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Fall Head over Italy’s Heel
Apulia’s allure is anchored to its simple, authentic and inspiring beauty. Its golden coastline extends for 800 kilometers, connecting the sparkling blue waters of the southern Adriatic and Ionion Seas. The sunny seaside towns give way to swaths of century-old olive groves inland, outlined in equally ancient rock walls delineating the property of the farming families. The region’s architecture is an amalgam of white-washed coastal villages, charming farmsteads, ancient homes, medieval castles and churches and the Baroque masterpieces in the “Florence of the South”, Lecce. The region’s most iconic buildings are the conical trullo shepard’s houses in the Itria Valley. As the Greeks colonized great areas of Apulia under the Magna Graecia, the influence is felt in much of its art and artefacts. When Romans then inhabited the strategic coastline, they built ports for their empire and connected the capital to Apulia by way of the historic Appian Way. The natural beauty of Apulia is as breathtaking as it is varied: the Salento Peninsula offers pristine beaches and unbeatable seafood; the Gargano has a fascinating ancient forest, the only remaining part of the oak and beech wood that once covered much of Central Europe; the Grottoes of Castellana are one of the largest cave systems in Europe; and the agricultural areas are the biggest producer of wine and olive oil in all of Italy. Cyclists love Apulia, Italy’s flattest region. Water sports lovers flock to its coasts. Foodies find their home in the array of restaurants and cafés. History buffs never tire in learning the layers of what shaped the fascinating “heel” of Italy.
The Archaeological Museum of Taranto is home to an extensive archaeological collection with a permanent collection that places emphasis on daily life, trade and religious ceremonies. The cultural abundance of the area around Taranto in antiquity is impressively reflected through the numerous antique sculptures, Greek polychrome pottery, funerary monuments, vases, paintings and valuable pieces of the renowned, locally made gold jewellery.
Atop a hill 540 meters above the sea an enigmatic castle is ensconced in the Apulian Murgia and hidden meaning. The most mysterious construction of the Middle Ages has eight corners, eight towers and an octagonal inner courtyard. There are no moats, no drawbridges, no servant’s quarters or stables: the precise purpose of the imposing grounds is a riddle. The mysticism of the choice of the number eight and the reasons behind why Hohenstaufen Emperor Frederick II – who likely never actually saw it – are unknown. As visitors walk the long hallways of the building, they can wonder about its existence.
Attracting millions of Catholic pilgrims each year, the city of San Giovanni Rotondo is an important destination for religious travelers from all around the world. Its importance is strongly connected to Padre Pio who lived and worked here. He came to the Capuchin monastery in 1916, where he stayed until his death in 1968. Suffering from poor health his entire life himself, he dedicated his life to taking care of the sick. Padre Pio became the first stigmatized priest in the history of the church when the marks of the wounds of Christ appeared on his body. In 2002 he was declared Saint by Pope John Paul II. The most important place of devotion is the crypt of the Santa Maria delle Grazie Church, where his body can be viewed in a glass coffin.
Vieste is a town of Greek-Byzantine origin perched on a limestone promontory that has been eroded by nature and time. The white houses and golden beaches create a lovely contrast with the pristine blue sea and sky. The sights to see include the eighteenth century Co-Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin, the Swabian Castle and a Gothic arch. Another, the arch of San Felice, was made using the same natural process that created the vertical rock monolith of Pizzomunno, at the heart of a lovesick local legend, and the neighboring sea caves. The Merinum Necropolis is a Paleochristian cemetary east of town. The three hundred tombs date to the third century after Christ, one of the oldest sites that give testimony to the arrival of Christianity on peninsula.
Ostuni is known as the “White City of Apulia.” A splendid medieval village atop a hill, its tangle of streets feature whitewashed houses adorned with flower boxes and tiny shops. Centuries old olive groves surround the town below.
Combine Ostuni with a visit to Locorotondo and Alberobello.
Alberobello is famous for its unique, white round buildings with archetypal conical roofs. These little houses give insight into how farming families and communities survived off the land and lived in these tiny villages together. A stroll on its cobblestone streets through the cluster of UNESCO recognized trulli is an unforgettable experience.
