The wonders, delights and sights of Italy’s southern region of Puglia, certainly leave impressionable images in the memory and warmth in the heart.
Having spent a couple of days enjoying the regions capital of Bari and the city’s historic beauty and treasures, it was time to pick up a rental car and visit some of the historical and unique villages, dotted across the region and quaint fishing villages that grace the sun-baked coastline.
With no set itinerary planned we headed south of Bari and found ourselves stopping in the truly delightful coastal town of Polignano a Mare, once known as the ‘Pearl of the Adriatic’. The townships origins date back to the 4th century when Greek settlers founded the city of Neapolis.
The stunning turquoise water and small rocky beach of Lama Monachile is a popular spot for locals and tourists to take in the sun.
Taking our time, and roaming the charming old town with idyllic terrace homes that line the intertwining lanes that run along the top of the 20 metre high limestone coastal cliffs.
Spending time and taking in the moment to learn about the small now desecrated chapel of Santo Stefano. Built during the early Middle Ages on the homonymous bastion. This natural stone church served the lower classes as they gathered in prayer and shared witnessing the marriage of their class.
The rustic small belfry standing atop the balcony shows a small bell that was used to call the faithful of what was once the poorest neighbourhood in the old town.
Today, this quaint small chapel is home to a local art gallery.
The narrow winding lanes of Polignano a Mare’s old town, showcases many beautifully designed and quaint terrace homes as you turn every corner.
Whilst, spending time taking in the expansive views of the old town and the many caves tucked away in the limestone cliffs from the bastion lookout, are certainly captivating.
Wandering back into the labyrinth of pretty lanes lined with more quaint terrace homes, then finding ourselves at the Church of Purgatory that dates back to the 18th century.
The sacristy of the church was formerly the chapel of Saint Martin and was once the burial place for children and the poorer community members. A trapdoor in the sacristy floor opens to the ancient underground cemetery.
It was interesting to learn about the concave façade, that is divided in two. On the portal architrave (door frame, lintel or beam) you’ll see skulls, bones and an hour glass in bas-relief; being a characteristic of churches that were used as places of burial.
A stone’s throw away from the Church of Purgatory we found ourselves in the Main Square, Piazza Vittorio Emanuele, and time for a light snack and a drink.
The piazza is home to the Town Hall building with its unique clock that was added during the mid-18th century, and houses sculptural ornaments in the window of its medieval origins and past. The building was also once a University and the rear of the building was once used as a prison.
Diagonally across the square from the Town Hall is the most important church in the Old Town, ‘The Mother Church’, or former Cathedral of Polignano a Mare, dedicated to Santa Maria Assunta.
Unlike the chapel of Santo Stefano, ‘The Mother Church’ was for the town’s noble and wealthy to join in holy matrimony and the celebration of marriage. The church was consecrated to the holy Virgin in 1295, and stands on the grounds of a former pagan temple.
Such an enjoyable and delightful experience, sitting in the local square whilst watching the comings and goings of locals, and enjoying a beer and bruschetta in such an idyllic and historical setting.
However, for now with other historic sites in the immediate area of Puglia beckoning, we decide to make our way back to the car and continue our day trip to the historic seaside township of Monopoli.
Leaving the old town we pass by the Statue of Mons Pompeo Sarnelli, a prominent Roman Catholic Bishop, that rose to importance as a young man born in Polignano a Mare in 1649.
Past the statue and walking through the Arco Marchesale gate that dates back to 1561.
Walking via the Arco Marchesale gate that dates back to 1561.
And past one more church (where I parked the car). The Church Chiesa della Trinita (Trinity Church), in the Piazza Trinita, was built next to an oratory dating back to the 17th century.
A short twenty minute drive and we’re in the picturesque seaside town of Monopoli. Arriving during siesta when the streets were quiet and the old town was a pleasure to explore and roam with very few people around.
The seaside town of Monopoli was founded by Greek, Egnatia settlers’ during the Byzantine era around 500BC, as a fortified settlement, and remained so until 11th BC following and invasion by the Lapyges, an Indo European people.
Successive invasions and destruction continued during many subsequent years under various rulerships.
During the middle ages the Monopoli main port was an important stopping off point for ships travelling between Bari and Brindisi, and was the location of a Benedictine monastery that provided travellers to the holy land, respite. With numerous attacks over centuries, it was during the reign of King Charles V, that the Santo Stefano Castle was constructed and completed in 1525 to defend the city against frequent and bloody attacks by Saracen and Turkish pirates.
Monopoli is home to a number of castle’s that grace the coastline, and standing proud at the entrance to largo castello is the stone fortress of the Castle of Carlos V. Commissioned by the Emperor Charles V in 1552; the castle houses a bastion and was used as a jail for a number of centuries until 1969, and offers impressive views out to the Adriatic Sea.
The Castle of Carlos V, stood abandoned following its use as a prison, and subsequently needed restoration work, and then became an important location to house cultural events, including cinematographic exhibitions.
Brightly coloured little blue fishing boats are found moored in Porto Vecchio, a short walk from the Castle of Carlos V.
Whilst a leisurely stroll from the historic Porto Vecchio through some delightful arched narrow lanes and past picturesque terrace homes of the old town, provides an enjoyable walk to the Monopoli Cathedral.
Monopoli Cathedral, a Roman Catholic Cathedral, is also known as the Basilica of the Madonna della Madia, and dedicated to the Virgin Mary. In my honest opion, is also one of the most ornate Cathedral’s I’d see since being in Southern Italy.
The Cathedral with its elegant façade stands on the grounds of a former Roman Temple dedicated to the Messenger God Mercury and was a burial site from the 1st century.
