About Bari and surroundings

 APULIA REGION

The region that forms the heel of Italy is famous for its golden beaches, ancient architecture, mysterious monuments and some of the best food around. Fought over for centuries, it is now starting to draw the crowds.

WHERE IS IT?

Roughly speaking, the heel of Italy. The region of Puglia, also known as Apulia, occupies the extreme south-eastern tip of the country. Bordered on two sides by the Ionian and Adriatic seas, Puglia is a long sliver of land that stretches from the border with Molise in the north to Capo Santa Maria di Leuca in the south. In between you'll find some of the best examples of Baroque architecture in Italy, fascinating cities steeped in history, mysterious caves and monuments and a landscape dotted with ancient Greek and Neolithic archaeological sites. You will also find conical-roofed trulli houses and miles of sandy beaches.

NOT EXACTLY UNDISCOVERED THEN?

Puglia has been pulling in the visitors for centuries. It occupies a strategic corner of Italy and has seen many colonisers in both modern and ancient times. Some of Puglia's first residents were the Messapians, who established settlements in Brindisi, Ugento and Ceglie Messapica in the Val d'Itria. One of their more mysterious legacies are the conical stone towers or specchie, which can still be seen scattered throughout the countryside. Puglia was the stepping stone to the eastern Mediterranean and Byzantium, and down the centuries Greeks, Romans, Saracens, Aragons and Swabians have staked their claim to its soil. During summer, thousands of holidaying Italians also descend on Puglia's beaches. The best time to go is June or September when the heat is at its most bearable and it’s less crowded.

WHERE SHOULD I START?

Lecce is often billed as the Florence of the south, thanks to an abundance of buildings constructed in a very florid style of Mediterranean Baroque. Antonio and Giuseppe Zimbalo were two of the main proponents of the Leccese Baroque, and the most celebrated of the city's buildings, which they had a hand in the Basilica di Santa Croce. Construction started in 1549, and the final touches were not completed until 1695. The basilica is best viewed at night when its painstakingly carved exterior is floodlit. Also adjacent to Lecce's main square, the Piazza St. Oronzo, there is a well-preserved Roman amphitheatre.

WHAT ELSE CAN I SEE?

Nobody really understands King Frederick II of Swabia's motives for ordering the construction of the dramatic Castel del Monte. This is unquestionably one of Puglia's most important and mysterious buidlings, which commands panoramic views from the top of a hill, 18 km outside the town of Andria near Bari. Now a Unesco World Heritage site, Castel del Monte has been at the centre of much debate since its construction in the 13th century. Its polygon structure, topped with eight octagonal towers, was built along strict mathematical and astronomical principles and is one of Europe's finest examples of medieval military architecture.

ANY MORE ANCIENT HISTORY?

One of Puglia's most important archaeological sites, the Museo Nazionale of Egnazia is on the coast near Savelletri. The park and its adjoining museum display artefacts from the Bronze Age as well as remnants from the Roman port of Egnathia, which also flourished on the site.

On Puglia's western coast is the uninspiring town of Taranto, surrounded by a tangle of motorways and some of Italy's largest steel works. However, it wasn't always like this. Taranto was first colonised by the Taras, Spartan Greeks who arrived in Puglia around 700 BC. Tarentum as it was then called quickly grew to become one of the most opulent cities and important ports of ancient Greece. Many objects recovered from the sites and tombs in the region can be seen at Taranto's Museo Archeologico Nazionale.

YOU MENTIONED CAVES?

On January 23 1938, Franco Anelli discovered the Grotte di Castellana (www.grottedicastellana.it), 40 km from Bari. This is a spectacular network of caves carved out by an underground stream and stretching several kilometers underground. There are two different tours to see the soaring stalactites and stalagmites. The longer of the two, which lasts around two hours, takes visitors into the depths of the White Cave, which is lined with glittering alabaster rock formations.

WHERE CAN I GET BACK TO NATURE?

The Gargano promontory is a different proposition to the rest of Puglia; a rugged spur jutting out from the coast covered in forests. Now a 15,000 hectare nature reserve, the Parco Nazionale di Gargano (www.parcogargano.it) is home to thousands of different species of flora and fauna, including deer and wildcats.

Also in the park you can visit the Foresta Umbra or "Forest of Shadows", a beautiful blanket of Aleppo pine, oak and beech.

I'D LIKE A DAY AT THE BEACH

There is plenty of choice but you need to search out the best spots. Between Monopoli and Brindisi on the eastern coast alone there are over 60 km of dunes and beaches. But be warned, the coastal roads on both the Adriatic and Ionian coasts, particularly between Bari and Brindisi and around Taranto, are lined with hastily-built lidos. Further south the coast becomes more indented and is dotted with some fabulous white sand as well as picturesque rocky bathing spots such as Porto Miggiano south of Otranto.

