Castles and Cathedrals in Apulia. This is another land of ancient civilizations Part 2: From Otranto to Ortona

The itinerary is the return of the itinerary Castles and Cathedrals in Apulia.

OTRANTO (49 km. 30 3/4 mi.), on a knoll overlooking the sea, with a majestic Castle and a splendid Romanesque Cathedral, whose chief attraction is the mosaic floor of 1165. It had a bloody past of siege, rapine and sack: 12,000 of its inhabitants fell victims to the Turks of Mahomet II in 1480, Martano is 22 km. (13 1/2 mi.) from Otranto on State Highway SS 16 and another 19 km. (12 mi.) brings us to LECCE.

LECCE, famous for the flourishing of Baroque architecture which took place there, whose rich ornamentation was assisted by the warm yellow of the local stone, which is easy to carve. This wealth of rich, but refined architecture, caused Gregorovius to call it “the Florence of Apulia”. We can begin to see it from the stage-like Piazza Sant’Oronzo with the remains of the Roman Amphitheatre in the center, together with one of the terminal columns of the Appian Way, brought here from Brindisi. The Palazzo del Senile with Gothic arches and loggia, is very fine; next to it is the small church of San Marco, built by the Venetians in 1543. We pass on to the nearby Castle from which we reach the Public Gardens, before which is the sumptuous Baroque facade of Santa Croce, the purity of whose interior remids us of Brunelleschi, and the adjoining former Convent of the Celestines (1695) now the Palazzo del Governo with the important Castromediano Provincial Museum, a collection of archaeological exhibits (sculpture, fine Attic vases) and art, including two excellent Venetian altar-pieces.

Along Via Brindisi we arrive at the 15th century Oratory of San Francesco di Paola, by Baldassare Peruzzi, from which we proceed to Porta Napoli (1548) built in honour of Charles V; here we leave the city for the piazzale of the cementery on which faces the fine church of SS. Nicolo and Catalan, built in Romanesque style in 1180 and altered in Baroque style in 1716, but with a pleasant mingling of the styles; the 18th century portal and cloisters are particularly admirable.

Going back to Porta Napoli, we take the ring road to Santa Maria del Rosario, from which we take Via Libertini with the churches of Sant’Anna and Santa Teresa, both Baroque, so reaching the elegant and lively Piazza del Duomo, with the facade of the Cathedral (1670), of the Bishop’s Palace (1632) and the Seminary (1709) with three arches over the portal and a note-worthy courtyard. Close by is the Roman Theatre, from which one can reach the fine church of Sant’Irene in Corso Vittorio Emanuele: passing once more through Piazza Sant’Oronzo we reach the churches of Santa Chiara and San Matteo with distinguished Baroque sculpture. Leave Lecce in the late afternoon to go through Squinzano with a fine Romanesque basilica, Santa Maria di Cerrale m the neighbourhood (14th and 15th century frescoes), and arrive after 40 km. (25 mi.) of easy road at BRINDISI.

BRINDISI, an extremely important port in Roman times, which Caesar tried to block, during the war with Pompey, by driving in piles, the remains of which were found in 1778. The ancient city stands on a rise, jutting like a wedge into two arms the steps of the Salita alle Colonne to the Cathedral; only the apse remains of the Romanesque church in Which Frederick II married Yolanda of Jerusalem (1225); to rest is Baroque. From the Cathedral we reach the of the sea which enters by a narrow channel. Our visit begins and this point; follow Corso Garibaldi to the harbor and turn left, to find yourself immediately in the fine stepped piazza which marks the end of the old Appian Way. One of the columns, as we said, is now at Lecce, the other remains standing, overlooking the sea. Between the severe facades of ancient buildings we now go up little circular Romanesque church of San Giovanni al Sepolcro, the architectural gem of the city. Nearby is the former church of San Benedetto (1080) with a fine portal and interesting Cloister.

