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Circling the Adriatic Italy: Puglia

Alberobello, Locorotondo, and Vieste

The sound of voices outside the cabin window ripped us awake at seven in the morning. We looked through the curtain and saw that the ferry was slowly settling into the port and passengers were making their way down to the lower deck. I quickly jumped in the shower while Mei Ling changed the kids and then we grabbed our bags and squeezed out of the narrow cabin doorway. We crammed everything into the tiny elevator and tried to remember what floor the car deck was on. We got out on what I thought was the right floor but the car deck on that level was completely empty. I ran up and down the staircase a couple of times trying to find the right car deck but couldn't find another one. After a few more attempts to find the Iceberg in different areas, we returned to the level we had tried first and saw that there was exactly one car still on the deck. It was ours. Everyone else had driven off the ferry before we had even left our cabin. We were THAT family. We sheepishly loaded the kids and the bags and drove off the boat into Bari.

The Lonely Planet had very little nice to say about Bari and we didn't see anything through the car windows to make us think otherwise, so we wasted little time in getting to the highway headed south. Due to the ferry schedule, we only had the option of spending the last three days in Italy rather than the five I would have preferred. I had reluctantly decided not to attempt to make it to Lecce in the heel of the Italy boot. It was simply too far and would have meant too much of our last three days would have been spent in the car. However, it seemed like there were plenty of interesting towns not as far down south to occupy our first day back in Italy.

It was an exhilarating feeling to be out on the open road at 8 AM. Being two hours ahead of our normal schedule made the day seem like it had unlimited possibilities. Our first stop was Alberobello, famous for its hundreds of trulli. These 18th century stone huts with conical roofs look better suited for housing elves or hobbits than humans, and no one seems to be quite sure why they were built rather than more conventional dwellings of the period. I couldn't figure out where the tourist parking lot was so we drove through the narrow streets of town until we eventually found a illegal-looking parking spot near the central Piazza del Popolo. At one end of the square was a vantage point from which we could look out over the trulli neighborhood of Rione Monti.

We descended a staircase to the lower level of town where I naturally found the large tourist parking area. From there, the trulli of Rione Monti are clustered on a gently sloping hill. Few of the trulli in this area are private residences. Most have been converted into shops that cater to the numerous tourists that the town attracts, although in mid-October the streets were blissfully uncrowded. We did explore one little trulli bakery where the owner had a living quarters in the small upper chamber of the hut.

There wasn't much to see in Alberobello besides trulli so we drove to our next town, Locorotondo. This was another one of those cities which looks very drab and ordinary until you find your way to the right area and suddenly turns into a beautiful old neighborhood of smoothly paved streets, whitewashed buildings, wooden doors, and colorful planters.

After strolling around the old town for a while, we found the road that curved around the edge of Locorotondo and provided wonderful views of the fields and farms on the outskirts.

We had already seen two towns and were still on track for an early lunch. We made one attempt at a recommended restaurant in the town of Cisternino, but they weren't open for lunch. We decided to try Martina Franca instead, where there were at least two restaurants that sounded promising. Martina Franca was somewhat larger than the last two towns, but I kept losing my phone signal amidst the tall buildings and narrow streets of the old town. We found one of our target restaurants which was closed, and were unable to find the second. Eventually, we decided to eat in a small restaurant we came across that had an inventive menu and a wide selection of craft beers. It wasn't close to one of the best meals we had, but we considered it a success after our struggle to find an open restaurant.

Once our hunger issue was solved, we explored the narrow streets with sunnier dispositions. Martina Franca's old town was similar to Locorotondo in some ways, but seemed to have more ornate doorways and windows.

On the way back to the car we did find one impressive open square called Piazza Plebiscito with a beautiful curved building with an arched portico. Close by was the baroque Basilica di San Martino.

Castel del Monte was another place that I learned of for the first time when planning our trip, and was surprised that it wasn't more well known. This bizarre 13th century octagonal citadel looks almost as though it was carved from styrofoam a few days earlier. It stands on a solitary hilltop in a rural area, and no one knows for what purpose it was built. Spiral staircases lead upward to a second floor with barren, intimidating rooms.