The Gargano is also home to some of Puglia's best beaches. Its capital, Vieste, is a pretty medieval town that gets incredibly busy in the summer but also boasts one of the region's most spectacular beaches, which looks out onto the towering Scoglio di Pizzomunno, an enormous monolith of rock in front of the beach. One of the best ways to visit the bathing spots of the Gargano is by train. Built in 1931, the Gargano railway links many beach resorts between San Severo and Peschici. For information and departure times contact Ferrovie del Gargano (www.ferroviedelgargano.com).

ANY ISLANDS TO EXPLORE?

Make the short hop across the limpid waters of the Adriatic to the Tremiti islands off the coast of the Gargano peninsula, one of Italy's lesser-known archipelagos. The islands form part of the Parco Nazionale di Gargano and some of their best beaches include Cala Tonda, a small lagoon boasting crystal clear waters that is accessible through a narrow channel, and the Cala delle Arene. The neighbouring island of San Nicola is the administrative, cultural and religious centre for the islands and was once a popular stopping-off point for pilgrims on the road to Jerusalem.

WHAT ELSE CAN I SEE ON THE COAST?

The transport hub of Bari has an old town with a tightly packed warren of streets and buzzing, if slightly seedy, atmosphere. Between Bari and Brindisi is Polignano al Mare, a town that clings to the rocks high above the sea. A little further down the coast is the charming town of Monopoli. It is worth a detour if only for a stroll around its pier, old fishing port and atmospheric streets. Brindisi was another important gateway to the east. In the centre of town you can see a column marking the end of the Appian Way.

Another of Puglia's highlights lies a little further inland. On first impressions you'd be forgiven for thinking you were in Greece. The white city of Ostuni perches on the southern extremity of the Murge plateau and spills across three hills. With its panoramic views overlooking the Ionian coast, Ostuni's origins date back to Messapian times, but the city's walls were actually built by the Aragons in the 15th century. Its old town or terra is an enchanting tangle of whitewashed streets that twist around a dramatic cathedral occupying a commanding position on the summit of a hill and dating from 1495. The Baroque church of San Vito dates from 1750 and is adjacent to the Museo di Civilta’ Preclassiche della Murgia, which is housed in a Carmelite monastery and displays artefacts from the region's ancient past.

Ostuni's patron saint, Oronzo, is reputed to have saved the city from an epidemic in the mid-17th century. Every year the city's inhabitants celebrate in extravagant style on the saint's feast day, 26 August. La Calvalcata is a lavish event featuring large processions of horsemen dressed in uniforms of red and white. On the second Sunday of every month you can also wander the city walls and search for bargains at the antiques market around the San Demetrio gate.

YOU MENTIONED FOOD?

Many regions in Italy lay claim to the best food, but Puglia could comfortably assume the title. Pugliese cuisine is cucina povera (literally "poor cuisine") and fish, offal and vegetables feature strongly. The bread is the best in Italy (there are over 100 types of bread in the Salentine alone) and includes the regional speciality taralli (a kind of Italian pretzel), traditionally softened with olive oil and sprinkled with chopped tomatoes. Other Pugliese specialities include gnumerieddi (lamb's intestines) and orecchiette con la rape, small ear-shaped pasta with green turnip tops. If rumours are to be believed, the Shah of Iran was so addicted to the region's divine burrata cheese that he had it flown over on a regular basis.

WHERE CAN I STAY?

Puglia is not short of places to stay, but some of the most atmospheric are the masserie (fortified farmhouses), which have been turned into hotels and B&Bs. Some of the most interesting are on the eastern coast near Ostuni and Monopoli.

WHAT IS A TRULLO?

Driving through the rolling hills and olive groves of the Val d'Itria in Le Murge you soon become aware of the presence of hundreds of conical-roofed dwellings spread across the countryside. Welcome to “Trulli” land. Much like the dammusi of the island of Pantelleria, the origins of the trullo are shrouded in mystery. Trulli are constructed from thick limestone blocks in a conical shape, and often their roofs are decorated with symbols, believed to have pagan and Christian significance. With walls often measuring up to two metres thick, they stay cool in the summer and warm in the winter.

Alberobello is the undisputed trulli capital of the world and is one of the only places in the region where the trullo structure, normally confined to the countryside, has entered the vernacular architecture of a town. Now a Unesco World Heritage site, the sloping streets of Alberobello's south eastern quarter are lined with over 400 trulli, including a trullo-church, which, predictably enough, draw the tourists in their droves. Alberobello contains the only example of a two-storey trullo, the Trullo Sovrano or "superb trullo".

ITINERARIES around BARI

Apulia tour options (click here to discover Apulia tour options)

Accommodation information (click here to discover some useful information about accommodation options)

 

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