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Puglia See And Do

Alberobello & The Trulli
Puglia
Italy

The countryside around UNESCO World Heritage site Alberobello looks like the homeland of some lost race of fairytale folk, thanks to its trulli—thousands of extraordinary tiny, whitewashed limestone cylindrical houses with conical slate roofs, some daubed with symbols or topped by finials that have something runic about them. Contrary to their appearance and in defiance of their enduring mysterious reputation, the earliest are less than 300 years old, yet their origins may go back much further, as the trullo is easily made, and easily knocked down again. There are trulli throughout the Valle d'Itria, but only in Alberobello have they strayed from country to town—and been turned into a tourist attraction.

Bari
Puglia
Italy

The capital of Puglia, and its main entry point, is an industrial port city with a historic old town that's been revitalized in recent years, thanks partly to an ambitious mayor and partly to tourism. The cobblestoned, meandering Città Vecchia has plenty of restaurants and cafés, plus the Cattedrale di San Sabino and Basilica di San Nicola, two of the most important Romanesque buildings in the land. But this is a big, sprawling southern city with its fair share of crime, organized and not—so watch that camera.

Beaches
Puglia
Italy

The rocky Gargano Peninsula has some of Puglia's best beaches and coves, especially the Spiaggia del Castello, south of the area's former medieval capital, and Vieste, which is dominated by the huge rock stack known as the Scoglio di Pizzomunno. The other seaside magnet in Puglia is The Salento, the heel of the Italian boot. On the Adriatic side, there's more rock than sand, though the waters are mostly crystalline; for white- and golden-sand spiagge, head for the western, Ionian coast—in particular the areas immediately south of Gallipoli and north of Porto Cesareo, with their long, dune-backed beaches that start to get crowded from mid-July through the end of August.

Castel Del Monte
Puglia
Italy

This eight-sided castle, which rises on a remote hilltop some miles inland from Trani and Barletta, is one of history's great puzzles. We know that it was commissioned by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II and built between 1229 and 1249, but its function is a mystery. It was not built to defend anything, and there is no town or strategic crossroads nearby. Like Stonehenge and the Pyramids, the castle has attracted its share of theories: Some see it as a huge astronomical clock, others as a monument to the golden mean. The man who had it built was certainly capable of such a gesture: A ruler who bridged Christian, Greek, and Arab cultures, Frederick liked to unwind by writing poetry, philosophical tracts, and even a treatise on falconry.

Cave Towns of Puglia
Puglia
Italy

Northwest of Taranto is the land of the gravine: deep, eroded gashes in high limestone plains, carved by rivers that have since dried up or disappeared underground. Between the sixth and the 15th centuries, the gravine were places of sanctuary, both civic and religious, for the inhabitants of the settlements above. The result is a honeycombed network of tombs, churches, and dwellings, a few of them housed in natural caves, but most carved out of the bare rock. The main Puglian cave towns are Massafra, Mottola, Ginosa, and Castellaneta—the latter famous also as the birthplace of Rudolph Valentino (there's a small museum, with erratic opening times, dedicated to the man and the myth). But the most impressive città rupestre, or rocky city, is Matera, which lies just over the border in Basilicata. Along with the houses built out of the two ravines, Sasso Barisano and Sasso Caveoso, Matera has many Byzantine cave churches that look like something out of biblical times—which made it a perfect location for Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ.

The Gargano Peninsula
Parco Nazionale del Gargano Visitors' Center
Castello
Monte Sant'Angelo , Puglia
Italy
Tel: 39 088 456 5444
www.parcogargano.it

A huge limestone peninsula jutting east into the Adriatic, the Gargano was for many centuries a wild and solitary place, isolated from the fertile Puglian tablelands to the south and west. Most of the peninsula is now part of the Parco Nazionale del Gargano, set up in 1991 in an effort to check the tourist development that had already spoiled parts of the rugged coastline and to protect the delicate ecosystem of the densely forested interior, home to thousands of species of flora and fauna. Its remoteness made the Gargano a place of religious seclusion and devotion—at its most intense in the towns of Monte Sant'Angelo, with its sanctuary built around a cave where the archangel Michael was said to have appeared in the fifth century, and San Giovanni Rotondo, which is today entirely given over to the modern-day cult of Padre Pio, the miracle-working monk who lived and died here.

Grotte di Castellana
Monopoli , Puglia
Italy
Tel: 39 080 499 8211
www.grottedicastellana.it

Inland from Monopoli on the edge of the town of Castellana, this spectacular network of caves, covered in stalagmites and stalactites, were carved by underground streams over many centuries. Hourly tours are the only way to see the caves; the guides point out rock formations that resemble everything from a camel to Milan Cathedral to Michelangelo's statue of Moses. There are two itineraries: a short one of 50 minutes or a complete circuit of two hours, which reaches the Grotta Bianca (White Cave), an extraordinary natural temple of alabaster over 75 yards underground.

Lecce
Puglia
Italy

Lecce is rich in splendid Baroque architecture, but it's also a vibrant, youthful city with enormous brio and style. From the mid-16th century on, dozens of churches and noble palazzi were built in the local honey-colored sandstone, soft enough to encourage the area's skilled stonemasons to indulge in riotous carvings. Highlights include the Basilica di Santa Croce, an exuberant dance of angels, cherubs, symbolic fauna, and botanical festoons that was begun in 1549 and took 150 years to complete; and the Chiesa del Rosario, the final work of 17th-century genius Giuseppe Zimbalo. There's also a well-preserved Roman amphitheater near the main square, Piazza Oronzo.

The Salento
Puglia
Italy

Puglia's wild southern promontory has been compared to Cornwall, and with its spectacular coastline, windswept interior, and deep-rooted folk traditions, it's easy to see why. Stretching south from Lecce, the Salento takes in the historic port towns of Otranto (on the Adriatic side) and Gallipoli (on the western, Ionian coast). The Salento also has some of Puglia's best beaches—especially to the west, where white sand dunes extend for miles north of the resort of Porto Cesareo, and south of Gallipoli. Inland is a primitive landscape of prickly pears, stone walls, and dusty towns, some of which turn out to harbor a few artistic treasures (don't miss the spectacular 15th-century frescoes in the church of Santa Caterina d'Alessandria in sleepy Galatina). And if you're here in summer, try to take in a performance of the tarantella at one of the many village festas. This frantic dance, set to a driving guitar, accordion, and tambourine accompaniment, was believed to cure women of the bite of the tarantula (though most anthropologists tend to agree that there's something a lot more sexual going on).

Valle D'Itria

Between Bari and Brindisi the fertile Valle d'Itria is one of the great market gardens of Italy. Almonds, fruit trees, and cherry tomatoes grow alongside the grapevines in the cooler hills, and great gnarled olives, some of them hundreds of years old, carpet the coastal plain, with fortified farmhouses known as masserie rising above the green sea here and there. The area is most famous for its conical trulli dwellings, concentrated in the town of Alberobello, but there's plenty more to see. Two historic towns in particular should not be missed. Martina Franca is like a mini Lecce, but here it's more the fabric of the charming sandstone town rather than its individual churches or palazzi that is the attraction. And then there's la città bianca, Ostuni, an M.C. Escher–esque warren of whitewashed houses, which seem to have grown spontaneously and merged into each other over the centuries.

Information may have changed since the date of publication. Please confirm details with individual establishments before planning your trip.