Castles and Cathedrals in Apulia. This is another land of ancient civilizations

This is another land of ancient civilizations, the Messapic, which was native, and the Greek which came from overseas; these two civilizations were enemies until they were fused under Roman domination.

Some of their richest cities disappeared over the centuries, such as Sybaris and Metapontus, others such as Taranto, survived.

Taranto had as great a population in Roman times as today. Others came later, as the centuries passed. Brindisi came to mark the end of the great road to the East, the Appian Way.

Horace was born in the harsh mountainous country of Venosa and the other great Roman poet, Vergil died at Brindisi.

After the fall of the Empire came that long succession of conquests and warfare-Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Swabians, Angevins, Aragonese and Bourbons-a bloody and often dark history, relieved by the civilising presence of Venice, whose sea-routes to the East skirted the Apulian coats, jutting into the central Mediterranean. There was a brief flowering in the Swabian period, when this land dear to Frederick II, was covered with fine cathedrals and castles.

Castel del Monte, built by the Emperor for hunting and feasting, is still the finest example of a medieval castle in Italy; Frederick II died in the castle of Fiorentino; in the Lucera district rises the castle where his son Manfred left wife and son before the disastrous battle of Benevento. After the Swabian flowering came the long winter of blood and violence which attended the Angevin conquest, and then the long sleep of the Bourbon regime: few glories came the way of Apulia in those times, either political or artistic. Today Apulia attracts by castle and cathedral in other words, it is still the Apulia of Frederick II that appeals to the visitor.

The itinerary: Part 1 – From Ortona to Otranto

Our journey begins on the coast of the Abruzzi ad ORTONA A MARE with an Aragonese Castle and several ancient palaces. Running down the coast we come to Marina di San Vito (9 km. – 6 mi.) and shortly after, the turning for FOSSACESIA, with the Abbey of San Giovanni in Venere, one of the finest Romanesque churchs in the Abruzzi (1165) with frescoes of 1190, in a splendid position. Going back to the coast road we come to VASTO.

Vasto riserva naturale di Punta Aderci Photo © Lucfan
Vasto riserva naturale di Punta Aderci Photo © Lucfan

VASTO in a panoramic position between the hills and the sea; this was the Roman Histonium and has several fine churches, such as San Pietro with a Gothic porch, Santa Maria Maggiore, with fine Venetian paintings, the Cathedral, parts of which are 18th century; also Palazzo d’Avalos of the 16th century.

Leaving the coast road at the turning for Cupello (9 km. – 6 mi.), passing Furci and below Carunchio we take a long winding road through the woods to arrive at AGNONE, a fine town on two hills commanding the valley, with the church of Sant’Emidio of the 13th century. We continue to climb through beech woods to Pietrabbondante, on top of a hill amid great rocks (the name of the place means ,abundant stone) which give it a wild appearance.

One kilometer (3/4 mi.) farther on are the remains of the theatre of an ancient Samnite city destroyed by Sulla.

Once over the Sella (saddle) dt Sant’Andrea (957 m. – 3139 ft.) with fine panoramic views all round, we arrive at Pescolanciano in the valley of the River Trigno, then Carpinone with its fine medieval Castello Caldora, from which we descend rapidly to ISERNIA, a Samnite and Roman city, badly bombed in World War II, with the fine Cathedral Campanile, rising over a medieval gateway decorated with Roman statues; a fine Roman fountain (139 km. – 86 mi. from Vasto). Some 40 km. (26 mi.) of road through the wooded Biferno valley below the Matese range (2050 m. – 6576 ft.) takes us through Boiano another 26 km. (16 1/2) brings us to CAMPOBASSO.

CAMPOBASSO, whose old part rises on a hill commanded by the 15th century Castello Monforte (794 m. – 2504 ft.). On the way up to the Castle one passes the Romanesque churches of San Bartolomeo and San Giorgio. There is a good collection in the Samnite Museum in Via Vittorio Veneto, which we can pass on our way out of the town the following morming on the way to Gildone, Gambatesa and Moroi Montecorvino, a picturesque hilltop town, on the way to LUCERA.

