History and Prehistory

In the Silence of the Nuraghi
Januari 26, 2023
Egyptian Museum of Turin
Januari 27, 2023

History and Prehistory


This excursion leads us to Apulia and Basilicata, two regions in the South of Italy. Apulia is a region rich in history and tradition with Norman Castles, Romanesque cathedrals and the finest Baroque city in the Mediterranean: Lecce. Basilicata too is rich in arts and culture. The towns, the monuments, the villages testify a past of splendour with its castles, remind one of distant ages.

We begin this excursion in Foggia, and drive to Troia, with the 11th-13th c. cathedral with a magnificent façade (rose window and bronze door, 1119), early Romanesque Church of S. Basilio, and fine 17th century palace.

• Melfi
We enter the Basilicata region at Ascoli Satriano and drive to Melfi. This town was very powerful in the Middle Ages, when it was the residence of the Norman Kings and then of Frederick II. In addition to the many churches hewn into the rock, we should see the cathedral with its bell tower (1153) and the majestic historic Castle built by the Normans. Every Whitsunday, the town organizes a traditional religious procession with everyone dressed in Spanish period costume. 17 kms further on are the Nionticchio woods and lakes (ruins of the 12th c. Abbey of S. Ippolito, and the Abbey of S. Michele).

• Venosa
On the way back towards Apulia, we go through Venosa, the birthplace of the Latin poet Horace (castle, 15th c. cathedral, Roman remains). Nearby is one of the most interesting mediaeval monuments in Basilicata, and one of the masterpieces of Norman art in Southern Italy: the Trinità Abbey (11th-12th c.). Opposite is the Roman Amphitheatre, dating back to the Imperial Age.
We now drive on to Acerenza, sitting atop a hill overlooking the Bradano Valley (Romanesque cathedral), Irsina (13th c. cathedral and Church of S. Francesco). At Gravina, built on the edge of a steep precipice, is the Church of S. Michele, hewn deep into the rock face (Byzantine style frescoes), the cathedral, the Church of S. Sofia, the Church of Purgatorio, the Pomarici Santomasi Museum, and the remains of Frederick II’s castle.

• Matera and Metaponto
Matera, a highly unusual and picturesque town, whose old district is built around the sides of a steep cliff face, with the houses hewn out of the rock (the famous Barisano and Caveoso ‘Sassi’ dwellings); see our page I Sassi di Matera for more details. We take the road with the view of the 11th.-15th century Benedictine Abbey at Montescaglioso with its Baroque parish church of SS. Pietro e Paolo on our left, and head for Metaponto to see the impressive remains of Roman temples (including the ‘Palatine Tablets’) and the valuable collection of exhibits in the local ‘Antiquarium’ which bear witness to the important part played by this city, which was one of the most illustrious cities of Magna Graecia. Metaponto also has a fine beach, and 20 kms along the road to Calabria and offers us a chance to make two interesting tours: to the ruins of Heraclea (7th-4th centuries BC) and the ‘Museo Nazionale della Siritide’ (at Policoro).

• Taranto
On the Ionian coast stands Taranto, the powerful city of Magna Graecia, now a steel-making city and naval base. We have to visit the Museo Nazionale with its complete collection of archaeological exhibits, including gold jewelry and ornaments worn by women in the Hellenic age. Strolling between the Mar Grande and the Mar Piccolo we come to the cathedral with the Baroque Chapel of S. Cataldo and the 10th c. crypt; the Church of S. Domenico Maggiore, the fine gardens of Villa Peripato overlooking the sea, and the Aragonese Castle, built in 1480. There are several trips we can make from Taranto: to Massafra (one of the most important complexes of Basilian crypts in Apulia), Mottola and Grottaglie, which is famed for its hand-made pottery.

• Gallipoli and Otranto
Along the coast is the important Messapian town of Manduria (walls, cathedral, Imperial Palace, mediaeval Jewish ghetto), then Nardò (13th-14th c. cathedral, Baroque Church of S. Domenico, etc.), Gallipoli (the ‘beautiful city’ in Greek) with its Hellenistic Fountain, Castle, Baroque cathedral, and interesting municipal museum. Leuca, the southernmost tip of the Italian ‘boot’ is only 50 kms away, and we can call in at S. Cesarea Terme and see the ‘Zinzulusa Grotto’, while at Otranto (which was one of the bases of the Byzantine rulers in the early Middle Ages) we can view the beautiful 11th-16th e. cathedral with its wooden caisson ceiling, precious mosaic floor (1166), and the 11th century crypt with nave and four aisles, flanked by 42 pillars crowned with a splendid variety of capitals. We will also see the Byzantine chapel of S. Pietro, the mighty Aragonese castle, and nearby Porto Badisco, where prehistoric wall paintings have been discovered in the caves.

