Bordered by Molise, Campania and Basilicata Regions, this northernmost area of Puglia has a vast array of colours and flavours, and extends from the Sub-Appennine hills and the Gargano promontory right down into the heart of Frederick II’s territories. The sea-side resorts are bustling and lively, while the almost unreal peace in the countryside conveys the real character of this area. Wine-growing here is an ancient tradition, and the legend surrounding the origins of wine-growing here is that the king of Daunia invited the mythical Greek hero Diomedes to settle down; he had wandered around the Mediterranean after discovering that his wife was unfaithful and was seeking a new homeland. Diomedes planted the first vines, so that to this day, the vineyards are known as the "fields of Diomedes" and the typical Tremiti Island seagulls are also called "diomedee", almost as if their sing-song calls tell the story of the hero’s wanderings.
Some vines which have found their ideal habitat in this corner of Puglia are Montepulciano, Bombino (bianco and nero) and the increasingly well-known and appreciated Nero di Troia - the powerful and unmistakable variety common to both Daunia and the Murgia.
Daunia has two cities well worth visiting: Lucera, with its beautiful Piazza Duomo and its gothic-byzantine Cathedral built on the remains of a Saracen mosque, the courtyards of the aristocrats’ palaces, the Civic Museum and the Amphitheatre; San Severo has given its name to the area’s symbolic Doc wine and its old city has some interesting art and historical remains in the Civic Museum, the ex-Monastery of the Holy Trinity (SS. Trinità) belonging to the Celestine monks (now the Town Hall), and the Cavaliere and Carafa family residences.
Still on the subject of artistic and historical treasures, there is Castel del Monte, built by the Swabian emperor Frederick II in the 12th century; inside this imposing hill-top structure there are some interesting references to the area’s millennial wine-making traditions. Besides wine, olive oil is another symbol of this area of Puglia: the precious “green gold” is mostly identified with the cities of Andria and Corato, and some of the region’s most important olive oil-producing companies are in the surrounding countryside. Finally there is the delightful city of Trani, with its magnificent Cathedral, its Frederician Castle and its delightful sea-front. A glass of Trani’s delicious sweet wine - Moscato di Trani - is the perfect way to end the trip.
An image, a sound, a flavour. An instant can evoke a range of experiences, feelings and traditions - like in the famous recherche du temps perdu. All it takes is the outline of a trullo, the heady beat of the tarantella, or a glass full of Fiano, to evoke the vast historical, artistic and anthropological heritage of the so-called Lower Murgia and the Itria Valley.
A tour of Bari Province’s authentic flavours takes you via Gravina in Puglia - near the border with neighbouring Basilicata Region - down towards the Gulf of Taranto, passing through places well-known for their wines, their bread and pastries, and their excellent meats. There are fascinating cave-settlements along the sides of the area’s gravine or rocky gorges, carved over the millennia by the River Gravina. Many towns deserve a visit: Altamura is justly famous for its Dop bread; Santeramo in Colle produces wine and oil, and is also a must for meat-lovers with its traditional grill-houses; Gioia del Colle has an imposing castle and is home to the Primitivo Doc wine. On the Adriatic coast there is delightful Polignano a Mare, an old town which is the ideal place to gaze at a romantic sunset over the sea and to try some excellent traditional ice-cream in one of the many ice-cream parlours.
The Itria Valley is renowned for its white wines, and no one should miss Alberobello with its world-famous trulli, and its two districts - Monti and Aia Piccola. The town was designated a national monument in 1910 and is a Unesco World Heritage site. The other jewel of the Itria Valley and the area’s wine-making centre is Locorotondo: generations of small farmers have worked the soil for centuries, and nowadays thousands of wine-growers combine traditional techniques with the new trends of the international wine scene.
Further along the white wine route is Martina Franca, the “salon of the Itria Valley” and venue for one of Italy’s most important opera festivals. There is plenty to see in this charming old town, ornate balconies, royal apartments with vast rooms and paintings by Carella, and also the Collegiate Church of St. Martin (San Martino), an excellent example of baroque architecture from the 1700s.
Destination: the heel of Italy. A journey through the southern part of Puglia is quite unforgettable all year round, because each season has something special to offer. The sea meets the cloudless sky on the horizon, the ancient olive-trees extend as far as the eye can see, and rows of vines grow along the roads. The people of the Salento are proud of their past, and at the same time they are very much orientated towards the future. This is the land of three important vines - Negroamaro, Malvasia Nera and Primitivo - which dominate the so-called Great Salento, from Taranto Province to Lecce Province, passing through Brindisi Province. This is the land of the great fortified farmsteads - the masserie - now top-class hotels and resorts which have made Puglia world-famous. This is also the land of wineries which have made the history of Puglia and which are in the running to represent the region with distinction in the future as well. Some of the top names in Italian wine-making have invested in Puglia, attracted by the professional skills and resources of the local business community.
Besides the countless small towns and villages with their art treasures, their historical monuments and buildings and their excellent food and wines, the chief cities of the three provinces are definitely worth a visit.
Brindisi is impossible to separate from its port, whose two deep inlets have always provided a safe haven for sea-going vessels and their passengers. The Aragonese Castle is also known as the Forte a mare, and the heart of the city beats in its mediaeval churches, the town-houses of the aristocracy, and the arcades on Via Filomeno Consiglio, one of its oldest streets and traditionally associated with the Knights Templar.
On the opposite side of the “heel” there is Taranto on the Ionian coast, with its old town containing the Church of St. Dominic the Great (Chiesa di San Domenico Maggiore), the Cathedral of St. Cathal (San Cataldo, the patron saint) and the imposing Aragonese Castle. The old and the new cities are divided and connected by the Swing Bridge across the navigable channel. Across the bridge is the new city, the other face of Taranto, on the Mar Grande (Great Sea) and the Mar Piccolo (Small Sea), where you can see the Doric columns of the Temple of Poseidon and visit the National Archaeological Museum.
The roads to the outlying villages are very scenic, like the green road linking Grottaglie to Manduria, the city of Primitivo wine; on every side of the road there are alberello vineyards and monumental olive groves.
Staying on the subject of wine, while on the road towards Lecce it is definitely worth stopping in Guagnano, Novoli, Carmiano and Arnesano, small towns in the Negroamaro Park. This is where some of the region’s important wine-growers are based, and they offer an excellent combination of hospitality and quality products.
Lecce is the destination, the capital of baroque and of a very old traditional craft: papier-mâché sculpture. A slow stroll is the best way to appreciate the old city and see its imposing monuments – from the Basilica of the Holy Cross (Santa Croce) to the Palace of the Celestines (Palazzo dei Celestini), from the Cathedral (Duomo) to Piazza Sant’Oronzo – along with some of the smaller treasures, like the craftsmen making traditional cotto salentino, a sweet cooked wine, and others working with papier-mâché and Lecce stone.