The Puglia Diaries

The thrills and spills of a British Council Language Assistant in Molfetta, Italy

Polignano a Mare and Many, Many Detours

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On the 5th of March, I left work early to get to the Garden Hotel where my parents were staying. After stumbling along the edge of a busy road that was a lot longer than I thought, we went to pick up Izzy and the little dogs to start our day out. Needless to say Izzy was not ready and assaulted me with complaints about the fact I don’t own a hairbrush. Really, you would understand if you saw what happens when I brush my hair

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Something like this

We then set off down the motorway, planning to first visit Castellana and then go to Polignano a Mare. However, we took the wrong road and ended up heading down the coastal route instead of inland. This would not be the last directional mistake we made that day. It didn’t matter much though, we changed plan and arrived in Polignano with the sun shining.

I’d already seen plenty of pictures of the pebble beach at Polignano, a kind of cove closed in by high cliffs and boasting bright blue waters on a hot day. That’s the first place we went when we were dragged away from the car by Lily and Cassie. We followed a family, who seemed to know where they were going, down the Roman trail: a path of winding steps set into greenery. Unfortunately, these plants and low stone walls were ideal hiding places for cats, Lily’s number one enemy (on a par with birds). After a fair bit of barking, we made it down to the beach and me and Izzy took some selfies, for tradition’s sake.

After heading back up some steeper steps, we found the entrance to the ‘Centro Storico’ of Polignano, which was similar to the old parts of other Apulian towns I have visited. It had the usual white stone steps and coloured doorways, flowers trailed over balconies, tiny bed & breakfasts and ceramic shops. We met another cat and came across a bar called ‘La Casa del Mojito’ and stood on all the windy lookout points over the sea, which was deep blue against the rocks. Crossing a bridge and heading downwards along the seafront, we found the statue of Domenico Modugno, the singer-songwriter who was born in Polignano. He seemed pleased to see us.

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By then it was about 1 o’clock and we were faced with the the typical tourist dilemma of ‘we’re hungry but this is the South of Italy so there all of the restaurants will be empty’. We took the plunge and walked into one called Osteria di Chichibio, where we were met by a giant spread of fresh seafood and a friendly waiter who said that dogs were allowed in on the condition that if they misbehaved they would end up on the grill. About three different restaurants used this joke over the course of the holiday but we didn’t mind as long as Lily and Cassie could come in and be angels as they usually do when they lie down under tables. For some reason, this is the only time that they are completely calm, to the point that you forget they are they until they unexpectedly snuffle your leg and make you choke on your pasta.

The lunch we had in Polignano was probably some of the best food we had while my parents were here. The atmosphere of the restaurant was very pleasant: white tablecloths and walls lined with fancy wine bottles and shelves of interesting trinkets. Me and Dad had the same asparagus and seafood pasta, while my mum and sister had non-prawny alternatives. We had been offered pink fizzy wine, bread and taralli so the portion was a perfect size, especially since the food was rich. Obviously there was space for dessert: I was so content with my favourite tiramisu that I left my sister’s chocolate soufflé alone. Last time she was in Italy, I committed the capital offence of stealing the “best part” of a chocolate soufflé in Alberobello, a memory that has stuck with her and made her reluctant to let me taste any of her food. I plead innocent; she’s just very attached to chocolate pudding.

 

We still had a lot on the agenda for our first family day out in Puglia. Back in the car, we used the fairly rubbish GPS map on my phone to head towards Castellana, where there are some interesting grottoes. The Apulian countryside is flat, full of olive trees, small roads and interesting villas: we passed through a lot of little towns before reaching Castellana Grotte, following the brown signs indicating a top tourist destination. With the number of signs we saw, you’d have thought it would be swarming with visitors, but when we pulled up in the desolate car park we began to reassess our expectations. Mum refused to come because she was in heels, and anyway taking two Jack Russells into a cave would probably not be the best idea. Dad, Izzy and I went to investigate: we found the ticket booths closed and another group of wandering tourists but no trace of opening hours or notices. Ah well.

 


Instead, we took an impromptu trip to Alberobello, despite Izzy’s misgivings (“not those houses again”). You can tell when you are getting close to the town of the trulli when by the roadside you see clusters of little huts with conical roofs, sometimes incorporated into modern houses, sometimes lying in poetic disrepair between the trees. The weather wasn’t looking so good, but it only drizzled a bit as we walked around the little white town. Dad was pleased by the trulli: they are really so precisely made and it’s fascinating that people could live in them. We did a loop of the town before going back to the car park, where Lily had yet another stand off with a stray cat.

From this point, the day started to go a bit wrong. We drove through the countryside following signs for Bari, passing through all sorts of towns along the way, including Putignano, which is famous for its carnival processions. Once we had reached Bari, we made the fateful error of trying to find an Audi garage because Dad needed an audio cable for his new phone. I will stress here that it was all his idea because soon after our fruitless tour around the garages of the industrial zone (everything except Audi), we were bound inland on the wrong road to Foggia, passing Terlizzi, then Ruvo and then coming off the motorway in a shower of rain in a town called Corato.

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We were lost and I only had a vague sense of where we were, not any idea of how to get from Corato to Molfetta. There were barely any road signs to be seen, or if we did see any, the writing was worn off, leaving a plain blue rectangle shining unhelpfully in the darkness. First we were frustrated, then on the brink of an argument, then we started to laugh. Crazy pedestrians were launching themselves in front of our car to cross the street, people were pulling out from nowhere: Dad was incredulous about the terrible driving we saw that night. I was texting Antonio, who is from Corato, to tell him about our misadventure and get directions out of there. Try as he might to understand where we were and patiently guide us out of there, I couldn’t see a thing and could not fathom what road he was talking about. In the end, we drove out of the city centre and suddenly out of the corner of my eye, I saw a sign for Molfetta. We swung to the left and embarked on a long, long curvy road, barely wide enough for two cars, lined with close olive trees on either side. Dad put on his full beam and once in a while we saw more signs, with Molfetta 10, Molfetta 8 written on them, until finally we emerged from the country trail into the industrial area of Molfetta, by the big shopping centre I know so well. We were a little stunned by our trip. It was such a massive detour that we had mood swings between despair and hilarity at the situation we had got ourselves into. In the end, all we wanted was a pizza and an early night. Well, Mum and Dad had an early night: me and Izzy put the dogs to bed and then stayed up late chatting. Because that’s what sisters do.

 

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Author: Elly Cooke

Recent graduate of English Literature and Italian from the University of Leeds. Book lover and part-time Italian speaker.

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