Itria Valley

Discovering the Itria ValleyItria Valley

Located in the heart of Puglia is the Itria Valley, a vast area of central Puglia that extends between the province of Bari, Brindisi and Taranto. Known as the Itria Valley, this area does not look exactly like a real valley, it is in fact an extensive karst depression at the bottom of the Murge. The area extends South of the Murge plateau and includes the towns of Alberobello, Locorotondo, Martina Franca, Ceglie Messapica, Cisternino and Fasano. The name derives from the Byzantine Itria, in honor of Our Lady Odegitria, protector of travelers. The valley is characterized by the presence of numerous caves including the famous Grotte di Castellana (Castellana Caves).

Alberobello

Alberobello is a small yet characteristic town located South East of Puglia in the province of Bari, (in the middle of The Itria Valley) with a population of about 10,000 people.

Alberobello is situated on two hills; the new town is located on the eastern hill and is characterized by a modern architecture. The western part is occupied by the old town (trulli) and the whole area is divided into two districts: Monti and Aia Piccola, both National Monuments. Alberobello is without question one of the most characteristic towns in Italy and is famous for its traditionally built ancient stone houses called trulli, (which since 1996 have been named a UNESCO World Heritage site).

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The origin of this type of construction is uncertain; many historians argue that its origins are linked to religious beliefs. Historically they made their first appearance in the 17th century when the Earls of Conversano (the Earls Acquaviva), at the time feudatories of the area, decided to extend their domain by building a new village. They would have to pay a tribute to the King of Naples (Aragonese family) in order to build new villages so they decided to build houses, that could be quickly destroyed in the case of royal inspection, by using only dry stones without the use of mortar.

Originally used by peasants, the trulli have in recent years become more and more one of the top major tourist attractions in Puglia, and is must see for all tourists visiting Southern Italy.

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The architecture of trulli is very simple. They are built entirely of dry stones (which is characteristic of the area) using a simple technique: the main part of the trullo is built in a circular shape and is topped by a cupola roof, which allows for the room to remain cool in summer yet is easy to heat in the winter. The walls are always white washed with white lime. The internal conical structure is made up an inner layer of limestone boulders, capped by a keystone and an outer layer of limestone slabs ensuring that the structure is watertight. The roofs are also often decorated with religious or astrological symbols; sometimes they may represent signs of the zodiac, but may also include planetary symbols or a cross among others.

The biggest trullo in the town called Sovereign Trullo and was built in 18th century. The Sovereign Trullo is different from other trulli because the building has two floors and now also hosts a museum. During the summer months it also doubles up as a theater hosting many events such as plays, musical performances, culture evenings and poetry readings.

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The landscape around Alberobello is charming and magical; it makes the town one of the most popular attractions in the region. Local handicrafts can be purchased around the old town, which include: local art, hand woven baskets, stone sculptures, ornaments made from local iron and handmade textiles. Alberobello has also a fantastic production of local wines and olive oils, and typical local dishes: the sweet almonds, and macaroons pasta among others.

Safari Zoo & Fasanolandia

This is a place that all children and their parents will love, this is where you can be in contact with nature and animals and have a great fun within the amusement park. This permanent structure that hosts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year is located just outside the town of Fasano in the Brindisi Province. It consists of the safari zoo, the wildlife pedestrian park and the amusement park known as Fasanolondia.

zoo_safariThe entire complex is the biggest in Italy and one of the biggest in Europe. Main attraction is the Zoosafari, this is a great wildlife park that houses about 1,700 specimens of 200 species. Here the animals live in absolute freedom in very large and open spaces; they can also get close to the public.

The zoo, a safari-style area, has to be visited by car: keeping all windows closed and driving alongside with lions, tigers, bears, camels and zebras is a truly exciting experience not to be missed. Stop near the giraffe section and offer them some peanuts, they will gently lean towards to your car.

zoo_safariThe wildlife pedestrian park has different sections: jump on the monkey train and be ready to be surrounded by hundreds of monkeys and baboons looking for peanuts. Visit the tropical area with snakes, turtles and alligators, the ornithological area where several species of exotic birds can be admired and the reptile-fish-insect house. Finally take a trip with the metro-zoo to the lake and its tiny islands: watch out from the train for leopards and panthers. Jump off the train and watch the seals, rhinos, bears and hippopotamus.

