BlogSouth Italy: Ancient, Soulful & Intense


Gerard Venet




Though Apulia and Basilicata are in the South of Italy, they nevertheless show many Northern and Eastern historical and artistic features, left by different people. The Greeks called it Magna Graecia. The Byzantines ruled it until the 11th century. The Norman Robert Guiscard de Hauteville became Duke of Apulia. The Angevin king Robert the Wise was the patron of Boccaccio, the author of Decameron. The Hohenstaufen emperor Frederic II was known as the “Child of Apulia” (Puer Apuliae). The Bourbon monarch Charles III improved its economy. The Aragonese King Ferrante was a Renaissance prince. The original inhabitants were the Daunians, Peucetians, Messapians and Lucanians.

We started the tour at the Gargano, a limestone promontory jutting out in the Adriatic. At Monte Sant’Angelo built on a spur, pilgrims have been coming to the sanctuary since St Michael’s apparition there, in the late 5th century. We drove through the Foresta Umbra amidst beeches, maples, white poplars, cornelian cherry trees and holm oaks, a landscape contrasting with the rugged coastline. Further south in Barletta, we saw a colossal statue thought to represent Valentinian I, the Roman emperor (321-375). At Margherita di Savoia are the State Saltworks. Frederic II Hohenstaufen was married several times; in Andria, we saw the tombs of two of his wives: Yolande de Brienne and Isabel of England. In the first half of the 13th  century, he had the fortress of Castel del Monte built. It stands on its own, on a hill, in the middle of the Murgia region, to assert the Swabian Emperor’s power over the area. In the elegant town of Altamura, we spent some time at the cathedral. Its 14th-15th century main portal is one of the most richly decorated doorways of Apulia.

We reached Basilicata and in particular, the town of Matera. Its centre is composed of the Sasso Caveoso and the Sasso Barisano. The sassi are troglodyte quarters composed of rock and semi-rock dwellings. There are numerous frescoed rock churches in the centre and in the nearby Parco della Murgia Materana. The scenery will be familiar to you if you saw Mel Gibson’s film “The Passion of the Christ”, which was shot there.

We drove back to Apulia and stopped at the industrial port of Taranto on the Ionian Sea. It is also an important naval base.  Tarantism, tarantula and tarantella all these words derive from the city’s name. The first one refers to a nervous disorder marked by uncontrollable bodily movement widespread in the south of Italy during the 15th to the 17th centuries. The second one refers to the large spider whose bite is thought to cause tarantism. The third one refers to a fast peasant dance. Another Ancient Greek colony was the “beautiful town” of Gallipoli (Kalè polis). It still deserves its name because the old town rests on an island and boasts beautiful baroque churches and chapels. The easternmost tip of the Salentine peninsula (the boot’s heel) is Santa Maria di Leuca. At this Land’s End, the church is called Santuario de Finibus Terrae. Seeing the beautiful and peaceful Otranto, today a holiday resort, it was hard to imagine the tragic events that took place there in July 1480. A fleet of Turkish warships commanded by Ahmet Pasha broke into the town at the end of a fifteen-day siege and summoned the Christians to abjure. Upon their refusal, the Turks stormed the Cathedral and killed Bishop Stefano Pendinelli and everybody who had sought refuge within its walls. About 800 survivors were taken up the nearby Minerva Hill and beheaded for having refused to deny their faith. Besides having their relics, the cathedral has a beautiful mosaic floor from the 12th century. It represents the Tree of Life, the Months, Noah’s Ark, King Arthur, amongst other themes. The 10th century church of S. Pietro is a beautiful example of Byzantine style. We made a halt at Galatina to visit the church of saint Catherine of Alexandria, a rare example of Gothic architecture in the Salento. Beautiful early 15th century frescoes cover the whole interior of the church. At Galatone, the Santuario del Crossifisso on the other hand is a splendid baroque church. There is a wealth of styles, Renaissance, baroque and rococo in Lecce. Churches, like Santa Croce, are a testimony to the workmanship of the local architects, stonemasons and sculptors who used the stone quarried in the surroundings. There are the ruins of a Roman amphitheatre built at the time of Emperor Hadrian.

In Antiquity, the Appian-Traiana Way connected Rome to Brindisi. A column marks the spot where it ended. Virgil the poet, died there in 19 BC. Today, Brindisi is an important naval and trading port. There are daily shipping services across the Adriatic to Greece. We visited the baptistery of St John at the Sepulchre, erected in the 11th century by the Knights Templar. In 1228 the participants to the sixth crusade departed from its port. Three kilometres away we stopped at the Church of Santa Maria del Casale, with a polychrome façade and Byzantine frescoes; it was built in 1322.

We enjoyed several towns built on hills. Ostuni, whose whitewashed houses can be seen from a distance. We walked up and down its steep medieval alleys before driving to Martina Franca and Locorotondo. On each side of the road were vines, olive trees and trulli. They are drystone houses with a conical roof covered with grey stone slabs. In the town of Alberobello the quarters of Monti and Aia Piccola are entirely made up of trulli.

We returned to the coast as we were now on our way to Bari. We drove through the attractive towns of Monopoli and Polignano a Mare. The latter dominates the sea on its jagged cliffs. A statue of Domenico Modugno, the singer of “Nel blu dipinto di blu”, adorns one of the squares.

Bari is a large port, an agricultural, commercial and industrial centre. It is a rather attractive city composed of an old town on a promontory, a modern town with wide avenues and a grid plan, and a beautiful seafront. It has always been a busy place: the Crusaders embarked here to go to the Holy Land and pilgrims flocked to St Nicholas’ shrine. The basilica built to shelter it is a fine example of Apulian Romanesque, favoured by the Normans. The very popular saint was bishop of Myra in Lycia (Asia Minor) and he is said to have resurrected three children who had been cut up and put in brine by a butcher. The Fiera del Levante, inaugurated in 1930, is an important trade fair, second only to that in Milan.

Continuing along the coast we drove through the towns of Giovinazzo, Molfetta and Biseglie before getting to Trani. The Ordinamenta Maris, the oldest medieval maritime code, was drawn up in this town. The cathedral, in Apulian-Romanesque style, overlooks the sea and is one of the most stunnig churches in Italy.

Roman military history was revived when we saw the remains of the ancient town of Cannae. There are excavations, a museum and a shop today. In 216 BC a battle took place there between the Romans and the Carthaginians: Aemilius Paulus and Terrentius Varro, the Roman consuls, were defeated by Hannibal.

We were back in Basilicata when we tasted the aglianico wine in Barile. This village, in the 16th century, welcomed Albanian settlers who had fled their lands occupied by the Turks. In the same region, the Vulture, are the Monticchio Lakes. Over them stands the former abbey of San Michele, or Sant’Angelo del Vulture, born around Basilian hermitages of the 10th century and passed to the Benedictines first and then to the Capuchins. The Basilians were monks of the Eastern Christian Church. Saint Basil established their order in Capadocia in the 4th century AD. Besides being one of the founders of monasticism, he was also an opponent of Arianism. Carpe Diem (Seize the present day) wrote the Roman poet Horace in his Odes. We saw the house where he was born in the town of Venosa, in 65 BC. Much later, the Prince of Venosa was Carlo Gesualdo (1560-1613) who was an exceptional musician, one of the best of his time.

Our last place was Melfi where, in 1089, Pope Urban II called for the First Crusade.  In 1231, Frederic II proclaimed the Constitutions of Melfi (or Liber Augustalis) here, reinforcing his state, organising public law, police and state finance.

Gerard Venet
Tour Manager