Supposing that sightseeing in Brindisi has taken part of the morning, we now leave past the Swabian Castle, running round the Seno di Ponente (Western Sound) to take Via Ciciriello and Via Brin to the church of Santa Maria del Casale, an attractive example of Gothic-Romanesque architecture with excellent Byzantine and 14th century frescoes. Going north for 20 km. (12 1/2 mi,) we reach San Vito dei Normanni, the Carovigno (fine 15th century Castle) and 34 km. (21 1/4 mi.) from Brindisi, OSTUNI, high on its hill with a superb Cathedral (Gothic) and a picturesque medieval quarter. Another 23 km. (14 mi.) brings us to FASANO, where we turn left for ALBEROBELLO.

Alberobello Apulia Puglia
Alberobello Apulia Puglia – Photo © www.travelviaitaly.com

ALBEROBELLO, both picturesque and interesting because it consists of about 1000 trulli, low buildings with nigh conical roofs. At Alberobello we might have lunch and then proceed to MONOPOLI (24 km. – 14 3/4 mi.) with its Romanesque church of Santa Maria Amalfitana, its Castle, built by Frederick II, and a Veronese Madonna in the Palazzo Comunale. Going back inland for 16 km. we arrive at the Grotte di Castellana discovered in 1938, the most impressive series of caves in Italy.

Another 10 km. (6 1/4 mi.) and we are at Conversano, with its mighty Norman-Swabian Castle. The Cathedral has a fine facade and there is the harmoniously planned Cloister of San Benedetto; yet another 10 km. (6 1/4 mi.) brings us to Rutigliano, with the church of Santa Maria alla Colonna, with a noteworthy portal. Nine kilometers (6 mi.) from Rutigliano is Adelfia on State Highway SS 100, on which we turn right, reaching after 15 km. (9 1/2 mi.).

BARI, a great modern city to look at, but founded in pre-Roman times. The ancient nucleus with a group of wonderful Romanesque churches survives almost intact, with its ramps, flights of steps and walls, in a small and compact medieval borough on the little peninsula. Here we find the Cathedral of Byzantine architecture (1034-1062), rebuilt in Apulian Romanesque style in 1292 and afterwards completely spoiled by Baroque alterations which have ruined the facade; its best parts are the side walls, the mighty apse and the noble dome.

The interior has been cleaned of the Baroque stucco-work which spoiled it and contains some fine Venetian canvases. Proceeding through the narrow and picturesque streets of the old town we come to San Nicola, the first and most important church to be built in Bari after the Norman conquest, and prototype of all the many fine Apulian cathedrals of the same period.

It was begun in 1087 and consecrated in 1197 (dedicated to San Nicola of Bari, who is none other than Santa Claus!); the Apulian Romanesque betrays a certain Byzantine influence; the facade is majestic and plain; the central porch is almost Lombard in appearance. In the interior there is a rich ciborium on the High Altar (12th century), and wonderful Bishop’s Throne (11th century) of Abbot Elia, a beatiful panel painting by Bartolomeo Vivarini, 1476), chapels, tombs. Near San Nicola is the small church of San Gregorio, also Romanesque, with a graceful facade containing three portals.  From here we go down towards the harbor, reaching Corso Trieste, which we follow to the majestic Castle, built by in the Palazzo della Provincia (on the Lungomare Nazario Sauro) is the Provincial Art Gallery, a fine collection of mainly Venetian paintings: works by Giovanni Bellini, Vivarim, Tintoretto, Veronese, Bordone, some paintings of the Ferrarese school and of 17th and 18th century Southern Italians.

