. The most famous beaches are indicated by small neon yellow posters, some can be reached by car, others only by parking at the boarding point along the road and then taking a “walk” of hundreds of steps downhill. On the sea in Italy there are two schools of thought: rocks or sand, and in Puglia there are both. We want sand and we go towards the Bay of Manaccora: fine sand, with tidy umbrellas where families spend whole weeks and those with dance steps entertain the guests. It is the Adriatic of the Romagna Riviera but in miniature format, with loud music. But the sea is blue, clean, you swim under the masses of rock. Panzerotti, paposce* and bottles of beer are extracted from the thermal bags at 1 pm: it’s time for lunch.
The most scenic places to eat on the Gargano are the trabucchi, wooden buildings set in the rock overlooking the water once dedicated to fishing. Today there are few left to visit, and three that have been transformed into restaurants. Two chose the path of innovation, the Trabucco da Mimì and the Trabucco di Monte Pucci, while the Trabucco da Elia, on the other hand, remained more free-range: a few appetizers, grilled fish, first courses. Local fish and paper napkins to eat like at home, but suspended over the water.
The no man’s land between the Gargano and the Itria Valley
The sea is so beautiful that it bewitches and so almost everyone travels the coast to Manfredonia and then to the Margherita di Savoia salt pans. Instead, we decide to turn and cut the promontory from the inside, driving through the woods and the lush nature of the Umbra Forest. The Gargano reaches an altitude of one thousand meters and when the forest ends, you find yourself with a view of an immense expanse of fields, which extend to the horizon. It is the Tavoliere delle Puglie, 3000 sq km considered the granary of Italy and where the wheat for true Made in Italy pasta is born. The area is agricultural, tourism is only marginal and so between Foggia and Bari, passing through the BAT-province of Barletta, Andria, Trani, nobody ever visits. Yet it is the most authentic Puglia, the hilly one of the Murge and a promenade frequented only by locals, the hipster Trani full of modern Apulian cuisine restaurants on the port, the production area of the Mozzarella di Andria and the olives of Cerignola. For those who want to go to the sea, there are no beaches but the rocky kind, public coves that are not always suitable for bathing, which are filled with motorbikes, umbrellas, families and colored beach towels on weekends. There are no postcard destinations but villages with their quiet provincial life, clubs in the square, the market in the morning and the church on Sundays. Places, where there is nothing to see, or there is everything depending on your point of view. We mix with hundreds of kids to watch the national team match on the big screens set up in the square of Corato, we buy the focaccia from Bari with a mixture of potatoes and Il Toscano baked tomatoes and then the next evening we go to eat one of the most famous sandwiches in Puglia, from Marino to Noci. Instagram likes keep raining on us but we seem to have experienced something that will remain solely in our hearts, and something we don’t understand yet awaits us.
Alberobello and Polignano, hit and run
Puglia has become a tourist destination thanks to iconic places that have ended up on postcards that have made their way around the world showing off the deep south of the Bel Paese. The center of the farming village of Polignano has become famous for being the birthplace of the singer Domenico Modugno and for having been the inspiration for the song ‘Nel blu dipinto di blu’. I don’t know if all those who arrive today know this because they actually crowd the alleys of the village up to the famous Lama Monachile, the small natural harbor that has become one of the most photographed beaches in Italy. It will also be a cliché, but it is really true, even if to get to the water you slalom among the people who, in addition to covering the pebbles, also climb the rock walls to sunbathe: you have to visit. There are those who swim, those who dive from the highest rocks, those who take the selfie of the summer, Italians and foreigners, adults and children, without distinction. We immerse ourselves in the crystal clear water to tick the first flag on the checklist of the “typical Apulian holiday”. As an aside, it also includes a cone in one of the country’s three historic ice cream shops and a tour of nearby Alberobello, so we do both.
Famous for its village of white trulli, Alberobello has entered history by attracting buses of hit and run tourists and has converted its historic center into an open-air souvenir shop, concentrating organized travel buses and groups of onlookers in a few streets. The village is amazing but apart from the UNESCO architecture, they all sell “very original” Apulian magnets made in China and the restaurants serve fixed menus of “real genuine cuisine” and it is difficult to fall in love as I thought I could have while looking at the photos in the magazines. In the evening we discover with regret that the conical roofs of these tiny houses that once belonged to very poor peasants light up with a bright green worthy of a science fiction film. But also in pink, yellow, red, and blue if the owner of the current restaurant interpreted, in an even more zealous way, the intention of making the view of a landscape that would already be unique in itself more scenic. Perhaps it is better during the day, without artificial lights, with the white that contrasts with the stone roofs. Perhaps it is better by turning around the corner of Rione Monti – the only small area upset by years of tourist exploitation of the entire Alberobello, which actually has 10,000 inhabitants and a lifetime behind the pedestrian street dotted with tourist restaurants.
We ask ourselves about mass tourism and the risk of making a land loved for its authenticity, a parody of itself. We will discover in a couple of days that there are those who have been working to “save” Puglia from this for at least ten years.
*Paposce: Cold cooked and stuffed pizza dough. It’s like a panuozzo, but since we’re not in Naples, it has another name.