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Tuesday, 30 June 2020

Slow-Travel Road Trip in Italy: Puglia and Basilicata - Page 6

Written by Russ & Emily Firlik
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It was a warm September morning as we trotted off for our latte macchiatos. Italian macchiato is not the Starbucks type - served in a tall glass, but with a shot of espresso with warm milk and no foam. After some time happily lost, we find Chiesa di San Giovanni al Sepolcro, a 11th century Norman stone structure in a circula plan. It was austere and bare, just what you would expect for the architecture period of the Middle Ages - loving it! Highlights: the original vestigial medieval frescoes on the walls, and the crypt below showing the original Roman Temple in which this church was built, some 2,300 years ago. We learned that the construction of the circular or octagonal round building was a stylistic model of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem; there are few examples of such a model in existence. There was a ton of ancient history and engineering feats within this structure. For example, the perimeter walls are formed by large blocks of tufa (limestone), the main portal on two columns supported by lions, intricate stone carved capitals, and within the space, eight columns of marble and granite with frescos dating back to the 1200’s. This unbelievable find was not on our original plans, however, by diversions such as this is, it's the joy of uncovering the unplanned.

Find number two: The church of San Benedetto, been in existence since before the tenth century (Romanesque), with continuous restorations over the centuries. The interior was rather dull, as expected, but the cloister was the major feature for us. The cloister was very important for the monks and nuns as it was meant to be a place of meditation, worship, reflections and peace. The ubiquitous fountain, a supplier of water for drinking and hand washing, made for a perfect example of the 11th century cloister. What a long moment to pause and reflect and be grateful.

The following day, we spent our day at the Piazza Duomo, the Duomo and the National Archaeological Museum. The original 11th century Duomo (little of the Norman building exists) was rebuilt in the 1700’s after the devastating earthquake. The church occupies one side of the piazza, which is an imposing square surrounded by Baroque - 16-17th century buildings. The interior of the Duomo was plain, quiet and a peaceful ambience. In addition, the coolness of the old stone was a welcome relief from the very warm day outside. Adjacent to the Duomo was located the Ribeira Archaeological Museum, where we find artifacts dating from prehistoric to pre- Roman to late Roman times. Amazing - for example, 8,000 BCE tools and vessels, more Greek and Hellenistic period ceramics, the exhibition of the Roman period ranging from the 2nd century BCE to the fourth century AC. Noteworthy was the Greek Gnathia pottery - with the white, yellow -on - black, painted backgrounds dating from 300 BCE. Some of the writings of the funeral markers had dates from the second BCE. Simply an amazing record of eight thousand years of history and culture making in one large state run museum. Fascinating, to find out that all of the artifacts were found within the Brindisi region.

As we meandered around the large historic center and surrounding residential areas, we did see more abandoned villas and apartment buildings than we saw in Rome. Our landlord explained to us that it is because it is too expensive to renovate, so they leave them to decay. These areas were off the tourist trails, and sometimes a bit dodgy at best: Merely observations, no judgements here.

We were very fortunate to have been able to experience and thoroughly enjoy this city. We would recommend, as in all the places we explored, to slow travel in Brindisi.

Our next two day base, Polignano a Mare, is about two hours driving north of Brindisi. Polignano is built on the edge of a ravine pockmarked with caves. It was thought to be one of the most important ancient settlements in Puglia. Ancient Greeks to the evidence of the Roman Empire, which includes a bridge that still survives today. Besides being a seaside town, the town focuses on tourism, agriculture and fishing. When traversing the winding alleyways the deep blue view of the sea is always present. I had to find the statue of Polignano’s pride and joy – Domenico Modugno, the Italian singer, actor and once a member the Italian Parliament. His mega hit song, “Nel Blu dipinto di blu,” or Volare just happens to be one of my all time favorite songs. His statue overlooks the sea.

Coming to the end of this long road trip requires some down time, and this was the magical atmosphere for such a recoup.

It seems the hardest part of this road trip was leaving the respective towns/cities we enjoyed, but were refreshed once again as we moved to another of Puglia’s beautiful towns. We move eastward to the lively sea town of Monopoli, on the Adriatic Sea. Like most every town we visited on the Adriatic, Monopoli’s history has been influenced by its east- facing position and its fortified sea-front walls, with castle (1550). The tall bell tower of the cathedral dominates the town below. We located three 14th century churches, that are still used every day by the residents. If you need sandy beaches, a few museums, a long gorgeous walking promenade, to wander in and out of narrow alleys, then this is the town for you, and for us. Surprisingly, the old town was very busy, day-trippers from neighboring towns and slow traveling seniors like us. However, no tacky touristy shops, no cars, just plain paradise by the sea.

We have only three more days in Puglia. Leaving early for a forty minute drive up the coast to the large city of Bari (pop. 327,000), observing along the way, the many vineyards but no olive groves. Bari is a city located on the south eastern coast of Italy facing the Adriatic Sea and opposite Dubrovnik, and is the second largest economic center of the southern region of Italy. After dropping off the car at Bari Airport, we go directly to our hotel in Bari Vecchia, which is located near the harbor, on a narrow stone street, with iron balconies, colorful shuttered windows, and two women making the traditional orecchiette (ear-shaped pasta) by hand. What a Country!