Fasanolandia is the amusement park located just beside the Zoosafari with over 25 attractions. Among the others, theater  cinema 4D, a dinosaur exhibition, giant water slides, a Ferris wheel, a Puglia in miniature and the new Euro-fighter  a new terrifying roller coaster. There is also a water arena that usually stages performances of artists and dolphins.

For futher information please visit the webiste: www.zoosafari.it

Ostuni

Ostuni is a town in the province of Brindisi which has a population of about 32,000 people, but during the summer months this mushrooms to a massive 100,000 proving that Ostuni is a must see to any visit in Southern Italy. Ostuni is also known as “White City” (Città bianca) because its historic center is entirely painted with white lime. It is a very popular tourist destination.

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The origins of the city can be placed in the Paleolithic period (approx 50.000 – 40.000 years ago). The area was originally occupied by hunters who built their huts in the caves that characterize the territory of Ostuni.

Human presence in this area around that time was confirmed by the discovery of a skeleton belonging to woman later named as the “Woman of Ostuni”. The skeleton that was found in the cave of Agnano was of a woman who was pregnant at the time of death, her body was later dated to be about 25,000 years old.
Ostuni was occupied and inhabited by Messapi, Lombards and Romans but it was under the Spanish empire of Isabella of Aragon that the city reached its economic and cultural peak. It’s also in this period that the city witnessed an intense urban development; the Spaniards strengthened the fortifications walls of the city and built the towers of Pozzella and San Leonardo. The towers were built in 1539 along all the shoreline, as protection against anticipated attacks from the Turks who controlled the Balkans. These towers (still existing, including Pozzella Tower, the Pylon, Villanova and others), were permanently garrisoned and communicated through fire beacons.

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Today Ostuni is a city which bases its economy on agriculture and the processing and exporting of its products such as: olive oil, almonds and wine. Ostuni’s historical center is very distinctive; the roofs of the houses are painted with white lime.

Use of white lime originated in the Middle Ages as it was easy to find and gave more light to the small alleys that make up the historic center  In addition, the white lime was a way to prevent the spread of the plague in the seventeenth century, this is how Ostuni gained its nick name ‘White City’.

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There are many examples of the ancient architecture, among them to highlight the walls, the Cathedral and the Column of Sant’Oronzo. The Cathedral is situated on a hilltop surrounded and protected by the houses of the old quarter, it can be reached by walking along the only road that connects the Cathedral to Sant’Oronzo Square, a narrow and winding road but very characteristic and full of little shops / boutiques. Scenic walks can be taken around the city along roads that offer exceptional views from the surrounding countryside to the coastline.

In the area around Ostuni there are also several Masserie. A Masseria was a fortified farmhouse typical in Southern Italy and in particular in Puglia. They were owned by wealthy families and landowners. The farmhouses were sometimes occupied by landowners, but the large constructions also included the homes of peasants and in some areas even pitches, stables, stores and forage crops.

For further information please visit the website: www.borgostuni.it

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Martina Franca

Martina Franca is a city of about 50K inhabitants in the province of Taranto. It’s located on a hill in the Southern part of the Murgia and overlooks the green Itria Valley. It is a must-see and perfect stop for a day trip if you are taking a tour of Puglia and Itria Valley.

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The city was founded in the 10th century, and the name Martin comes from people’s devotion to St. Martin, the first human settlement was in fact right on the St. Martin Mountain. The name Franca, was assigned in 1310 as a result of various privileges that were given to the city. The most important was surely the taxes exemption and it was during that period that splendid buildings were built in the city.

The area surrounding the city is characterized by numerous caves and forests typical of the Mediterranean. The city is very elegant and cozy having its center closed to traffic, only small three-wheeled ape make their appearance now and then. Very charming and well cared is the old town entirely constructed in an extravagant Baroque style and made up of small winding alleys and whitewashed houses. Its streets have a particular depression right in the middle that funnels rainwater in the middle of the street and prevents it from reaching the cellars located in the basement of the houses by the street. Highest expression of this picturesque old town is the neighborhood Lama.

