Apulia, the heel of the “boot"
Once only known by Italian tourists, a big tourism campaign has revealed the beauty of Puglia to the eyes of the world. Many non-Italian people now visit this beautiful region which is starting to open up to worldwide tourism.
Unfortunately it is not without trouble. Mass tourism starts to be a problem. Alberobello is awfully crowdy in summer. Polignano a Mare officials have decided to fence the old town and establish a paid entry during peak periods and locals do not feel their city is theirs anymore.
Try to avoid participating to this circus and the "disneylandisation" of those lovely places. It is not fun anyway to visit them with over crowded narrow streets. The best time to visit Puglia is definitly during the interseasons and the week.
Apulia (Puglia in British, Pouilles en français) was part of Magna Graecia which was the name given by the Romans to the coastal areas of Southern Italy that were extensively populated by Greek settlers from the 8th century BC to the 7th. To escape overpopulation and famines, colonies were founded all over the Mediterranean Sea.
Although there was never any Greek colonisation of Italy per se, their Hellenistic civilization left a lasting imprint on the country.
Bari, last home of Saint Nicholas
Like other Apulian citie, Bari was controlled by the Greeks, the Romans. It was also conquered and ruled by the Goths and Lombards as well as the Byzantines. It is under the rule of the Normans that it became capital city of Apulia. Because of its position, it was a strategic port for cruisaders.
During the Middle Ages, the city was ruled by lords such as Hohenstaufens and the Sforzas of Milan. It was also a major slave centre as it was providing a central location for the trade in Slavic slaves mostly captured by Venice.
During WWII, Bari was the only European city to experience chemical warfare. One of the allied ships sunk by Germans on the night of December 2, 1943 was transporting mustard gas. As US authorities had not informed the British military authorities in the city of its existence, physicians could not prescribed the right treatment and rescuers, unaware they were dealing with gas casualties, were intoxicated as well and died. Luckily, a US doctor found out it was mustard gas and proper treatment could be given. The whole affair was kept secret for many years after the war.
Bari was hit again in 9 April 1945 when the Liberty ship Charles Henderson exploded in the harbour while offloading 2000 tons of aerial bombs.
There is absolutely no certainty about the history of Saint Nicholas. He is supposed to be born in the second part of the 3rd century AD in Patara (Asia Minor). His family was a wealthy family of Greek merchants.
After his parents died, Nicholas is said to have distributed their wealth to the poor. He also supposedly made a few miracles.
He became bishop of Myra.
He might have been entombed in a rock-cut church located on the small Turkish island of Gemile, near his birthplace.
Because Gemile was vulnerable to attack by Arab fleets, the remains were moved from the island to the safer city of Myra.
When Myra was overtaken by the Turks, some Christians were concerned that access to the tomb might become difficult. A group of sailors from Bari seized the biggest parts of the remains and fleed to Bari where they arrived on the 9 May 1087.
The Basilica di San Nicola was inaugurated 2 years later by Pope Urban II who personally placed Nicholas's relics into the tomb beneath the altar of the new church.
The rest of the remains left in Myra were soon dispersed all over Europe. Venice has some parts in San Niccolò di Lido.
Today, many churches in Europe, Russia, and the United States claim to possess small relics, such as a tooth or a finger bone.
Bones have been examined by experts. After thorough examination, it appears that only the pelvis could be dated from the same period as the saint.
If for Eastern Orthodox Christians and Turks, it was a plain robbery, for the people of Bari it was a rescue mission. This said, Orthodox Christians do go on pilgrimage to the Basilica and it is quite nice to see the 2 faiths praying together, even when you are not a believer.
Turks, on the other hand, ask for the remains to go back to their original burial.
Anyway, whatever the reality of this is, Saint Nicholas is celebrated twice in Bari : 9 of May and, like everywhere else, 6 of December.
Saint Nicholas is a major saint in the orthodox world, the Netherlands and ex colonies, the USA (Santa Claus). It is also celebrated to a lesser extent in Luxemburg, North of France and Belgium. In UK, Father Christmas celebration was moved to the 25th of December to coincide with Christmas Day.
And yes, Saint Nicholas, Santa Claus and Father Christmas are the same white-bearded old guy in red clothes.
Translation of the Relics of Saint Nicholas from Myra to Bari
Back to Bari. In May, the celebration last 3 days, from 7 to 9 May. All monuments are illuminated.
The festivities begin on the morning of May 7th. Priests go on a boat with an icon-type painting of St. Nicholas and spend the day at sea. When they return, a procession of people in 11th century costumes follows it from the port of San Giorgio to the Basilica di San Nicola, reenacting the entire story of the saint.
The next morning, on the 8th, a 2 hours outdoor Eucharist is celebrated by the Archbishop of Bari. The statue of St. Nicholas is brought in procession and put in place next to the altar for the service.
