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.
Puglia has a very ancient history and the presence of man dates back to 150,000 years ago, as evidenced by the discovery of Altamura Man, one of the oldest and most complete Neanderthal skeletons found in Europe. Also in the same territory of Altamura, dinosaur remains have been found, dating to 70 million years ago.
More recent but still prehistoric points of interest include dolmens and menhirs, the over 3000 cave paintings inside the Grotta dei Cervi in Porto Badisco and the Archaeological Museum of Ostuni which houses the skeleton of a young woman who died in childbirth about 25 thousand years ago.
Greeks and Romans
Around the first millennium BC it was populated by Illyrian people from the Balkans and subsequently, in the Hellenic era, the Magno-Greek colonies flourished on its territory. Conquered not without difficulty by the Romans, it thrived under their rule as the center for the production of wheat and oil.
The Barbarian Invasions
At the fall of the Western Roman Empire, it experienced a period of darkness and decline. It was occupied by the Eruli and the Ostrogoths and from the 6th to the 11th century it became the domain of the Byzantine Empire but nevertheless suffered the invasion of the Lombards, Franks and Saracens.
Normans and Swabians
In the 11th century it was conquered by the Normans who together with the Swabians Hohenstaufen favored a great material and civil progress that reached its peak under Frederick II, with the construction of extraordinary military and religious buildings, some of great artistic value, such as the famous Castel del Monte in Andria.
From 1282 on it was conquered by many empires until it was finally annexed to the Kingdom of Italy in 1861.
Despite such a long and troubled history, full of foreign conquests and influences, Puglia remains anchored to peasant cuisine, supported by three unchanging cornerstones: oil, wheat and vegetables.
It can be considered a rather homogeneous cuisine, thanks to the easy communication within the territory due to the lack of mountains. The differences between one subregion and another mainly concern the use of aromas: garlic, used abundantly on the Tavoliere, makes way for the onion, as it descends to the South, as evidenced by the delicious Gallipoli fish soup.
Fish is used as the main ingredient in almost all of Puglia, except in the Foggia area. This has a historical explanation that resides in the aversion of the Dauni, an ancient people of Greek shepherding origins, to navigation.
The typical Apulian cuisine is simple, based on genuine ingredients and strong flavors. This comes from the need of women to put a robust and nutritious food on the table in a relatively short time, in order to feed the whole family and then be able to devote the day to work in the fields.
To use a cinematic metaphor, the aspect it shares with many of Italy’s regional kitchens is the depth of field, i.e. the presence of many elements on the scene, but only a few in the foreground while the others remain in the background, this is to favor the exaltation of the taste of the main ingredients and never the confusion or, even worse, the coverage of flavors.
Pasta plays a prominent role, including the orecchiette, the best known. Resembling a small ear and with a thick and calloused consistency, it scoops its ideal seasoning: turnip greens dissolved in oil and garlic together with anchovies for a surprising meeting of flavors called orecchiette alle cime di rapa.
Fish is abundant and of great quality and freshness. From Bari, we taste octopus, raw anchovies, delicious shellfish, and even trash fish that ends up in very tasty soups. The famous mussels of Taranto, covered with breadcrumbs and parsley, cooked in oil, garlic, oregano and tomato. The grilled mullet of Polignano, that oozes a delicious natural sauce that enhances the meat, without need to add anything.
The production of dairy products is also important: cheeses like ricotta, scamorza, pecorino, caciocavallo, provolone and the magnificent burrata with a double consistency, the solid outer layer and the semi-liquid creamy heart. Particularly sought after is the burrata produced around Castel del Monte.
The Apulian winemaking tradition dates back to before the Phoenician era, but it was the phoenicians that imported new vines to the Apulian lands and boosted viticulture. The Greeks continued to expand this practice, but the Romans were the main admirers of these wines, praised by the poet Horace.
The vast and appreciated production that boasts four DOCG and twenty-eight DOC wines, famous worldwide, is due to several factors, not least of which is the fearsome parasite phylloxera, which in the nineteenth century irreparably damaged the vines. From this plague came the opportunity to qualitatively review the production system, returning to ancient production practices as well as introducing new vines.
The mild Mediterranean climate, the hilly terrain and the characteristics of the limestone-clay soils, such as the red Salento soils, favor the production of wines with a strong character and fragrance, such as Negroamaro, Salice Salentino and Primitivo. The siliceous-clayey soils of the Murge plateau give elegance to whites such as Murgia IGT or Bianco di Castel del Monte and body to reds such as Aglianico and Nero di Troia. The tuffaceous-sandy soils of the coast close to the Murge are ideal for the production of Moscato di Trani and Moscato Reale, ideal to accompany delicious almond paste desserts.
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