Some other towns on my journey through Puglia in Southern Italy

I was based in Polignano in Puglia, South East Italy, for two weeks in June 2018, see previous blog, and, from there, I could travel to a number of other interesting Pugliese town and cities.

Lecce – Baroque or not.

on a particularly hot day, I travelled to the city of Lecce, famous for its Baroque architecture txtravagantly cared out of the local limestone, Lecce stone, which is very soft and highly workable – especially in the hands of Lo Zingarello (Tiny Gypsy), the architect and sculptor Giuseppe Zimbalo (1620 – 1710), who undertook much of the restoration work in the new Baroque style when working on many of the earlier buildings of this beautiful city. I had come to see the celebrate Baroque cathedral, the Basilica of Santa Croce, before I got there I was distracted by a poster for an exhibition about one of my operatic heroes, the early 20th century Lecce tenor, Tito Schipa (1888 – 1965) – one of the greatest of all lyric tenors, in my less than humble opinion.

The exhibition was fascinating to anyone like me who has always loved this man’s exceptionally beautiful voice and his highly musical and never vulgar style. The exhibition was also thrilling for anyone who is, let’s face it, a bit of an opera geek. Here were recordings, photographs and costumes from one of the truly golden ages of opera. People don’t remember Tito Schipa was much as he deserves, so it was wonderful to see this tribute here in his home town. They really don’t make tenors like this any more.

With Tito Schipa’s voice ringing in my head, I made my way down the streets of this lovely city known as the Florence of the South, and soon found the Basilica di Santa Croce with its sensational display of Baroque sculpture. Tito Schipa’s elegance and taste might have turned me into a puritan, but I was impressed but not overwhelmed by the extravagance of Lecce’s Baroque. Wasn’t it just a bit too much, a bit over the top? Maybe. Or maybe it was just too hot that day to take it Giuseppe Zimballo’s extrovert mannerisms. Forgive me.

The interior was certainly extraordinary, but here too I kept think of graffiti and wondered what the place would look like if the baroque additions were stripped away. I had my answer when I went down some Romanesque steps into the very not Baroque crypt. Ah yes, this was more to my taste.

Barletta – a city of understated magnificence

After the Baroque fantasies of Lecce, I was happy to visit the more solid attractions of another Puglia city, Barletta. I might not have even come here, but I have a friend who lives here. I’d been having Italian lessons on-line on Skype with Enzo who had become more than an excellent teacher, he had become a friend. He lives in Barletta and, when he knew I was visiting Puglia, he was more than happy to drive me round some places of interest. We met at Barletta station where I also met his friend Ruggiero, who has to become another on-line friend when we met up to practise his English and my Italian. They had thought through a precise itinerary for today, so, as they are both teachers, I let me tell me what we should do. We didn’t have enough time to see all of the attractions of Barletta, but I did manage to visit the magnificently brutalist 12th Gothic basilica. – in front of which stand the so-called Barletta Colossus, an 5th century or maybe early 6th century bronze Roman statue with, I assume, a later addition of the hand held cross that is a tactful blend of the pagan with the Christian.

We were on our way to lunch.

We found the fish restaurant, Enzo’s favourite, and a spirited discussion ensued over the menu, while Enzo and Ruggiero debated what was the perfect meal for a Barletta new-comer. Unsurprisingly, the meal was superb.

and he crab was delicioso.

Trani with its ice-cream and its cathedral by the sea

After Barletta, Enzo drove us to Trani, another of his favourite places, especially for a regular Sunday stroll. It has, he told me with Ruggiero’s enthusiastic agreement, the best ice-cream bar in the region. Where else should we go after our Barletta lunch, but here for ice-cream and espresso. So we sat outside watching the boats in the little harbour before taking a leisurely walk round the town on way to the cathedral.

The luminous seaside 12th century Trani cathedral of San Nicola Pellegrino (Saint Nicholas the Pilgrim) is unusual for a number of reasons. First of all it gleams with an almost pink colour due to its construction from the local calcareous tuff stone, Puglia’s distinctive Tufa Stone, that was quarried locally. It is also one of very few cathedrals worldwide to be built so close to the sea.

Trani is also unusual for being built, (between 1099 – 1143) on several levels, with its main floor being raised high above sea-level, on the site of an older church (Santa Maria della Scala). It is also notable for the unusual gateway beneath its 13th century bell tower.

The cathedral’s arched transept is one of the masterpieces of Italian Romanesque architecture – made all the more beautiful by the bright sea-light shining through the high altar window and reflected onto its bright tufa stone.

A fifteenth century mural in the 12th Century crypt beneath the main cathedral. Virgin and Child with Saint James and Saint Anthony attributed to Giovanni di Francia (1420 -1467). The Virgin Mary is crowned queen of Heaven and she raises a veil, presumably, to reveal the sleeping baby Jesus, who lies on her lap where the painting is now irreparably damaged.

Beneath the main cathedral is the highly atmospheric 12th century crypt dedicated to San Nicola Pellegrino, the young Greek shepherd boy turned pilgrim, the apparently highly charismatic patron saint of Trani, who was buried here within his custom-made crypt just four years of his death, aged nineteen, in 1094. He was canonised at the same time as the cathedral was dedicated to him.

Saint Nicholas the Pilgrim (1075 – 1094) photograph courtesy of

My thanks to Enzo and Ruggiero for an unforgettable day.

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