The heel and spur of boot-shaped Italy, Puglia is now returning to the limelight after being ignored or disparaged for centuries. While the sobriquet ‘the new Tuscany’ is a lazy cliché and dangerously misleading (with its raw limestone landscape Puglia looks and feels like a different country), it is the case that only in the last two or three decades have Italophiles and discerning travellers been taking the region seriously. It is also the case that in that time the region has been transformed through building restoration, refurbishment and the growth of a café and restaurant scene – the beneficial impacts of tourism.
Its strategic position meant that it was repeatedly invaded and conquered, and each dynasty left its mark. Roman remains are frequent but tend to have been all but eradicated by later prosperity – or warfare. The many magnificent Romanesque cathedrals bear witness to the Norman conquest of southern Italy, one of the most extraordinary episodes in medieval history. Churches and castles from the subsequent Hohenstaufen and Angevin eras abound and exhibit French, Lombard, Byzantine and Saracenic influences.
Much later there was another artistic outburst, appropriately international but characteristically idiosyncratic, a highly elaborate version of Baroque architecture and decoration. Lecce is a glorious example: churches and palaces with intricately embellished façades carved from the local stone line the streets and squares of this lively town, the regional capital of the Salento.
A journey from the south to the north of Puglia, this tour takes in the most important heritage sites. Particularly memorable are the unspoilt centres of ancient cities and villages built up around narrow twisting alleys, some tumbling down hillsides, most whitewashed, all full of picturesque incident. Waterfronts with attractive harbours are another feature.
There is scenic variety from rolling hills to open plains, in parts enlivened by trulli, conical stone houses which are a unique vernacular phenomenon. Half of Italy’s fruit and vegetables are grown here, and perhaps it is no coincidence that in recent years there has been an upsurge in interest in gastronomy.
Casale. Fly at c. 9.00am from London City Airport via Milan Linate to Brindisi (Alitalia). Next to the airport is one of the gems of the region, Santa Maria del Casale, externally patterned in gold and silver freestone, internally decorated with 14th-century wall paintings. Continue to Lecce, one of the loveliest little cities in southern Italy, where the first three nights are spent.
Sta Maria di Cerrate, Gallipoli, Otranto. Explore the Salentine Peninsula, southernmost tip of the heel of Italy. Remarkable sculpture and frescoes are seen at the pretty Greek monastery of Santa Maria di Cerrate. The centre of Byzantine Italy until conquered by the Normans in 1071, Gallipoli has a highly picturesque old town on an off-shore island. In the ancient fortress city of Otranto the Norman cathedral contains floor mosaics with biblical scenes, one of the outstanding artworks of the 12th century.
Lecce. The buildings of Lecce are distinguished by highly elaborate architectural ornamentation carved in the soft, honey-coloured tufa of the region, Architecturally, the style is more late Renaissance than Baroque. Outstanding examples include the church of Santa Croce and the cathedral complex which includes an arcaded forecourt and episcopal palace. There is also a well-preserved Roman theatre. Free afternoon; Lecce is an exceptionally rewarding place in which to wander and relax.
Brindisi, Taranto. Possessing the safest natural harbour on the Adriatic, Brindisi has been of strategic importance for over 24 centuries. Visit the Norman church of San Giovanni al Sepolcro, octagonal with re-used Antique columns, and the cloister of San Benedetto. The National Archaeological Museum of Taranto houses one of Italy’s most important collections, Prehistoric to medieval, including a stunning collection of Hellenic-era goldwork. Stay overnight near Martina Franca.
Martina Franca, Ostuni. Martina Franca is an utterly enchanting hilltop town, largely dating to the 17th and 18th centuries. Among the major buildings are the Palazzo Ducale and the Cathedral of San Martino, but equally impressive are the private palaces, many in narrow back streets. Ostuni is another delightful white-washed hilltop town with bemusingly winding streets. The cathedral is late Gothic, Santo Spirito, in a piazza at the foot of the hill, is Baroque. To Trani for three nights.
Trani, Castel del Monte. Trani possesses one of the world’s loveliest little harbours. Stroll around its 3000 waterfront to the magically beautiful Romanesque cathedral perched by the sea. Return via the alleys and piazze a block inland, sights including the 12th-century church of Ognissanti. Then drive out to Castel del Monte, Emperor Frederick II’s octagonal hunting lodge of c. 1240. Situated on an isolated peak, it is one of the most intriguing secular buildings of the Middle Ages.
Gargano Peninsula. High on the southern slopes of Monte Gargano sits Monte Sant’Angelo, where the apparition of the Archangel Michael in the fifth century has made the grotto sanctuary a popular pilgrim destination. The massive castle was started by Normans and extended by Swabians, Aragonese and Bourbons. The Tomba di Rotari is a baptistery with 12th-century decorations and a domed roof. Dedicated to Padre Pio, the complex of San Giovanni Rotondo includes a new church by Renzo Piano.
Bari. Capital of Puglia, Bari has a wonderful walled medieval quarter beside the sea, one of the most extensive and unspoilt anywhere. The Basilica of San Nicola, begun 1087, is not only the first but also the greatest of Puglian Romanesque churches; the episcopal throne here is remarkable. Also visit the cathedral (1170) and the immensely impressive castle. Fly from Bari via Milan Linate, arriving at London City at c. 7.30pm.
Specialist in the Middle Ages and Renaissance – lectures for Oxford University’s Department of Continuing Education. He is Honorary Secretary of the British Archaeological Association, for whom he has edited and contributed to collections of essays on medieval cloisters, chantries, Anjou, and King’s Lynn and the Fens. In 2010 he established a biennial series of international conferences on Romanesque visual culture. His most recent effort in this field – Romanesque Patrons and Processes – was published in 2018. He is also author of the Blue Guides to both Normandy and the Loire Valley.
Price, per person
Two sharing: £2,680 or £2,460 without flights. Single occupancy: £2,950 or £2,730 without flights.
By train: London – Paris – Turin – Lecce: c. 20 hours. Contact us for more information.
Flights (economy class) with Alitalia (Airbus 320 & Embraer 90); travel by private coach; hotel accommodation; breakfasts and 5 dinners with wine, water, coffee; all admissions; all tips, all taxes; the services of the lecturer.
Patria Palace Hotel, Lecce: a stylish 5-star hotel in an excellent location near the church of Santa Croce. Rooms are spacious and elegantly furnished. Relais Villa San Martino, Near Martina Franca: a converted villa 3 km outside the town. Rooms are tastefully and individually decorated but vary in size. Hotel San Paolo al Convento, Trani: a charming 4-star hotel converted from a 15th-century convent, although service and maintenance are not always quite up to standard. Single rooms are doubles for sole use throughout.
The tour involves a lot of walking in town centres, where coach access is restricted, and a lot of standing in museums and churches. A good level of fitness is necessary. It should not be attempted by anyone who has difficulty with everyday walking and stair-climbing. Average distance by coach per day: 70 miles.
Between 10 and 22 participants.
Before booking, please refer to the FCDO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting.