Oria is a small lovely town in the province of Brindisi; it is located halfway between Brindisi and Taranto in the northern part of Salento. It is built on top of three low hills and can be seen from afar as it is dominated by the big castle, built by Frederick II. Oria is definitely a must-see for those who are spending holidays in the Salento area and thanks to its strategic location it is easy reachable from both the Adriatic and Ionian coast.
It has ancient and glorious traditions. According to information handed down by the Greek historian Herodotus, it was founded around the 1200 BC by a group of Cretan castaways and it was named Hyria.
As most of the cities in Puglia, Oria was ruled by Romans and during that period it had a great importance as it sits only a few miles away from the Appia Road (which Romans built to connect Rome to Brindisi). Upon the fall of Roman Empire it was dominated by different civilizations such as the Greeks, the Lombards and the Byzantines.
Oria was also an important Jewish colony; the Jewish presence in Oria is one of the oldest in Europe though the community is no longer present in the town. However the Jewish ghetto, made up of twisting alleyways and named Giudea, is still well preserved by the Porta Ebrei (Gate of Jews). Between 1225 and 1233 the town was ruled by Emperor Frederick II who built the glorious castle in the highest part of the town and which still today dominates the town and the whole surrounding area.
Oria has always been a place of great writers, artists and intellectuals. The town has been the bishop’s see from apostolic times. Today the town retains its beauty and provides visitors with ancient archaeological artefacts and pleasant walks through its old town.
Things to see in Oria
The old town is characterized by steep and winding narrow streets leading to the castle and very often widen to form beautiful squares and charming courtyards. In one of these squares is the Basilica Cathedral, getting up here is a good walk but it is worth a visit as the nearby piazza in front of the massive Basilica Cathedral is breathtaking.
On a clear day, it provides views of both the Adriatic Sea and the Ionian Sea and of the immense olive trees groves. The Cathedral, been built in Baroque style, has Latin cross plant, three naves and a colored tiled dome. It also guards remains of the Messapian and Roman civilizations, such as a cistern and tombs of monks and bishops.
The Castle is an imposing mansion which was built in the highest part of the town on the ruin of the ancient Messapian acropolis between 1225 and 1233 by order of Emperor Frederick II. Frederick intended the castle to be a defensive fortress: it has a triangular plant with the south wall having three towers 88 meters high and named Squared, Knight and Jump.
The original castle had one square tower; subsequent rulers added the two round towers during the Angevin period. On the terrace of the tower “Knight”, a special marble slab shows the locations of the neighboring cities.
One of the best things about visiting Oria is simply wandering around the old town and soaking up the atmosphere. The town has a lively market, where visitors can sample local delicacies such as olive oil, cheese, and wine. There are also plenty of restaurants and cafés, serving up delicious Puglian cuisine, such as orecchiette pasta with tomato sauce and burrata cheese.
Oria is undoubtedly famous for being “one of the Frederick II’s cities”. Since 1967, the town celebrates their Emperor with an event that can’t be missed. During the second half of August Oria stages one of Italy’s best medieval pageants when the town re-creates the splendors of the glorious ages by performing a historical Parade of Frederick II and the Palio dei Rioni (Tournament of the four districts).
The event originated in 1225 when Frederick II decided to “amuse the loyal inhabitants of Orea” while waiting for his wedding with the bride Isabella of Brienne, which occurred in November of that year in the Cathedral of Brindisi. This historical parade is the most important recreation of the Frederick II’s domain period that takes place today in Italy.
It’s a wonderful spectacle of colors and music, with over four hundred figures wearing original costumes marching on parade along the main streets of the town waving colorful flags and representing the four districts.
Gloriously-costumed they march in a colorful procession through the streets of Oria re-creating original movements of noble ladies, knights, jesters, courtiers, pages and squires and celebrating faithfully the magnificence of the Middle Ages and the court of the Emperor.
The parade is followed by a tournament that sees the four districts (Castello, Giudea, Lama and San Basilio) pitting against each other in a knights’ challenge and strength’s test.
Things to see near Oria
These are just a few of the many destinations to visit near Oria. With its central location and easy access to major highways, you can easily explore the beauty and history of Puglia from this charming town.
Ostuni: Known as the “White City,” Ostuni is a stunning hilltop town with white-washed houses and narrow streets. It’s only a 30-minute drive from Oria, making it an easy day trip destination.
Lecce: Known as the “Florence of the South,” Lecce is a Baroque masterpiece with ornate churches, palaces, and a stunning Roman amphitheater. It’s about an hour’s drive from Oria.
Alberobello: This UNESCO World Heritage site is known for its unique trulli houses, traditional stone dwellings with conical roofs. It’s about an hour’s drive from Oria.
Brindisi: The main city in the province, Brindisi has a beautiful harbor, a medieval castle, and plenty of shops and restaurants. It’s only a 20-minute drive from Oria.
Salento Peninsula: The Salento Peninsula is the “heel” of Italy and is known for its beautiful beaches, crystal-clear waters, and charming towns. It’s about an hour’s drive from Oria, but well worth the trip.
Taranto: Located on the Gulf of Taranto, this historic city has a beautiful old town, a castle, and a stunning archaeological museum. It’s about a 45-minute drive from Oria.