Hey! I’ve recently collaborated with Wendy, the author of this guest post. She asked me to write up something for her post on advice for our younger selves before that first big trip abroad. In exchange, she’s shared this helpful information about moving abroad. Thinking […]
It’s been raining a lot here in Northern Florida. Mostly just daily thunderstorms, but it’s got me daydreaming. About somewhere warm and sunny with lots of white sand beaches and clear water. For a lot of people, this means the resort hub of Cancun and Playa del Carmen. Just think of it – a view of the water from your bedroom window, a swim-up bar with unlimited piña coladas, and as much Mexican food as you can eat. Well, what if I told you that there’s somewhere better than Cancun… for a fraction of the price?
That somewhere is Puglia, Italy. The region that makes up the heel of Italy’s boot, Puglia is bordered by the Adriatic and Ionian Seas. With miles of peninsular coast, it boasts some of the best beaches and best sea food in the country. While it’s not the most visited region in Italy, don’t let that stop you! In fact, the lack of tourists adds to the appeal. Let me break down the three main ways that Puglia is better than Cancun.
1. It’s Infinitely Cheaper
Because Puglia isn’t as popular as, say, Tuscany, you don’t have to worry about everything being a tourist trap. Compare that to Cancun, where every vendor is going to charge you double just for being a gringo. You are more likely to get food, accommodations, and services for the local price in Puglia.
Hotels are quite reasonably priced and an entire apartment or house on Airbnb can go for as low as $30/night. Of course, it’s not an all-inclusive resort. But then again, neither is an all-inclusive resort a medieval stone villa. While you wander the streets around your Airbnb, snag a heaping serving of the irresistible gelato. Worry about your waistline, not your wallet – anywhere in the region, it’ll only set you back €2.
You might be thinking that it’s all well and good, saving money on hotels and gelato, but what about airfare? Well, it depends on where you’re flying in from. Obviously, flights to Italy from North and South America are going to be more expensive than flights to Mexico, but you’ll recoup that difference in what you save during your trip. For anyone living in the EU or Asia, Puglia becomes an even more attractive choice.
2. The Beaches Are Just Better
Okay, don’t crucify me. I’ve been to Cancun, and it’s awesome! But… there’s no comparison. Part of what makes Pugliese beaches so amazing is the location. Nestled between the Adriatic and Ionian Seas, Puglia experiences incredibly mild weather. Both are narrow, closed seas, bordered by land on nearly every side. This keeps the seas calm and clear, unlike the neighboring, more temperamental Mediterranean. Walking out into the absolutely still water of the Adriatic is one of my best memories of Italy. And because the seas are closed, the water is saltier as well. Hello, effortless floating.
Of course, you can take a dip in the Adriatic anywhere along Italy’s east coast, but in cities like Venice, Rimini, Ancona, etc. tourists flock to the beaches. The same is true of the much lauded beaches along Cancun and Playa del Carmen’s resort strip. Pugliese beaches deliver the same crystal water, sugar white sand, and dazzling view with none of the congestion. Most of the friendly faces you’ll meet while sunning yourself are locals.
If you’re not interested in just swimming or laying out, there are plenty of other ways to enjoy the coastline. Acquaviva di Marittima where a fresh water spring and the Adriatic sea collide, Zinzulusa Caves (or any of the caves in the region), and the bauxite quarry and lake near Otranto are just a few of the fascinating natural wonders to explore while on holiday in Puglia. The peninsula is small enough that travelling between destinations is an easy task.
3. The Local Culture Is Everywhere
In Cancun, everything is tailored to meet tourist expectations. Tacky souvenirs, inauthentic food, pre-recorded tours – you probably won’t even hear anyone speaking Spanish! If you’re looking for an authentic Mexican experience, Cancun’s not it. Puglia won’t give you an authentic Mexican experience either. But it serves up good old fashioned Italian culture like a pro.
From the delicious food to the musical Italian you’ll hear everywhere you go, Puglia is a cultural oasis. Once again, Puglia being less-traveled works in your favor. The restaurants cater to locals so they churn out quality local cuisine for rock-bottom prices. And what cuisine it is! You’ll find pizzerias of course (it is Italy after all), but also a wide variety of southern specialties that the rest of Italy just can’t match. Sea food, pastries, handmade pasta… nobody does it quite like la mia bella Puglia.
