Brindisi is well worth a visit when in Puglia, although most of the thousands of people who pass through the airport never see the city itself. An interesting waterfront, elegant tree lined streets and a string of historical sites provide an attractive and varied destination for a day or to stay. We definitely recommend spending some time there while in Puglia. It tends to be quiet and slightly laid back, although if there is a cruise ship in port it can be thronged with tourists for a few hours.
Brindisi has always been a crucial land/sea route link, a key jumping off spot between Europe and the Orient - for the Romans (the Appian Way ended here), the Crusaders, the silk trade, troops and now tourists on their way to Greece and Albania.
Although the city grew to prominence as a major port in the Roman Empire, it was founded by the Greeks, according to legend by the hero Diomedes, with the name ‘Brentesion’ which means ‘Deer’s Head’, referring to the shape of the natural harbour that has defined the city’s history. In parts of the harbour area there have been discoveries showing Bronze Age settlement; the harbour was used by the Mesappii for trading links to the Greeks and other peoples across the Adriatic. The great Roman road Via Appia terminated at Brindisi.
After the fall of the Roman Empire Brindisi was sacked by the Goths but re-emerged under Byzantine rule, which continued until the invasion of the Normans in the 11th Century. In the 13th Century Frederick II had a significant influence on the city, before the Angevine, Aragonese, Venetians, Spanish, Austrians and Bourbons ruled the city. In the wake of the Italian Government’s armistice with the Allied Forces, Brindisi officially became the capital of Italy from September 1943 until February 1944, when the King of Italy, Vittorio Emanuele III and his wife settled here after fleeing Rome in fear of repercussions from the German army there.
The city has two castles: the Castello Alfonsino, or ‘di Mare’, built by the Aragonese in 1445 as a military base on an island which can be seen from the waterfront; and Castello Svevo, or ‘di Terra’, built by Frederick II as a fortified residence. Castello Svevo had its defenses expanded over the years with the addition of cylindrical towers, before being used as a prison in the 1800s and subsequently as a naval base (this is still its main use although group tours can be arranged by appointment).
The city’s cathedral dates back to the 11th Century, but the majority of what is visible today is of 18th Century construction after an earthquake which destroyed much of the previous building. There remains some of the original mosaic flooring and a handful of naves. The cathedral contains displays of many of the important events occurring in the city over the centuries, from Crusaders departing to the Holy Land, the crowning of Ruggero as King of Sicily and Frederick II’s marriage to Isabella of Brienne.
You can have an interesting and varied tour of the central area, ancient and modern in a short time.
Try walking from the station along Corso Umberto, right opposite the entrance, passing a fountain in Piazza Cairoli before joining Corso Garibaldi which takes you directly to the waterfront. This is a pleasant 10 minute walk under trees, the streets are partly pedestrianised, lined with quality shops, bars and restaurants. The old port area is reached at Piazza Vittorio Emanuele. Large ships no longer dock here, they can be seen at the new port area a short distance away; but the terminal buildings are there, with coaches carrying people embarking/disembarking.
This section of the waterfront, Viale Regina Margherita, overlooks the inner harbour, now a marina. You can see the Castello Alfonsino outside the harbour area, and also look across to the war memorial for Italian sailors built in 1933; this has a viewing area at the top. If you want to get to the far side of the harbour, there is a little ferry which will take you.
The key site to visit on the waterfront is the flight of steps (la Scalinata Virgilio) leading up to the two Roman columns, which reputedly marked the end of the 350 mile Appian way from Rome. Only one remains complete. The other fell into ruin and was given to Lecce as a present to its Bishop Oronzo, in appreciation of his saving Brindisi from the plague - it can be seen in Piazza Sant' Oronzo in Lecce. Near the steps the poet Virgil died in 19AD.
The other key waterfront site is Betty ristorante, pizzeria, caffe, pasticceria, geletaria, bar etc, which seems to have taken over the whole middle section of Via Regina Margherita. A great spot for a stop, good food and drink, and as likely as not some live music.
The far end of the waterfront is a military area, usually with a warship anchored there below the Castello Svevo, which is also a naval barracks. However, you can leave the waterfront and enter the old town streets, visiting the Duomo; the 14th Century Loggia Balsamo (a decorated balcony at the entrance to Piazza Duomo); the Chiesa di Santa Teresa with some recently renovated cloisters next door; and not to be missed, tucked away down a side street, Tempio di San Giovanni al Sepolcro, an ancient baptistry with unusual frescoes.
Between the old town and Corso Garibaldi, a large and uncompromising modern building is the Teatro Verdi. This was constructed in the San Pietro degli Schiavoni district on top of extensive uncovered remains of the Roman city, now preserved in a dimly lit basement surrounded by a walkway and explanatory boards.