From the castle, the windy path spiraling down to the parking lot is lined with umbrella pine trees and provides vistas over the surrounding countryside.

I had decided we would spend the night in a rather unusual location: the town of Vieste at the tip of the Gargano peninsula. This isolated promontory is far from the touristic areas of Italy and I thought this might be our only convenient opportunity to see the area. Most of the peninsula is forested and Vieste was the only city that seemed to be of interest to us. We made good time on the highway all the way to the peninsula, but we were aware of a developing problem. We were running out of milk. I had forgotten our prime directive of always making sure we were well ahead of the curve when it came to milk and diapers, and hadn't focused on restocking in Martina Franca. Now that we were on the highway, all the gas stations seemed to have the limited stores that carried beer and water and snack foods, but no milk. We stopped at four or five of them but it soon became apparent that we would have to get milk in Vieste, and darkness was falling. We went through a series of tunnels and then came to a fork in the road where a road sign pointed to Vieste on one side and Google Maps directed me to the other. After some deliberation, I followed Google Maps since signs sometimes don't point to the shortest route. We drove in darkness on a looping road when I realized we were no longer following the blue line on the map. We drove back slowly and I found the turn off Google Maps was requesting that I take: a steep dirt road going up the hillside. Fool me ten times, Google Maps. We retraced our steps back to the fork and followed the sign to Vieste.

We only had 20 kilometers left to go but they were some very slow and harrowing kilometers. We were now in the "Forest of Shadows", a dense collection of trees that forms the Gargano National Park which occupies most of the interior of the peninsula. At night, there was no light except the stars and my high beams. Meanwhile, stomach-wrenching hairpin turns slowed us to a crawl every few hundred meters. Thankfully, we had the presence of mind to text our Airbnb hosts about the milk situation and they offered to buy some for us, which we gratefully accepted. This last stretch of our drive took about forty-five minutes but we ultimately found ourselves in a surprisingly pleasant and modern-appearing town. After a relatively minor directional struggle we located our Airbnb hosts who led us into what seemed like a mostly empty apartment complex in the new part of town. As was usual for Airbnb's in Europe, the apartment was true to its description and even more importantly, two liter bottles of whole milk were waiting in the refrigerator.

At this point, our only goal was to get a filling meal before bed so we took the car to the gate of the old town and squeezed it into a narrow spot. I scouted out the restaurant Osteria al Duomo, which I found halfway down a steep staircase that led away from the cathedral. The proprietors were especially friendly and very accommodating to the kids. The thick walls were constructed of large irregular stones set into mortar, giving the restaurant a grotto-like atmosphere. The food was good but not on the level with the best we had on the journey.

In the morning it was time to get the kids good and clean ahead of our flight back to Miami in just two days. For breakfast, we finally ate the salami that had been rattling around in the back of the car since Bagnoregio as well as tomatoes and cheese from the market in Kotor and the last few oranges from Croatia. It's not often one gets to eat a meal whose components were purchased in three different countries.

Vieste's gate to the old town was a portal between two worlds. On the outside were cars, convenience stores, hardware, and street signs but once through that archway there was only antiquated architecture and an eerie stillness. Virtually no one from the outside came to Vieste in the offseason.

We found a lookout from which we could see the beach far below and on the other side a narrow peninsula extending into the Adriatic.

We made our way down to the low part of town and walked down the narrow streets at the base of the peninsula until we found a road that led to an enchanting little church.

We reversed direction on that road and followed it back to the pedestrian zone, where we encountered a colorful cafe with a giant loaf of freshly-baked bread cooling on an outdoor table. We decided we weren't hungry enough for an early lunch and would find a place in the next town.

On the way back out of the Gargano Peninsula, we found the Forest of Shadows a much more welcoming and scenic place in the daylight. We couldn't resist one selfie with the foggy hills in the background.

Posted by zzlangerhans 07:21 Archived in Italy Tagged castel del monte martina frança alberobello vieste locorotondo

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