What is Puglia?
Puglia is a region of Italy in the south-east of the country, it’s the “heel” of the Italian boot. Facing Albania. Puglia is on the Adriatic Sea, the arm of the Mediterranean which runs along Italy’s “east coast” – I’ve put it in inverted commas because Italians don’t call it that way: they say “la costa adriatica”.
To get to Puglia by air you fly to Bari or Brindisi, which are also the main ports of the region.
Within an hour or two from the airport are lovely Mediterranean fishing ports.
Puglia, also known in English by its Latin name Apulia, is probably one of the Italian regions least known to foreign visitors, except for its ports on the Adriatic Sea, like Brindisi, being the departure point of ferries for Greece, whose coast is across the sea south of Apulia. The Greek island of Corfu is opposite Santa Maria di Leuca, the southernmost tip of Apulia between the Ionian Sea on the west and the Adriatic Sea on the east. This lack of attention is somewhat unfair, because Apulia is full of beautiful sites, in terms of historical landmarks, artistic buildings and natural spots.
The remoteness of the region from well-travelled areas may be responsible for this sort of neglect. The advantage is obvious: its beaches are less crowded than in other, more popular parts of Italy. But then, this is the fate of the eastern section of the country, the one that runs along all the length of the Adriatic coast. With the exception of that major naval power, Venice, and some very successful seaside resorts like Rimini, birthplace of the great film director Federico Fellini, eastern Italy has always remained a sort of Cinderella to the rest of the country.
The coast of Apulia is no less than 800 km long, extending along two seas which are arms of the Mediterranean, the Adriatic on the north and the Ionian on the south. And it’s renowned for its clean waters.
The historic towns and cities are replete with exquisite architecture, and the countryside is ancient, sunny, restful, with an abundance of olive groves, fruit orchards, and meadows bursting with wild flowers.
The main town of Puglia, or in Italian its “capoluogo”, is Bari. It is a historic port which has won the city the appellative of “gateway to the East”, due to its ancient trade with the Eastern Mediterranean. Bari is the second-largest city in southern Italy, after the metropolis of Naples.
Bari is an important centre for commerce and industry, for shipbuilding and petrochemicals. It’s the site of the first nuclear power station in Italy, the see of an archbishop, home to a naval college and a university.
Bari has an outstanding old quarter, which also includes the splendid Basilica of St. Nicholas, patron saint of the city. The construction of this large pilgrimage church started in 1087 and ended in the 1200s. It is one of the most exquisite Romanesque buildings in the whole Apulia region.
Less famous than the Basilica of St. Nicholas but its senior is Bari Cathedral (in Italian “Duomo di Bari” or “Cattedrale di San Sabino”), whose original building on the site of the ruins of the Imperial Byzantine cathedral goes back to 1170-1178, and can be found in the Old Town (“centro storico”) of Bari. It contains Norman ornaments and a beautiful icon of the Virgin from Constantinople.
Also worth seeing in Bari is the magnificent seafront promenade, the Lungomare Nazario Sauro. It starts at the eastern end of Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, a major and busy thoroughfare of the city, and runs along the picturesque Old Harbour. Corso Cavour is also lined with fine buildings.
You may think that Bari is not, after all, one of the main tourist destinations, but don’t forget that this is Italy, and great and small jewels are always to be found everywhere and anywhere even when you don’t expect them, to surprise and delight you.
So inside Bari’s Palazzo della Provincia, the seat of Bari province administration, you can see the Pinacoteca Provinciale (Provincial Art Gallery) exhibiting not only Apulian paintings from the 1000s to the 1900s (including Giuseppe de Nittis and Saverio Altamura), but also a medieval section and a section of 15th-16th centuries Venetian paintings, containing works of such great artists as, among others, Giovanni Bellini, Antonio and Bartolomeo Vivarini, Veronese and Tintoretto.
Recently new life was injected into Bari’s cultural scene, due to new management of the Petruzzelli opera theatre, which in the 20th century had been one of Italy’s grandest opera houses and is still one of the country’s largest theatres.
In the surroundings of Bari (“provincia di Bari”) are several places of interest: Giovinazzo, between the Gargano peninsula and Bari, a charming seaside resort with a splendid 12th century cathedral; Canosa di Puglia, with many and remarkable Roman remains; Bitonto and Trani, with beautiful cathedrals (the latter, pictured right, is stunning, overlooking the sea); Polignano a Mare, typical lovely Apulian seaside town, with white-washed cottages, a Roman bridge, a Romanesque church, a 16th-century tower, coves and beaches nestled at the bottom of cliffs; Altamura, with a 13th century cathedral of the Virgin Mary; Castel del Monte, with a castle built between 1240 and 1250 on an octagonal plan with characteristic octagonal towers; Gioia del Colle, with its 11th century castle; Conversano, with a Norman keep; and Molfetta, with its 12-13th centuries cathedral.
