Although we had planned an extended trip down the east coast of Italy last week, we postponed the journey because of unseasonably cold weather. Instead, we took a shorter trip to the town of Trani, about 3 1/2 hours south of here, in the province of Puglia.
Puglia, the heel of Italy’s boot, has a history quite different than that of the Marche, the region where we are now living. After the fall of Rome, Puglia came under the influence of the Byzantines. The Normans began their conquest of southern Italy in Puglia in the 11th C, and ruled much of modern Italy south of Rome from their capital in Palermo for several centuries. The city’s greatest prosperity came in the 13th C, under the 50-year reign of Frederick II Hohenstaufen, who had inherited southern Italy from his mother (the last of the Sicilian Normans) and much of central Italy from his grandfather (Frederick Barbarossa) — the closest Italy came to being a united country between the fall of ancient Rome and modern times.
Trani’s cathedral, Romanesque but with unusual pointed arches, has a dramatic location right on the sea front. During the Norman period, the town was an embarkation point for the Crusades, and you can still see ruins of churches run by the Templars and other orders of warrior monks.
The city also had a thriving Jewish community. The Normans, and Frederick II, were religiously tolerant, unusual for Christian leaders of this era, and in the 13th C, the city had four operating synagogues. Today only one is operational — the Jews were expelled in the 15th C by the Spanish and have only recently returned. But another former synagogue has been converted into a small museum documenting the history of the local Jewish community.
After the death of Frederick II, the region was plunged into civil war, and eventually the Spanish took over, ruling the area from Naples until the reunification of Italy in the 19th Century. Many of the Romanesque churches in Trani have small bell towers that look a lot like those on Spanish missions in California. Perhaps there is a connection.
Frederick II built a series of fortresses to guard his domain, including one, the Castello Svevo, right next to Trani’s cathedral. But the most famous fortress was Castel del Monte, built on a commanding hill a few miles away. Its architecture is very distinction — it’s the shape of an octagon with eight octagonal towers. Much has been written about the supposed mystic significance of the castle’s octagonal shape, with its interior inscribed triangles — Frederick was known to be interested in astrology. But nobody really knows why the castle was built as an octagon, any more than future historians will be able to discern the rationale for the 5-sided shape of another famous polyhedron, outside Washington, D.C.
The castle has recently been restored, after centuries of neglect, and you can now see those few of the magnificent marble columns in the interior that remain. The rest were poached, over the years, for other building projects.
The day we were there, the castle had gotten a dusting of snow the night before — an event so unexpected this far south that the maintenance staff didn’t even have shovels to clear the stairs. Fortunately, the snow had mostly melted by the time we left. They tell me it will get warmer eventually.
We also visited the nearby site of the Battle of Cannae. In 216 BC, during what was later called the Second Punic War, the Carthaginians under Hannibal (sans elephants) encircled and defeated a much larger Roman force, one of the greatest tactical feats in ancient military history. For Game of Thrones fans, this battle was the inspiration for the climactic battle between Jon Snow and Ramsay Bolton near the end of Season 6.
A recently-opened indoor-outdoor museum on the site shows you not just the battle site, but Neolithic pottery, remains of the medieval wall, and a surprisingly large excavation of the Roman town. Although it doesn’t look like much, Hannibal probably scouted out the Roman positions from the outcropping pictured below. The Fascists placed a monument on the spot; it too is fading into history.
On the day of our visit, a middle school from the nearby town of Barletta had been deputized by FAI (the local equivalent of the National Trust for Historic Preservation) to act as guides for the museum. The kids wore badges identifying each one as a “cicerone”(the wonderful Italian word for an informed guide, after Cicero). Each of the kids had been assigned one of the points of interest which they then explained to visitors. One young man, who spoke pretty good English, decided to adopt us for the afternoon and translated each speech for us in turn. We were blown away by the amount of work these kids had obviously put into this project. I guess if you’re going to study history, you might as well start with the stuff that’s on your doorstep.
No summary of a trip to Puglia can be complete without a discussion of the food. Puglia is one of the provinces where the local food most closely approximates what we now call the “Mediterranean diet” — olive oil, whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and lots of seafood. The local cheese, burrata, a kind of cream-enriched mozarella, is particularly delicious.
Trani is not a wealthy place, but to walk into a seafood restaurant is to be presented with an array of fish and shellfish that many far more expensive restaurants in London, Paris and Rome might be envious of. All of the fish was local, some so particular to this area that they don’t even have English names. One, called “occhiata,” seems to have been named after its enormous eyes. I also got to enjoy fresh “ricci” (sea urchin) again, which I had been introduced to on my first trip to this part of Italy, nearly 50 years ago.
We plan to a longer trip to Puglia again next month, or whenever it gets warm. Maybe we’ll even have some beach pictures!
For your amusement, here are some gargolyes.