All that coastline has made created a melting pot. It shows in the cuisine but also in the very buildings themselves. Architectural and historical marvels abound: the soaring Baroque grandeur of Lecce, the white-washed medieval Ostuni, the fishing village of Gallipoli where stands the oldest fountain in Italy. These, along with countless other sights, are just part of the landscape and require no admissions ticket or lengthy queue to experience.
Best of all, the people of Puglia are so warm and delightful. Although most people speak enough English that you’ll be able to find your way around, they will patiently converse with you in Italian if you’d like to practice. Making new friends in Puglia is not only easy, it’s the best way to discover the region. And if your new friends are anything like the friends I made there, you’ll find yourself attending concerts and poetry slams and birthday parties.
So… See You in Italy?
If you want to lie by a pool, dine at a buffet, and mingle with other tourists – and believe me, the lure of a swim-up bar is no mean thing – Cancun is waiting. But if you want to soak up the Mediterranean sun, immerse yourself in local culture, stuff yourself full of incredible Italian food, and still have money left over for a bottle of regional wine… Well, now you know where to go.
Is there anything better than bread? I don’t think so. Of course, this begs the question: is there anything worse than unsalted bread? Again, I don’t think so. The other night I made a hearty stew for dinner, a dish that just begs for bread so […]
If you think of yourself as “not really a food person,” it’s probably because you haven’t tried real Italian food. Y’know, in Italy? It’s life-changing.
I was feeling nostalgic about Italy this weekend. Although, let’s be real, when am I not? So, I posted a photo of the Zinzulusa Caves in Puglia to my Instagram. One of my fellow travelgrammers commented that while it was a pretty pic, they’d be too scared to do any cave exploring.
That got me thinking.
I’m sure a lot of people feel that way about cave exploring. It’s unfortunate, because there’s nothing quite like descending into the Earth. It’s a whole other world down there and I, despite being desperately afraid of the dark, love it.
To be fair, I do make it a rule not to watch horror flicks. But, if you’ve already watched something like The Caves or The Descent, that might pose a problem. Maybe like me you’ve never watched those films, but your brain conjures up images of pale, cringing creatures that whisper “My precioussss” as they creep after you in the dark. Or giant spiders. Or hordes of orcs and goblins. (Gee, thanks Tolkien…)
Let’s do some damage control.
1. There’s Nothing Down There
I know that our primal instincts scream that dark, damp places are bad, bad, bad. But really, there’s nothing down there. Cave exploring is interesting because we’re going where most life forms cannot. There’s no sunlight, not much food, and very little incentive for anything larger than a cave cricket to live down there.
Alright, maybe there are some bats hanging out in some caves. But bats aren’t scary! They’re just flying mice who would really rather be left alone. They’re not going to fly at your face or into your hair or do anything except hang upside down and chill out. I promise.
They are a bit smelly though…
As far as giant bugs or monsters, it’s just not scientifically possible. With food in scarce supply and most of it smaller than your pinkie toe, no mole men are living down in those caves. And neither is Gollum or a Balrog. The scariest thing you’ll see is probably yourself in your spelunking gear.
2. You Won’t Get Lost While Cave Exploring
Maybe part of your fear stems from getting lost in the caves. That’s reasonable – if you’re wandering around alone in an unexplored cave system. Which I definitely don’t recommend.
But if you are on a cave tour, the caves have been mapped, you’ll be with a guide the whole time, and should you be separated from the group, there are safety measures in place. Most caves have a colored rope running alongside the route. If you follow that rope, it will lead you back out of the caves.
So, relax. You’re not going to die wandering aimlessly through the belly of the Earth. Just follow the safety protocol, stick with your group, and take deep breaths of that clean, cave air.
3. It’s Not Pitch Black
Well, that’s not strictly true. Caves themselves are, in fact, pitch black. But cave exploring is always done with the light of a headlamp or lights set up throughout the tour. Otherwise how would you see anything, silly? Take it from me, a serial nyctophobe: you won’t be spending much time, if any, in utter darkness. The one time I have experienced a cave as nature intended, it was actually a serene and deeply spiritual moment.
During an excursion into Rio Secreto, an underground fluvian system in the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico, our guide asked us all to turn off our headlamps. Down in the caves, we had entered what the Ancient Mayans referred to as Xibalba, the Spirit World, also called the Womb of the Earth. I floated, suspended in cold water, deep underground with no light. There was no difference between opening my eyes and closing them. And I was unafraid.
My guide was nearby and we’d been wandering through the caverns for hours without seeing anything bigger than a two-inch long blind fish. There were no monsters lurking to scare me. And more than anything, I felt the benevolent presence of the Earth. She is our mother and I was safe in her womb.
