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 couple of decades have Italophiles and discerning travellers been taking the region seriously.
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 notable episodes in mediaeval 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 north to the south of Puglia, this tour takes in the most important mediaeval and Baroque sites and well as the noteworthy items from other eras. 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 ancient 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. In the autumnal light and cooler temperatures Puglia’s charms can now be enjoyed with comfort and ease.
While including some of the major items visited on our nine-day Normans in the South tour, this itinerary differs by lessening the focus on that era and encompassing a wider range of architecture, art and history.
Bitonto. Fly at c. 9.00am from London City to Bari via Milan Malpensa (Alitalia). Drive to Bitonto, which has one of the finest of Romanesque cathedrals in the region, with good sculpture and an Early Christian lower church. Continue to Trani, where the first three nights are spent.
Trani, Castel del Monte. A walk along the harbour of the small city of Trani includes the 12th-century church of Ognissanti and the magically beautiful Romanesque cathedral perched on the waterfront. In the afternoon drive out to Castel del Monte. Situated on an isolated peak, Frederick II’s extraordinary octagonal hunting lodge of c. 1240 is one of the most intriguing secular buildings of the Middle Ages.
Monte Sant’Angelo, San Giovanni Rotondo. High on the southern slopes of Monte Gargano sits Monte Sant’Angelo, where the apparition of the Archangel Michael in the 5th century has made the grotto sanctuary a popular destination for pilgrims. The massive castle was started by the Normans and extended by the Swabians, Aragonese and Bourbons. The Tomba di Rotari is a baptistery with 12th-century decorations and a domed roof. One of the most visited pilgrimage sites in the world, the complex of San Giovanni Rotondo includes San Pio’s new church designed by Renzo Piano.
Bari. Capital of Puglia, Bari has a wonderful walled mediaeval quarter beside the sea, extensive and unspoilt. The Basilica of San Nicola, begun in 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 later mediaeval Angevin castle. Drive to Martina Franca for an overnight stay.
Martina Franca, Taranto. Before leaving Martina Franca, see the 17th-century Palazzo Ducale with its fine Baroque façade and the cathedral of San Martino. The National Archaeological Museum of Taranto houses one of Italy’s most important archeological collections, from Prehistoric times to the Middle Ages. It includes the Ori di Taranto (Golden Treasure of Taranto), a stunning collection of Hellenic-era golden artwork. Drive to Lecce where the final three nights are spent.
Lecce, Brindisi. Lecce is distinguished by an elaborate style of Baroque and Rococo decoration wrought in the soft, honey-coloured tufa of the region. The outstanding examples are the cathedral and the church of Santa Croce. See also the well preserved Roman theatre. Possessing the safest natural harbour on the Adriatic, Brindisi has been of intermittent strategic importance for over 24 centuries. Visit San Giovanni al Sepolcro with a splendid portal decorated with reliefs. Return to Lecce where there is some fee time.
Galatina, Gallipoli, Otranto. Explore the Salentine Peninsula, the southernmost tip of the heel of Italy. Drive out to the pretty little town of Galatina to see the remarkable frescoes from the first half of the 15th century in the Franciscan church of St Catherine. Gallipoli was the centre of Byzantine Italy until conquered by the Normans in 1071. The highly picturesque old town is on an off-shore island protruding into the Ionian Sea. The ancient city of Otranto, the easternmost in Italy, has a Norman cathedral with outstanding 12th-century floor mosaics.
Ostuni. Ostuni is another delightful white-washed hilltop town with bemusingly winding streets. At its centre is a late Gothic cathedral with three fine rose windows. Fly from Bari via Rome Fiumicino, arriving at London Heathrow at c. 7.10pm.
Dr Richard Plant
Architectural historian and lecturer specialising in the Middle Ages with a strong interest in the modern. He studied at Cambridge, followed by the Courtauld, where he obtained his PhD. He was Deputy Academic Director at Christie’s Education and has published on English and German architecture.
Price, per person
Two sharing: £2,530 or £2,270 without flights. Single occupancy: £2,820 or £2,560 without flights.
Flights (economy class) on scheduled Alitalia flights (Airbus 320 & Embraer 90); travel by private coach; hotel accomodation; breakfasts and five dinners with wine, water and coffee; all admissions; all tips and taxes; the services of the lecturer & tour manager
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. 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. 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. Single rooms are doubles for sole use throughout.
There is quite a lot of walking, some of it uphill as the coach cannot enter the historic town centres. Some days involve a lot of driving. Average distance by coach per day: 70 miles.
Between 10 and 22 participants.
Before booking, please refer to the FCO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting: www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice.