The Puglia Region descends along the heel of the Italian Peninsula, with over 800 km of coastline. It is surrounded by the Adriatic and Ionian seas and is the least mountainous region of Italy, with the Daunia Mountains at the border of Campania and Molise, peaking at just over one thousand meters.
To the south west, Puglia borders Basilicata, with which it shares the Murge plateau, gentle karst hills subject to both underground and superficial erosion, such as sinkholes, ravines, canyons like Gravina di Puglia, and caves, including the famous Caves of Castellana extending about three kilometers underground. The caves with their many chambers, stalactites and stalagmites make the perfect setting to host a theatrical production based on Dante’s Inferno, called Hell in the Cave.
Puglia can be divided into three historical – geographical districts: Daunia, the Itria valley and Salento.
La Daunia, an ancient sub-region that corresponds to the province of Foggia, boasts Gargano National Park and the Umbra Forest, whose ancient beech woods have been dedicated as a Unesco World Heritage Site.
Another Unesco site of the Gargano is the Celestial Basilica of Monte Sant’Angelo, a mystical place, seat of devotion and worship since 490 AD. when, according to legend, the first appearance of the Archangel Michael took place.
But the whole Gargano is considered a sacred place, so much so that it has been nicknamed Montagna Sacra, not only for its places of worship, once pagan and later converted by the Catholic Church, but also for being a place of penitential pilgrimage to the Holy Land and for its naturalistic elements, recurring in many religious traditions.
Castel del Monte
In the central part of Puglia are the provinces of Bari and Barletta-Andria-Trani (BAT) corresponding to ancient Peucezia, so called for being the homeland of the Peuceti who lived there before the Roman conquests.
In Andria you can visit Castel del Monte, a Unesco monument, whose history is linked to the figure of Emperor Frederick II of Swabia.
Bari, an important port city on the Adriatic, is the capital of Puglia. Equipped with one of the major Italian airports, it is also an important economic and industrial center, the main activity of which is the automotive sector with the Bridgestone, Getrag and Bosch plants. It is also an ancient city whose origins date back to the Bronze Age, very rich in historical artifacts of every era. Its delightful historic center is full of alleys, courtyards and historic buildings and has about thirty noteworthy churches. The 11th century Basilica of San Nicola di Myra is still a major destination for Orthodox and Catholic pilgrims.
In the central part of Puglia is the Itria Valley, also known as the Trulli Valley. The trulli are ancient stone buildings surmounted by a conical roof, covered with chiancarelle, typical very hard and dark gray stone tiles. They are an otherworldly site built centuries ago.
The most famous city to view trulli is Alberobello, Unesco World Heritage Site. Locorotondo, Cisternino and Ostuni, lying on gentle rounded hills, boast many Trulli and are worth a visit. The ancient peasant houses are scattered throughout the countryside, giving this area a mystical feeling.
On the Ionian side we find Taranto, cittá dei due mari, founded in the 8th century BC by Spartans who called it Taras. It was once a thriving Greek colony, today you can see ruins of its glorious past like the Doric columns carved from carparo, local limestone, remains of temples dedicated to the Gods, and the Archaeological Museum Marta, among the most important in Italy, which houses a collection of jewelry from the Magna Graecia era, a testimony to the art created in Taranto.
Brindisi is another important city, since Roman times, for its strategic port on the Adriatic, which made Puglia the crossroads between East and West. Subsequently, in medieval times, ships loaded with pilgrims, soldiers and merchants embarked for the Holy Land.
The third geographical historical district is Salento, formerly called Messapia or land between two seas. Lecce, known as the capital of the Baroque, for the style of its palaces and churches, is the capital. Here the baroque explodes in a very particular variation which owes much to the local stone, soft, malleable and with a warm cream color, allowing the artists to create stone work reminiscent of lace.
On the Ionian coast, about 40 km from Lecce, we find Gallipoli, important in the 16th century for the trade in its lamp oil and the ancient Hypogeum oil mills, huge tunnels which are now empty and open to visit. It’s historic center is inside a fortification set on an isthmus, like an island castle. Around Gallipoli you can find enchanting Ionian beaches considered the Maldives of Salento.
On the opposite side, on the Adriatic, there is the city of Otranto, the most eastern city of Italy, just 70 km from the coasts of Albania, visible with the naked eye on a clear day.
It was the home of 800 martyrs beheaded by the invading Turks in 1480 who wanted to control the city’s strategic position. Their bones still lie inside the cathedral, where they attempted to find refuge during the assault. The cathedral, founded in the 10th century, has been subject to numerous attacks and has been destroyed and rebuilt several times. The furnishings and artistic treasures have unfortunately been lost due to these raids, but the spectacular floor mosaic finished in 1164 remains, depicting the Tree of Life and stories from the Old Testament.
Santa Maria di Leuca
The last city of the heel of Italy is Santa Maria di Leuca, Finibus Terrae, the end of the civilized world according to the ancient Romans. All along this coast you can find some of the most beautiful beaches in the world.
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