Monopoli has it all; a medieval centre with narrow cobblestoned streets and whitewashed houses, a Baroque cathedral, a Venetian style palazzo overlooking blue painted fishing boats, a castle and the remains of the sixteenth century town walls, complete with cannons.
The ‘centro storico’ is undeniably picturesque and the combination of the pale golden ’tufo’, used as a building material for centuries, a blue sky and a sparkling sea is magical in the right light. There are enough churches to explore to keep any art historian happy and enough good restaurants to please any gastronome. Add to this a series of beaches to suit all tastes, from rocky coves to long stretches of golden sand all with crystalline water (recently awarded the blue flag) and it becomes apparent that this could be the ideal holiday destination.
Despite this Monopoli is very un‘touristy’ – washing hangs from every other window in the centro storico, there is a daily fruit and vegetable market and the restaurants, cafes and bars are predominantly packed with locals rather than foreign visitors. In August the town’s population seems to double, but most of the visitors are Italian and even this influx doesn’t detract from the town’s charm. There are beach bars, and night clubs for those who want them but these are situated in the Capitolo area, further along the coast and away from the main town.
Monopoli is also known as the ‘citta delle cento contrade’ or ‘city of the hundred districts’. It extends far into the countryside with little hamlets surrounded by the olive and almond groves which have made this area relatively affluent throughout it’s history. The soil here is a deep orange colour and contrasts beautifully with the silver grey and green of the olive trees and the low, dry-stone walls which mark property boundaries. In spring the ground beneath the trees is carpeted with poppies and other wild flowers adding to the enchantment. The area produces exceptional olive oil and, if you visit in November when the harvest is taking place you can visit a ‘frantoio’ or oil press to watch the process and buy the new oil.
Like most of Puglia, Monopoli over the centuries changed hands several times, being occupied by the Romans, Greeks, Normans, Angevins, Venetians , Spanish, Austrians and then the French. It is fascinating to see these different influences in the architecture and particularly in the local dishes. The antipasti here are a meal in themselves – much like Spanish ‘tapas’ and may well include a dish much like Spanish omelette as well as lots of seafood and vegetable based dishes. One of the joys of visiting Monopoli is to eat fantastically fresh fish and seafood and lovingly prepared ‘home cooking’ in one of the excellent local restaurants where 20 – 25 euros a head will buy you a three course meal with wine. If you are a real fish lover – and prepared to get up very early –in the summer you can even go out with the fishermen who will cook the catch for your lunch on board the boat…
Footnote: This was written in 2013 and Monopoli is still just as beautiful – more so if you like your surroundings perfectly groomed, but it is now very much an international holiday destination and, for me, far too crowded and chaotic in July and August, unless you are simply popping into town for a bit of buzz and people watching from a holiday villa nearby.. Also restaurant prices are now more 30 -35 for a three course meal – 10 euros in (almost) 10 years!