Monopoli in Puglia, Italy – but isn’t that a board game?
This is a post written in partnership with Apulia la finestre sul mare who kindly showed us around this beautiful region of Puglia, Italy.
Do you want to bypass the big crowds along the Amalfi Coast? Or perhaps avoid the hustle and bustle of Rome and Milan? If so then consider heading to Puglia, Italy and its jewel in the crown – Monopoli. Not to be confused with the “Monopoly” board game of course! Instead the town of Monopoli which is situated on the Adriatic Sea making up the “heel” of Italy’s famous “boot”.
The unspoiled region of Puglia is slowly becoming a hot spot for tourists looking for authentic experiences. Visit private “masseria”(fortified farms), surrounded by 1,000 year old olive trees. And the back in town marvel at numerous baroque churches revealing themselves at the end of cosy, little alleyways. The New York Times even mentioned Puglia, Italy in their Top 52 locations for 2019.
Our stay in Monopoli
For four days we based ourselves at an apartment nestled in the heart of the Old Town. Our full itinerary included walking tours, bike tours, plus a sail up to Polignano a Mare on a bright white catamaran. Integral to each experience was the delicious food on offer. Whether that be from Monopoli’s various restaurants, the area’s wineries or best still from restored underground olive farms hidden deep in the Puglian countryside.
Our guide throughout was Apulia la finestre sul mare’s Antonella. She provided amazing insights to her ‘home town’ and many hidden locations nearby. Most of which would have remained undiscovered if it wasn’t for her deep knowledge of the area.
Walking tour of Monopoli
Have your breakfast in Premiato Caffè Venezia before meeting Antonella for a walking tour of Monopoli. It’s great exploring new locations on your own, but it’s normally better in a group. As part of a tour you’ll be falling over many characterful buildings and chunks of history you might have missed if it wasn’t for your guide.
Who knew that such a small Old Town could have 25 churches with a similar number of nunneries and monasteries. There’s even a whipping post relocated underneath the clock tower! No doubt to remind the townsfolk of past times. To the untrained eye it simply looks like one too many car wing mirrors have taken chunks out of the masonry over the years.
The jewel in the crown is Monopoli’s baroque cathedral. It’s quite resplendent with an interior containing red-coloured marble columns and its most prized possession, the Madia. Printed copies of which you’ll see adorning the walls of most of the town’s shops and restaurants.
Legend has it that the Madia painting arrived on a wooden raft one day, leading to it becoming a revered icon for the town. Inside the church you can still see the raft and the wooden painting. A tale from the past but with the actual relics to back up the stories.
Football fans might be interested to know that Germany goalkeeper Manuel Neuer got married here back in 2017.
Visit Polignano a Mare next-door
“Volare, oh oh
Cantare, oh oh oh oh”
Take a short ride up the coast to explore the town of Polignano a Mare. Considered by some to be the “Cinque Terre” of the south. Wind your way through the little nooks and crannies leading out to the viewing platforms looking out to sea.
If you’ve ever wondered who sang that wonderfully Italian ‘Volare’ song and where he lived? Well it was Domenico Modugno and he lived in Polignano. There’s even a 10ft tall statue to commemorate him!
Explore the Lama Monachile Cala Porto (dried up river bed) plus the stunning cliffs from which the annual Red Bull cliff diving competition takes place. In 2019 this is on the 2nd of June. They erect temporary 21m and 27m high platforms out across the water which the competitors then access through somebody’s living room!
Catamaran from Monopoli Harbour
Having stood high up on the cliffs looking down you now get the chance to be on the Adriatic Sea looking up. You’ll board your boat in Monopoli harbour before slowly heading out of the harbour and turning left up to Polignano a Mare. If the conditions are right the captain might even switch off the engine and unfurl the masts to propel you up the coast by wind power alone.
From the sea you get an altogether different view of the town with many of its buildings and restaurants positioned on the limestone cliffs below. Once at Polignano look out for the Grotta Palazzese Restaurant. It’s a magical place with its terrace set inside a natural cave.
Your return to Monopoli could coincide with the local fishermen arriving back at harbour. The day’s catch could be the same fish you eat that very same evening. Locals and tourists alike pass from boat to boat to appreciate the fishermen’s spoils.
Hidden grottos and olive oil farms
The region of Puglia, Italy is littered with masseria (fortified farms) and olive trees, and consequently many olive oil farms. Most of these masseria are situated on private land and can only be accessed on guided tours, like the bike tour below with Antonella.
It really is pretty cool to visit private basements and see hidden underground grotto churches with frescos painted during the Middle Ages. Afterwards appreciating the 1,000 year old olive trees in the gardens outside. Most of which still bear fruit for the annual harvest.
One such producer of olive oil is Sorelle Barbaba, a working olive oil farm now run by three sisters. It produces 50-70k litres of olive oil a year. You will be inspired hearing how the process works by someone so passionate on the subject.
Bike tour among the olive trees of Puglia, Italy
Walking can be fun but cycling allows you to see more and slightly further afield. Our tour with Apulia la finestre sul mare took us from the Monopoli Old Town out to the “hidden” beach of Spiaggia di Porto Ghiacciolo, to the Masseria and olive oil farms mentioned above, as well as out in the olive tree fields themselves. Trees that have survived and become hollowed out over the course of a 1,000 years. Trees that incredibly are still bearing fruit.
Make sure to check out our separate Monopoli bike tour post.
Cooking classes – making pasta & panzarotti
You can even attend a cooking class in a real family-run Masseria called
Agriturismo Curatori just south west of Monopoli. Our host Lucrezia watched over us as we first made little orecchiette pasta shells, before we took a turn at filling calzone-shaped Panzarotti. Our teacher then gently fried them in a bubbling bowl of olive oil before we ate them all together in front of the fire.
Other delights included feasting on urchins at Trattoria Pizzeria da “Zi Ottavio”, sampling scorpion fish in Il Brigante Trattoria, tasting wine at the I Pastini winery, and enjoying yet more orecchiette pasta in Premiato Caffè Venezia in the old market square. Of course there’s always time for a coffee and the cool The King Caffè Letterario was a hipster place to grab one … AND they made a great value, tasty cappuccino!
In conclusion …
Puglia in Italy could be the destination for your next summer holiday? Or do as we did and visit outside of high season when you’ll have more of the place to yourself. During our visit we met the mayor of Monopoli, Angelo Annese who summed up things pretty well:
We want to welcome tourists throughout the year. Young, friendly and old, who enjoy places in the best way – sea, tradition and food.Angelo Annese – Monopoli Mayor
This unspoilt location completely won us over with its authentic experiences and is somewhere we’re looking forward to going back to in the very near future 🙂