The old town (Bari Vecchia) provides a fantastic display of historical architecture, important buildings, while the modern town has some fine museums and shopping streets. The combination of old and new is ever apparent in this wonderful coastal city. Bari could be described as a city of contrasts or contradictions; I prefer contrasts. We were in Bari for two days and we did not overload our exploration nor expectations. We focused on 3 or 4 of the most interesting sights for us.

Highlights:

(1). Basilica of San Nicola (1197) - Bari’s signature basilica was one of the first Norman churches to be built in southern Italy, and is a splendid example of Pugliese-Romanesque (square and solid) architecture. Although it has been remodeled several times over the centuries, it retains a simple exterior, with two slender towers reaching up to the sky. The interior is resplendent with a gilded wooden ceiling, that overlooks 17th century paintings by Carlo Rosa. Additional attractions are the medieval capitals, mosaics, a silver altar and the golden inlays from the 17th century. If you take the staircase down to the crypt you will find the tomb of San Nicola (Saint Nicholas), and the entrance to a Russian Orthodox Chapel. Today it is an important place of pilgrimage for both Catholics and Orthodox Christians;

(2). Piazza Mercantile is probably the most important square of Bari, and has been the ancient city square, and used as the commercial center for merchants since the 14th century. In the old square, we find the Palazzo del Sedile (1543), the first clock tower in the south of Italy (16th century), the Palazzo della Dogana, built in the 16th century, and the baroque fountain Fontana della Pigna. The square setting brings to focus a different time and place. It resembles something like a typical Mediterranean coastal resort, with multicolored shutters, washing hangs out on small iron balconies and plants and shrubs line the rooftops. We found a place to sit under one of the shaded canopies, enjoyed a coffee and admired the baroque decorative fountains;

(3). Pinacoteca Metropolitana di Bari combines six galleries into a modern museum. The galleries hosts a wide variety of art works ranging from the 11th century right up to the first half of the 20th century. The exhibitions provided a selection of informative art including paintings from medieval times, and famous Italian artists, e.g., P. Veronese, G. Bellini and Tintoretto. A wonderful portrayal of Renaissance artists;

(4). All of these attractions are within walking distance inside the old town. Our last adventure was the Cattedrale di San Sabino. The façade has three baroque portals dating back to the 11th century. Walking down to the crypt are the ancient relics of Saint Sabinus and the foundations of an older church originally built on this site, some 2000 years ago. Stop - and consider what we are looking at! This Bari gem holds 2000 years of preserved history including the roman road and stunning mosaics;

Extra sights:
(I). Lungomare Nazario Sauro is a stunning coastal promenade that stretches .6 miles;
(II). Castello Svevo, their castle since 1132. Incidentally, another fine example of Italy’s use of medieval castles as it is being converted into a museum for exhibitions.

After 57 days, 4,300 km of driving, and 26 villages/towns visited we end our slow travel road trip. The people of Basilicata and Puglia were extremely friendly, kind and helpful in our quest to explore their village/town/city treasures. We didn’t just have the experiences, hopefully found fruitful meanings from those experiences.

What would we do differently? Spend more time in Martin Franca, Castro, Nardo, Monopoli and Bari.

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Final reflections:
Matera - for sheer mystery
Leece - for architectural delights
Martina Franca - for liveability & culture
Nardo - for a perfect idyllic movie set for lunch & coffee
Castro - for seaside views
Monopoli. - for sheer peacefulness

(c)Russ & Emily Firlik - Slow-traveling seniors

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Notes:


The range of styles investigated for our road trip included: Byzantine (324 - 1453), which grew into Romanesque (800 - 1200), Gothic (1100 -1450), Renaissance (1400 -1600) and Baroque (1600 -1830). These structures are a marvel of structure and form: their domes, stained-glass windows, facades and architectural expertise. The sense of geometric harmony is evident by the aesthetic principles of ideal proportion, and ratios, which results in their everlasting beauty. It appears that the integration of technology, geometry, and engineering informs their beauty and function; a perfect union of science, and of art. I believe it was Georg W. F. Hegel who stated explicitly when asked to define beauty - “The perfect harmony of form and function is Beauty.”

Other emotions promoted by these enthralling places of worship and devotion were the outburst to the senses:

The smells of the wood, stones, stucco (mold - mildew), and burning candles;

The sounds of the bells tolling like the rhythms of a waltz, and the relationship between music (the architectural acoustics), and light (visual information), that was so common in Puglia’s Baroque churches;

The touching of the intricate misericords under the folding seats, the “poppy-heads,” those intricate wood carvings at the end of the pews, the silky smoothness of the marble and brasses that have been rubbed over centuries, the chiseled stone carvings around the flutes of the capitals, and the sometimes dramatic sepulchral memorials - those reclining tomb effigies representing the past, present and future;

Light is a major interior factor as it projects images, especially through the stained glass. The sights of those exceptional devotional frescoes painted by many Renaissance artists. The overwhelming visceral punch, and sensuous influences of these beautiful and dramatic Romanesque (800 - 1200), Gothic (1100 -1450), Renaissance (1400 -1600) and Baroque (1600 -1830) structures makes one hopeful in humankind’s continual striving for knowledge, curiosity, and sensibilities.

 

(Page 6 of 6)
Last modified on Wednesday, 01 July 2020

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