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Tuesday, 30 June 2020

Slow-Travel Road Trip in Italy: Puglia and Basilicata

Written by Russ & Emily Firlik
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We were excited to explore two of the three southern Italian boot regions: Basticata (Instep) and Pulia (Heel). The other boot region is Calabria (the toe). ‘The North of Italy may have the Euros, but the South has the Soul.”

Slow-traveling fosters careful planning and promotes boundful energies. However, once one is actually on the road these factors proved to be essential: An informed and calm navigator; a regional paper map (we used the Michelin Tourist & Motoring Atlas 2019); careful attention to the driving laws and being aware of the residents driving nuances, and finally, hitting the “Avoid highways” option on Google Maps makes for additional enjoyment and discoveries.

As slow-traveling seniors, we are inspired by art, informed by culture and motivated by curiosity. Although everything on our agenda had been pre-planned, one of the marvels of slow travel is discovering what has not been planned: Slow travel and Italy are endless surprises! As American travel writer extraordinaire, Paul Edward Theroux, reminds us, “As far as reading about the history of a certain place or novels, I leave that until afterwards. I don’t want to research a place intensely, I want to discover it.”

Our extensive research, carefully planned agenda, and endless reservations in Basilicata and Puliga looked like this: 10 days in Basilicata and 47 days in Pulia. Our road trip took us from Matera in Basilicata, across over to Puglia region of Italy, to the east and west coasts of the Adriatic and Ionian Seas, and around the heel of Italy and returned to Bari. We stayed in hotels, apartments, B&B’s, and agriturismi.

Our road trip started with a 1.5 hr drive south from Bari to Matera (pop. 60,000) in the region of Basilicata (which is bordered by two short coastlines on the Ionian and Tyrrhenian Seas). The population of the region is 580,000.

Matera was all spruced up for its year as the European Capital of Culture in 2019. Fodor’s states that Matera is "one of the most unique landscapes in Europe". It was named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1993. Along with the many Baroque churches, twelfth century cathedrals, Tramontano Castle and many grottoes carved out of limestone, it is the two neighborhoods - Sassi - where the cave houses are located and are thought to be the first human dwellings in Italy, perhaps 9000 (Palaeolithic Period) years ago. The Sassi lay empty for decades after the war; people moved back in the 1980’s to modernize the caves and convert them into residences, hotels, bars and shops. Basilicata is a high altitude region, made up of tufa and sandstone buildings. The steep steps, rocky outcrops and stone alleyways could be from biblical-era Jerusalem. A little research indicated that the 2006 remake of Ben Hur, Wonder Women and Mary Magdalene were filmed in Matera.

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The Sassi were divided into two sections, the Barisono and Caveoso. We spend most of our time in the Caveoso section where there are 150 rock-cut churches and eight museums. We spent considerable time in three very informative and insightful museums: (1). The Casa Grotto museum, which was the recreation area of the cave-dwelling peasants, with their animals and stone latrine in the corner; (2). Casa Noha Museum, with their multimedia exhibit using the tufa walls within the 16th century family house, told the story of the city from ancient times to the Sassi as a World Heritage Site; (3). The Museum National d’Art Medieval e Moderna Della Basilicata, one of the most important museums of the region. On exhibit are sacred paintings, ancient mosaics, and a collection of 44 paintings by Carlo Levi. It was Levi’s famous 1951 book, Christ Stopped in Eboli, showing the world the sickness and poverty of these cave dwellers and were moved from this area after the Second World War, only returning in the late 1980’s. Wine, olives, and oil were the economic drivers behind them, now tourism dominates this economy of Matera - and we certainly saw why this was a town to discover in-depth.

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Matera Highlights:

1. Baroque Doumo and churches - late 16th century;
2. Matera Cathedral 1260 - Romanesque;
3. Tramontano Castle - 16th century;
4. Sasso Barisano - new town- where most residents live and work; there were a number of Byzantine churches, with 12 century frescoes.
5. Sasso Caveoso - old town - there is a fascinating ninth century graveyard and the eleventh century church.

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Enchanting Matera: We could have spent a few more days in Matera’s captivity tapestry of organic beauty and contradictions, but we made the most of our 10 days. What pure joy!

