The town of Palagianello sits between Castellaneta and Mottola, to the north-west of Taranto. As with several of the other towns in this part of the Province of Taranto Palagianello developed as a settlement based on dwellings in caves within the ravines that dominate the landscape here. The Medieval period saw a fairly complex 'cave village' establish itself, in the same spot where the modern town sits today. Some of the caves can still be accessed today, with the town council working towards opening up further access. The dwellings towards the top of the ravine were inhabited up until the late 20th Century. Contained within the old ravine settlement are numerous rock churches, some still retaining some of their original frescoes.
In the 16th Century the Domini Roberto family started construction of the town's impressive castle, which sits just above where the original cave dwellings were located. In the early 19th Century the town was essentially considered a 'suburb' of the nearby town of Palagiano, but after a long battle Palagianello regained its status as an independent town in its own right in 1907.
The castle looks over the town from its raised location, in front of it is the main piazza, containing the small church, Chiesa Matrice di San Pietro Apostolo. The entrance to the square is the Porta Grande, a gate with a small clock tower. It's a pleasant little town with the attraction of the cave dwellings to explore if this is of interest. The area around the town is defined by many masserie and other farm buildings - however the beautiful landscape has been blighted somewhat by the construction of the A14, which at this point is built on a raised platform, causing a huge scar across the view of the town as you approach it from the south.
Also of note is the modern church on the outskirts of the town, the Chiesa Madonna delle Grazie
Montemesola is a town located to the north east of Taranto, half way between Grottaglie and Crispiano. There is evidence of cave settlements in the area dating back to Neolithic times, but it was not until the 13th Century that the town was firmly established. However, being caught up between the warring factions in the area over the following centuries, real growth didn't occur in the town until the 19th Century, fueled primarily by the success of local agriculture.
The old town area of Montemesola follows a different approach to many others in the region, discarding the usual narrow winding streets and rather following a more logical geometric design. There are a number of dramatic gates providing entrances to the old town and buildings of note such as the Chiesa di Santa Maria della Croce, and the Municipale, or town council building.
The Municipale was once the home of the Convent of Sacramentini, then became an elementary school, before finally housing the town council in the 20th Century.
If traveling around the area, Montemesola is worthy of a stop off to have a wander through the old town, there are a handful of cafes around to stop for a drink at.
The most celebrated event of the year for the town is the 'Gran Festival dei Baffi' - or 'Great Moustache Festival', which takes place at the end of July/beginning of August each year. The festival has been going on since 1965, when a local vet, Dr. Mario Carbonaro, went on holiday and returned with a moustache, much to his friends' disgust. After much teasing, Dr. Carbonaro dismissed his friends' opinion and stated that only women could judge whether or not the new facial hair suited him, and thus the idea behind the festival was born. Since then the festival has grown is reputation and entrants flock to the festival from all over Italy, and even further afield, as far away as Canada.
Leporano is south east of Taranto, west of Manduria, and just next door to the town of Pulsano.
The town is distinctive from a distance due to its prominent castle - Castello Muscettola. The Muscettola family ruled from the castle for many centuries, and after services to King Philip IV of Spain, they received principality status and the start of the Princes of Leporano dynasty. The Muscettola family line died out in the 1850s and the castle came under the ownership of a wealthy local family who used it for olive oil, wine and tobacco production!
The castle is now owned by the Municipality of Leporano, who have completed much restoration in order to use it as a centre for cultural events.
Unless attending a specific event at the town there is not a great deal to see or do, but it is a worthwhile stop off as part of a wider itinerary. Just on the outskirts of the town towards the coast is the Parco Archeologico Saturo.
Located to the south east of Taranto and west of Manduria is the small town of Pulsano.
This is one of the oldest inhabited areas in the Gulf of Taranto region, with Ancient Greek and Roman influences, and subsequently French and Spanish, all contributing to the local dialect and culture. The proximity to the beautiful Ionian Sea and pleasant climate resulted in the Romans establishing the area as a holiday resort, building villas between the modern day town and the sea.
