means different things to different people. For Rome's radical chic,
it is a quirky summer playground with a rich tradition of energizing
folk music and great beaches. For others, it's a launching point for
ferries to Greece and other Mediterranean destinations. For people
who have experienced any of the region's frequent earthquakes, it
is a land capable of brutal natural disasters.
No matter what lens you use to look at this southern region-the heel and spur of Italy's boot-certain elements make an impression on all visitors. The terrain is noticeably flat, unlike all of the other regions of Italy, which are molded by mountains. Giant, knotted olive trees and countless acres of vineyards anchor the soil, with straight country roads outlined by miles of low, roughly hewn stone walls. Houses and churches are made of sun-washed, light-colored stone, which throws off a bright white glow reminiscent of the Greek islands. A strong sense of local history and culture finds its outlet all over Apulia. In Bari, the region's capital, the local dialect is so far removed from Italian that anyone who didn't grow up there can't understand it. When a team of Bari filmmakers released the feature film La Capa Gira in 2000, it had to be subtitled in Italian so people across the country could understand the authentic Barese dialogue.
Apulia's long, shifting history is still visible in its architecture and various ancient ruins. The area of Bisceglie (in the province of Bari) is clustered with thousands of remnants from the Neolithic era, including tall, thin megaliths called menhir, or standing stones, and dolmen, or portal tombs (the two words come from Breton, a Celtic language spoken in western France). These prehistoric constructions are thought to have been used in ancient religious rites. When the Greeks colonized Apulia in the 8th century B.C., they (peacefully) encountered three main groups of indigenous peoples: the Dauni in the north, the Peucezi in the center, and the Messapi in the south. Greece used Apulia as the springboard for its successful empire, known by Italians as La Magna Grecia, or "Greater Greece." The city of Taranto became Greek headquarters, with settlements springing up all along the Ionian (western) coast. Abandoned Greek settlements scattered up and down the seashore to the north and south of Taranto serve as a reminder of this time in Apulian history. When La Magna Grecia waned, the Romans made inroads into Apulia, literally-the Appian Way stretched from Rome to the port city of Brindisi. Long after Rome's dominance faded, a new type of economic and social structure sprung up in Apulia's rural areas: large, independent farms called masserie. By the 1600s, over 2,000 of these fortified stucco complexes covered the landscape. Each masseria was a self-sufficient community, complete with living quarters for workers and owners, plus chapels, grain mills and olive presses. The owner lived in the main building, usually in quarters high up in a tower that allowed him to keep an eye on the workers, while the peasants lived on the grounds. Most of these structures are now abandoned though some have been converted into hotels. Military fortresses and castles are equally prominent markers on Apulia's landscape. Norman (French) rulers built some of them during their reign in the 12th century A.D.; others were built on the orders of Frederick II, the Swabian (German) king. Their boxy, commanding design casts an imposing presence over Apulia's landscape.
The artistic pinnacle of Apulia is the town of Lecce. When the Spanish won control of the Kingdom of Naples (which included Lecce) in the 1500s, they ushered in an era of unprecedented creativity that lasted for 200 years. This artistic rebirth led to the creation of an imaginative, gorgeous, sometimes bizarre architectural style called il barocco leccese, or Lecce Baroque. Buildings, homes and church façades throughout the city are covered in a wash of ornate carvings, with an overwhelming decorative effect, including intricate representations of people, animals, religious symbols and stories, and floral patterns. The secret behind the Lecce Baroque is the quality of the local stone. Compact and homogeneous, Lecce marble is unusually sculptable when it comes out of the quarry-soft enough to be easily worked with a hammer and chisel.