From Matera we continued to Montescaglioso (pop. 10,000). Our sole purpose was to see the 11th century Abbazia di S. Michele Arcangelo in the village of Terra Murata, based on a Benedictine foundation dating back to the XI century. Once destroyed, seen now with the multiple layers and transformations made over the centuries. The church itself is accessed by a stunning Romanesque grey and green stone portal built in the early 11th century. The Abbey of San Michele Arcangelo is one of the most prestigious and richest churches in southern Italy.

45 minutes away we locate the town of Metopondo (pop. 1000) located by the Ionian Coast. Our focuses in Metaponto were the seventh century Greek necropolis, and the Greek Temple of Hera - (6th century BCE). Hera, Roman name Juno, was the wife of Zeus and queen of Ancient Greek gods, and represented the ideal women. Marvelously preserved, and set on a typical Greek raised platform base. Unfortunately, the Doric capitals were almost obliterated, but the visit was well worth the short diversion in the mountains.

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Leaving the incredible and lovely region of Basilicata, we continue on to Puglia. Puglia forms a long peninsula into the Adriatic and Ionian Seas, and is the least mountainous region of Italy.

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The region has been completely transformed since 1945. Prior to 1945, Puglia was a harsh and cruel land for most inhabitants. Malaria killed thousands of Puglians. In contrast, what we discover today was the relative wealth of the Apulians. We were told that the dynamic transformation had to do with the coming of water to the region. The great aqueduct, initiated by Mussolini, provided deep wells, and with the winter rainfall, the rain must go somewhere, that is, into the deep wells and reservoirs. Water made life more agreeable and fostered farming production. To get a grip on the wealth of this region, seventy percent of Italy’s fruits and vegetables, forty percent of its olive oil, and 15 percent of its wine comes comes from Apulia. Puglia is bordered by the Adriatic Sea to the east and the Ionian Sea to the north, the population of the region is 4 million.

We begin to pick up the rhythm of the south of Italy. First, all shops and petrol stations are closed from 2:00 until 5:00. However, trattorias, cafes and bars remain open. If we travel to a town or city in the morning, have a latte macchiato, lunch at 2:00, scout out the valuable sites of interest, and return to our base by 5:00, we are good. The roads were curvy, twisty, with a plethora of round-a-bouts that slowed travel down; but who cares if it takes longer from point A to C?

Our base for the next 10 days was in the Valle d’Itria, or Trulli Valley, 5 km from the large town of Martina Franca (pop. 50,000). First, a stop for food supplies in Franca. It was Sunday, and it was not easy to find a supermarket open on Sundays. We surmised that the folks that live in the many tower blocks of apartments must have a supermarket nearby, and that is where we found a lovely market with everything we needed for the next 12 days. We detoured into the historic center and meander a bit admiring the Picasso theme all around us. Martina Franca was focusing on Picasso’s sculptures and drawings; even the placards on the walls were quotes of wisdom from the great artist, e.g., “Learn the rules like a professional, to be able to break them as an artist.”

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We learned that Martina Franca has been a commercial center for a long time. It has attracted noble families and businesses for centuries. Accordingly, we counted 20 palaces, 15 churches and Renaissance and Baroque architecture throughout the town. The two main piazzi were the home to many cafes, bars and restaurants. For the next 10 days, and only 5 minutes away from town, we spent many hours roaming around this magnificent town.

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Next we headed 20 km to the town of Locorotondo (pop. 14,000), taking its name from its round shaped historic center, which is absolutely beautiful! The town is all white, and is known as “Puglia’s Prettiest,” and definitely a town for strolling. It was a good thing that we had only two focus sites, in addition to the lazy walk around, as it turned out there were 15 churches, architecturally ranging from Byzantine (9th century) to Rococo (18th century) style. The two churches: Church of St. Rocco and the Church of San Giorgio, were both recreations of their original 9th and 11th century to Rococo style. We read that Rococo - late Baroque - used exuberantly fluid, florid decorative European style as a reaction against grandeur and symmetry, which was the final expression of the great baroque era. These two churches were perfect representations of their original Rococo style.

