Today I let my friend Ameriga Vozza, tour consultant and owner of a local incoming Tour Operator called Idea Tours, take you to southern Italy, to her native region called Apulia, to discover some hidden gems, far from the most beaten routes that made this extra ordinary Italian region world famous as well as a favorite destination by several Hollywood stars. Simply: Apulia.
Apulia, the heel of Italy touched by two seas, is becoming increasingly popular among travelers, for the combination of weather, nature, sea, history, art, and – of course – food and wine. Many foreign dominations have left their traces here through the centuries, from the Greek to the Byzantine, to the Spanish and the French; these traces are still alive in the local culture, in the peculiar architectural styles, in the Apulian dialects, and also in the culinary traditions.
We shall not describe here the many important monuments, also UNESCO sites like Castel del Monte and Alberobello, that you will find in any introduction to the region, but we’ll try to arouse your curiosity with 5 tips based on our personal experience.
1) Bari, Via dell’Arco Basso
The old part of Bari, the main Apulian city, is possibly the most charming part of town together with the long seafront promenade. In the old city, after visiting the Romanesque Cathedral, you will be delighted by a walk in the tiny street called Via dell’Arco Basso, which is famous for the ladies who sit before their doors making orecchiette, the very popular Apulian pasta. If you have a chance to cook some pasta yourself, you can buy a bag of freshly made orecchiette and enjoy a real Apulian taste.
2) Santa Caterina d’Alessandria in Galatina (Lecce)
Among so many ancient churches worth a visit, surely the Basilica of Santa Caterina d’Alessandria in Galatina is a special one. It is also known as the Assisi del Salento for its striking cycle of frescoes in the style of Giotto. The church was built at the end of the XIV century, but it was in the XV century that Maria d’Enghien, wife to Count Raimondello Orsini del Balzo, entrusted a group of painters from Naples with the task of decorating the church with an amazing series of frescoes, which cover a total area of 2,500 m2 and represent sacred scenes divided into chapters. This is a real hidden jewel, where you can end your visit in meditation in the quiet cloister.
3) MArTa Museum in Taranto
Taranto was one of the most prominent ancient Greek colonies, that’s why it hosts an outstanding archaeological museum called MArTa (Museo Archeologico di Taranto). The oldest artefacts displayed here date from the 5th millennium B.C., and moving among the different floors of the museum, the visitor is guided through the history of Taranto, until the Middle Ages. Among the many priceless crafts, the so called “Golden Treasure of Taranto” (Ori di Taranto) is surely a most admired collection of gold artwork from the Hellenic era, including sophisticated jewels like rings, bracelets, necklaces and tiaras.
4) Ceramics in Grottaglie
Grottaglie is the Apulian ceramics capital, especially the lower part of town, which gathers around the Episcopio Castle and its Ceramics Museum. The Ceramics District has the typical shape of the old Apulian villages, with whitewashed winding little streets overlooked by flowery balconies and terraces, in this case with the additional colors given by the ceramics artifacts displayed outside the many workshops, some of which are carved in the rock and still use ancient furnaces. The distinctive symbol of traditional Grottaglie ceramics is a colorful rooster, but many local artists design original pieces of art that will finely decorate any home. Anyway, if you want to bring home a nice keepsake, you will find all kind of objects to suit all budgets.
5) “Fornelli” in Valle d’Itria
An Apulian tour will unavoidably lead you to the Itria Valley (Valle d’Itria), famous for the dry stone houses with a conical roof called trulli. At the end of the day, our suggestion is to stop in one of the so called fornelli for a special dinner. A fornello is a butcher’s shop with an adjoining restaurant, where customers can choose the raw meat that will be barbecued on the spot. The real queen of this very Apulian street food is the bombetta, a rolled slice of pork or veal meat stuffed with ham and cheese and grilled on a skewer. In a real fornello you will not find a complete menu, but only meat, and maybe some raw vegetables (pinzimonio) to dip in the excellent Apulian olive oil to “wash your mouth” after the grilled meat.