The most striking structure in the town is the 15th Century castle - Castello de Falconibus. A short walk away is the impressive Chiesa Santa Maria la Nova, which was hosting a typical Italian wedding during our visit to the town. Construction of the Romanesque church commenced in the first half of the 19th Century, but progress was slow and then halted by a fire in the late 1800s. Restoration efforts in the 20th Century were delayed by the World Wars, and in 1957 another fire destroyed many works of art housed in the church.
The town today is not a major tourist attraction but is worth a brief stop off for a coffee en-route elsewhere, such as the fantastic beaches along the Ionian coast.
Established in 706 BC by the Spartans, Taranto became known as the 'Spartan City' after its founders. The natural harbour meant that the city quickly grew and became one of the largest inhabited areas of Italy by 500 BC.
The original Greek settlement is now situated on an island, connect to the mainland by bridges, after access for military ships to the inner 'Small Sea' harbour was excavated in the 19th Century. Although much of the ancient buildings have been destroyed or built on, as you enter the 'island' over the swing bridge there remain two Doric columns from the Greek temple.
The castle, Castello Aragonese, was built in the 15th Century on the site of earlier Greek, Byzantine and Norman constructions. A guided tour lasting around 1 ½ hours takes you around the round towers, walkways and tunnels, as well as the Chapel of St. Leonardo.
The city's cathedral, Cattedrale di San Cataldo, is the oldest in Puglia, having been constructed in the 11th Century. The Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Taranto is an important museum dedicated to the Greek Imperial culture, displaying impressive works of goldsmiths and other craftsman along with ancient mosaic floors.
Modern Taranto has one of the largest populations of any city in southern Italy and is an important commercial port and the main site of the Italian Navy. There are significant heavy industries, including iron and steel foundries and oil refineries.
As a tourist destination Taranto shouldn't be very high on anyone's priority list - the heavy industry surrounding the town make the outskirts pretty grim, as is the port area, and the new town is hectic with few redeeming features. The old town is filled with grand buildings that shows signs of a once prosperous time, but most are in a poor state of repair and/or boarded up and falling down, and little effort seems to be made to keep it clean with piles of rubbish building up in places. There are one or two pockets of new developments nearer the castle end of the old town, but these are the exception rather than the rule, and it would seem the town has a long way to go before being anywhere near as desirable as the other towns in the province and further afield in Puglia. If passing through the area and you have a spare hour then the castle is worth seeing, as are the ruins of the Ancient Greek temple and cathedral, but beyond this we recommend getting out as quickly as you can to one of the towns in the surrounding area!
Situated at the top of a hill to the north west of Taranto and Massafra is the town of Mottola, often referred to as the 'Ionian Spy' due to its geographical position. At 1270ft above sea level it is visible for miles around. Ancient remains were discovered in the area at the turn of the 20th Century, indicating significant Bronze Age settlement on the site of the current town.
The altitude of the old town's narrow winding streets means that spectacular views of the Gulf of Taranto appear through gaps in the buildings. The centre of the old town is home to several churches, including the 12th Century Chiesa Matrice, as well as partial remains of 600 BC Greek walls.
In the territory around the town are hundreds of rock-hewn churches, most notable being San Nicola in Casalotto district, where tours are available that last around 2 hours for an admission fee.
North west of Taranto, along the main road and railway line towards Bari, is an ugly zone of heavy industry, factories, storage depots etc. After about 10 km, an imposing castle and the dome of a cathedral can be seen on a hillside overlooking the ribbon of road, rail and industry. This is the city of Massafra.
We seriously recommend you take time to visit if you are passing and get the chance. (It might be a convenient stop on a trip from Ostuni to Matera). We ourselves have stayed here overnight and can recommend a truly stunning place to stay if requested. There is a railway station served by trains between Bari and Taranto, roughly hourly; it takes about 10 minutes walking from the railway station to the old town, across a main road and then uphill, quite straightforward in daylight, but don't arrive at night unless you know the way from a previous visit.
