A Short Trip to Trani

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.

DSC03231The 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

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Venice in the Snow

One of the benefits of living in Italy is that you can visit popular tourist sites off-season.  Venice is one of the most challenging destinations, because it really doesn’t have much of an off-season.  “Go during Quaresima (Lent),” we were told — after Carnevale and before Easter.  Most years, folks said, it was warm enough to sit outside in early March.

 

Not this year.  Not only was it about 20 degrees colder than normal during our visit, it even snowed the first day — a rare event in Venice.   The snow was pretty to look at, but with all the cobblestones and polished marble, walking around was like negotiating an ice-skating rink without skates.  Fortunately, the bridges had handrails.  And the city employed a small army of workers spreading salt on the sidewalks — hard on leather shoes, but better than falling.  The temperature rose a bit after Thursday, although it still wasn’t really warm, and by Sunday all vestiges of the snow were gone.

Since we had been to Venice before, we concentrated on the art in smaller churches, which typically you don’t have time to see on a short visit.  Venice was a prosperous city for several centuries, and each parish wanted to build its own magnificent church, complete with what seemed like foundries full of marble,  and decorated with paintings and sculptures from local artists.  And what artists they were — Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese, Tiepolo….  I am particularly fond of one work by Tintoretto which imagines Mary as a young girl, climbing an impossibly steep flight of stairs to an imaginary Temple.

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My personal favorites, though, were the works of Giovanni Bellini.  His special skill was making two-dimensional paintings seem three-dimensional — an effect that’s hard to see even in photographs.  I’m sure he used some tricks to attain this effect — he often put figures in niches with stairs leading up to them, which creates a geometric illusion.  But other painters did that, too, and their paintings are still flat.  I guess that was his particular genius — and one reason why his paintings are considered nearly impossible to forge.

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Also during our trip, we experienced two “acqua alta” (high water) events.  Acqua alta is a tidal event, enhanced by certain wind patterns most prevalent in winter.  It is not primarily a function of the rain, although winter is the city’s rainiest season.

Because it is a tidal event, the high water doesn’t just lap over the embankments the way you think it might.  In Piazza San Marco, which is low-lying and frequently floods, the water seeps up from generally unobserved drainage channels in the middle of the piazza, and the far side, furthest from the Grand Canal, floods first.

The first night, we got caught out on the wrong side of Piazza San Marco coming back from dinner, and since we weren’t wearing hip waders we had to make a big detour to get back to our hotel.  The next evening, we stayed on the right side of the Piazza, but we were able to observe water all the way to the courtyard of the Palazzo Ducale.  It was a strange effect, almost as though the city were sinking under the water in slow-motion — which, in a way, it is.

The poor weather did have some compensations.  You could visit popular sites like the cathedral of San Marco and the Accademia without waiting on line.  The stores were all open and uncrowded — Venice has some of the best shopping in Italy, even if like us you’re mostly window-shopping.  Hotels offer deep discounts (although some smaller ones close) and it was easy to get restaurant reservations.  Best of all, people had time to talk to you, which rarely happens in summer.  All things being equal, though, I think we’ll wait for better weather next time.