After a farm- to- table lunch in Locorotondo, we drove 20 km back to our base and our little trullo hut. These dry stone architecture huts originated with the Stone Age or Iron Age Period- (2000 -600 BCE). “Trilli” is derived from the Greek word for dome. They are rectangular, built of corbelled limestone slabs, in a pyramidal, domed or conical roof style. They were generally constructed as temporary field shelters and storehouses, or permanent dwellings. Our hut had whitewashed cylindrical walls of gray stone, held in place by lateral opposition and gravity (no mortar) piled to a pinnacle. The roof structure sits directly on the walls using simple corner arches allowing the transition from rectangular wall structure to the circulated of oval sections of the roof. That was the architecture of the trullo. These huts are cool in the summer and warm in the winter - a truly once in a lifetime experience.

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Our road trip continued 25 km to the very touristy town of Alberobello (pop. 11,000). There are over one thousand trulli huts in Alberobello, some “ homes” open to visitors. Many of the trulli are craft shops, bars, restaurants, and jewelry and leather workshops. Alberobello trulli use everyday materials and are outstanding examples of human settlements that retain their original form to a remarkable extent. Interestingly, there were many different styles of trulli within the region. All trulli are protected as national monuments by the Italian government, even the limestone bits around any trulli.

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We are on the road again to the stunning white hill town of Cisternino (pop. 10,000). It is perched on one of the highest hills of the Apulian Murge. The town boasts a charming old historic center remaining intact for centuries. The 6th, 14th and 18th century architecture of the old town was of considerable interest. Cisternino doesn't have to try to impress any tourists with its white washed houses, narrow streets, historic churches and a grand central piazza. Our one planned visit was to the Romanesque church of Chiesa Madre. Built in the 14th century on an early Christian church, the Mother Church of San Nicola di Pàtara has changed its appearance over the centuries. The precious treasure chest of art, the neoclassical facade, makes this church a splendid example of Apulian Renaissance sculpture. Something that we have never seen before was the interior structure with three naves, divided by columns with stone capitals that preserve the original medieval imprint. Absolutely amazing! As fascinating as the historic center and the Chiesa was, the surrounding countryside, dotted with trulli, ancient farms, bell towers and percussion local limestone walls were captivating and memorable.

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These ten days of exploring in Martina Franco, Locorotondo, Alberobello and Cisternino were difficult to leave behind. Such a wealth of history, beauty, culture, fantastic food and wine, and the very friendly and inviting people. But we did have one more large town to visit before we left for Lecce. From Martina Franco we drove 30 km east to the Ostuni, “La Citta Banco” - pop. 32,000 - We immediately noticed that the surrounding countryside was dotted with fortified large estate farms (masseria), and thousands of very old olive groves (25% of Italy’s oil comes from here). After driving 20 km from Franca, Ostuni rises high above the ocean of olive trees that are everywhere in Puglia. The entire town had whitewashed walls and white painted architecture. Glimpses of the Adriatic and a plethora of green and blue doors, paints a perfect Impressionist picture. A barista told us that “the structures must be painted white every two years,” and they looked really fresh. However, once inside the perimeter, the walls had a somewhat organic rustic look. Following the old cobblestone streets of the town we easily located the Ostuni citadel high on the hill, and the Cathedral located at the end of the main piazza. The cathedral has an elegant 15th century frilly rose window, and a dramatic unusual Gothic - Romanesque -Byzantine facade. The interior had a number of 18th century art works. What a beautiful moment to pause, reflect, and be thankful for this opportunity.

Since we were close to another town that dates back to the Greco-Roman times, the lovely town of Fasano was an inviting diversion to close our time in this part of Puglia. The narrow streets, archways, cafes, and little piazzi suggested another touristy town. No, it was too beautiful, clean and slow-paced. There was a museum of olive oil, an abbey and many 13th-17th century churches. This town was special.

Our next base for ten days was in the city of Leece, a 115 km, 3 hour drive from Martina Franca. However, along the way there were a couple of planned towns of special interest to us: Ceglie Messapica and Mesagne. Messapica (pop. 20,000), with its typical trulli farms, churches, dry-stone walls, olive groves, vineyards, ancient oak trees and a few cattle pastures - So what is unique about this picture? First, it is one of the oldest towns in Puglia, dating back to the 15th century BCE; Second, the town is noted for its archaeological remains of Ancient Greek artifacts; Third, it looks different altogether from the towns we explored; it looks and feels Moorish. Having a slow walk around this alluring town, we find many palazzi, a couple of ancient churches, and the Ducal Castle which dominates the skyline. Totally unique, and a must visit.