Of particular interest in Puglia is Alberobello, the town of the famous Trulli, singular, ancient stone buildings. The Trulli are what is most characteristic and peculiar about Apulia, something that to an Italian person would immediately conjure up the idea of the Puglia region.
Trulli, part of the UNESCO World Heritage, are traditional limestone dwellings, prime examples of drywall construction which employs prehistoric building techniques, although they were built in the 14th century. A trullo is like a thick-walled cottage and is smaller than a modern house even though trullos’ sizes vary. Each trullo is formed by a white circular base and a cone-shaped roof or cupola, usually black or dark-coloured. Trulli’s peculiarity is that they remain cool in summer and are easily heated in winter.
When you see the picturesque, quaint trullos suddenly rising from vineyards, olive groves and cherry orchards, they give an immediate quality of charm and atmosphere of loveliness to the countryside surrounding them.
The largest concentration of Trulli is in the town of Alberobello, in Valle d’Itria, south-east of Bari. You can stay in trullos (see photos and links).
Alberobello is close to both Puglia coasts: on the Adriatic Sea and the Ionian Sea. In every direction, the sea is never far away from Alberobello. The whole Valle d’Itria is so close to beaches that no part of it is ever more than 20km from one. There are many lidos, stretches of sandy beach where you pay a small fee for car parking, deck chairs and showers.
The Itria Valley is famous not only for its trulli and for Alberobello but also for its other pretty whitewashed towns like Fasano, Martina Franca, Cisternino, Ostuni.
Monopoli, about 40 km south of Bari on the coast between Bari and Brindisi, is a port and town of historical importance, with many interesting and beautiful sights, including an ancient cathedral built in 1107 and restored in the 17th century.
South of Monopoli, along the coast, is the popular seaside resort of Torre Canne, near Fasano.
Further south is Ostuni, known as the “white city” due to the colour that dominates its stunning historical centre.
Near Alberobello and still in the province of Bari is the ancient town of Castellana, whose origins date back to the 10th century and maybe earlier. The town is also known as Castellana Grotte because in 1938 a vast system of natural underground caves and grottos was discovered 2 km from the town. Castellana Caves are world famous; they are the biggest cave system in Italy and one of the most important in Europe not only for their size but also for their spectacular beauty. One of them, the splendid White Grotto which is at 70 metres below ground level, is considered the most beautiful grotto in the world due to the purity of its crystalline concretions.
Lecce, in the south of Apulia, is another major town of the region, arguably the most beautiful, considered the capital of Italian baroque. Much of Lecce’s current appearance dates back to the 17th century when, thanks to mercantile money and counter-Reformation zeal, the town underwent a process of transformation – culminating in the birth of a major centre of baroque art in Europe.
Lecce is Puglia’s stunning, unmissable gem, and one of the loveliest complete baroque towns in Europe. It is a beautiful city with a Roman amphitheatre,
Its extensive historic quarter is made of cobbled streets lined with creatively decorated houses and shops and of squares with 17th-century’s breathtaking churches, palaces, monuments, town halls, hospitals and fountains, all vividly decorated with the same local type of sandstone possessing a golden tone and warm glow, the “leccese”. Some baroque palaces have been converted into hotels or restaurants, so you can stay in one and dine in one, often surprisingly inexpensively.
Most of Lecce’s buildings and houses were given a glorious baroque veneer of putti, gargoyles, garlands, mythological figures, dryads, nymphs, stone curlicues, mythical animals and wreaths of exuberant decorations. Examples of this baroque style are Basilica di Santa Croce, Palazzo del Governo, Cathedral, Palazzo del Seminario, Chiesa del Rosario and Porta Rudiae.
The coast around Lecce, in the “heel”‘s southern part, is rocky and possibly the most beautiful in Apulia.
Puglia is an ancient land, still containing Roman remains: examples of them are an amphitheatre in Foggia, and an arch, mausoleum, bridge, many funerary buildings and a 6th century basilica in Canosa di Puglia. Greek ruins are to be found in places like Egnazia and Lecce.
Many of Apulia’s coastal towns are very picturesque: whitewashed villages with a Greek feel to them.
Apulia has had a very rich history: the Greeks, Romans, Goths, Byzantines, Longobards, Saracens, Turks, Normans have been here before the region in 1465 became part of the Kingdom of Naples, which at the time was part of the Spanish Kingdom of Aragon and in 1734 came under the rule of the Bourbons. Finally Apulia joined the new, united Kingdom of Italy in 1860. All these different peoples, as can be expected, left their mark.
The staples of Pugliese cuisine are essential condiments and herbs (capers, basil, oregano and olive oil), hard and soft wheat pastas, typical Mediterranean vegetables and delicious local cheeses. The food is sensational, and almost all trattorias are excellent. Grilled vegetables and other exquisite regional specialities abound.