After the mass, the statue embarks on a day-long sea voyage accompanied by a festive escort of boats. The statue returns in the evening. Another procession brings the statue back to the church.
The last day is somehow the most important. In the evening of May 9th, there is a mass again celebrated by the Archbishop of Bari and gathering together Orthodox and catholics. Clergy then goes to the crypt where the rector crawls into an opening at the front of the tomb and gathers the manna, pure water which is supposed to come from the relics.
Fireworks end the evening.
Saint Nicholas' day
On the 6th of December, the statue is taken in procession throughout the old town, many masses are celebrated and a musical show and fireworks are held at night. Saint Nicholas and Christmas lights are intermixed.
The large pilgrimage church was begun in 1087 and completed in 1197. It is one of the finest achievements of Romanesque architecture in Apulia.
There is a museum about Saint Nicholas nearby.
Bari is a wealthy city. You can feel it when walking around this quartiere (district). It is full of fashion shops, trendy cafés and also beautiful Liberty architecture (Art Nouveau).
Because of the way it has reboosted its economy, Bari is often compared to California by economists.
You will get lost but it is a nice way to explore this place full of shrines, churches, with a feel of Arab souqs.
In Piazza Mercantile there is a column with a lion at its foot. During Middle Ages, petty criminals and debtors were tied to the Colonna della Giustizia for public shaming.
Originally a Byzantine-Romanesque building, reconstructed by Frederick II in 1233 in Norman-Swabian style, it was converted into a palace by Bona Sforza in the 16th century.
It was later used as a prison and signal station. Two towers of the Norman structure are still there. It now houses a museum.
Alberobello, "trulli" beautiful
To avoid contributing to mass tourism, try to visit Alberobello off season i.e. not between June and September.
A UNESCO World heritage Site, the Trulli of Alberobello constitute an oustanding example of vernacular architecture in dry-stone, a technique which has a history of many thousands of years in the Mediterranean region.
The same kind of architecture can be found all other the Mediterranean area. However, what makes the Apulian trulli so unique is that they have subsisted through the ages and evolve without losing their original shape while incorporating new elements.
A trullo is built in drystone architecture and roofed by one or several corbelled domes. The domes are constructed out of concentric rows of hewn stone blocks, culminating in a final stone. It is actually quite stable.
The hand-worked sandstone pinnacle is supposed to be the signature of the stonemason who built the trullo.
It seems that the apparition of trulli in Puglia was linked to 2 factors:
Under Naples' rule, it was forbidden to build towns and villages without the approval of the King. When GianGirolamo Acquaviva d’Aragona, a local landlord, attracted farmers to work on his land, he ordered that the houses could easily be dismantled overnight in case of a royal inspection. In some versions of the story, it is said it was to escape taxes. The problem is that there is only mention of this in Alberobello. This does not explain why there are trulli all other Salerno and Murgia regions as well.
Fact is, because of the lack of material to make mortar, people had no other choice than to build their homes dry laid.
When transportation started to improve in the 18th century, the typical plaster and white wash started to be applied to the exterior of the cones. This kept out wind and dampness and provided an antiseptic to keep the cone disease free. Finally, it was decorative, allowing homes to be personalised.
If there are no archaeological or historical records that prove the existence of trulli in Apulia before the 17th century, it is most probably because the material was reused through time to make new trulli complexes.
The first trulli were probably granaries. Complexes seem to have been built only from the 18th century. The golden age of trulli was in the 19th century. They started to be abandoned circa 1950. Nowadays not many people live in trulli by choice.
Much more research is actually needed on this subject.
Rione Monti and Rione Aia Piccola
There are 2 monumental areas to be visited.
The most touristy is Rione Monti. Trulli here are mainly used as bars, restaurants, souvenirs shops or small museums. Not many people live here. Souvenirs shops lack imagination (they all sell the same thing) and their staff look like prostitutes waiting for their clients. They are all outside their shops trying to get you inside.
Anyway, the area is still nice, although a bit too sanitized, to wander in once you go away from the main streets.
Some parts really are arranged for tourists.
Although the painted signs in this rione are a quite recent addition to the buildings, they have a very old origin and are supposed to represent protective symbols against the devil.
There are 2 very special buildings in Rio Monte.
It is the only trullo with 2 roofs. According to the story, it was built in order to separate 2 brothers angry at each other.
Rione Aia Piccola
This district is more authentic. People live here.
It is also where you will find 2 very interesting museums. Beware that museums are closed from 12-13h up to 15h-15h30.
Museo del Territorio, ex Casa Pezzolla
A concentration of adjacent and connecting trulli forms a museum presenting regional history, culture and architecture.
It is the only trullo to have a raised floor and one of the first to be built with mortar. It is a unique transitional building well worth a visit.
The current left-wing forms its nucleus and can be traced back to the beginning of 1600, while the reminder was built in the first half of 1700 on behalf of the wealthy family of the priest Cataldo Perta (1744-1809).
