Hidden beneath an ancient town on the shores of southern Italy, a mysterious subterranean location evokes a sense of awe. Here, the hypnotic rhythms of the ocean seem to echo the never-ending cycles of the Earth. And a network of intricate stone grottos, sculpted over millennia by nature’s hand, reflect a kind of sublime imagination.
The town’s name is Polignano a Mare. Situated some 18 miles south of the city of Bari, it occupies a crumbling coastal outcrop near the Via Appia-Traiana, an ancient road leading to Rome. It is, archaeologically speaking, one of the most significant settlements in the region.
Built over hundreds of years, the town’s maze-like narrow streets are testament to the tenacity of its inhabitants. From the ancient Greeks to the Romans to the Holy Roman Empire, Polignano a Mare has witnessed the rise and fall of many civilizations.
The town is situated in Puglia, a region full of vineyards and olive groves and celebrated for its fine wines and produce. With a coastal strip overlooking the turquoise waters of the Adriatic Sea, fishing and tourism are the other mainstays of the local economy, too.
Inland, Puglia is backed by the Murgia hills, an arid pleat of uplands free from lakes and rivers, at least on the surface. Indeed, to understand the area and its subterranean wonder world, one must venture deep down to its geological foundations.
In fact, its limestone, a porous and water-soluble rock, that makes up the region. Over millions of years, drop by drop, water steadily moved through the underground strata, eroding it. The result is a karst landscape complete with caves, sinkholes and some incredible stone sculptures.
Indeed, when explorers documented one honeycomb network of tunnels in 1938, they came upon such weird and wonderful formations that they seemed to conjure images of an almost mythological quality. The “She-Wolf,” the “Owl” and the “Red Corridor” were just some of the names assigned to them.
In Polignano a Mare, the waves have carved out some 40 sea caves out, many of them accessible only by boat. Of these, the largest and most spectacular is the Grotta Palazzese. Not only is it considered a stunning natural wonder, it contains an remarkable man-made structure, too.
In fact, since the Neolithic times humans have been using the Grotta Palazzese and its adjoining caves. Moreover, given the town’s long history and geographic location, it’s likely they were used for defensive purposes, such as hiding weapons, goods or people.
However, the modern-day inhabitants have found a far more uplifting purpose for the caves. In fact, visit the cave and warfare will probably be the furthest thing from your mind! Instead, your experience is likely to be so magical, it may stay with you forever.
In fact, the cave is today the site of a romantic open-air restaurant overlooking the Adriatic Sea. Perched 74 feet above the waves, it’s been used as a dining venue since the 18th century. In those days it saw sumptuous banquets, hosted by the Italian nobility.
Today, however, the restaurant, called the Summer Cave, is part of a landmark luxury hotel. “Naturally lit by the aqua marine reflection from the waters,” states its website, “the summer cavern has been the scene of many a romantic moment.”
Today, anyone can dine at the Summer Cave, as long as they adhere to the dress code (long trousers for men, please). As its name suggests, the restaurant is open during the summer months of May to October. However, it has just six tables with complete ocean views, so a reservation is a must.
The menu itself changes, but has previously included a set dinner for just over $100. According to travel website Luxe Adventure Traveler, it may be cheaper (and better) to eat à la carte at lunchtime, when the ocean isn’t shrouded in darkness. All of which begs the very important question: is the food any good?
Sadly, according to the website, the food isn’t “up to par for the price.” The reviewer wrote, “You are clearly paying for the location and atmosphere. What I suggest is taking in the atmosphere of the cave restaurant by sharing a bottle of wine from Puglia at their bar instead of dining at the restaurant.”
The reviewer added, “And if you want that famous photo of the sparkling aqua Adriatic and the restaurant, head to the bathroom. There are tiny little windows where you can stick your camera out to get the perfect shot. Just be sure not to drop your camera!”
If, after all that, you do decide to go, there are a few options for getting to the town of Polignano a Mare. Train is perhaps the most cost-effective and easiest method, but other ways include flying into the nearby city of Bari, or driving from Napoli.
The good news is that the area is home to a host of intriguing sightseeing options. Among the many historical and architectural gems nearby you’ll find ancient castles and churches, as well as Roman amphitheaters.
Also, the area contains a handful of protected natural beauty spots. The Gargano National Park is home to the enchanting Foresta Umbra and the Tremiti Islands. And inland, naturally, you’ll find the rugged karst scenery that’s made the region so emblematic.
So, with such spectacular promise, booking a trip to this Italian hot spot seems like a smart move. Whether or not you choose to eat at the Summer Cave or simply sip wine at its bar, the sheer grandeur of the destination is likely to leave you with lasting impressions. Indeed, few venues are as special as this.