Puglia: where you can dance with the spiders and live like lords
Sunday 16 November 1997
Puglia has even more to offer than cooking holidays. This is one of the richer regions of southern Italy and although the ports of Brindisi and Bari are on the seedy side, there are lots of other things to see. The few travellers who make it past the packaged Amalfi Coast will find gorgeous food, an Italian Alcatraz, beehive houses, religious sanctuaries and dancing spiders.
La cucina pugliese is typical of the hearty country food served in the south, making use of all that is available.. Consequently, vegetables and seafood feature prominently on most menus. Bari, the region's capital, is famous for fish, while Taranto specialises in excellent mussels. The region's olive oil is closer to its Greek cousin than the finer oils of northern Italy. Originating from smaller olives, it's dark green in colour and very potent. The Pugliese wines follow suit, tending towards the strong and full bodied; they have been famed since Roman times. The lighter wines from Foggia are also worth tasting. Sheep are more numerous than people in this region and consequently most of the cheeses are made from sheep's milk. Try the local version of ricotta forte - this has an unusually strong flavour and complements the region's pasta, orecchiette, so named as the dough is shapped with the thumb into "little ears".
Sitting on the northern Tavoliere plain, Foggia is the third city of Puglia after Bari and Taranto. Like many areas in the south of Italy, what earthquakes and French invasion didn't destroy was finished off by allied bombers. Foggia's old Duomo has survived, however. Yet with its 12th- century Romanesque lower section and its Baroque top half (grafted on some 600 years later), it is a testament to the fortunes of the regions.
The castle in the nearby town of Lucera is even more impressive. Recreated as an Arab city by Frederick II, it was home to some 20,000 Arab bandits in the 13th century. South of Lucera by 10 miles is the village of Troy, which has nothing to do with the city of legend, but does sport a beautiful Romanesque cathedral. With its oriental influence and facade dominated by an exquisite rose window, it merits the short journey from Lucera.
The Gargano peninsula
The Promontorio Del Gargano in the ''spur" of the Italian boot, is rather different in atmosphere and landscape to the adjacent lands. Its beautiful beaches, ancient forests and limestone mountains were once part of the island of Gargano. Several million years ago, silt from the rivers joined this lost fragment of Yugoslavia to the Italian mainland, and formed the popular beach resorts you see
Many visitors to Gargano's beaches never realise that they are taking their holidays on holy land. Religious sanctuaries are to be found scattered all over the peninsula, and the most famous of the many apparitions said to have appeared here spawned the fascinating Sanctuary of St Michael, at Monte Sant'Angelo. Archangel Michael's appearance in AD490 has long made this the final point of a strenuous pilgrimage route.
Up until the 1930s the islands were a place to house convicts. Now this minuscule archipelago about 25 miles north of Gargano has a tourist population of about 100,000 during August. San Domino has the only sandy beaches on the islands and can become very crowded, but there are numerous small coves dotted along the coast to swim or boat out to.
The Trulli Area
Between Bari and Taranto is trulli country. A trulli is an unusual circular house made of whitewashed stone and topped with a grey slate conical-roof. The town of Alberobello is solely made up of trulli, often with astrological or religious symbols painted on the grey slate roofs.
Situated in the furthest corner of Puglia, this small city has a surprising number of bars and restaurants, and more baroque architecture. Often cited as the most beautiful town in southern Italy, the architectural style here is so refined that Italians have christened it specifically Barocco Leccese. A seemingly inexhaustible supply of soft stone helped to create this delicate style.
This small town 10 miles south of Lecce is home to the ritual of the spider dance. Each June during the feast of St Peter's and St Paul's, this medieval dance is performed. Unique to the town, the famous tarantella folk dance was developed from the frenzied writhings of victims of the hideous tarantula spider bite.
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