Discovering the less known regions of Italy: Puglia
One of the less known regions of Italy, Puglia (Apulia) is located at the heel to Italy’s boot; with more than 500 miles of coast on two seas, the Adriatic and the Ionian, Puglia has all sorts of beautiful beaches. But Puglia not only has some of the brightest seas, it also boast the most diverse art and architecture and the most delicious local cuisine. Puglia, like most of southern Italy, has been conquered over and over by northern and Mediterranean armies since Greek colonizers established flourishing city-states on its coasts. More than 2,500 years later, their heirs still speak Griko, a dialect of archaic Greek, in the inland Grecia Salentina.
Art gems Roman, medieval and baroque masterpieces are everywhere. There is so much to see, but be sure not to miss, on the eastern coast, the inscrutable Castel del Monte, an octagonal castle built by the German Emperor Frederick II, one of the most powerful men in the Middle Ages, in the early 13th century. But nobody quite knows why. Isolated on a small hill, it lacks both the architecture and the location for a military fort, and it’s too imposing to be a pleasure palace. The most evocative hypothesis is that it was an intricate symbol, built around the magic intersection of astronomy, mathematics and the Christian faith.
Places to see in Puglia (Apulia):
Gargano is an area in the province of Foggia, consisting of a wide isolated mountain massif made of highland and several peaks and forming the backbone of the Gargano Promontory, projecting into the Adriatic Sea. The high point is Monte Calvo at 3,494 ft. Most of the area, about 460 sq mi, is part of the Gargano National park, founded in 1991. The Gargano peninsula is partly covered by the remains of an ancient forest, Foresta Umbra, the only remaining part in Italy of the ancient oak and beech forest that once covered much of Central Europe. The Latin poet Horace spoke of the oaks of Garganus. In the Foresta Umbra, there are many hiking trails and a small visitor center. In summer it’s a great place to escape the heat.
In Spring, Gargano explodes in all its colorful beauty, enriched by festivals and popular local traditions. The town of Vieste, celebrates its Saint Patron, San Giorgio with a procession in the lanes of the old town center and a horse race on its beautiful beach. In the town of Mattinata, rare wild orchid flowers are collected while in Monte Sant’Angelo, in the Santa Maria di Pulsano Abbey, icons from Oriental Christian tradition are painted. The Castellana Caves (Italian: Grotte di Castellana) are a remarkable cave system located in the municipality of Castellana Grotte, in the province of Bari, Apulia. They are one of the most famous caves of Italy. They were discovered in 1938 by speleologists, are situated about 1 mile south of the city of Castellana and are reachable by public transportation. The entrance is represented by an enormous vertical tunnel 200 ft long. The main cave is named “La Grave” (as abyss), and others are named Black Cavern (Caverna Nera), White Cave (Grotta Bianca) and Precipice Cavern (Caverna del Precipizio). New routes found in 1982 are today used for scientific research.
Adria and Castel del Monte
Castel del Monte, favorite residence of Emperor Frederick II, who built nearby the imposing 13th century castle, one of the most famous Italian castles that was named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1996.
The Castle has bastions of different ages. The most ancient part, called Torre dei Giganti (“Giants’ Tower”) is a pentagonal tower with thick walls. The first news on this castle dates back to 979; the castle was largely rebuilt in the late 15th century. According to a legend, the castle is currently home to the ghost of a long dead woman, Bianca Lancia (popularly known as “Biancalancia”), whose sighs can be heard especially in the winter time.
The Sanctuary of Monte St. Angelo is a Catholic sanctuary on Mount Gargano, Italy, the oldest shrine in Western Europe dedicated to the archangel Michael, an important pilgrimage site since the Middle Ages. The historic site and its surroundings are protected by the Parco Nazionale del Gargano and is a Unesco Site. The Sanctuary of the Archangel Michael, or San Michele, in the grotto dates from the 5th – 6th centuries and is the site where devotion to the Archangel Michael began. The original grotto of San Michele is said to have been consecrated by the archangel and is the only church not consecrated by human hands. The Shrine is on the ancient route, connecting important Longobard (tribes who settled in Italy in the Middle Ages) sites. It’s also a major stop on the Pilgrimage route for devotees of the Archangel Michael that connects Mont St Michel in France, the Michele Monastery in Piemonte and San Michele Sanctuary in Monte Sant’ Angelo. In the middle ages pilgrims often continued on to Jerusalem by boat.
Lecce is a historic city of Puglia. It is the main city of Puglia, and is over 2,000 years old. Because of the rich Baroque architectural monuments found in the city, Lecce is commonly nicknamed “The Florence of the South”. The city also has a long traditional affinity with Greek culture going back to its foundation; the ancient populaiton of the Messapii, who founded the city are said to have been orginally from Crete, in Greece. To this day, a group of towns not far from Lecce, the griko language is still spoken, which is an ancient Greek dialect. Lecce’s monuments have been carved in the so called “Lecce stone” a very soft and malleable stone suitable for sculptures, it’s similar to limestone. Lecce is also an important agricultural center, chiefly for its olive oil and wine production.
The Lecce’s cathedral is one of the most significant cathedrals in Italy. It was originally built in 1144, and rebuilt in 1230.
Lecce’s Roman Amphitheatre, built in the 2nd century, was able to seat more than 25,000 people. It is now half-buried because other monuments were built above it over the centuries but the exposed portion is currently used for different religious and arts events.
Ostuni (Greek: Astynéon) is a city in the province of Brindisi (Puglia, Italy). Its main economic activities include tourism, attracted by its nearby sandy beaches, historical architecture, as well as an active olive and grape agribusiness. The so-called “Old Town” is Ostuni’s citadel built on top of a hill and still fortified by the ancient walls. The region around Ostuni has been inhabited since the Stone age. The town is said to have been originally established by the Messapii, a pre-classic tribe, and destroyed by Hannibal during the Punic Wars. It was then re-built by the Greeks, the name Ostuni deriving from the Greek Astu néon (“new town”). The medieval town developed around the summit of a hill, where a castle and city walls with gates were built. Ostuni is definitely worth a visit: because of its white washed walls and houses the city has been nicknamed: “The White City”.
Matera has gained international fame for its “Sassi” (Italian for stones). Technically this is not in the region of Puglia, but in the nearby Region of Basilicata.The Sassi originated from a prehistoric (troglodyte) settlement, and are suspected to be some of the first human settlements in Italy. The Sassi are houses dug into the rock (locally called “tufo”) which is characteristic of Basilicata and Puglia. Many of these “houses” are really only caverns, and the streets in some parts of the Sassi often are located on the rooftops of other houses. In the 1950s, the government of Italy forcefully relocated most of the population of the Sassi to areas of the developing modern city. Infested with malaria, the unsanitary conditions were considered an affront to the new Italian Republic. However, people continued to live in the Sassi, and according to the English Fodor’s guide: “Matera is the only place in the world where people can boast to be still living in the same houses of their ancestors of 9,000 years ago.”
When you are in Puglia, indulge in the delicious local food: the freshest seafood, the most mouth-watering cheeses, robust pasta, olive oil and wine (most famous: Primitivo).
Casa Italia will host a tour of Puglia (Apulia) in the Fall, where most of these locations can be visited.