The Sites of Apulia

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Trains and buses are not very effective in Apulia, so renting a car or cycling is highly recommended. Foggia is the logical entry point for the region. Drive to Lucera, dominated by Frederick's massive Fortezza Angioina, a pentagonal castle with 24 defense towers studding its one-half mile of perimeter walls. Because this region was the port of entry for so many invading hordes (and we are not referring to tourists!), you will see an astounding number of ancient fortifications everywhere you go. Lucera's simple Gothic cathedral is one of the few intact examples of Angevin architecture in Italy, and the amphitheater, dating from the 1st century BC, is among the oldest Roman ones in existence. Eighteen miles away is Troia, where the cathedral is a fine example of Apulian style, combining classic Romanesque architecture with detailed Oriental carvings. Click here for a unique country villa hotel in this area.

Heading east, stop in Siponto to see the 11th-century church of Santa Maria, situated in a quiet pine grove surrounded by Roman ruins. Continue east, past Manfredonia, embarkation point for the Crusaders, and on to Monte Sant'Angelo, one of Europe's oldest and most revered Christian shrines. From here begins one of those legendary Italian roads, the coastal route around the Gargano promontory. As you drive up to heights of 3000 feet, to your left will be the Foresta Umbra (Shady Forest), a 62,000-acre treasure trove of ancient pine, oak, beech, chestnuts and 2,000 other species of plant, shrub and tree. The forest is inhabited by hundreds of animal species, many of whom came from the Balkans and were stranded here when Yugoslavia broke away from the Italian heel. To your left will be one of the most pristine stretches of the Adriatic Sea, lined with crystal-clear waters, gleaming white beaches, mysterious grottos and dozens of trabucchi, rustic fishermen's taverns serving freshly-caught fish. If you're here in summer, visit the Gargano on weekdays to avoid the crowds; use the towns of Rodi Garganico, Peschici or Mattinata as your base for the same reason. On the road from Peschici to San Menaio, you'll have trouble missing Lo Zappino dello Scorzone, Italy's tallest Aleppo pine. Seven hundred years old, it measures sixteen feet around at the base.

Castel del Monte
Heading south along the coast you'll reach Barletta, which has a Romanesque cathedral that is greatly overshadowed by the town's most famous monument, a 16-foot tall Colossus statue cast in Constantinople in the 4th century. Pilfered by the Venetians (along with the four bronze horses that now top St. Mark's Basilica), this statue was shipwrecked and washed ashore here in the 14th century. Turning inland, visit Apulia's most mysterious monument, the octagonal Castel del Monte. When the Emperor Frederick II built this castle in the 13th century, he imbued it with symbolic significance, as reflected in the location, the mathematical and astronomical precision of the layout and the perfectly regular shape. A unique piece of medieval military architecture, this Unesco World Heritage Site is a successful blend of elements from classical antiquity, the Islamic Orient and north European Cistercian Gothic. It dominates an entire valley outside of Andria, with views all the way to Basilicata (open daily March 1-September 30 10:15am-7:45pm, October 1-February 28 9:15am-6:45pm; to book a guided visit in English call 0883-592-283).


Back on the coast road, stop in Trani, which boasts a lovely medieval quarter and a picturesque fishing port. The town's off-white cathedral was built in 1097, and actually contains three churches layered atop each other. Among the most perfect examples of Romanesque style, it is literally perched at the edge of the water and is best viewed at sunset. A few miles away is Molfetta, where you should stop to see the old cathedral, distinguished from the new one by the former's three domes and two belltowers. To see the culmination of Apulian Romanesque architecture, take a short inland detour through citrus and olive groves to visit Bitonto's cathedral (built between 1000 and 1250). Next, head southwest to Altamura, which is pretty much today as it was in 1230, when Frederick II rebuilt it after the Saracens sacked the town. Just across the valley is Gravina in Puglia, an eery place where carved skeletons seem to lurk on every corner and one of the two grotto churches, S. Michele, hosts a cemetery filled with the neatly-stacked bones of Saracen victims.

[Alberobello's Trullo]Travel back toward the coast now, stopping in Castellana Grotte to see the caverns, thought to be the deepest in Europe. Then head south into Apulia's most magical region, the land of the trulli (pictured at left), gnome-like cylindrical huts made with no mortar and topped with conical gray stone roofs resembling beehives. Alberobello is the capital of trullo territory; here, street after street is lined with the whitewashed buildings, many of which have been converted into shops or restaurants. But the trullo is an ancient, mystical dwelling, and nowhere is it more satisfying to see than alongside the narrow local roads, surrounded by ancient olive trees straining up from the deep terra-cotta colored earth. Many of these rural trulli date from the 1600s and have been painted pastel colors; indecipherable hex symbols stand out clearly against the gray stone roofs.

[Alberobello's Trullo]
A few miles farther south, the town of Locorotondo gets its name from the ancient layout of its streets, which form concentric circles on a hillside overlooking a valley blanketed with prized vineyards. Those streets are narrow and whitewashed, and lined with houses whose roofs are steep triangles covered in slate. Still farther on is the local jewel, Martina Franca, a baroque town whose Palazzo Ducale is the only building in southern Italy attributed to the great Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The church of San Martino is also a jewel. More delightfully picturesque whitewashed hill towns abound, notably Cisternino and Ostuni, a shimmering mirage set on three hilltops. Its white walls, wrought-iron balconies and turquoise shutters will delight the eye of anyone who loves Greece. The best place to use as your base for this area is Martina Franca.

[Alberobello's Trullo]

Like so many of Apulia's large cities, Brindisi is best left to its inhabitants and the sailors and Greece-bound travelers who swarm around its port, where a marble column marks the end of the ancient Appian Way. Far, far more worthwhile is to travel on to Lecce, the pink city, the Florence of the Baroque, the gleaming gem of Apulia. Few travelers venture this far, and even fewer go on to Otranto, Italy's easternmost city. If you do, you will be rewarded with a 15th-century Aragonese castle and a cathedral whose entire floor is covered by an unforgettable 12th-century Tree of Life mosaic.


Heading south from here, the coastal road is lined with massive, almost Moorish villas, adorable flocks of grazing sheep and the deep turquoise waters of the Adriatic. Travel around the southeastern tip of Italy at Santa Maria di Leuca and then northward to Gallipoli, a medieval town reached by crossing an ancient bridge. Here, among the timeworn walls, the picturesque fishing port, the Angevin castle and the baroque cathedral, you will hear very few tourists speaking English.


The tour of Apulia is completed by driving north along the coast, past some of Italy's most pristine beaches, to Taranto, whose Archeological Museum is second only to that of Naples. Here too you will find an ancient bridge, Roman ruins, an Aragonese castle, a baroque cathedral with a Byzantine cupola, a Doric column from the Greek temple of Poseidon: calling cards left by the legions of conquerors who have marched through Apulia over the last two millennia.

By Kristin Jarratt

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