Over time, the building has had various uses: courtyard, chapel, pharmacy, monastery, country oratory, home. It is now a museum.
All the furniture exhibited is authentic.
There are two interesting belvederes offering a good view of the UNESCO monumental area: Santa Lucia and Villa Comunale.
A stroll around the modern town is also interesting.
There are trulli everywhere.
Polignano a Mare, pearl of the Adriatic
To avoid contributing to mass tourism, try to visit Alberobello off season i.e. not between June and September and during the week instead of weekends around Christmas. In December 2018, authorities decided to install turnstiles and an entrance fee for visitors.
The origins of Polignano a Mare date back to the 4th century BC when Greek settlers founded the city of Neapolis. It flourished under the Romans. It was inhabited by a wide range of invaders, from the Huns to the Normans.
Because of the karst nature of the cliff there is a number of caves on the sea that were inhabited during prehistoric times.
Polignano is a tiny old town reached through the Porta Vecchia gate. It has white-washed streets with beautiful old churches. There are three panoramic terraces offering breathtaking views of the beautiful Adriatic Sea and coastline.
I managed to take pictures without many people in it but it was really crowdy.
Christmas (natale in Italian) is a serious business in Polignano a Mare. There is a light festival which attracts thousands of visitors, especially during the weekends. It is recommanded to go during the week instead of Saturday and Sunday when the city centre is awfully packed with people.
In the area called Vicolo della Poesia, walls, doors, stairs... are covered with picturesque graffiti. Please, do not stop in the middle of the way when taking selfies. The streets are really narrow and easily packed. Also, keep in mind that stairs are private properties.
On the other side of Roman bridge, once part of the Viaia Trajana, there is a statue of Polignano a Mare’s most famous citizen: Domenico Modugno, known for his song ‘Nel blu dipinto di blu’ (Volare).
Under the bridge, there is a small beach and caves.
Monopoli, a Greek feeling
"Monopoli" comes from the Greek words "monos" and "polis". It means "the only town."
Occupied by Greeks, Romans, Lombards, Byzantines, Normans, Angevins, Venetians, Spanish and even property of a merchant from Messina, Monopoli gained its freedom by gathering money from all its inhabitants and buying itself out.
It kept a bit of each occupation inside its walls.
Whilst the historical centre is obviously the part to see, the modern town has some beautiful buildings, making the walk from and to the train station quite nice. Do not miss S. Antonio and its very peculiar facade.
Monopoli offers great views of the Adriatic, some beautiful buildings, a lovely harbour and imposing fortifications.
Because streets are not that narrow, it is a pleasure to wander around.
Some corners of the old town make you feel like you are in Greece.
The little harbour is inside the fortifications. There are many cute little blue boats. One of the main surrounding buildings is the Palazzo Martinelli. This Venetian Palace was built on top of the walls of the town. One of the old gates is still there
The castle was first a fortress (12th c.) then a residence-castle (17th c.) and finally a prison (19th c.), before being abandoned in the second half of the 20th century. It has been restored and open to the public.
Some of the towers are still present.
The cathedral is dedicated to Madonna della Madia, the Saint protector of Monopoli. The icon of Madonna della Madia is said to have landed miraculously in the seaport at sunrise, the 16th of December 117.
Chiesa del Purgatorio
The Church of St. Maria del Suffragio has a beautiful wooden door. The Triumph of Death is carved on it.
Inside there are embalmed remains of eight founding members of the church and local administrators as well as the mummy of a child.
In the church itself, there are many representations of Death.
Santa Teresa a Monopoli
Cripta rupestre Madonna del Soccorso
Recently renovated, this rupestrian church is really nice. There is a chatty keeper explaining (in Italian - not many people speak English in South Italy) the whole history of the place for a small donation.
Fun fact: the monastery now houses the police station.
During Christmas times, many churches otherwise not open are presenting little cribs exhibits. It is a great opportunity to visit them. It is also a way to see how much some of them need urgent restoration works. S. Salvatore is one of them. Hidden behind heavy curtains, its chapels are in really bad shape.
Like everywhere in Italy, there are churches at almost every corner. And they come in all sizes.
Locorotondo, one of the prettiest villages in Italy
Locorotondo is a lovely little town mixing immaculate white walls and Barocco lecce ornamentation.
Known for its wines and for its circular structure, Locorotondo exists at least since 1195 when the first document attesting to the presence of a village with this name dates back.
This said, the area was inhabited way before that.
The etymology of the name results from the union of two Latin words "locus" (place) and "rotundus" (round). It means "place with a circular shape."
It is surrounded by olive trees, crops and trulli.
Inhabitants take good care of their old town and it is a pleasure to wander in its narrow streets, especially during Christmas times.
It was given the title 'Borghi più belli d'Italia' (one of the most beautiful villages in Italy).
Putignano, the City of Olives
Very similar to Locorotondo, Putignano is less immaculate. Still, it is a pleasant walk through time.