Once Upon a Time in Italy

A feature article on the Apulia (Puglia) region of Italy, from the cave culture of Matera to the trulli houses of Alberobello to the wild baroque architecture of Lecce

The Ancient Romans built seven major highways, and two of them made a beeline for Apulia. The famed Appian Way ends at Brindisi, the Via Consolare at Taranto, both Apulian ports from which the Roman legions set sail to conquer their empire. During the Dark Ages, pilgrims used the same roads for treks to the Holy Land, and by the early Middle Ages the soldiers of Christ, and soldiers of fortune, were flocking to Apulia's ports to sail off on the Crusades.

To this day, travelers make their way south to Brindisi to hop ferries bound for the Greek Isles. But what these latter-day sun-worshippers miss on that fast train from Rome through Apulia—the stiletto "heel" of Italy's boot-like profile—is that remarkable countryside through which millennia of fellow travelers have passed.

The Romans left stretches of flagstoned ancient road, amphitheaters, and columns to mark the ends of their highways, as well as one of literature's very first "road trip" stories—the Odyssey notwithstanding. It was written by Horace in 38 BC as a satire about an Apulian vacation during which the poet suffered from what very well may be history's first recorded case of la turista. (Don't worry; these days the water's safe to drink.)

Medieval pilgrims left cave shrines frescoed with antique saints. On their way to the boats, the Crusaders built chapels dedicating their quests to the Virgin Mary. On their way back, they erected shrines to house the hallowed remains of saints "liberated" from the Holy Lands, which is how the Turkish saint Nikolaos of Myra ended up re-interred as San Nicola—and reinterpreted as Santa Claus—in the Apulian port of Bari.

Apulia is still a place of deep spirituality, where an immensely popular 20th century home-grown healer named Padre Pio is already on the Vatican's shortlist for sainthood. You'll see photos of his kind, watery eyes and salt-and-pepper beard everywhere here: framed on the walls of bars, dangling from rear-view mirrors, and worn proudly as a pendant on a golden chain.

But what makes Apulia truly remarkable wasn't brought in by outsiders or left behind by passing wayfarers. Apulia has a unique—in many cases surpassingly odd—culture all its own, amalgamated from its centuries as a Mediterranean melting pot.

Apulia has variously been part of Magna Graecia (Greater Greece), viciously fought over by the Romans and Carthaginians, a vassal state of Sicily, and a bastion of Frederick II's medieval Norman Empire—which means you're as likely to run into blond, blue-eyed locals as you are a "typical" olive-skinned southern Italian.

So welcome to a land where one city may consist entirely of caves, the next of tiny pointy houses built of stacked stones, and a third a maze of narrow alleys threading between whitewashed buildings whose softened edges would look more at home in North Africa or a Greek Isle.

Welcome to a land where the loaves of bread are three feet across, the locals invented their own brand of baroque architecture, and everything is so far off the tour bus radar you could spend a week here without every running into another tourist.

Welcome to Apulia.

» On to: The Phantom City and & Culture of the Caves

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