Slowly, we move to the next town, Mesagne on our way to Leece, and 40 km from Messapica (pop. 26,000). Absolutely a treasure! Smack in your view is the 11th century castle, the existing 11th-15th century fortified walls, a grand Paleo-Christian church - a very rare find, and open! As you stroll along the narrow streets we easily find two 14th-16th century churches. Here, the major economic drivers are tourism, olives/oil and grapes. Another do not miss slow travel stop.

Six kilometers from Mesagne is the Baroque city of Lecce (pop. 95,000). Emily planned for us to arrive in the mid-afternoon, the best time to navigate in such a small historic center as everything is closed, and less folks about. Founded by the Romans in 1-2 A.C., and rebuilt in the 1500’s, Lecce confirmed its important position as an artistic and cultural center. It was in this period that the city began to build its magnificent Baroque architecture and art. Also to be noted is that numerous religious communities were established that brought in wealth to build the churches and monasteries. By the 17th century, Lecce reached its peak of artistic expression. There were four main gates opening to the ancient walled center. We were very fortunate to experience a bundle of appealing experiences in Lecce, especially the fabulous-intact-buildings and palazzi that are all around this historic center. Five main focal points – and ten days of absolute active learning joy.

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(1). Piazza Sant'oronzo, once a Roman amphitheater (the well preserved 2nd century A/D Roman theater is in front of the Piazza), is the large civic center in the heart of town with ancient to modern buildings side by side;

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2). Piazza del Duomo Piazza Sant’Oronzo has unique interpretations of a familiar Italian Cathedral square: people, cafes, benches, fountains, views of the Baroque architecture, and plane trees for shade;

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(3). The Museo Faggiano was an archaeological treasure trove of 2000 years worth of archeological finds, dating from the 5th century BCE, including crypts, medieval walls, cisterns, Knights Templar frescoes, tombs, and a rooftop tower;

(4). The 16th century Medieval synagogue museum, that provided valuable information in the discovery of the history of the Jewish presence in Puglia during the Middle Ages. The church of St. Croce was built over the synagogue;

(5). The Duomo Cathedral (1114 -1230), was the most impressive Lecce Baroque style; unique in that it has two decorated facades. The Baroque period followed the Renaissance, and is characterized with highly ornate and often extravagantly decorated exteriors and interiors. Lecce’s Piazza de Duomo is the heart of the town, and is one of Italy’s finest.

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We spent a staggering amount of our days visiting churches, cathedrals, basilicas, and clostiers as we love their elegance, grace, harmonious proportions and ornate beauty. In addition, from a sociological and anthropological view, they were the centerpieces of social and economic life, and of significant cultural change.

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Some 30 kms south-west of Lecce, off the beaten track, and on our way to Gallipoli was the town of Nardo (pop. 31,000), which is very near the heel of the boot at the tip of the Italian peninsula. This medieval town center was steeped in Baroque church history, historic buildings and narrow alleyways. The extraordinary 11th century Basilica Cathedral, including frescoes, shows Baroque architecture in its finest attire. Nardo is not known as a tourist destination, but for each historical sight, there were placards informing the reader of the historical significance (written in Italian and English). The Castello Acquaviva (15th century), and their massive walls surround the entire town. This was the first time on our visits we heard beautiful baroque music being practiced in the Chiesa Di San Giuseppe. We had to be torn away from this “gem” of a town.

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We moved 50 km to the Ionian coastal town of Gallipoli (pop. 35,000). Here we spent two nights, and to explore two other nearby towns of Galatina and Galatone. The Gallipoli sea coast stroll takes one along the 12th century walls, through alleys, souvenir shops, bars and cafes, with the sea always in front of you. Highlights: the preserved 12th century Angevin-Aragonese castle, many baroque churches, and the Palazzo Riviera, with a panoramic view. Excellent places to have lunch near the coast, and the view is something else.