Combine Alberobello with a visit to Ostuni and Locorotondo.
Otranto is a fascinating town on the strait lends the city its name; the city is located where the Adriatic Sea connects to the Ionian Sea, separating Italy from Albania. Its strategic position meant that the area endured many attacks throughout time, from the Greeks and Romans to the Ottomans and up to World War II. The fortified city’s castle stands at the entrance to the old city, a lively area with many charming shops and cafés.
Locorotondo is a circular shaped city, built atop a hill around its historic church bell tower. Though just kilometers from the famous triulli houses in Alberobello, the architecture in the “Round City” is different. The cummerse houses are narrow and have pointed gable roofs, with a Baltic look. The park in the south of the historic district offers marvelous views of the Itra Valley.
Combine Locorotondo with a visit to Ostuni and Alberobello.
The 4th century city of Polignano a Mare displays a nice concentration of many typical Apulian elements: white-washed streets, charming churches, Greek and Roman ruins, crystal clear waters and delicious ice cream. Furthermore, what makes the city a gem on the crown of Italian culture is the fact that the author of the famous “Volare” song hailed from there. Domenico Modugno recalled the colors of his little haven – and which now has extended to described the entirety of Italy – when he sang, “Nel blu dipinto di blu”, over 60 years ago.
The capital of the region, Bari, is making a big come back. Named by Lonely Planet as one of the best places to visit in Europe in 2019, the the city has been experiencing a renaissance. Art and history permeate its urbanscape. It has a beautiful theater, the Teatro Piccinni, and a Basilica that holds the bones of St. Nicholas, better known as Santa Claus. Its recently restored art nouveau theater, Teatro Margherita, has been converted into an art space where visitors can enjoy drinks in the evening – in a room on stilts over the sea. With a great food and street food scene and beaches extending along its coast, the second largest city in southern Italy has something for everyone.
Gallipoli is an ancient fortified city on the Ionian Sea. It was founded by Greek colonists as “Kallipolis,” the “Beautiful City.” Now the city is divided into two parts. The UNESCO recognized old town is located on an island, connected to the mainland by a sixteenth century bridge. The modern town sits on the coast and features an array of shops, cafés and restaurants serving up the area’s specialities.
The beautiful city of Lecce is located on the Salentine Peninsula. Hear about the history of this 2,000 year old place as your private guide takes you to see some of its most important monuments and sites. See many examples of “Lecce stone”, a special limestone used by many artists in friezes, sculptures and cornices for its easily workable quality. This limestone is often used in the facades of the city, with Baroque architecture so jaw-dropping that it has earned the city the nickname of “The Florence of the South.” After the walking tour to see its Piazza Oronzo and the remains of the Roman amphitheater, taste one of the best desserts in Italy: the “pasticciotto leccese”. This famous tart comes in an assortment of flavors, but the traditional combination of custard cream and cherry is what really made this sweet so well-loved.
Forty kilometers south of Bari the Grottoes of Castellana are amongst the most important and most visited tourist attractions in Apulia. The expansive system of natural, underground passageways and chambers is one of the largest in Europe. It was discovered in 1938 and since then the area has been researched by numerous international groups of cave experts and visited by those interested in the curiosities of geological formations over time. Two possible routes bring visitors seventy meters underground, where temperatures maintain a constant 18°C. The first and shorter route is about one kilometer long and lasts about 50 minutes; the second is three kilometers long and lasts two hours. Visitors have the chance to see both the Grave Cave and the White Cave, where various natural creations stupefy with their sculpture-like shapes crafted over eons.
The Gargano is a sub-region of Apulia, located on an isolated massif on a promontory extending into the Adriatic. The wooded pensinsula was made a national park in 1991 and is most noted for its ancient forested area, the Foresta Umbra, is the only remaining part of the old oak and beech forest that once covered much of Central Europe. Towering 1,056 meters above the sea, Monte Calvo is the highest point.