Massafra was allegedly originally settled by refugees from the Roman colonies in Africa, later it came under the rule of the Lombards and then the Normans. Uniquely, it is split in two by a deep, narrow, wooded ravine, the Gravina San Marco. Caves in the side of the ravine and under the present town were inhabited until mediaeval times, and there are several rupestrian (cave) churches; some of these can be visited via organised tours - at Christmas there is a Presepe Vivente (living crib) taking place in them. You can walk along a path at the bottom of the Gravina San Marco but it is overgrown and not very well maintained unfortunately.
The Gravina San Marco separates the "old" and "new" towns - the former is sometimes called Terra, the latter Santa Caterina. It is spanned by three bridges, the key one being the middle one, Ponte Vecchio. This is used by pedestrians and vehicles, and offers a spectacular view of the Gravina San Marco and the two parts of Massafra, with the old town dominated by the dome of San Lorenzo.
On one side of the bridge is Piazza Garibaldi, the heart of the old town. There is a tourist information office run by a voluntary organisation in the short stretch of street between the Piazza and the bridge, stated opening hours 9.30-12.30 and 15.45-18.00, but we have found these to be unreliable. There is a website however, and this gives a lot of information about organised tours, events (of which there are a number of interest, so if you plan to visit Massafra, check up on what is happening). http://www.massafraturismo.it/
Piazza Garibaldi contains the old clock tower and various other civic buildings. It is surrounded by the narrow streets of the old town, some of them pedestrianised. Massafra old town is a largely residential area, most of the streets are used by cars and are tarmaced, which makes just wandering around the streets less pleasant than is the case in many other places.
From the Piazza Garibaldi, head east along the attractive narrow pedestrianised Vicolo Lo Pizzo to reach the Castello after about 200 metres. This originates from the 10th century but was mainly constructed under the Normans, a quadrilateral structure with three fortified towers. It is best viewed externally; you can go into the internal courtyard, there is no charge, the building accommodates the municipal library.
A short distance along the streets to the west of the Piazza Garibaldi is the Duomo di San Lorenzo Martire, the dome of which is prominent in the old town. This enormous church is quite modern, constructed in the period 1853-1931. Its light and airy interior contains a number of altar pieces and statues which have come from older churches in the area.
Head south from the Piazza Garibaldi and you will immediately encounter the church of the Convento di San Benedetto, built in the early 18th century. A little further through the narrow streets is the Santuario di Gesu' Bambino (one of only five churches in Europe dedicated to the "Divine Child"), built in the 19th century in neo classical style, with a pair of small domed towers. Two interesting bronze statues are on either side of the door.
Beyond the Santuario, the narrow streets become steeper and in some cases are stepped as you drop down into the Gravina Madonna della Scala. Despite its name, this is not a ravine, just the side of the hill on which Massafra is built. The vista is bleak - industrial buildings and a lot of dereliction. However, in this unattractive area, tucked into the steep side of the hill, are some important Massafra churches. If you get to the rough road at the bottom of the slope and turn left, you will come to the 17th century Chiesa Madonna della Grazie; a little further on is the enormous baroque frontage of the 16th century Chiesa di Sant'Agostino, part of a large convent; and the 16th century Antica Chiesa Madre, which has such a military appearance that some think it was originally meant to be a fortification. Beyond this point there are some wide steps taking you back up into the old town, or alternatively you can walk across the bottom of the Gravina San Marco into the Santi Medici quarter, where you get especially fine views of the Castello.
From Piazza Garibaldi you can reach the "new town" of Massafra by crossing the Ponte Vecchio. The new town comprises a mixture of 19th century and more modern buildings on a gridiron street pattern. The modern building here have been particularly well designed and integrated; they contribute to a generally pleasant feel to this extensive area. The bridge leads directly into Corso Italia, across the large Piazza Vittorio Emanuele and then Corso Roma. This is Massafra's main shopping street, and one of the few streets largely pedestrianised. Corso Roma is about 600 metres long, and is thronged with people in the evening.