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Galitina (pop. 27,000) is a sleepy beauty that has three architectural beauties: (1). The Romanesque church of Santa Caterina, (1390), a fine rose window and an interior with “bright” frescoes (1435) by F. d’Arezzo; (2). The Baroque church of San Pietro (1633), was stunning in design and proportions; (3). Basilica di Santa Caterina, with its Gothic (1369) frescos covered walls and ceiling, is one of the few Gothic churches in Puglia. It is among the most beautiful churches in Italy. The upscale historic center, pedestrian zones, and Baroque ornate iron balconies makes wandering a new sport.

Galatone (pop.15,000) sets inland of the Ionian Sea amidst olive groves and feudal estates. There were plenty of sights in the historic center. The three monumental portals, leads through the protective walls, and into the historic center. Inside, there was the Norman thick walled fortress of the Castello di Fulignano, and the boastful Baroque church of Chiesa del Crocifisso, with its elaborate carvings, a beautiful organ and an octagonal cupola adorned with statues. This town offers much from beautiful Baroque monuments to endless beaches, fine food and wine.

Sunday we were on the road again and a 70 km drive to our one day base at the large town of Casarano (pop. 20,000). We wanted to see the 6th century Church of Santa Maria Della Croce; the oldest church in Puglia. The frescos date back to the Byzantine time (1000- 1100). Note: This magnificent 1,600 years of architectural brilliance is only open for two hours on Sunday; well planned for us.

We spent the idyllic day in Sta. Maria Di Leuca, the Italian end-of-the-world. It is here that the town is nested between two seas: Ionian and Adriatic. First a visit to the iconic lighthouse, which is the second most important strategic lighthouse in Italy, after Genoa. Just enjoying our very fortunate experiences.

Traveling north along the Adriatic coast to our next two night base in Castro (pop.2,500). It is perched atop a cliff, and looks across Adriatic toward southern Albania and Corfu. Castro really was a sparkler! It retains its Old World (has a pedigree that predates the Romans) atmosphere, with its upper medieval town on the hill, and the marina below that still holds its tradition as a fishing village. And the setting: turquoise skies, green hills, white washed buildings and sapphire water is actually captivating.

The medieval center on the hill is a habitat of narrow lanes and lined with sentimental pretty houses. The historic center had two lively piazzas for gathering and five outdoor bars/cafes, two churches, and the remains of an ancient Temple of Minerva next to the church. The stone Castro Cathedral, built in 1171 in Romanesque (Norman) style and sports a dual-purpose clock and bell tower. This solid structure has survived the centuries well and is dedicated to the town's protector, the Madonna Assunziata. We took the trolley from the marina to explore the Aragonese Castle (16th century) and the remains of the 10th century Byzantine church.

The marina is a secondary attraction, though, with good reason. The coast is riddled with caves and coves, where wooden fishing boats are harbored and where tourists explore the caves of stalagmites and stalactites. Castro Marina offers some great seafood restaurants and plenty of seaside rocks for sunbathing and relaxing alongside the pristine water. This town is definitely for flaneurs, i.e., no particular goals in mind.

Slow travel for us, equals active learning. We motored to Italy’s easternmost town, up the coast of the Adriatic to the seaside town of Otranto for three days. The center is still enclosed within the 1400’s fortified walls. With its turquoise waters and sandy beaches, seafront promenades, restaurants, could anyone ask for more? All the same, for the love of art and history, this was the town! One of the largest 12th century mosaic floors in Europe was in the Romanesque Cathedral of Otranto.

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We found another aspect of art history that required us to do some serious learning, that was, the genius of the Tree of Life mosaic found in the cathedral. This mosaic is one of the most important examples of 12th century art. The representation of the Tree of Life, the idea that all of Earth is interconnected: forests made up of individual trees; the branches of each one link together to combine their life force to prove a home for thousands of different flora and fauna. From what we gathered, the Celts who inhabited much of Europe in pre-Roman times, believed that humans came from trees, actually 15 % of our DNA is the same as trees. They viewed trees as magical, guardians of the land and doorway to the spiritual world. The myth symbolizes strength, wisdom, longevity and rebirth. Other religions and cultures embrace the Tree of Life, e.g., Mayans, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity. Incidentally, in the Old Testament, the Tree of Life is described as “being in the midst of the Garden of Eden.” Furthermore, was it not Charles Darwin who first used the “tree of life” in modern biology? Simply put, the Tree of Life demonstrates the evolutionary relationships among groups. This was beautifully illustrated within the mosaics. Herein was our message: “Have the experience, but find the meaning.”

