In an effort to increase my knowledge about Italy and be able to provide input/suggestions based on personal experience, I did some exploring to learn about a few towns I had not had the opportunity to visit before. This route took me to Matera (in the Basilicata region), Lecce, Otranto, Gallipoli, Ostuni, Alberobello and Polignano a Mare (all in the Puglia region) and Vasto and Sulmona (in the Abruzzo region).
Each of these towns has its own unique element that makes it a special place to visit:
Matera: Capital of the Matera province, also known as the City of Stone because the inhabitants carved their homes right into the stone (“sassi”). As the third-oldest continually inhabited settlement in the world, there have been inhabitants for at least 9000 years! Tourism in Matera has increased more recently after having been named as one of Europe’s 2019 Capitals of Culture. This is a fascinating place to visit! Strolling through the town and exploring the sassi on foot is the way to really visit. Also consider hiking over to the other side of the canyon for a different perspective (it’s also possible to drive to the other side if the hike doesn’t fit in your plans).
Lecce: Capital of the Lecce province and located in the Salento region of Italy which is the heel of the boot. Lecce is a small university town with narrow streets leading to the historic center. Here, it’s more about the local specialty foods than sight-seeing. We tried the local coffee drink called Caffè Leccese, which is espresso with almond milk and ice cubes, and the pastry of the area called pasticciotto (a pastry filled with cream). For lunch, the obvious choice was orecchiette (a typical pasta shape from Puglia) with tomato sauce – simple but delicious. And if you’re looking for a souvenir from this area, look for paper mâché items which are hand made and unique to Lecce.
Otranto: A coastal town located on the Adriatic Sea, in the Lecce province. In Otranto, the activities include wandering through the town’s walled historic center surrounding the Castello Aragonese. The narrow, winding alleyways are home to lots of charming shops and restaurants. And, of course, the beaches. The town has several options for sunbathing and enjoying the beautiful blue Adriatic water.
Gallipoli: Another coastal town in the Lecce province, Gallipoli is an island on the opposite side of the Salento peninsula from Otranto, located on the Ionian Sea. The town more than lives up to its name which translates to “beautiful city” in Greek. Here, you can enjoy your aperativo at any of cafes lining the promenade while admiring the beautiful sea views. And for those who look for the sunbathing options, this is also an area with gorgeous stretches of white sandy beaches.
Ostuni: Located in the province of Brindisi and also known as the “white city” because of the whitewashed buildings. Due to its recognizable white appearance, you will see the city ahead in the distance way before you arrive. The town is a labyrinth of stairs and alleyways resulting in surprise views around every corner.
Alberobello: Located in the province of Bari and famous for “trulli”, which are whitewashed stone dwellings with cone shaped roofs. Walking around this town, you feel like you’ve walked into a fairy world. The trulli are everywhere and while some are still residential, many are home to souvenir shops and boutiques. It’s a very touristy little town but so unique it’s definitely worth a visit.
Polignano a Mare: Not far from Alberobello and also within the province of Bari, this is a seaside town with a beautiful coastline along the Adriatic Sea. There’s a little historic center and a small beach where the annual Red Bull diving competition is held the first week of June. Polignano is also the location of the well-known restaurant housed in a cave, La Grotta Palazzese – an expensive splurge if only for the experience of romantic fine dining in a cave (make sure to reserve well in advance if you want to include a meal here in your itinerary).
Vasto: Located in the province of Chieti which is in the Abruzzo region. We hadn’t planned on including this little town in our itinerary but since we were passing through at lunchtime, it was a good opportunity to enjoy the view while stopping for a bite. As we looked down at the coast from the hillside restaurant, we could see the rows of sun umbrellas lining the beach. I imagine this is a busy little resort town in the high summer season.
Sulmona: Also located within the Abruzzo region, but in the province of L’Aquila. This is a small town in a beautiful, lush valley region. Sulmona’s claim to fame is the fabrication of “confetti” – delicious treats made using Sicilian almonds. You can call them “Italian Jordan almonds” but they are so much better! The almond is encapsulated by dark chocolate and then finished with a flavored candy coating. You’ll find all kinds of flavors including amaretto, apricot, pear/ricotta, limoncello and coffee, just to name a few.