Saline of Monks - A natural oasis along the Salento coastline

During our recent trip to Puglia we visited the natural protected area known with the name of Salina dei Monaci, literally “The Saline of the Monks”. If you’re in the area, we highly recommend visiting it, ideal for a walk and it has direct access to the beach.
Easy to reach by driving along the road SP122, the saline is located just before the village of Torre Colimena, in the territory of the town of Manduria (TA). It’s been a nature reserve since 2010 and it is also included in the official list of Italian Protected Areas.
Known as the Salt of the monks, this water basin covers an area of about 250,000 square meters. In the past it was used for the extraction and collection of sea salt, exploiting the waves and sea storms, the sea water was in fact channeled and collected in this stretch of land.
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Used for centuries as saline, it was subsequently abandoned. The whole area has been partially reclaimed after the Second World War and subsequently damaged by the construction of the Ionian road SP122 which was built along the coast and separated the saline from the beach. In 2007, the road was completely removed to make room for vegetation. The Mediterranean scrub and the sand brought by the wind have reoccupied the space that had once been taken away to make room for concrete.
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The water is abundant in the saline during the winter months and is slightly drier in the summer. We have visited the area in August and as the photos show, the water level was still pretty high.
An area that was left to itself and abandoned in the past and that it’s now coming back to life, a little oasis surrounded by the Mediterranean vegetation typical of the Ionian coast of Salento and high sand dunes separating it from the sea. As shown in the map, you can access it via a small path that runs parallel to the beach.

It is an optimal environment for many migratory birds and therefore ideal destination for bird watchers. The most popular are certainly the pink flamingos that we were lucky enough to see and photograph.


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Taranto

Taranto is a big city and capital of the namesake province of Taranto. Located on the coast it overlooks the Ionian Sea. It is called city of two seas as it lays on an isthmus that divides the Great Sea (Ionian Sea) from the Small Sea (an inner basin). The city consists of three different parts: the old town situated on a low rocky island between the two seas (here is where the oldest buildings are located), it is connected to the Borgo via a bridge and to the new city via the swing bridge (Ponte Girevole). The Borgo is mainly an industrial and commercial area, the new city is a mix of streets forming the grid pattern new city center. Two canals connects the two seas running alongside the small island.

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The historic origin of Taranto dates back to 706 BC when a colony of Spartans landed on the shores of the Gulf. However as the story goes, its foundation is linked to an heroic warrior named Taras (Taras was the first name of the city) who was the son of Poseidon, god of the sea. While celebrating a sacrifice on the banks of a small river in honor of his father he saw a dolphin and that was the signal that in that place he would have found a new city. Even today, the emblem of the city of Taranto depicts Taras riding a dolphin.

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Taranto was a major Greek colony and one of the largest city of Magna Graecia. At that time the city had more than 300 thousand inhabitants, its fertile land and the sea abundant in fish used to attract the neighboring populations. The city very soon became an economic, military and cultural power and many beautiful buildings, temples, baths and museums were built. The Pythagorean school was also founded and great importance was given to culture and art. In 281BC Taranto began the conflict with Rome (it is said that the people of Taranto stained the robe of an ambassador from Rome while he was in a theater in the city and this was the pretext to declare war). The city fought and received help from Pyrrhus, king of Epirus, and Hannibal, but was conquered and ruled by the Roman Empire with Fabio Massimo. At that point the greatest power in the Mediterranean had disappeared and Taranto became a small fishing village.

After the collapse of the Roman Empire, the city was conquered and sacked several times (like the rest of Puglia) by different civilization, including: Ostrogoths, Saracens, Lombards, Byzantines and Normans. The city became powerful again after the French Revolution. Taranto in 1860 was united to the Kingdom of Italy and the fate of the city changed rapidly: in 1887 the swing bridge, connecting the new city to the old one, was opened ; in 1889 the maritime arsenal was opened and this gave impetus to the economy of the area and turned the city into a military power. Taranto was chosen by the French and English as military base during the two world wars. During the Second World War the city suffered an heavy bombardment (now remembered as the night of Taranto). Famous is the quote of the English Admiral Andrew Cunningham: “Taranto, and the night of November 11th – 12th, 1940, Should Be Remembered for ever as shown HAVING Once and for All That in the Fleet Air Arm the Navy has ITS Most devastating weapon”.

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Numerous monuments and buildings scattered around the whole area prove this long and glorious history. Suggestive are the remains of the Doric Temple or Temple of Poseidon (father of Taras, the city’s founder) in the old city. One of the most popular tourist destination in the city is the Saint Cataldo Cathedral (Irish Bishop who died in Taranto in the 7th century and Patron Saint of the city). It was built in 1071 in the heart of the old town and has undergone several renovations over the centuries showing now different styles: baroque in the facade and byzantine in the dome. The interior is divided into three naves and includes the chapel of Saint Cataldo which is made up of a massive altar (that guards the bones of the Saint) and is decorated with statues and frescoes.

The Aragonese Castle was built in 1481 on the ruins of a Norman-Swabian castle but the first construction dates back to the 916. The fortification has 4 towers, and a quadrangular courtyard. Built for defensive purposes, in 1887 it was assigned to Navy.

Numerous remains of all ancient civilizations that ruled the city are guarded in the National Museum of Taranto. Named MARTA, an acronym for Archaeological Museum of Taranto it is one of the largest and richest in Italy with its 50000 Greek and Roman archaeological remains including ceramics, mosaics, coins and above all jeweler the museum has a huge collection of earrings, necklaces, rings, tiaras and bracelets.

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Finally, not to be missed is the seafront Vittorio Emanuele III overlooking the Great Sea which offers a romantic and suggestive view especially at sunset.

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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Grottaglie

Grottaglie is a city in the province of Taranto and was built on a whole rock of limestone. The countryside that surrounds the city is full of deep ravines that open the ground into the heart of the limestone-rock which has formed breathtaking caves. For this reason the city was named Grottaglie, from the Latin ‘Kriptalys’, which means several caves.

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Grottaglie’s origins date back to the Palaeolithic age but the most important historical remains date back to the medieval period when the population began to settle and make the caves their home.

Still today, if you take a tour of the caves you can still see what remains of the original homes including: stairs, paths and canal systems used to drain rainwater. Despite becoming a Modern and dynamic city in recent years, Grottaglie still retains the historical charm of its past, thanks to a number of buildings dating from the 15th century that adorn the old town including the Bishop’s Castle built in the 15th century by order of the archbishop of Taranto, which had also ordered the construction of the fortification walls. Essential elements of the castle are a large central square and its square tower. It was later enlarged and remodeled, with a facade of the Baroque period. The castle is now owned by the city council and hosts the “Museum of Ceramic” which exhibits ceramics dating back to the 8th century BC till today.

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Of considerable historical and architectural importance is also the Mother Church which was built in the 13th century by order of Bishop too. Inside is the chapel of the Rosary with Baroque altars dedicated to two saints of the city: St. Cyrus and St. Francis.

Grottaglie has become famous over the years for its production of grapes which is used for the production of fine wines, and also in particular to the activity of handmade pottery. The manufacture of pottery within the region dates back to medieval times, but it’s only at the end of 18th century that the School of Art in Grottaglie was created. Still open and in business today, it operates in the old district located in the old town.

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The manufacturing of ceramics is still of strategic importance both in economic but also cultural terms. The school houses its own souvenir shop which is open daily, and for a small fee you can see the masters as they work the clay making everything from: Plates, mugs, bowls, cups, as well as decorative designs on tiles. Grottaglie is also included in the list of the 28 Italian ceramic cities by “AICC” “Italian Association Pottery Town”.