• Lecce
Lecce lies ahead – the Baroque city that used to be called the Athens of Apulia. Churches, palaces and simple houses are built in the local soft stone which has enabled craftsmen throughout the ages to carve the most splendid and original decorations. We begin our visit in Piazza Oronzo, with the excavations of the 2nd century Roman Amphitheatre, and the Column which is presumed to be one of the two columns that marked the beginning of the Appian Way leading to Rome. The beautiful Piazza del Duomo is surrounded by Baroque buildings, including the Palazzo del Seminario (1703) and the Palazzo Vescovile (1632), and the cathedral itself, with its tall slender bell tower (17th e.). Let’s visit the fine Baroque churches, not forgetting Charles V’s Castle.

• Brindisi
40 kms north is Brindisi. The old city stands on a little peninsula between two arms of the sea. We will visit the Cathedral, the Provincial Archaeological Museum, the Swabian-Aragonese castle, and several splendid churches: S. Giovanni al Sepolcro, built by the Knights Templars in the 11th century, S. Benedetto, with its fine cloister, S. Lucia, the Chiesa del Cristo, with its polychrome façade, and 2 kms on, the Church of S. Maria del Casale the city’s most treasured mediaeval monument. After Brindisi we will drive to Ostuni (wonderful Gothic cathedral and mediaeval district), which brings us into the. zone of the ‘Trulli’ architecture, between Martina Franca (rich in Baroque buildings), Locorotondo, Fasano and Alberobello. The ‘trulli’ are cylindrical buildings with conical dome-like roofs dating back to antiquity. We have to stop for a while in the ‘monumental zone’ of Alberobello, wholly built of ‘trulli’. On the way to Bari is Monopoli (Swabian castle) and if we leave the coast we must call in at the extraordinary Castellana Caves.

• Bari
Bari is a modern city, with a busy port, for trade with the Near East. The old city center has remained intact, with two Romanesque churches of unparalleled beauty: the Cathedral and the Basilica of S. Nicola, the city’s patron saint (Santa Klaus), with its interesting museum. The grandiose Castle was built by the Byzantines, and in 1233 Frederick II transformed it. Let us also visit the Museo Archeologico and Pinacoteca Provinciale.
There are many interesting towns around Bari, full of art and history, and endowed with magnificent cathedrals: Bitonto, Molfetta, Bisceglie and Trani, whose cathedral is universally agreed to be one of the most perfect examples of Apulian Romanesque, standing in a magnificent position looking out to sea. The mediaeval center is fascinating to visit, with its pre-Romanesque and Romanesque churches, the old Synagogue, Frederick II’s Castle, and many other palaces). We cannot leave without visiting Andria, Ruvo and Castel del Monte (1240-1250), perhaps the most extraordinary of all Italy’s castles, standing as it does in isolation, towering over the vast plain.
Food and Wine

• Apulia
The cuisine of Apulia is based on olive oil, one of the regions great products. In Pugliese culture, nothing is wasted. Stale bread is toasted in oil to make a garnish for pasta and vegetable dishes. Vegetables, at the peak of their season, are dried, pickled, or preserved in oil to make them last for the entire year. Figs will often be dried or boiled down to make syrup and grape juice, after the first pressing, is boiled to make a thick molasses called mosto cotto. Authentic dishes of the Puglia region are: Taiedda (Rice, potatoes and mussels bake), Cavatelli alla rucola e olive (Cavatelli pasta with arugola & olives) and Orecchiette con cime di rapa (Small round shaped with turntip tops) Typical wines: Locorotondo, Matino, Copertino, Primitivo di Manduria, Squinzano and Salento.

• Basilicata
The cuisine of Lucania gets its taste from its strong spicy ingredients. It is rich in pungent perfumes of wild herbs and tomatoes, silvery olives, and prickly pear cactus. Red peppers abound as do strong sheep and goat cheeses. The cooking methods are simple with much baking and grilling. The pasta, made from the strong durum wheat, is often still home made and comes in many different shapes. Typical are the Lagane (small rough shaped lasagne) or Pasta al sugo di noci (noodles with nut sauce). The cheeses include the Caciocavallo, Pecorino, Burrino. The desserts are simple but delicious based on grain, nuts and a particular use of local cheeses. Typical wines: Aglianico del Vulture, Asprinio, Malvasia, and Moscato.

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