Two weeks in Puglia : Polignano a Mare

I take too many photographs, I know. I have too many of them on my computer these days too and, during the last ten years, I have fallen behind in publishing the photographs I have taken on my foreign travels during what has been for me quite a turbulent time.

I have finally got round to sorting them out and here, today, is the first of a new series about the places I have visited and what I saw there.

In June 2018, I spent a couple of weeks in the lively little town of Polignano a Mare, in south east Italy, which as the label says is a mare, by the sea. I had rented a lovely modernist apartment with a terrace over-looking, the Adriatic ocean, the rocks, the remains of a thousand year old wall system and, it seemed, the world.

It was tempting just to stay at home here in this roomy and elegant apartment and just send out for a Dominos pizza. Well, maybe not Dominos.

Food is important in Italy and even a simple plate of tomatoes, olives and sausage, salsiccia, from the local market, tasted and looked like a banquet.

There was, of course, the need to find a space for my daily martial arts training, White Crane kung-fu and tai-chi. It is not just my way of trying to keep fit, but it’s also the way of laying claim to a small piece of the world, everywhere I go. Earthing my energy in the ancient Chinese way, has allowed me to put down just a few roots in many places home and abroad. For a time, everywhere I do my practice, I feel I am at home.

Polignano is a cliff-top town – some of the cliffs are rock and other cliff-like spaces are human habitations – seabirds don’t see the difference and the Italians might not either.

Below the apartment there are historic remains of the old town with walls and arches to remind us that Italian and Greco-Roman culture has been around for a long time. This part of Italy was one of the earliest ancient Greek colonies and its legacy is still around today.

Beyond the ruins, is the town itself, bustling, relaxed, in love with the sea, but also with shopping, eating and drinking. Polignano, to me, seemed like a place where fun is top of the agenda. Oh yes, it is beautiful too.

Italy is good at old town centres where shops, restaurants and bars thrive in even the narrowest of alleys and where old buildings wear their history with a nonchalance that says no big deal, just relax here.

And, naturally, all roads lead to the sea.

I arrived here, purely by accident, on the feast day of Saint Vitus, the patron saint of dancers and entertainers – a showbiz kinda saint – who also happens to be the patron saint of Polignano, also a showbiz kinda town. Before I had even unpacked, I was thrown into the middle of the celebrations and even got to see the rather boyish Saint Vitus himself as he was processed with religious ceremony through the street to cheers and applause before the local population carried on with the dancing and singing into the early hours of the morning. Legend has it, as they say, that if you dance in front of a statue of St Vitus he might just possibly heal you from diseases like cholera. Dancing makes you feel good anyway.

There were, I guess, more than a few hangovers on Polignano’s beach the next day. The beach, rocky and surrounded on three sides by cliffs, is a special place, even if it’s not ideal if you want to be alone. Why would anyone want to be unsociable in Polignano? It’s not the local style.

It is less crowded if you get down there early enough and before the sun disperses the early morning shadows. Then it is possible to imagine this ancient landing place for wandering Greeks, sailors, smugglers and, most likely, fishermen. The cliffs have earned the place a more modern celebrity. It is a centre of the annual international rock diving competition.

I was brave enough to stand up there and admire the view, but if I was forced to dive from up there into the sea, I think I would be dead on arrival.

When the diving if over, the clifftop scenery draws romantics and dreamers. I just stood and watched the play of light on on the Adriatic and held on tight to the railings.

There are numerous little coves along the coast here and those in the know can find less precipitous bathing spots. Cala Fetente is one of the best and least crowded beaches in these parts.

There was a good place to take holiday photos by the carpark and I’m sure the result of this shot looked like this family was on a paradise island.

I mentioned St Vitus being the patron saint of dancers and entertainers, and, sure enough, Polignano was the birthplace of one of Italy’s most popular singers, Domenico Modugno (1928 – 1994). He is commemorated in Polignano with this most showbiz of statues. Nevermind St Vitus, I wanted to dance round this exuberant image.

Here he is singing his most famous song, and, be warned, if you listen to it, you will be humming his signature song for the rest of the day. Nel blue, dipinto di blu, is better known as Volare, and you will know it, even if you didn’t realize that you’ve ever heard it.

Humming Volare, or trying not to hum it, you can just wander round this most sociable of towns, admiring the architecture and, yes, the sense of being in the kind of place that you had always imagined as Italy.

You don’t have to talk to people, of course, but, if like me, you are tying to speak Italian, it is really easy to make friends in the shops, restaurants and bars.

I still have a beautiful ceramic bowl made by this surprisingly shy woman who was, at first, a reluctant model. She is a true artist.

Elsewhere, I indulged my temptations, and lingered in the streets that call out for you to stop as you pass, or try to pass, each bar.

The reataurants were, as you’d expect, excellent here, but the most famous, and most spectacular, is the Grotta Palazzese, which is quite literally set in a grotto where you can sit almost in the sea, under the rocky ceiling, and marvel at the ingenuity of the person who thought let’s make a restaurant here. Yes, you can watch the sunset over the Adriatic and it is worth the booking just for the location.

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