At the far side of the modern city, near the railway station, is the Archaeological Museum (Piazza Umberto 1). Keeping Bari as our base, we shal devote the twelfth day of our journey to a fascinating trip through the architectural and historical glories of the nearby coast inland regions. Going west out of Bari for 14 km. (8 3/4 mi.) we come to BITETTO and 3 km. farther on to PALO DEL COLLE, little towns with beautiful churches; 5 km. (3 mi.) from Palo del Colle is BITONTO, with the most graceful of Apulian Cathedrals, intact in every part from the facade to the side walls, to the interior, to the crypt-one of the most complete pieces of Italian architecture. Thirteen kilometers (8 mi.) from Bitonto brings us to Terlizzi with the 13th century Oratory of the Rosary, another 4 km. (2 1/2 mi.) takes us to RUVO DI PUGLIA whose splendid Cathedral has a high soaring facade with a graceful double window and rose-window. 26 kilometers of straight road parallel to the sea and we are at ANDRIA one of the most active cities in Apulia, with the churches of San Francesco and San Domenico, both with fine portals; in the interior of the latter, a bust by Francesco Lantana (1442). From Andria we now reach the coast at BARLETTA.

BARLETTA (12 km. – 7 1/2 mi.), a city of pre-Roman origin and now an important commercial center, with noteworthy Roman monuments such as the Colossus, bronze statue of an emperor of the Eastern Empire; from the Middle Ages there is the Cathedral, Romanesque with Gothic interior (1267-1307) containing fine works of art; the church of San Sepolcro, church of Sant’Andrea (in the interior, a fine Madonna by Alvise Vivarini, 1483) and the Norman-Swabian Castle Returning to Bari along the coast we reach TRANI.

TRANI. after 14 km. (8 3/4 mi.) with its graceful Cathedral, rising by the sea, pink with a wonderful bronze door; and the church of Ognissanti (All Saints): Eight kilometers (5 mi.) from Trani comes DISCEGLIE with with the delightful church of Santa Margherita (1197) containing 13th century sculpture. Another 9 km. (5 3/4 mi.) from Bisceglic and are at MOLFETTA with the grandest of Apulian Cathedrals in the center of a picturesque ancient quarter; leaving Molfetta we arrive quickly at GIOVINAZZO (another Romanesque Cathedral similar in form to that of Molfetta) and return to Bari in the evening, after having made a complete tour of Aplian Romanesque architecture. Leaving Bari again on the 13th day of our journey, by the road leading to Rove, we reach CASTEL DEL MONTE.

Castel del Monte Photo © Enrico Albanesi
Castel del Monte – Photo © Enrico Albanesi

CASTEL DEL MONTE (55 km. – 34 1/2 mi. from Bari), the finest secular building in Apulia and one of the most superb castles of the Middle Ages, in the perfect balance of its circle of eight towers, built for Frederick II in 1240.

After spending a little time in this enchanting spot, we continue for another 40 km. (25 mi.) past MINERVINO MURGE, in an attractive position on a hill covered with olive trees, to CANOSA, with a Roman Bridge over the River Ofanto, and a Cathedral which has preserved much of its original Romanesque structure; in the interior a fine 11th century Pulpit and a Bishop’s Throne supported on two Elephants.

Continuing, we arrive at Cerignola after 16 km. (10 mi.) where we turn right, toward the sea, continuing along the coast road to Siponto, where the only remnant of the ancient city standing is the solitary church of Santa Maria, Romanesque of Pisan-Luccan forms (1117).

We are now only a few miles from MANFREDONIA in the Gargano, that rocky and mountainous peninsula covered with woods known as the ,spur of Italy.

At Manfredonia or in the nearby town of MONTE SANT’ANGELO, perched in a wonderful position at 843 m, (2745 ft.) we can spend the night before the 14th day to be used for discovering the GARGANO.

GARGANO and the towns of VIESTE and PESCHICI, all superb places with little white towns and villages overhanging the sea; or inland, the mighty Umbra Forest. On the fifteenth day, having completed our tour of the Gargano, we go down to SAN SEVERO, with fine ancient architecture, from which a journey of 59 km. (37 mi.) brings us to TERMOLI.

TERMOLI in the Molise with a picturesque old city, a splendid Romanesque Cathedral and a Castle built by Frederick II. From Termoli 42 km. (26 1/4 mi.) bring us to Vasto and thence back to ORTONA, where our journey began.

Recommended itineraries in Italy