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Puglia and Matera: Caves, trulli and the Baroque

A varied tour of Italy's south

Italy independent travel itinerary


View Puglia & Matera tour in a larger map
This travel itinerary is a good way to explore Puglia, in the south of Italy, which includes the heel of Italy's 'boot', known as the Salento. It's a hot and largely agricultural region, which has recently become a favoured destination for overseas travellers who want to avoid the bustle of Italy's crowded northern tourist sights. You'll eat well and admire both the landscape of the region and its history, evident in the lovely Puglian-Romanesque cathedrals, pretty historic town centres and imposing castles. One of the most famous sights of Puglia is the trullo, a simple conical-roofed dwelling which is a feature of the area around Alberobello, where trulli cluster together like hobbit homes. The trip also crosses into the neighbouring region, Basilicata, to visit Matera, a town once notorious and now renowned for its cave-dwelling districts. The itinerary finishes with a few days in the lively Baroque city of Lecce.

This is a very varied tour, which shows off many aspects of this attractive part of Italy. You can choose to travel by car or by public transport; the distances are all manageable and the journeys are interesting.

Highlights

When we made this tour, our highlights included rattling across the unfamiliar landscape on old-fashioned one-track railway lines, and two excitingly unusual accommodation options: a cave in Matera and a trullo in Alberobello. Great sights on this tour included impressive cathedrals in Bari and Trani, a roadside Roman bronze statue in Barletta, Frederick II's Castel del Monte, the cave-lined ravines of Matera, bare-breasted Baroque statues crumbling away in Lecce and - one of my favourites - a charmingly naive twelfth-century mosaic in Otranto's cathedral depicting King Arthur and sea monsters as well as mythic gods. Matera, Alberobello and Castel del Monte are UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Airports

The ideal choice for this tour is to fly into Bari Airport and out of Brindisi Airport. However, you could book a return to either airport and add on an extra journey at the start or end of your holiday.

Travel, accommodation and food

We followed this itinerary using public transport. The small, old-fashioned trains which cross the enigmatic hinterland lacked modern comforts but were a memorable experience, adding to the flavour of the holiday. Instead of map-reading and route-finding, we sat back with a packed lunch and small glass of local wine as our train trundled through vast olive groves. The itinerary and excursions detailed below are all possible without a hire car, and detailed instructions are provided here or in the individual destination articles. Castel del Monte was the most awkward place we found to visit, though it was reachable by bus. A car would have made this particular excursion easier, and would have allowed more exploration of the countryside. However, drivers would have to negotiate the restrictions of Italian town centres and the limited parking available. Not all hotels have parking, and some charge for the privilege, so check this when you make a booking.

As this area has become increasingly popular with overseas travellers in recent years, you'll find some ambitious new hotels and comfortable, sometimes stylish places to stay. No holidaymaker should miss the opportunity to sleep in a cave in Matera and a trullo in Alberobello. If you have a car, you could consider lodging in a countryside masseria; many of these old agricultural buildings are now comfortable hotels, sometimes with spas or cookery lessons for guests.

The food in Puglia is marvellously fresh and tasty, revolving around the region's own agricultural produce. The word 'cuisine' seems rather too pretentious for the classic, simple 'peasant-style' cooking in Puglia. You'll find good restaurants throughout the region; some smart, some humble and some housed in trulli.

Duration and timings

We spent nine days travelling, with two nights in Bari, one in Matera, three in Alberobello and three in Lecce. Ideally, I would recommend extending this and staying at least two nights in Matera. Your timings may, however, be determined by the availability of flights to Bari and Brindisi.

Detailed itinerary
Bari Airport is ideal for starting this itinerary. Direct London to Bari flights are operated by British Airways and Ryanair. Two bus services run from the airport into central Bari and to the railway station.
Bari

Bari

Bari's old town centre is interesting and you mustn't miss the Basilica di San Nicola, which houses the remains of St. Nicholas, otherwise known as Santa Claus. Spending a couple of nights in Bari allows you to see the few highlights of the town, and to make the essential excursion to Castel del Monte. By making this a long day trip you could also visit Barletta and Trani (of the two, Trani is the more appealing). This excursion uses rail and bus transport, with details on the individual destination pages.
> Palace Hotel - a 4-star hotel with a roof terrace in central Bari, near the Old Town
>Alternatives: Hotel Boston - central 3-star in a convenient central location; Mercure Villa Romanazzi Carducci - 4-star with parking; To stay in charming Trani, try the Hotel Regia Ristorante, Trani -3-star in a convenient central location

Matera is an hour and a half from Bari on the railway called the Ferrovie Appulo Lucane (which doesn't run on Sundays or public holidays; though there's a bus).
Matera

Matera

Matera is an enormously atmospheric town once blighted by appalling poverty. Now the cave-houses where families once lived are coming back to life as hotels, museums and restaurants. With picturesque lanes and ruins to explore and cave-churches to tour, there's a lot to see. Don't miss the chance to sleep in a cave hotel.
> Locanda di San Martino - excellent cave-hotel where we stayed
> More Matera accommodation

Return to Bari by train, then head through the mainline railway station to reach the platforms and ticket office operated by the Ferrovie Sud Est (FSE). Trains from Bari to Alberobello take 90 minutes.
Alberobello

Alberobello

Alberobello is a popular tourist destination because of its two entire districts of trulli. There's not a great deal to do other than wander, take photographs and visit a museum trullo, but it's a pleasant little town with a good food market and restaurants. A great excursion by train can take in both Martina Franca and Locorotondo. If you have a car, other picturesque local towns include Ostuni and Cisternino. There are show-caves at Castellana Grotte.
> Trulli Holiday - we stayed in our very own trullo, rented out by Trulli Holiday
> More Alberobello accommodation

FSE trains run services from Alberobello to Lecce. The journey takes around two hours, with a change at Martina Franca.
Lecce

Lecce

Sophisticated by southern standards, Lecce has a beautiful town centre crammed with extravagant Baroque buildings and sculpture. There's a good archaeological museum, churches to visit and a little tourist train to ride on. The town has plenty of excellent restaurants and bars. Once again travelling by little FSE trains, you can enjoy a day out by the sea in historic Otranto.
> Risorgimento Resort - very smart hotel right in the city centre
> B&B Centro Storico - one of several good B&Bs in the historic heart of Lecce

There is a convenient direct bus service between Lecce and Brindisi Airport, run by Sitabus. It departs from just outside Lecce's historic centre. If you have time at the airport, walk around the perimeter to visit one of Brindisi's principal sights, the church of Santa Maria del Casale.

Options and alternatives

If I were to repeat this trip, as well as spending longer in Matera, I would also consider adding overnight stays in Otranto or Trani, both of which are lovely seaside towns. By spending more time in Puglia, you also could fit in a trip down to the very tip of Italy's 'heel'.

Advice

If you are travelling by public transport, look up timetables online in advance and take a printout with you, as information can be hard to come by. The little trains offer a very personal service - conductors and station masters helped us with connections and advice. Take a phrase book, and don't be afraid to ask for advice - local people can be very friendly and helpful.

Lecce and much of the south closes down for several hours in the afternoon. In the summer, this time of day can be uncomfortably hot. The locals take a rest, and then re-emerge in the evening; Lecce's late-night passeggiata is a busy and lively spectacle. Consider following their example, or at least finding a shady cafe to enjoy some respite from the sun.


> Puglia hotels, B&Bs and holiday rentals

> More Italy travel itineraries


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Puglia destination guide

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Ferrovie Appulo Lucane (Bari-Matera)

Ferrovie Sud Est (Bari-Alberobello)

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