If you ask for information on Conversano to those who live in the neighborhood, probably the first thing they would tell you is that it’s “the city of the noble” or “the city of the Count”. Not always with cheerful spirit though, but we are not here to make speeches of parochialism.
What to know and see
Speaking about Conversano, however, I must admit that the mention of the aristocracy in these definitions make pretty sense: these appellations derive from the history of this beautiful village in the province of Bari, which was chosen as dwelling house first by the Counts of Altavilla, who lived in Conversano for more than two hundred years, then by the Acquaviva family, who stayed here for over three centuries, and finally by a number of other aristocratic families.
Conversano has a beautiful story behind it and the city is still full of elements that recall its ancient past. The Count who has marked the history of Conversano is undoubtedly Giangirolamo II Acquaviva d’Aragona, the so-called Guercio of Puglia (the cross-eyed Count), who administered the fief of Conversano for forty years during the 17th century. He is associated with many legends, arising from his character described as despotic and ruthless but also from his marked patronage. Indeed the history represents Guercio as a person who made use of his ius primae noctis (the obligation for all women in the feud to spend the first night of their wedding with the Guercio) and who liked to practice the use of weapons against undefended women; but also as a gentle and cultured landlord, very passionate about art, who hosted and commissioned the painter Paolo Finoglio to create a beautiful and huge painting inspired by the Gerusalemme Liberata of Torquato Tasso, as decorations of the rooms of Guercio and his wife Isabella Filomarino, from the della Rocca principality.
This past can still be found around the village and it’s jealously guarded by the people of Conversano: Finoglio’s artworks are on display in the Castle of Conversano, which raises on the highest point of the hill, from where develops the urban area, and overlooks the whole country, with its 219 meters above sea level. Of Norman origin, it is an impressive building with towers and bastions overlooking the beautiful Conciliazione Square.
This is where the locals like to spend their evenings, walking on the smooth pavement of the square along the streets of Conversano, towards Villa Garibaldi, with its three walking aisle finely decorated with busts that celebrate some of the greatest personalities of the Italian culture in the 19th century, to finally reach the left side of the Romanesque Cathedral. To get to its main front door you have to enter the labyrinthine old town, whose main exit leads indeed to the front of the Basilica Cathedral. The church consists of three naves separated by large pillars and is really worth a visit, in particular to observe the effort to rebuild the church following a fire that destroyed most of the building in 1911.
As mentioned, all the little alleys to enter the old town depart from the Cathedral square. These are very narrow streets and some of them are just few tens of centimeters wide, suitable for the passage of only one person at a time; some are pretty sloping and surrounded by little stone houses of several floors that rise on both sides and that are still perfectly habitable.
A maze, full of narrow streets apparently all alike, but where you would never get lost. Instead, no matter what streets you would take, you will always end in one of the main squares of the historic centre. Most likely in front of the Church of St. Benedict or the Church of Saint Rita, Cosma and Damian. The sober exterior facade of the Church of Saint Rita, Cosma and Damian is a true jewel of the Baroque of Bari and inside it preserves extraordinary iconographic images that cover almost every corner of the walls, signed by Paul Finoglio.
Coming back towards Corso Umberto, along the elegant way that leads to the Sanctuary of the Saints Rita, Cosmas and Damian, we arrive to Piazza XX Settembre, which hosts the municipal offices of the town.
Conversano has beautiful seesights even in the countryside that is full of olive trees and almond trees. I recommend you to visit this area in March when the trees begin to bloom. The countryside is also reach in lakes, essential for the local agriculture, and rests of ancient buildings, such as the Marchione Castle on the road to Putignano, which was the hunting lodge of the Acquaviva d’Aragona family; the 14th century’s Tower of Castiglione, which was the core of an ancient town that as now disappeared, along the road leading towards Castellana.
So, as is often the case in Italy and especially in Puglia, also Conversano is a country that hides itself in centuries of history and legends.
You can’t miss this!
Conversano is also a pretty modern town, with several nightclubs and bars where young people like to spend their evenings. If you enjoy good food, the town offers several high quality restaurants, listed in the best food guides, and popular bars well know across the province for their specialties. In regards to typical products, my advice is to visit Conversano in May, during the cherry season, where you would get the chance to taste our delicious red gold. During this period, it’s common to organize festivals to celebrate the goodness of the Cherry Ferroviaria, the specialty of the area. Its intense flavor is unmistakable and that’s why the saying “a cherry leads to another” – una ciliegia tira l’altra (don’t you really think that the authentic flavor of cherries, with all due respect, would be ever achieved by those bought in the hypermarkets of big cities? Of course not!).
And finally, to give you a reason to visit Conversano, we should definitely mention all the other various festivals organized during the year, the religious celebrations but most of all the local people. Believe me that a visit to Conversano would not be easily forgotten. But, again, the best way to visit this town is to get lost in its alleys and spend a word with the locals to get a real insight of our local culture and traditions. And don’t forget to ask locals about the reason of the following saying: “In front of the beauty of the Conversano’s people, St Benedict plays the bells!” – Nda la bellèzze de Cunversène, San Benedètt son i cambène (in local dialect). Written by Domenico D’Alessandro
About the author Domenico dreams of being a journalist of very serious stuff and enjoys writing on various social networks and blogs. You’ll find him on Twitter as @Zebbolo. In the meantime, he keeps trying stealing from his mother the secret to prepare the well known local dish of rice, potatoes and mussels… still unsuccessfully!