LUCERA (91 km. – 62 mi. from Campobasso), dominating the Apulian plateau, was a favorite residence of Frederick 11, who died in a castle close by. In the superb Castle of his time, a pentagonal towered mass on the levelled top of a wooded hill, his faithful Saracens took refuge. So did Manfred after his defeat at the battle of Benevento. The Saracens rebelled against the Angevins in 1267 at the time of the hopeless campaign of Conradin of Swabia, and yet again in 1300; After a long siege, they were obliged by hunger and thirst to yield and then were massacred to the last man, together with the Ghibelline Christians who had taken refuge in this last stronghold of Imperial power in Italy, wich was then succumbing to Papal domination. The Gothic Cathedral was built by order of the Angevin kings on the ruins of the Saracen mosque (1302).

Eighteen kilometers (11 1/4 mi.) from Lucera is FOGGIA.

FOGGIA, a modern city at the center of the Tavoliere. It flourished under Frederick II whose residence it was. There is an interesting Archaeological Museum and the fine Baroque church Delle Croci. Leaving Foggia on the morning of the third day we run through a vast and desolate landscape to TROIA.

TROIA (13 km. – 8 mi.) whose Cathedral, of Pisan inspiration, has the finest Romanesque facade in Southern Italy, a fine pulpit and superb bronze doors by Odensio da Benevento (1127). From Troia we go to Ascoli Satriano commanded by a 16th century castle on a hill. Going through hills into the impressive mountain landscape of the Vulture, we pass beneath Candela on its hilltop to MELFI.

Melfi courtyard, bishop's palace - Photo © antmoose
Melfi courtyard, bishop’s palace – Photo © antmoose

MELFI, a Norman capital in the Middle Ages, with a majestic Castle, a 12th century Cathedral rebuit in the 18th century, and a fine Roman sarcophagus in the Municipio. Leave by the Gothic Parts Venosina on the Canosa road; after 9 km. (6 mi.) turn right for VENOSA, one of the most interesting towns in Lucania, birthplace of Horace, with many Roman ruins and, outside the town, the important Abbey of the Trinita, a Benedictine monasterv with two churches, one of which is unfinished; the place is must evocative, both in the entrance to the old church and in the ruined interiore of the new, with massive columns and great apses open to the sky.

From Venosa to Maschito (595 m. – 1894 ft.) and ForenZa, an ancient Apulian city (22 km. – 14 1/2 mi. Loin Venosa); from here 11.5 km. (7 1/4 mi.) brings us to ACERENZA in an impressive position on a tuff hill; fine Cathedral (12th century) with massive apses; in the Sacristy the only (portrait we have of Julian the Apostate. From here we soon reach POTENZA.

POTENZA, an ancient Picenian city, then Roman; it rose again after the barbarian invasion only to be devastated by the Angevins when it sided with Conradin of Swabia. There is a Romanesque church of the 11th-12th centuries, San Michele, the church of San Francesco with fine porch and Renaissance sculpture in interior, and an archaeological collection in the Provincial Museum in the “Santa Maria” district. At 18 kms (11 mi.), “La Sellata”, a resort and winter sport station. At 14 kms. (8 1/2 mi.), the resort of Rifreddo at 1250 m. (4000 ft.).

Leaving Potenza on the fourth day we climb a mountain road through a landscape of jagged crest and wide views to descend into the Bradano valley, rising again at once to IRSINA (65 km. – 40 3/4 mi.) with its Cathedral,rebuilt in the 18th century but which preserves the original Norman belltower, and the massive church of San Francesco with 14th century frescoes. We turn again towards Apulia and after 27 km. (17 mi.) we are at GRAVINA.

GRAVINA, overlooking a deep ravine, a city with a wealth of monuments: the Grotto-Church of San Michele dates from the earliest Christian period; it is carved from the living rock; the Cathedral (Renaissance of 1497) has part of its original Romanesque structure. One can still see the Romanesque cloister of San Sebastiano, the Renaissance facade of San Francesco near which is the small church of Santa Sofia with the tomb of Angela Castriota Orsini, a masterpiece of Apulian Renaissance sculpture. Twelve kilometers (7 1/2 mi.) of road bring us to ALTAMURA with its splendid Romanesque Cathedral, begun under Frederick II in 1232:the carvings of the portal are the finest of their kind in Apulia. Leaving Altamura, we enter Lucania once more and after 18 km. (11 1/4 mi.) we come to MATERA.