By turning right (south) immediately after you cross the bridge, you enter the narrow streets of the Santi Medici area, which drop down in steps along the side of the gorge. This is one of Massafra's most attractive areas, with views across the Garvina to the old town; and also where you will find a couple of good restaurants. The Chiesa di Santi Medici was finished in 1720. The area is the focus of the festa di Santi Medici (27-29 September).
A stroll round the old town of Massafra as described takes a couple of hours at most, but many visitors with only a limited amount of time will probably skip the visit to the churches in the otherwise uninteresting Gravina Madonna della Scala.
If you wish to see the rupestrian churches in the Gravina San Marco, you will need to arrange this in advance via the Nuova Hellas Massafra Tourist Office http://www.massafraturismo.it/dove-siamo/ (cost is 10 euros, it takes about two hours and involves a bit of clambering).
One of the most well known places in Massafra is Santuario Madonna della Scala, which is located about 3km north of the old town centre so cannot be easily combined with a walk in the middle of the town. This is a large baroque church in the bottom of the Gravina Maddona della Scala, built in the early 18th century on the site of an older chapel which was a focus for pilgrims visiting the place of a miracle. To visit the church, you have to go down and up 125 steps.
If you want to have a meal in Massafra, it is a good idea to get some information in advance. It is not a place which gets a lot of visitors and so there are not many obvious restaurants, even in the main streets and squares; and they are not necessarily open. If you are in Piazza Garibaldi, there is a popular pizzeria called Paulo's a couple of minutes walk beyond the Convento San Benedetto along Via Fanelli. If you are on Corso Roma, we can particularly recommend a lively pizzeria Pikepa (closed Tuesdays), which is on Via Lamormara, the second street paralleling Corso Roma.
Martina Franca has a population of about 50,000, so it is one of the bigger towns in the region and significantly bigger than its various neighbouring towns. Most of the population live in rather unattractive residential blocks which fringe the hill on which the old city is located.
It was (and still is) a prosperous town (NB the Franca, as in Francavilla further south, signifies royal tax concessions which helped build its economy). Rich inhabitants and the nobility built decorated churches and ornate palazzi with elegant frontages, wrought iron balconies, and decorated doorways. It is this combination of baroque architecture and narrow winding streets which gives the town its special character.
The old city was a fully walled town until after the unification of Italy in 1861. The walls have long gone; however four Renaissance and Baroque gates still exist, effectively delineating the old town from the more modern 19th century part of town, which also has some fine buildings and a park. The baroque Porta di Santo Stefano (also known as Arco di Sant'Antonio) is the most impressive.
Martina Franca is about 45 minute drive from Ostuni, and can easily be visited in combination with its more famous neighbours such as Alberobello and Locorotondo - or en route to and from the airport at Bari. We have been to Martina Franca frequently. It is possible to park on the streets around the centro storico, but there are also a number of car parks, almost all of them on the east side of the centre. So if driving from Ostuni or Ceglie, look out for somewhere to park soon after you have got to the top of the hill and doubled back towards the central area. There is also a rail service which connects Martina Franca with Bari, the railway station is downhill from the centre.
Driving in is all uphill until you arrive in the middle, but the centro storico itself is mainly level, with no steps to speak of, so ideal for just wandering around. The usual narrow streets are of a somewhat superior construction than normally encountered. Martina Franca is noted for its baroque feel, and boasts grander buildings than other historic city centres.
Unless you are a real baroque specialist, it is possible to see the sights here quite quickly. The centro storico is ringed by busy shopping streets, and there are lots of places leading off these into the core. However, the most imposing way in is from the wide, tree-lined expanse of Piazza XX Settembre, through the baroque Porta di Santo Stefano (one of the four gates). This gate divides Piazza XX Settembre (actually a pleasant boulevard, site of a Christmas market in December) from the intimate Piazza Roma - which is hardly a piazza, more a triangular garden framing the entrance to the Palazzo Ducale. Just outside the Porta di Santo Stefano is a tourist office, with a map of the centro storico displayed (and copies available inside if it is open) - this contains a lot of information and also shows some simple walking routes, but we have not found out what makes them distinctive. Also next to the Porta di Santo Stefano and the tourist office is the Caffe Derna which serves excellent coffee and pastries.