Construction began on a new Cathedral in 1107 and was then razed to the ground and rebuild and enlarged to its present Baroque style in the 18th century.
The new cathedral retained only the six tier 17th century bell tower with a circular dome that can be seen above the roof tops from pretty much every point within the old town.
In 1786 a 33 metre high wall was constructed and characterised by two floors at the right side corner of the Cathedral, to counteract the force of the winds. The upper floor shows statutes of important saints with the civic clock located in the centre. Looking a little closer atop the upper floor, you’ll see a small sail bell.
Continuing along Via Argento (just around the corner from the Cathedral) and finding ourselves at the entrance to the Church of Purgatory, officially known as the Chiesa di Santa Maria del Suffraggio.
The seemingly unwelcome heavy wooden doors show two skeletons facing each other, and a stone doorway that resembles a macabre collection of skulls and cross bones and flower motifs carved around its entrance.
This was the second Purgatory church that I’d seen that day and learnt that such graphic illustrations were common on Purgatory churches across the region during the 16th and 17th centuries, being a period that was marked with heightened religious thinking in Europe.
The church is dedicated to the Madonna of Suffragio (meaning intercession) and provided a place to pray for the souls in purgatory, for their sins without repentance.
However, whilst this fascinating church has a specific religious foundation, its construction in the late 17th century came about due to a catholic brotherhood, known as ‘The Confraternity of the Intercession for the Souls of Purgatory’.
On 20 September, 1686, the cathedral’s bell tower collapsed and falling to the ground damaged a number of surrounding houses, and tragically killing 40 people. In memory of those killed the brotherhood bought the land and began the construction of the Church of Purgatory in 1687, with completion in 1700.
The church was closed at the time of our visit, as it is only open to the public for Mass between 6.00/ 7.00pm.
There is more to see in Monopoli, however a spontaneous decision was made to take a two hour drive through the back roads (off toll roads) and make our way to Minervino Murge before returning to Bari.
Walking done a laneway to return to the car, I looked up to see the Cathedral’s Bell Tower dominating the skyline.
Monopoli’s old town is a delightful location to explore on foot along the narrow laneways with many quaint and architecturally beautiful and historical treasures makes it well worth a visit.
Leaving Monopoli and taking the back roads to Minervino Murge is a nice drive through the Italian countryside, passing through many towns and villages and the open landscape. A couple of off the tarmac road turns with Google Maps and the journey took a little longer.
Driving along the road and seeing the fist site of Minervino Murge, one can clearly understand why this historic hillside township is also known as the balcony of Apulia (Puglia). Sitting approx. 500 metres above sea level and overlooking the picturesque views of the agricultural fields across the Ofanto Valley, and the surrounding Alta Murgia National Park.
Early settlers to the hilltop township date back to the 8th and 7th century BC. Cereal crops, olive groves and almond trees grace the agricultural lands. Whilst the 1083 hectare reproduction Forest of Acquatetta provides various forms of wild oak.
However, the historic finds are found the oldest area of the township, known as Scesciola. The medieval village of Scesciola takes its name from the Arabic word meaning ‘labyrinth”, and is certainly an apt name given the labyrinth of sporadically shaped lanes, foot ramps and intermingling whitewashed dwellings that cling to the slopes of the hill. The historic village was built using local stone and subsequently grew when the village was under he rule of the Normans.
Taking a moment and stopping in the local square of Piazza Bovio to ask a kind local for directions, turned out to be a good move. Not only did the man speak good English, he graciously offered to show us a number of historical locations that were found in the old village.
The kindness of strangers never ceases to amaze me.
Offering explanation for the deep religious faith of the local inhabitants that is evident given the number of churches.
Including the Cattedrale dell’ Assunta (Cathedral of Santa Maria of the Assumption), a medieval building consecrated in 1608.
The Roman Church of Saint Mary Incoronata with its elegant Baroque façade, built in 1794.
There is so much more to see and explore in Minervino Murge, however the afternoon sun is slipping into the horizon.
Thanking the young man for his time and insights, we part company and my friend and I make our way back to the central square, Piazza Bovio.
Stopping by the Clock Tower, “commonly referred to as the “old clock”, with the late afternoon sun casting an orange glow across the exterior.
The tower was constructed during the second half of the 15th century, to what is believed by the Orsini-Del Balzo as shown from the presence of the noble family’s coat-of- arms that reveals its original civic function and its function as a representation of power.
The information sign also notes that it was during the 18th century that the bells where included in the upper part, while the clock was added at the beginning of the 19th century.
The two level clock tower also shows what is now an enclosed arch window that can be reached by the internal wooden staircase that also leads to the upper level to access the bells.
On returning to the piazza and the Sun dipping closer to the horizon, a golden glow brought warmth and extra charm to this intoxication township.
This unplanned detour was well worth the two plus hour drive and the occasionally wrong turn using Google maps. I was totally taken by this incredible historical and very pretty hilltop township that zigged zagged up the hillside through tiny quaint lanes to be presented with no less than 25 churches, intermingled amongst a series of stone stairways, small drive through lanes and tiny, very tiny walkways. I had never seen anywhere quite like it.
How I would love to return for an overnight stay or two.
For now it’s approx. a two hour drive back to Bari, and turned out to be a few more wrong turns to avoid the Autostrada motorways and tolls. NOTE: to self, next visit arrange a toll pass.
This blog is the second in a series of posts sharing my travels on day trips around Southern Italy’s Puglia Region. I hope you enjoy reading and that I bring some inspiration (if needed) to visit this amazing and magical part of the world.
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