Matera - Photo © emilype
Matera – Photo © emilype

MATERA, an ancient city built on the edge and sides of a Gravina, or rocky precipice, whose caves have been inhabited since prehistoric times,

The city has many fine 18th century buildings, the stout Castello Tramontano on a height, and some fine churches. Beginning in the center, the Prefecture is in Piazza Vittorio Veneto; from here, along Corso Umberto I is the noteworthy Baroque church of San Francesco (interior: a Venetian Altar-piece by Vivarini); from here to Via Ridola to see the National Museum with a fine collection of archaeological exhibits and a Picture Gallery close by.

Going back to Piazza Vittorio Veneto, take the road beside the Prefecture, Via San Biagio, where you will at once find the small Romanesque Church of San Domenico and, immediately afterwards the fine church of San Giovanni Battista (1223); now continue along Via Cesarea to Sant’Agostino (1591) from which one gets a remarkable impression of the caves opening in the mountainside, the”Sassi”, as they have been called for centuries, which are now being evacuated.

Go down Via d’Addozio, passing the Sassi by the road which runs halfway down the cliff-side to the interesting church of San Pietro caveoso, from which, passing the church of Santa Maria in ldris, carved in the rock, with 11th century frescoes, one climbs up steps and under arches, through narrow streets and alleys towers the Romanesque Cathedral (1270).

On the afternoon of the fifth day, we go along a fine road with open landscapes, leaving on the left Mowescaglione (Benedictine abbey with 16th century cloister), to the Bradarn Valley and METAPONTO (44 km. – 27 1/2 mi. from Matera), an interesting archaeological and tourist zone and seaside resort which is at present being extensively excavated. This was one of the most illustrious cities of Magna Graecia, founded in 743 BC. There are majestic ruins of the Temple of Apollo Lykeios and the Temple of Ceres (or of Pythagoras) with fifteen fine Doric columns. Near the State Higway there is a recently constituted Antiquarium. There is a fine beach which may tempt one to a swin. The following morning we may follow the Ionian coast road for 51 km. 30 mi.) to arrive at TARANTO.

TARANTO. This was an important Spartan colony in the 8th century BC and then a Roman city. The ancient city lies on an island between the bay and the large inner harbour. Entering by the swing bridge, one notices at once the Aragonese Castle on the left: going straight towards the center of the island, where the ancient acropolis stood, we find the Cathedral (4th century, rebuilt in 11th century) of which only the dome and cam panile formed part of the original Romanesque building: inside, the ornate Chapel of San Catalan. Going on past the Cathedral we arrive at the church of San Domenico, with a hing Romanesque facade the finest in the city. After wandering for a time through its picturesque streets, we leave the ancient city for Corso Umberto I, in the new, and the magnificent National Museum, which has recently been expertly restored and rearranged and is one of the richest archaeological collections in Italy, with sculpture, terracotta, jewellery, mosaic, and pottery.

Leaving Taranto in the early afternoon, we go through San Giorgio Ionico (13 km. – 8 mi.) and MANDURIA, an ancient Messapian city, of which ruins of the walls remain: it has a Romanesque Cathedral and outside the town the Fountain of Pliny.

Continuing to Copertino (28 km. – 17 1/2 mi.) with a 16th century castle and NARDO with a GothicRomanesque Cathedral of austere lines, and the Baroque church of San Domenico, we arrive at Galatone (48 km. – 30 mi. from Manduria). Here take the road for GALLIPOLI.

GALLIPOLI (13 km. – 8 mi.), of pre-Roman origin, which sprang up on an island of limestone linked to the mainland by a bridge. Near here there is an ancient fountain with Greek relief in a framework of Baroque architecture.

The city is white, of almost oriental aspect; there is a strong medieval Castle as one enters. The Cathedral is Baroque; at the western end of the island, opposite the island of Campo, there is the 16th century church of San Francesco with Venetian frescoes in the interior. One might spend the night at Gallipoli, particularly in view of its nearby beaches. On leaving Gallipoli, we go round the easternmost heel of Italy, through Parabita and Maglie to OTRANTO.

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.

The itinerary returns back to Ortona with Part 2.
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Itinerary partly courtesy of ENIT