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The city has impressive buildings and Churches of great architectural importance. St. Stefano Gateway (Porta Santo Stefano) is the main entrance to the historic center and leads to Rome Square which is dominated by the Ducal Palace (Palazzo Ducale) that was built in 1668 by order of the Caracciolo family. A huge and expensive project which drew those of the luxurious Roman palaces; it consists of 300 rooms, chapels, stables, court, theater and guesthouse. Today it houses the town hall, a library and the tourist office.

The porches, built in 1854, it’s a splendid neo-classical portico. Once a meeting point for trade, it is today the meeting point of Performing Artists. St. Martino Basilica (Basilica of San Martino) which sits in the main square (Plebiscito Square) and it is dedicated to the patron Saint Martino, it was built in 1743 and with its 42 meter high facade is the main church in the city. San Domenico Church was built in 1746 has also a large and rich Baroque facade consisting of fancy decoration.

The city is also known for the international music festival of Itria Valley that attracts artists from all over the world and takes place in August.

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Locorotondo

Locorotondo is a village in the province of Bari with a population of about 14,000 people, well connected by public transports and easily accessible by car, Locorotondo is certainly worth a visit while in Southern Italy.

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Its name derives from the Latin Locus Rotundus meaning round place to prove the fact that the village had a circular shape which still remains today.

Built on top of a hill and surrounded by a wall Locorotondo is certainly the most beautiful natural balcony over the Valle d’Itria. From its panoramic viewpoint, you can see thousands of trulli, a typical Mediterranean scrub forest, olive groves and vineyards that surround the Masserie.

locorotondo pugliaThe the foundation of the town dates back to around 1000 AD: the old town is made up of beautiful tiny streets and houses painted in white and built in a Baroque style and when walking through its streets you’ll see that everything is very nice and tidy and the atmosphere is almost unreal.

The Mother Church of ‘St. George the Martyr’, built between 1769 and 1821 and including 14th century bas-reliefs; the church of ‘San Rocco’, the Romanesque church of ‘Our Lady of Greece’ are a must see for visitors to the area.

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Finally, to remind that Locorotondo is famous for the production of wine, particularly white and sparkling wine which takes the name from the village and it has been officially elected from “I borghi piu’ belli d’Italia” as one of the most beautiful old villages in Italy.

Cisternino

Cisternino is a village in the province of Brindisi, which overlooks the Itria Valley. The first human settlement in the area dates back the Paleolithic period. Even today, prehistoric tools of every kind such as knives, scrapers and chisels to cut bones can be found in the area.

cisternino beautiful pugliaThe name Cisternino derives from the hero Sturnoi, who after the Trojan War founded a nearby town which was later occupied by the Romans, which they named Sturninum and today is the current Ostuni. It was not until the Middle Ages that the Byzantine monks named it Cis-sturnium (on this side of Sturnium).

The old town of Cisternino is an example of so-called “spontaneous architecture”. The multitude of whitewashed houses forming many narrow alleys, courtyards and the outside stairs, arches and balconies full of flowers, are the result of spontaneity of the local people who built with the idea of the neighborhood and sharing of public spaces.

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This village is the expression of the poetry and atmosphere of Southern Italy: walking on chianche (the typical paving stone) you can admire balconies in flowers and dozens of large pots with plants that often occupy the small lanes. Of note in the old village is the tower of Porta Grande (Large Gateway – erected by the Normans in the 11th century) which was the original gateway to the village and St. Nicholas Church built in the 12th century, both facing the main square. Well worth is a visit at the Bishop’s Palace built in 1560 with a late Renaissance style and the Romanesque church of Our Lady of Hibernia that was built in 1100. This church is linked to a legend; it would have been exactly the Virgin with an appearance who indicated the exact place where the sanctuary dedicated to her would have been built.

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Finally, to underline that Cisternino is famous for his “fornelli” (stoves), butcher shops with wood ovens where you can order the meat, wait for its cooking and consume it on the premises along with other specialties of the house. All this at very affordable prices.

Ceglie Messapica

Ceglie Messapica is a pretty town in the province of Brindisi. It is located on a hill about 11 km south of Ostuni, half way along the road between Brindisi and Taranto. According to legend, Ceglie was founded by the Pelasgians civilization who came from the East in Puglia; remains of this civilization would be the “specchie” (mirrors) and other megalithic constructions.

