For the past almost 7 years I’ve been deeply involved in a love affair with Italy. Since I first moved there at the age of 17 for my senior year of high school, I have yet to encounter another place that compares to the land of wine, carbs and somewhat creepy, but attractive men. From 2010 onwards, there has not been a single year that I haven’t made the pilgrimage back to my adopted country. And even though I recently moved back to the States, I made sure that this summer was no different.
My friends and I chose Puglia, aka the heel part of the boot shaped country, mainly because it was one of the only regions that we had yet to visit, and I’d heard that cocktails were only 2€ (in reality they are actually 5€, but close enough). The only problem with getting to southern Italy is that unless you spend an arm and a leg to fly into the small airport in Brindisi, it’s impossible to reach without changing trains like three times. Instead, we flew into Rome Fiumicino, rented a car, downed a few espresso shots and drove over 6 hours to our first stop – Gallipoli.
Note to readers: no one in Puglia speaks English so I advise brushing up on some elementary Italian before you go.
“What the fuck? You drove all the way here from Rome?! You ragazze americane are insane!” our Airbnb host said upon our arrival. The apartment we were renting from him turned out to be a cave with no windows, no wifi and hot water that lasted maybe 10 minutes. All that mattered though was that It was located in the city center, so no complaints there. The Airbnb host was also super hot, so we didn’t dare write him a bad review. The following day we hit the beach.
The beaches in Gallipoli are situated about a fifteen minute drive outside of the city, and at night most of them turn into clubs like Samsara Beach and Praja. Too afraid that we would lose our precious parking place, we used the only other form of transportation to get there – a “taxi” which was essentially a 3 wheeled bicycle with a bench in the back for its users. It turned out to not be that necessary, and we ended up walking back later that afternoon.
I’ve never been south of Florida, but the waters in Gallipoli are what I imagine the Caribbean looks like. Floating around in the crystal clear Mediterranean while “Mr. Saxobeat” blared out of the speakers in the nearby beachside cafe, I seriously considered not boarding my return flight and staying there forever. After all, how hard could playing the role of Italian housewife really be?
Later that night, after taking in a little too much sun, we went out on the town ready to party. Despite what Google urges you to believe, Blanc is not the be-all and end-all of bars in Gallipoli. In fact, it sucks. You’ll find better prices and more fun sitting at an outdoor cafe facing the water as the sun sets. And don’t forget to order an Aperol Spritz, the aperitivo of choice for all Italians.
Around 1AM, after becoming sufficiently intoxicated my friends and I headed over to the taxi stand and asked them to drive us to the best discoteca nearby. “That will be 30 euros per favore,” the driver said as we tumbled into the backseat. Twenty minutes later we ended up in the middle of nowhere outside of a massive, multi-level outdoor nightclub called Riobo. We were the only Americans in sight. “Don’t speak English,” my friend Lauren, urged us all as we waited in line for fear we would not be let in. Her little plan worked and shortly thereafter I was balancing a tequila shot in one hand and a Vodka Red Bull in the other while swaying to the beats of Pitbull blasting overhead. It was a magical night and five hours later I left the club as the sun rose with a temporary Italian boyfriend, illegible words written in Sharpie all over my arm and back, and the sudden urge to vomit.
Our last day in Gallipoli was spent nursing our hangovers and strolling around the perimeter of the little island at sunset. The next morning we hopped back in our car and headed north to Monopoli. But first, we had a little stop to make along the way. Grotta della Poesia is a beautiful and Instagrammable sinkhole situated on the coast of the small town of Roca. At 1PM on a Thursday afternoon the swimming hole was already poppin’ with Italians jumping off of the cliffs into the deep waters of the cave. Lauren and I opted for safely climbing down the steps instead and still had an amazing experience. Overall, the Grotta for me was the highlight of the entire trip, and it is a must see location for anyone planning a vacation here.
The second part of our journey took place in the slightly bigger, coastal town of Monopoli. Do not come here looking to party though – the city pretty much chills out around 1AM. “C’e qualcosa aperta a quest’ora?” a group of Italian guys asked us in passing. “Oh thank god, even the Italians realize it’s dead around here too,” we sighed in relief.
Unlike the clear waters and sandy beaches of Gallipoli, here the coastlines were rocky and the sea a deeper turquoise. To mix things up, one day we drove down the coast for a few minutes to another swimming area called the Grotta di Torre Cintola. And when we wanted to take a break from the sea, the town of Alberobello with it’s fairytale-esque trullo buildings was only about a half hour drive away. I was told the trulli were overrated and that the rest of the town was boring, and upon going there myself I found that statement to be correct, so don’t plan on spending a ton of time there. “We’re driving there, taking an Insta pic and then leaving,” Lauren said and so we did.
We had big plans for our last night before we made the drive back to Rome. After stalking Instagram celebrities before we left, we saw some pics posted by @emrata at an unreal restaurant within a cave. A few minutes of intensive Google searching later, we found out the restaurant was located in a hotel called Hotel Grotta Palazzese. Conveniently, the town it’s in, Polignano a Mare, can be reached by either train or car from Monopoli in under 20 minutes.
The restaurant only takes two times for reservations: 7:30PM and 10:30PM. So at 7:30 on the dot, we found ourselves pacing back and forth amongst the group standing outside of the entrance. When the restaurant manager at last opened the doors for us, we were first in and we immediately sprinted down five entire flights of stairs to the cliffside cave below. With our iPhones already in camera mode we came running into the restaurant looking like chickens who had just had their heads cut off. Classic Americans. “Can we help you” the maître d’ asked us politely?
“Wait wait take a pic here, no wait here, no wait do an Insta Story now,” were the only words we managed to get out. Finally, we calmed down enough to take a seat and order a bottle of white wine. And let me tell you, the menu prices are just how you would expect them to be: expensive AF. With wine, a seafood platter to start and one entrée each, our bill for three came to about 300€ (pricey for Italian standards.) “Whatevs it was worth it for the pics,” I said slightly tipsy, as I threw my card onto the receipt. And it truly was.
As I sit on the floor of my apartment in New York exactly a week later, writing this, I still agree. Puglia puts even the Amalfi Coast to shame. Now to start planning where in Italy I’ll be headed next year. Sardegna maybe?