So if fear is keeping you from cave exploring, don’t let it. Get to know Mother Earth in a new way. And besides, your tour group will probably make enough noise to dissuade the monsters from following you.
Just kidding. (Mostly…)
A couple weeks ago, I celebrated Earth Day in the most Floridian way I knew how: I grabbed a girlfriend and hit the coast. You can read about our adventures in Seaside here. You might be wondering what that has to do with Italian drinks. But my day trip got me thinking about Italia, which is admittedly never far from my mind. Between lounging on the beach and checking out the town, we stopped for a few Aperol Spritz.
The Spritz is hyper popular in Italy but virtually unknown here in the States. So, I thought I’d share a little bit about this vibrant orange drink with y’all, and a little about Italian drinks in general.
Italian Drinks: It’s Not About Getting Drunk
First things first – while these Italian drinks are definitely alcoholic and you can get drunk off them, that’s not what they’re for. They’re for digestion.
I know, sexy, right?
Hear me out. The Italians have a long-standing love affair with the art of digestion. There are a ton of social rules about food: you can’t drink a cappuccino after noon, eggs are not a breakfast food, drinking milk will give you allergies. For the most part, these rules are unspoken. But if you break them, your Italian friends will be affronted and they will let you know.
Fortunately for us all, one of these many digestive rules includes alcohol. It goes a little something like this: “Thou shalt not consume dinner unless thou hast enjoyed at least one aperitivo. And thou shalt not leave the table after dinner if thou hast not enjoyed at least one digestivo.”
Mandatory alcohol? Uh, yes please.
So, what’s the deal with drinks and digestion?
The belief is that the aperitivo will prep your stomach for digestion. Because dinner is often a lengthy affair in Italy, they assume that your stomach needs some help. Aperitivi are generally made with bitters of some kind, although I’ve seen prosecco and dry white wines served as aperitivi as well. Usually, the aperitivo is enjoyed at a bar. Olives, salty crackers, and other finger foods often accompany your drink. When everyone is nice and tipsy – uh, I mean, ready for digestion – the party moves on to dinner.
With dinner, you can drink whatever you want. My drink of choice is water or wine, depending on how much money I’ve got on me. Most Italians will drink the same, although they like acqua con gas, aka sparkling water. That’s a hard pass for me. During the meal, digestion’s more about what you eat and the order in which you do it. Once you’re done with the seemingly endless courses, it’s time for after dinner drinks.
Digestivi come in a wide variety, as diverse as the Italian landscape. Some of them might be familiar to you, like grappa or limoncello. Others, not so much. At a dinner party, my friend Silvia introduced me to some lesser known digestivi. She hails from the mountainous north of Italy and always brings back some frangelico and genepy. They both have an herbaceous flavor, a little bit like distilled mountain air. What all digestivi have in common is that the alcohol content is sky high! You’ll be given what looks like a shot glass, but don’t knock it back. Trust me, you want to sip it.
My Favorite of the Italian Drinks: The Spritz!
So, Aperol Spritz is an aperitivo. Aperol is a bitter orange liqueur. To turn it into a Spritz, simply add prosecco and maybe some club soda, if you’re really not looking to get drunk. Garnish with an orange wedge and voila! You are now fully equipped to bartend any Italian Happy Hour. Except they call it aperitivo.
Of course, I’m sure you’d have to learn how to mix a few other drinks but for the most part, you’d be slinging Aperol Spritz all evening. It’s a ridiculously popular drink in Italy and for good reason. The mix of bitter, sweet, and refreshing is just weird enough, just perfect enough to make you order a second glass.
I remember the first Aperol Spritz I ever had. I’d been in Italy for about a week and I’d been drinking, but only at night, after dinner. Finally, my friends and I went out for pre-dinner drinks. I didn’t know what to get, but as I looked around, I saw a lot of bright orange. So my girlfriends and I ordered what everyone else was having. And I’ve never looked back.
But… does it work?
I don’t really know.
The Italians will tell you that yes, of course it works! This obsession with digestive health, well, it’s a way of life. It’s just another piece of the fascinating puzzle that is Italian culture. A culture that says it’s okay to slow down and enjoy life. It says food should be good, every facet of it, the whole experience. And they’re some of the healthiest people I’ve ever met. They’re also some of the happiest people I’ve ever met. I think that might be the secret.
At the end of the day, it’s charming, so who cares if it’s pseudoscience? Good food and good company? I’ll drink to that.