Beyond the arch it is a short walk through the narrow but very elegant Via Vittorio Emanuele (this contains some interesting specialist and artistic shops) to Piazza Plebiscito, the true heart of the town and backdrop to its masterpiece, the Basilica di San Martino. The intricate, sandy-coloured baroque façade is extremely fine, especially when illuminated by the evening sun. The adjoining Piazza Maria Immacolata is half enclosed by a portico in which is the restaurant I Due Agnelli, a popular place to eat and drink right in the heart of the city.
The most important non-religious building is the Palazzo Ducale, with its entrance on the right as you walk through the Porta di Santo Stefano. If this is open, do not miss going inside and up the stairs (free entry). There is a long gallery of partially restored rooms along one side of the building, with displays and temporary exhibitions - you can spend as little or as long as you like on these. But the best thing is that you can walk along the whole length of the external balcony looking down onto the gardens and fountains of Piazza Roma. The Palazzo Ducale was the seat of the Caracciola family who dominated Martina Franca for many years in the eighteenth century; they probably looked down from the balcony as well, so you get a chance to feel aristocratic. There are also some good views over the town and the surrounding area, not much good for photography though unless you are keen on tall television aerials.
The Palazzo Ducale also houses the city council chamber and a museum on local wildlife and conservation. Its large internal courtyard plays host to the “Festival della Valle d'Itria” every July and August, with a series of operatic performances. The festival aims to showcase obscure, rarely performed works or original versions of well known operas.
Martina Franca is also the traditional home of 'capocollo', a pork salami marinated in wine and herbs, settled for 15 days, then smoked and left for 3 months to age. There are many outlets selling this delicious fare around the old town, a real taste of the region.
Manduria is situated south of Francavilla Fontana and east of Taranto. The area was the site of an ancient Messapian settlement, with large megalithic walls to protect its citizens. In the 10th Century the Saracens destroyed the city, the remaining inhabitants rebuilding adjacent to the old site. It was known as Castelnuovo until comparatively recent times.
The remains of the Messapian walls still survive – the Parco Archeologico delle Mura Messapiche on the north west side of the town is one of the largest in Italy. As well as the walls, there remains the evidence of defensive ditches, an acropolis, and tombs that contained various ancient artefacts. Entrance to the park is charged at €5 per person, with discounts for students and over-65s. Next to the Parco Archeologico is the Fonte Pliniano, a well which Pliny the Elder mentions in his Natural History as it always maintained a constant level. He describes an almond tree growing out of the centre of the well, which can still be seen to this day, and has become the design of the town's coat of arms. Since the Parco Archaeologico and Pliny's Well are some distance from the city centre, if travelling by car it is usually best to visit them directly.
Manduria is most famous as being the home of the Primitivo grape, one of the oldest known grape varieties. (The American Zinfandel grape variety is genetically the same as Primitivo). With DOC status, Primitivo di Manduria has put the town on the map, and there is a museum of wine – Museo della Civilta del Primitivo on Via Fabio Massimo. This is also some distance from the city centre, although near Manduria's small railway station. It is actually a museum run in conjunction with a sales outlet for Cantina Produttori Vini Manduria, a wine cooperative founded in 1932 by "enlightened" wine producers. So don't be surprised to find it is in a building surrounded by an industrial winery with banks of steel containers, and people coming out with large containers of wine. Inside the building is a sales area where you can sample different types of wine from steel vats, prior to purchasing this in containers or from the variety of bottled wine on display. The museum consists of a large display of huge barrels, carts, photographs etc on the sales floor; you can just wander round this at your leisure, it is very interesting and dramatic. However, downstairs is a large and well organised basement showing old artefacts and machinery to do with all aspects of old and new wine production. This basement can only be visited with the help of a guide. If you want a proper tour, in Italian or especially English, you have to book in advance. However, we have been round on a quick tour (which is all we wanted) under the supervision of one of the staff - it takes about 20 minutes. The museum and shop are open Monday-Saturday (lunchtime closing 1.30-3.30pm) and Sunday mornings.
