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  • Writer's pictureMark Tedesco

Our Italian Adventure: Spotlight on Monopoli and Polignano

PART 76: It might be interesting to share how we pulled off living in Italy for part of the year. I will post some steps we took.

We live in Puglia in the summer and then back again in the winter; we will soon switch to spring and fall.

Step 1: As we explore towns in Puglia, we discover some gems worth sharing. Some of these are well-known tourist magnets; others are lesser known but always amazing. This week, let's explore Monopoli and Polignano.

Step 2: History. "Go to Monopoli! It is worth it!" our local Puglian friends urged us last summer. "And visit Polignano too!" "But it's such a long drive!" I whined. "It is worth it. Go. It is beautiful," he replied. But we kept putting it off.

Finally, on a lazy weekend in February, we decided to make the drive.

Monopoli was chilly and amazing. What was so interesting was that it is both a vibrant town with an awe-inspiring coastline and an incredible historical center. The absence of tourists added drama to the vistas.

But what about the history of the town?

Monopoli: "Mono Polis" means "unique city" or "only city," and Monopoli is just that. The town dates back to about 500 BC. Jumping ahead to the era of the Roman empire, Emperor Trajan had the vital road Via Traiana built between 108 and 110 AD, which connected the city to the rest of the empire.

After the fall of Rome, Monopoli was inhabited by Byzantines, Normans, and others. It eventually became a critical launching port during the Crusades and, in the 1400s, was under Venetian control; it then passed to the Spanish crown in the 1500s.

Why is any of this important or even interesting? Because the historical context gives meaning to some of the important buildings in Monopoli: the castle of Charles V (1525), the castle and monastery of St. Stephen (1086), Jerusalem Hospital (1350), and the 18th-century cathedral and Palazzo Palmieri.

But face it, we come to Monopoli primarily for the vistas on the Adriatic.

Step 3: Sights

  • Basilica of the Madonna della Madia.

A cathedral can give a glimpse into the life and culture of a people, and the same is true in Monopoli. This cathedral is bathed in fantastic legends and stories, connecting construction, funding, and engineering problems with faith.

The story is that the builders ran out of beams to complete the roof's construction, so the work was halted. Years passed, and then as if by miracle, a wooden raft floated to the shore, which contained an icon of the Madonna and a pile of wooden beams. The beams on the raft were the exact number needed to complete the construction. So, the building was resumed and completed.

In the 1700s, the original building was mostly demolished, and the basilica we see today was erected.

We were struck by the baroque feast of color, stone, and light when we stepped inside, celebrating the story of the cathedral's origins and the Madonna who watches over the city.

It is very cool.

  • The Castle of Charles V

Even though the castle was closed the day we went (it is used as an exhibition hall), the location, history, and architecture were worth it. I put my hand on the stone wall, wondering who may have touched that place in the 16th century. The castle is located near the old port and was used to defend the city against pirates; then, the Spanish took it over and used the castle to house soldiers and their families. Afterward, the castle was then used as a prison until the 1990s.

  • Beaches. Since we went in the winter, the beaches were more about vistas than frolicking on the sand. But Monopoli and the area around it have beautiful beaches. As we gazed along the shoreline, we noticed a group of young adults who walked out onto the beach, slipped off their clothes to their bathing suits, and jumped into the cold water. The seemed to be having a blast.

Step 4: Cool things.

  • Walking without a goal. Strolling is an essential activity in Monopoli. Wandering through the historical center, in and out of alleys and small streets, along the coast and further inland, one discovers public art, small cafes', beautiful architecture, and incredible vistas out to the sea.

  • Visit Polignano. Traveling to Poligignano is only a 15-minute drive from Monopoli. It is smaller, more compact, and has its particular type of beauty. My partner preferred Monopoli, but I liked Polignano more. Both were beautiful, and each had a different "vibe." Go to both.

Insights: Exploring Puglia, taking the advice of locals, and being willing to not stick to our own plans all of the time is enabling us to discover beautiful towns, buildings, and people that were not on our radar before.

We are very grateful.

More next time.

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