Puglia: Italy's Hidden Gem (Part I)
Puglia, in the south of Italy, is a land of mystery to those who identify Italy with Rome, Florence, Venice and other classic tourist destinations. In a sense, it's part of Puglia's rustic charm: it's not overcrowded, overpriced or overrated.
Nestled amidst sea coasts, golden plateaus and rocky ravines, overflowing with olive tree fields and azure skies, it's like an impressionistic painting: colorful, rich and sensual. Splashes of white, blue and green almost overwhelm the senses. Add to that magnificent grottoes, medieval castles, ancient cathedrals, and wineries boasting over 30 indigenous grapes!
But the most beautiful thing about Puglia is its culture of tolerance and hospitality....You can go anywhere in Italy - I dare you - and you will not find friendlier, more welcoming people.
Without further ado, I offer you 9 places not to miss in Puglia.
1. Unique Octagonal Castle del Monte
Castel del Monte, near Andria, was built in 1240 for Emperor Frederick II, one of the most eccentric and enlightened Roman rulers. Frederick II built around 200 castles in Southern Italy and Sicily, but Castel del Monte is by far his most astonishing creation.
Castel del Monte's most defining characteristic is its octagonal design, complete with eight sides, eight rooms on each floor, eight octagonal towers, as well as an octagonal courtyard. Some historians believe that the design, together with Frederick's interest in mysticism, point to the castle's special spiritual significance.
Numerologically speaking, number 8 symbolizes infinity. It could also mean the orientation towards the Holy Grail or the Pyramids, the Fibonacci numbers, musical intervals, the temple of Solomon, the queen of Sheba, the city of Jerusalem, or the union of divinity (represented by infinity) and humanity (represented by finiteness).
More extravagant theories even suggest that the castle was some sort of an ancient alien outpost, like the pyramids of Egypt are believed to be. Whichever explanation is true, Castel del Monte is one of the most fascinating structures in Italy and, possibly, in the world.
Directions: Castel del Monte is located on a hill 18 km from Andria, a small town in Puglia. It is easiest to reach by car, although public transportation options are also available. From the capital city of Puglia, Bari, there is a regional railway train to Andria called the Ferrovie Nord Barese (Bari-Barletta Line). From Andria you can take the urban bus 6 (runs only in summer months - from April 1 to October 31), it is a half an hour trip to Castel del Monte.
Information phone number: +39 0883 592283
First mentioned in 13 century AD, Trani was an important trading and political center of Medieval Europe, with the largest Jewish population in Southern Italy. Now it's a lovely seaport with marvelous harbor views and beautiful ancient churches.
The main place to visit is Cathedral di Trani: its Romanesque exterior, magnificent bronze doors and Byzantine mosaics will delight those who are longing for the old world splendor.
The best thing about Trani: it's the most stress-free travel sight possible. Picturesque and historical, it is as low-key as it gets. Simply strolling down the city's streets and enjoying the views of the cathedrals, castles and ships will make you fall in love with this enchanting town.
Address and Directions to Cathedral di Trani: Piazza Duomo - 70059, Trani. It is a short train ride away from Bari, the capital of Puglia: take the mainline train FS (Ferrovie dello Stato).
Information phone number: +39 0883480557
3. Fasano ZooSafari
If you love animals, there is no better place to visit than Fasano ZooSafari.
Established in 1972, it is home to some hundred different animal and bird species from all over the world, like tigers, camels, lions, giraffes, bears, elephants, zebras etc. Many of those animals are now endangered species.
I don't need to remind you of the horrors of the regular zoos - cramped spaces, dirt, apathetic depressed animals... Fasano ZooSafari is a different experience: only accessible by car for the safari part (there is also the amusement park “Fasanolandia”), it's a unique sanctuary for all types of animals, including those trapped in their mechanical mobility devices for safety, cautiously taking pictures through the glass windows.You can get as close as few feet to a real lion and even pet a giraffe, but watch out for camels: they spit.
Address: Via dello Zoo Safari, 72015, Fasano, Brindisi, Puglia.
Information phone number: +39 080-4414455
4. Ruvo di Puglia
Another example of Romanesque style in Puglia, Ruvo is a rural paradise of olive groves and vineyards.
Dating back to the 9th century BC, the ancient Greek town Rubi was a famous pottery center of the region. It has seen Romans, Byzantines, Goths, Saracens, Swabians, Normans, the Spanish, the French, the Templar Knights on their way to the Holy Land - and still survived.
The sights include a beautiful 13th century Romanesque cathedral (Cathedral di Ruvo), the Annunziata Church, the Castle and Fondo Marasco, the Jatta Museum containing exponats from the Hellenistic era...
And if you happen to be in Ruvo during Christmas, the town stages a full-blown traditional reenactment of the birth of Christ ("Presidio").
5. Grotte di Castellana
Forty kilometers from the capital city of Puglia - Bari, Grotte di Castellana is an enormous constellation of underground caves. It's nothing short of a natural wonder.
The massive stalagmites, pure white speleothems, stalactites, calcite crystals and helictites inside the grotto took more than a thousand years to form, stretch over 3 kilometers and cover most of the ground, the walls and the ceiling.
The tour will take you on a 2-hour trip into the magical underground built by a thoughtful and whimsical architect - time. A word of advice: as you go deeper into the grotto, it gets colder and more humid, so if you want to avoid freezing and repeatedly slipping and falling (possibly into the Middle Earth), I strongly suggest you bring an extra sweater and wear comfortable non-slippery shoes.
Directions: Grotte di Castellana is located near the small town Castellana. From Bari, take a train Ferrovie Sud-Est to Grottoes in Castellana.
Information phone number: +39 0804998221