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A word about parking in historical centers - Don’t if Possible! The Middle Ages lanes, with buildings smack on these lanes, coupled with the limited number of metered “blue lined” spaces, very few “white line” spaces, or free spaces, makes one a bit confused. Sometimes we're just lucky, but most of the time we arrive early in the morning, or later in the day for parking spaces near the center. By arriving on Sunday to the historic center of Otranto was wise, as we found a parking space on the metered “blue line.” A twenty minute walk to the church of San Pietro lie straight on. This was definitely one of our focuses in Otranto. The San Pietro is a rare example of a Byzantine (9th century) church, with amazing 10th and 11th century frescoes that awaits the curious slow travelers. We were told that this church is testimony to the Byzantine domination in the “Land of Otranto.” After that mind alternating experience, we spent the rest of the day watching people at the Deja vu Cafe, along the huge Piazza, Porto Terra, on the banks of the Adriatic Sea.

Another warm day in Otranto, as we investigated the original 1087 castle. Their massive walls surround the entire historic center. The castle has been neatly restored, and many of the rooms are used for expositions, conferences and meetings. Accordingly, this castle in some ways defies the general Italian dilemma, that is, amazing and masterfully built structures, but lack of usability. For example, a special exhibit was aimed at an extraordinary 20th century Italian School of Futurism. The school includes founder, F.T. Marinetti, Giorgio de Chirico and Giacometti Balla. A number of selections represented art and cultural revolutions of the twentieth century. This was possible through ideas and intellectual relationships between poets, writers, musicians, together to create a multifaceted and highly imaginary 20th century of art and culture. An authentic effort to use the available space in the castle to perfection.

Looking ahead, after Otranto, what could be more exciting than what we had already experienced? There were so many of the towns and cities we visited in Puglia, with historical and cultural significance, that dates back to antiquity- even before the Greeks.

Up and out early with the very warm sea breeze at our backs, we noticed as we were driving north to our destination, the expansive olive groves, umbrella pines and eucalyptus trees, and vineyards, that are so typical of the region. In two hours we found our AirBnb, which lies within the center of the coastal city of Brindisi (pop. 90,000), the capital of the province of Brindisi. We used Brindisi as our home-base for the next two days. We planned Brindisi for its walkability, long strolls along Corso Garibaldi, and its laid-back lifestyle along the waterfront of the Adriatic Sea. We were fortunate to find a parking space on the street, and for two days of not having to use the Peugeot. Our plan was to examine the Ancient Greek settlements, Roman Monuments, the 11th century Duomo, a 13th century castle, church of San Benedetto, and the National Archaeological Museum.

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Brindisi is a major shipping port of trade with Greece and the Middle East, has chemical plants and is the leader in the production of electricity in Italy. It also has important archaeological monuments & beaches and many Italian tourists (75% versus 25% foreign). Brindisi appears to prosper. In addition, the largest non-Italian ethnic group community is Albanian. During the 1990’s, Brindisi received a wave of Albanian immigrants who made a way of life there. Interestingly, there used to be an American military base near Brindisi, and a number of Americans stayed, as was reported to us while having a super lunch at the visitors’ go-to-place, called “Betty Cafe,” We also spoke to a few British folks that talked about the presence of British here in Brindisi. The result of recent pensioners buying villas in the countryside; you can easily understand their motive to live here.

We learned a little more about Brindisi’s excellent cuisine: simple ingredients of flour or barley, seasonal vegetables and fruits, snails, blue fish, rice baked potatoes, fish soup, and pasta. We enjoyed some of the regional red wines of Puglia, such as the reds of Negroamaro and Primitivo, and the whites of Greco Bianca and Verdeca.

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.

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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.


(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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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.


Last modified on Wednesday, 01 July 2020