As you drive through the fields and pasturelands of Apulia the bus will stop at a cheese producer, famous for the local favorite: burrata. The fresh cheese has a soft consistency and outer “skin”, with an oozy mouth-feel similar to mozzarella. To bring out its flavor and texture, it is usually served at room temperature. Following the demonstration of how the creamy twisted cheese is made, you will have the opportunity to taste it.
Dreams of Italy inevitably include wine-related images: families gathering to dine together under a canopy of grapes; couples sipping a great vintage at a vineyard in the sun-soaked hills; or groups of barefoot friends stomping grapes at harvest time. In Monopoli a local wine producer invites guests to be a part of the process of transforming the grapes from the vine to wine. You can step inside a barrel and feel the squenchy fruit under your feet. As music plays and the group cheers, you can be a part of an ancient Italian tradition.
Visit Cisternino. As you stroll its narrow streets, take in the unique details of its architecture, said to be a “great masterpiece of architecture without architects.” Then do a cooking class to learn how to prepare some local cuisine. Try your hand at making one of the most well-known pasta dishes of Apulia, orecchiette, which gets its name for its shape of “little ears.” Once you finish the course, enjoy the meal you have made for lunch.
Altamura produces a pane that is more than bread, but an ancient Apulian tradition. With a recipe dating back centuries, in 37 B.C. Latin poet Horace described it as the best bread he had ever eaten. Noted for its size – one kilo per loaf! – consistency and toasty, sweet flavor, it is still baked in wood-burning ovens. Originally the village people would use the communal oven, stamping their loaf with a unique signature to avoid confusion when they were ready to take it home. At the time the bread was the staple of field workers’ diets; as it was filling and could last up to two weeks, it was simple sustenance. The recipe for the round loaves has been left unchanged, with each phase of its production faithfully respected. The result is an easily recognizable bread with a soft inside protected by a thick, crisp crust. From the Murgia durum wheat used to the oak burned during baking, Altamura bread was the first to receive Protected Designation of Origin status. You can visit a baker in the town to try it and learn more about it.
The Tremiti Islands are an archipelago off the Apulian coast, 22 kilometers north of the Gargano Peninsula and also a part of the national park. Of the five islands only two are inhabited. San Dominio was once a penal colony though now it has been transformed into the touristic hub of the islands, as it has their only sand beach. The majority of the native population lives on San Nicola, a medieval town with a fascinating abbey-fortress. Capraia and Cretaccio are covered in pine trees and prickly pear cacti. Pianosa, rising just fifteen meters above sea level, is sometimes lost to the sea when storms brew. Divers love the Tremiti, as the series of grottoes, colorful coral, the four-metre-high statue of Padre Pio, World War II planes and the sixteenth century Ottoman shipwreck offer an array of underwater immersions to do.Regular connection from Termoli or Rodi Garganico can easily connect you to the islands by way of hydrofoil, ferry and motorboat. A helicopter link between the Tremiti, Vieste and Foggia also operates daily.
After breakfast at the hotel take the private bus to a typical fishing village, Torre Canne. Hop on board a traditional Apulian fishing boat with two skippers. Spend the late morning and early afternoon (about 4 hours total) relaxing, swimming and fishing from the boat! Enjoy some traditional foods and prosecco as you sail past the Savelletri & Egnazia ruins, before returning to Torre Canne and the bus ride back to the hotel.
The festival began in the 1500s, following the famous 1503 battle between Italian and French knights. Charles de Torgues (better known as Monsier Guy de la Motte) was in Canosa di Puglia with his men. One night, after having drunk too much wine, Motte began speaking ill of the Italians who were allied with the Spanish army based in Barletta. The Italians, desiring to defend their valor and courage, arose to the challenge and agreed to organize a mounted tournament. With 13 men on each side, the Italians prevailed. They won 100 ducats (about $15,000.00 at the time), as well as the weapons, horses and two prisoners from the French side. From then on the city of Barletta has been referred to as la Città della Disfida (City of the Challenge) and a festival is held there each year on the last Sunday in July to celebrate the event.