The main part of Manduria consists of a gridiron of streets, so to see the central area just follow "centro" and find somewhere to park. Traffic here is a bit of a nightmare even for Italy. Only the small centro storico is relatively car free. This area consists of a few streets around the Duomo, but part of it is a former Jewish ghetto, small houses in streets which were once gated to segregate the populace.
The Duomo itself is dedicated to the Holy Trinity. Unlike many such cathedrals, it is not linked to a large piazza. Most of the building dates from 16th Century, although there have been many changes since then. The façade has a rose window. Inside the main object of general interest are the wooden pulpit (walnut, made in 1608) and a decorated font (dating from 1534).
The main street of Manduria is attractive and lively, well worth a short stroll. It extends from the gardens of the Piazza Vittorio Emanuele via Piazza Garibaldi (where is located an impressive building, Palazzo Imperiali, now used as a bank and a pizzeria), through an archway dedicated to the Virgin Mary to the Chiesa Sant'Angelo. On the way you pass Manduria's main baroque church, Parrocchia Di Santa Maria Di Costantinopoli, with the characteristic multi-coloured dome. This church is currently undergoing extensive restoration work.
There are plenty of places to eat and drink in Manduria, especially in the summer. The best bet is in and around the small centro storico. We can personally recommend Osteria dei Mercanti, a few yards from the Duomo. This has the simplest decor we have encountered in any restaurant in Italy, just a few photographs and pictures on pastel painted walls in a series of big rooms. The food (especially the daily home made pasta) is top notch, with the usual polite and friendly service you get everywhere in Puglia,
There are some good free beaches about 10 miles beyond Manduria, so if you want to get there in the morning and see something of the place, then take a picnic to the beach or eat in one of the many bars and restaurants close by, and return to the city centre for the evening. This would make a really good day trip from Ostuni by car.
On one side of the Piazza Vittorio Emanuele is a weird sculpture behind some railings - Il Calvario. This consists of representations associated with Calvary, constructed from broken pieces of different ceramics and other cast offs - it is described as "arte povera". Constructed in the 19th century, it is very distinctive and must be looked at when visiting Manduria. We have found a website link which tells you all about it - in Italian.
Just to the north of Ginosa and to the east of Matera is Laterza. It is believed the name of the town is derived from the Latin 'latentia', meaning a 'place of caved and hiding places'. There are signs that the area was inhabited in Neolithic times, but established information only confirms Ancient Greeks and Romans settled here.
Surrounding the town is a Special Protection Area for birds and rare Mediterranean vegetation and ancient forests. Excursions by foot or on a bike can be organised from Oasi Lipu di Gravina for a rock and woodland adventure. The ravine at Laterza is around 200m deep and 12km long, making it one of the largest in Europe.
In Laterza itself there is a pleasant old town, surrounding the old castle - it was originally built in 1393 as a defensive building during the feuds with the surrounding towns of Matera and Castellaneta, but was restructured in the mid-16th Century by the Marquis of Laterza, Giovanni Battista I D'Azzia, who converted it into a more residential palazzo. There are various narrow streets containing small squares and churches making the town a pleasant place for a short stop-off and a stroll, but not a great deal more.
Laterza produces a well-known bread 'Pane di Laterza' that is specially baked in ancient brick ovens, with a tough crust but with a light, soft and airy interior - very nice! The town is also known as having many butchers who serve cooked meats from their own stoves, although during our visit we didn't see (or smell!) a great deal of evidence of these.