Ancient Map of Puglia

Apulia a land of Conquest and Tradition

Apulia has for millennia been a melting pot of various races and creeds, not one conquering army ever tightening its grip sufficiently to stamp an indelible marque throughout the peninsular.  Greeks, Romans, Turks, Swabians, Normans, Spaniads, French, have all at different times, taken possession of parts of Apulia. Yet the vast majority of peasants who toiled the rich, fertile, coastal plains were never assimilated into the wealthy landowning classes, but remained loyal to age old customs, superstitions and tradition. The conspicuous stamp of iron clad authority can be witnessed throughout this remarkable land, and it is the essence of these great monuments which mark age old patriarchy and to which our Places to Visit page speaks of in greater detail.  But away from the awe inspiring and baroque, militaristic, and byzantine is to be found also a land wrapped in quiet mist, or harshly scorched by the sun, where tradition and superstition walk hand in hand with religion, and their creed is that of kin and family and the land.

1st Crusade to Palestine

Apulia and the Crusades (1096-1291)

The written, recorded history of Apulia really dates back to the early eleventh century when a family of lesser known Norman knights (de Hautevilles), came marching from the northern french coast to win wealth, influence and most importantly, land, under the guise of taking The Cross and marching to the Holy Land. Of the eight brothers who marched south, William I and his offspring became Count of Apulia, Robert Guiscard, Duke of Apulia and King of Sicily, Bohemond, Prince of Taranto and Antioch, and Roger Borsa, Duke of Apulia, other offspring becoming princes of Lecce and Bari. One of the de Hauteville daughters was sufficiently far sighted to be mother to Frederick II, not only King of Jerusalem, and King of Sicily and Apulia, but also Holy Roman Emperor.  During the later Middle Ages most of the eastern coastal plains were annexed by the expansionist Ottoman Empire, busying themselves with eradicating all traces of the reviled Hospitaller and Templar brotherhoods, and thereby the whole essence of Crusader history from the Near East.

Norman Castle

Apulia in the Middle Ages

Apulians might all have been eating kebabs today if it were not for a rather formidable Queen who also lived in a hot country with a mediterranean coastline.  Isabella of Castile, holy warrior and the lynchpin of a whole empire, unified Spain and was grandmother to Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor.  Through generations, and intermarriage with the ruling families of Europe, Spain, France and Austria (strange but true), fought over, and divided great swathes of Europe during the 30 Years War, which certainly took longer than 30 years, claimed more than eight million lives, and more than 1/2 of the entire German population.  During this time of brutal bloodshed and massacre, Apulia was quietly adept at keeping its head ‘below the parapet’ as it were.  The landowners, or ‘baroni’ continued to work a largely rural economy, which looked to its trading partners in the south and east of the mediterranean basin rather than the north, which was both geographically and linguistically more dissimilar than the Greeks and Levantines to the native people.

Ancient Rural Village

Apulia under the Spanish

Whether it was a variety of olive that the Spanish didn’t have is hard to tell, but suddenly, the great Bourbon Empire turned its steely gaze upon a hitherto unremarkable land of little conical houses where little people of swarthy complexion who lived and ate whatever came off the land, Thus in 1734 a huge army of Spaniards faced a much smaller contingent of Austrians at the Battle of Bitonto. Sensing defeat the Austrians withdrew to Bari, and then fell back further to Pescara, finally signing the Treaty of Vienna in 1738, which gave Apulia to the Spaniads under the patrimony of the Kingdom of Naples. Whilst the rural majority of Apulia eked out their short lives in grinding poverty, building their famous trulli homes which they shared with their cattle, the Spanish elite, working with a cadre within the Catholic church conceived and made real the breathtaking baroque grandeur of Lecce, Galatina, Galliipoli, Martina Franca, Francavilla Fontana. It was also at this time that the Spanish landowners made their presence known by the building of the first ‘masseria’ or fortified farmhouses, which can still be seen in Puglia.

Otranto Fortress

Apulia under the French

The imposing fortress and naval base at Taranto is just one example of French dominance in the area, but it is in the administrative and legal codices that the Napoleonic legacy is still felt today in the region. This new administration imposed the Napoleonic civil code of law throughout all its territories. Widespread reform aimed at abolishing feudalism, restructuring the judiciary, abolishing age old rights enjoyed by the Church and erecting in its place a secular, civil code of practice, based upon the guiding principles of the 1789 French Revolution, remains largely intact today. It is here in the nuance of a highly republican, yet inherently catholic society, which strangely enough, though odd bedfellows, do appear to live harmoniously in the southern Italian context, that the French legacy has been most indisputable. However, the Napoleonic dream was to end with the ignominious retreat from Moscow in 1812, and the 1814-15 Congress of Vienna, when that wily statesman Metternich stripped Napoleon of all his powers, and sent him to consider the evil of his ways whilst doing nothing much on Elba.

17th Century Trulli

Apulia in the 1800s

It was at this point that Spain, who at this point still owned Sicily (with a bit of help from the British navy), once again reasserted its nominal control over the Mezzegiorno (south). The final unification of Italy, in 1860, (the Risorgimento), was intended to finally create one homogenous state from a plethora of kingdoms, fiefdoms, principalities , and papal states. Whilst the political will cannot be argued with, the economics and logistics of such an upheaval were immense. In the 1820′s there existed only two roads that led south from Rome, both of these ending in Naples. Such was the arduous route of the mule tracks over the mountains from west to east, that Apulia was still in effect severed from the rest of the Italian peninsular, the long sea voyage from Genoa or Rome to Pescara and Brindisi being easier to navigate. Indeed the isolation of the south can be summed up in one very simple statistic. As of 1860, 1,431 out of 1,828 communes south of Naples had no roads to serve them, and throughout the entire country of modern day Italy only 620 kilometres of railway track had been built (all to serve the industrialised north of the great Po valley), whereas in Britain already 10,000 kilometres of track was in existence.

Roman Amphitheater-Lecce

Apulia in the 20th Century

Since the time of unification, one of the great Italian dilemmas has been the ‘Southern Question’. The cultural and moral, industrial, and educational divides between the north and south are still as marked as previous. Whilst the industrialised north has made its presence felt within the wider European context, the rich, fertile coastal plains of Puglia are still the economic mainstay of the area, producing darum wheat used in the manufacture of pasta, olive oil, citrus fruit, vines and olives. Therefore industry has remained rural, labour intensive and geographically immobile, economic advancement continuing to look inward, rather than diversifying laterally or vertically. Manufacturing never really asserted itself within the area, and to this end we do not see the great strides that have been made elsewhere in economic, political and educational thought. Puglia is still a land that bids farewell to its younger educated elite who leave to search for advancement in Rome or the industrialised north.

Ostuni Piazza

Apulia a tourist Destination

Although the emergent tourist industry has brought with it the inevitable influx of ‘me too’ culture, and society has become more outward looking, this is a relatively new phenomena. Yes, there has been much building since World War II, particularly infrastructure to permit the transit of goods northwards, and today the widening of the superhighway the entire length of the Adriatic coastline from Rimini to Pescara, yet Puglia still retains much that is old and lost from anywhere north of Bari. Puglians don’t seem to be very good at remembering their history, perhaps it’s rather like not knowing what to wear when the wardrobe is too full. There have been so many masters and languages, even though one could easily be forgiven for not recognising any of these diverse influences. However, in its own quiet way this quiet land, is probably more truly cosmopolitain in it’s purest sense, than many a great capital of any European country. The many surviving trulli in Puglia, are a constant  reminder of the poverty of the South, compared to the grand villas in the North.