The Carnivale in Putignano is one of Europe’s oldest. It began in 1394 when the Knights of Malta, who governed the territory then, decided to move the relics of St. Stephen the Martyr. As the relics where housed in a church in Monopoli, it was believed that they were vulnerable to Saracen attacks; to keep them safe the Order had to move them inland. When the relics arrived the peasants celebrated with a festive procession. A religious ceremony was held, which was then followed by dance, song, theatrical performances and the reciting of poems. The event was then celebrated in a similar way each year until it was transformed into a more refined Carnivale event during the Fascist period. Floats assembled by local carpenters and artisans were added, showcasing their art and craft work. The Carnivale in Putignano is also one of Europe’s longest, as it begins on December 26 with a candle ceremony and ends the day before Lent starts. During the first event the villagers exchange candles and ask for forgiveness for the sins they will commit during the Carnivale season. It then continues with poems being recited by citizens dressed in traditional peasant clothes. The festival really starts to take off on January 17 with the feast of St. Anthony the Abate. After that date each day is Carnivale. Every Thursday is dedicated to celebrating and performing satirical pieces about the various categories of locals – the priests, nuns, widows, unmarried youth and married men and women. The festival ends on Shrove Tuesday with the parade of floats and the funeral of the Carnivale, represented as a pig.
The best loved music event takes place from the beginning to mid August in southern Puglia. Concerts are held each day in various areas around the province of Lecce for a couple of weeks. The festival ends with a grand finale – one of the biggest annual events in the country – in Melpignano. The lovely setting of the small village, one of the Borghi Autentici d’Italia (Authentic Hamlets of Italy), is so idyllic it even has a beloved town mascot, Geo. Geo the donkey is the town’s lawn mower with whom the villagers lovingly speak their Griko dialect (a mix of Greek and the Salento dialect). In a place where traditions are an important part of daily life, the festival has been organized since 1988 as a way to rediscover and promote folk music, especially the Pizzica.
St. Nicholas, the patron saint of Bari, has been celebrated each year from the May 7th to 9th since 1087. The festival commemorates when the saint’s relics arrived from Turkey. The holy bones are said to “weep” perfumed water, which is collected in a vat of water and sold at the church. A procession leads from the castle, Castello Svevo, to the Basilica di San Nicola on the first evening of the event. The highlight of the event takes place the following day, on May 8, when a statue of the saint is put aboard a boat and taken along the coast to be viewed by the neighboring area’s people, accompanied by a fleet. The evenings of the 8th and 9th conclude with marvellous firework shows.
Today you will take an excursion to Italy’s most magnificent Hohenstaufen castle, Castel del Monte. Already visible from a distance, this imposing stone crown of Apulia thrones atop a hill. It remains unclear to this day why Frederick II had this building constructed. Only one thing is sure: The sight of Castel del Monte is simply breathtaking. Continue to Trani and visit the so-called ‘queen of cathedrals’ located directly on the sea, as well as the Castle of Trani (outside viewing only), which was also built by the Hohenstaufen Emperor Frederick II.
On the Gargano tour you will first reach Vieste, also called the queen of the Gargano. Here you have the opportunity to enjoy the picturesque historic district and the impressive view of the cliff coast. Then the tour continues along the southern coast to the St. Michael’s shrine Monte Sant’Angelo, located at 800 m. It is one of Europe’s oldest pilgrimage destinations. Visit the grotto shrine, the ‘Tomba dei Rotari’ and the church of Santa Maria Maggiore.
Travel from Apulia to Basilicata and the city of Matera. This lesser known area of Italy was declared a “must see” European Capital of Culture for 2019. The 7,000 year old town is the third-longest continuously inhabited human settlement in the world. Its unique “sassi” caves were carved over time into the tufa limestone in which they are found. The layers of houses are astonishing and are now protected on the UNESCO world heritage list. The more modern houses are found above the hill; cave dwellings huddle together in the gorge and were used from Neolithic times up until the Second World War; and below, in the underground city, more ancient living areas lay. The area is so incredible that it seems to transport you back to Biblical times, which is, in fact, exactly what various directors have done in filming movies like “The Passion of Christ”, “Ben Hur” and even “Wonder Woman” there. With your private guide you will enter two churches and a farm house to see how the inside of these structures were made.