With the arrival of the Greeks in 700 BC the city was named Kaila. The name Ceglie derives from Caelia, this is how it was named in the third century BC when it was ruled by the Messapi which during that period also ruled other cities like Brindisi, Ostuni and Lecce. For a long time they opposed and fought to the Greeks who dominated the Taranto territory and tried to create an outlet to the Adriatic Sea. They tried to resist for a few decades but Taranto finally prevailed over them in 303 BC.It was during the Messapian period that the city became an important cultural and military centre.

Ceglie_MessapicaThere are still several Messapian remains in the town and scattered across its countryside, the most important are the four fortification walls (remains of these walls are called Paretone in the local dialect). They are 5 km long and confirm the defensive function of Ceglie from the Greeks of Taranto.

Ceglie dominated the surrounding area from its Acropolis: the new town was built during the Medieval Age around the original Acropolis and today it still retains its original appearance and some ancient buildings.The town is dominated by the presence of the Castle, built in the 15th century on the same site of the Hellenistic Acropolis and main Roman temples. On its left there is the Norman tower which forms part of the original castle, built about 400 years earlier.

The surrounding area, as the whole Itria Valley, is characterized by the unmistakable presence of trulli and masserie. Remains of 19 specchie (mirrors) have also been found in its countryside: they are basically pile of stones of elliptical shape and various sizes, it is believed that some (the larger) were once used as lookout towers and others (the smaller) were used as tombs as few of them contained many funeral objects.

Ceglie_Grotte_MontevicoliSpectacular are also the caves of Montevicoli with stalactites and stalagmites and a well designed path for the visit. At Christmas time a famous live nativity scene is set up inside of this beautiful structure.

The town boasts a well-established culinary tradition, and since the fifties has received several awards, especially for the ice cream, pastry and bakery productions. Among these, the “cegliese cookie”, which has been candidate for the PDO recognition (Protected Designation of Origin): it is a cookie made with toasted almonds, lemon and black cherry jam, covered with a glaze made of sugar and cocoa (called “scileppo”).

Castellana Caves

Castellana Caves (Castellana Grotte) is a small town in the province of Bari. The town bases its economy mainly on agriculture and tourism. It has a very nice historic center with many ancient buildings dating back to the 17th century.

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grotte_di_castellana1The town links its name primarily to the enchanting beauty of its caves, the largest and most picturesque complex of caves in Italy and one of the main tourist destination in Puglia. The formation of these karst caves dates back about as far as 90 million years ago. The presence of the caves had been known since the 18th century as people used to tell stories about monsters and ghosts living inside the big chasm (called La Grave) just outside the town.

However it was only in 1938 when the speleologist Franco Anelli descended to the floor of the chasm and started to explore it. As of today this big caves complex is one of the world’s largest karst complex that has ever been explored by man. Since its discovery millions of tourists have been able to admire this wonder of nature.

The whole karst complex is a mix of white stalactites and stalagmites. Their formation started 90M years ago and the process is still ongoing. The process of formation starts with the action of rainwater that is absorbed by the calcareous soil . The water dissolves the calcium carbonate present in the soil, the water then evaporates when it comes into the cave, the calcium carbonate settles to the ground and forms the stalactites and stalagmites . Later on they get covered by crystals.

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Some details relating the caves: 2 km long route, 70 meters deep, temperature ranging between 11 and 15 degrees Celsius, humidity is extremely high with peaks of 90%.

The tour starts from the main hall where grotte_di_castellana2there is a bust of Franco Anelli. This is called La Grave and is the main entrance to the karst complex. Here you can admire the 50m wide and 60m deep group of stalagmites.

Two different tours can then be taken inside: the classic tour (the shortest one) lasts 50 minutes and is 1Km long. The second one lasts 2 hours and is 2Km long. It leads to the White Cave (Grotta Bianca) which for the whiteness of its alabaster has been defined by cavers as the most gleaming in the world. Here you can truly see the most unspoiled nature as you’ll admire this lunar landscape.

Many caves are scattered along the 2Km path, among the others: the black caves, big caves of monuments, cave of altar, cave of Milan. Names are usually given because of the shape of rocks inside them.

For further information please visit the website: www.grottedicastellana.it