As the number of tasks that Villa Tutto issued us became fewer in number, Jessica suggested that we begin taking day trips around the area so that eventual visitors could be relieved of the tourist attractions that were not worth their valuable time. And, so we began to explore the area’s cultural, natural and culinary offerings. This is the first in an irregular series of posts describing what we found.
Polignano a Mare is perched precariously on steep cliffs above the Adriatic Sea. It has been so for millenia despite the sea’s relentless attempts to take down the town’s foundation as its waves crash the cliffs, recede and crash again. We made the twenty-five minute drive north toward Bari, wound our way through the crowded, narrow streets of the town, always toward the Adriatic, found the rare vacant parking place and began walking in precisely the wrong direction. It was lunchtime and, in addition to doing some general exploring, we planned to stop at a pizzeria that had been recommended to Jessica. As with many Italian towns, there is an old part of the town (the “centro storico”) around which the more modern development has occurred. Polignano is no different.
We wandered south down narrow cobbled streets with small shops at street level and apartments above, as the laundry dangling in the breeze from each balcony attested. At one point, we saw an opening between buildings on our left that gave us a view of the sea. As we looked north and south from our vantage point high above the crashing breakers of the Adriatic, we could see the cliffs of Polignano and how those cliffs have been put to use over the centuries by the courageous and creative settlers of this rugged area. A prime example of the ingenuity of the residents is the Ristorante Grotta Palazzese, a restaurant built into a cave of the seaside rock formations. Though its prices are astronomical, the place is beautifully furnished, dramatically lit and boasts a spectacular view of the sea.
After a while, we began to run out of the signs of a town and concluded that we had, indeed, gone off in the wrong direction. We did an about-face and eventually came to what was obviously the old town as the streets became “wagon width,” the doorways became smaller, windows fewer and stone the only building material in sight. We walked through small piazzas, past several ancient churches and finally came back to the cliff’s edge and to our destination, La Balconata. The tiny pizzeria’s ten tables are covered by large umbrellas and sit between the pizza oven on one side and the restaurant’s gelateria on the other. The view is of the water. We were told that, on a clear day, one can see Albania across the sea. I wondered why anyone would want to see Albania, but that’s me.
La Balconata was packed when we arrived but a table opened up soon enough and we prudently ordered pizza, a bottle of prosecco and a starter of grilled octopus. The pizza was the typically rustic, thin-crusted, wood-fire baked version, just enough topping to add fresh flavors but not so much that the crust is overwhelmed and suffocated. As we sat and ate, the background sounds of the waves, the passers-by wandering the paths of Polignano and the three or four different languages being spoken by our fellow-diners all served as wonderful distractions and made the meal more filling than the food alone would have been.
As we enjoyed our last glass of prosecco, a bit of a commotion developed along the fence at the cliff’s edge. A few people had gathered and their attention was directed down toward the water. Being the curious fellow, I wandered over to check out the interest and saw a very attractive, expensively-dressed woman leaning over the fence and pointing at, what turned out to be the camera that she had dropped. It had missed the very narrow ledge and gotten caught up in one of the few bushes that sprouted from the cliff wall. She seemed very distressed, understandably, until a young man, obviously a local, climbed over the fence and tried unsuccessfully to retrieve the camera. Undaunted by the risk of falling a hundred feet into the sea below, he left the scene for a few minutes, only to return with a broom handle and a metal hook. He tied the hook to the handle, climbed back over the fence and deftly hooked the camera’s strap and hauled it up. He was rewarded by the applause of the dozen onlookers and a hug from the camera’s appreciative owner. I remember the days of my youth when I thought myself immortal. Sort of.
After the leisurely lunch, we resumed our exploration. We soon came across an overlook that provided a view of the beach that the residents of Polignano called their own. It is located in a small cove, surrounded by rocky crags and pocked by caves. The beach itself is rocky but the locals don’t seem to mind the lack of soft sand. Young and old lay down a towel or a blanket and enjoy the sunshine.
We put Polignano a Mare on the list of “places to take visitors” with no hesitation. That’s a list that Bernalda in Basilicata is not on. Sorry, Francis Ford Coppola. More about that later.
Next: The Move – Part 1