Although some tour books claim that the best sights in Puglia (Apulia) lie between Lecce in the south and Bari in the northern middle, Kate and I enjoyed two beautiful spots northwest of Bari: Trani and Castel del Monte. Angelo drove us there Thursday—Trani in the morning; a long, leisurely lunch in the middle of the day (as is the custom in Puglia); and amazing Castel del Monte in the afternoon. I almost told you that this was my favorite day, but that’s simply not true—all of the days in Puglia and Basilicata were my favorites, rain or shine.
Trani lies on the coast of the Adriatic Sea just 25 miles northwest of Bari and is primarily known for its spectacular cathedral, Cattedrale di San Nicola Pellegrino. The Romanesque-style cathedral sits majestically on a spit of land that juts into the blue, blue sea—exquisite! The cathedral honors St. Nicholas the Pilgrim, who drowned in Bari in 1094 and was canonized five years later. It was constructed on top of two seventh-century churches, which can still be seen, between 1099 and 1143, and the 194-foot bell tower was added from 1230 to 1239. Next to the cathedral sits a lovely castle (at least from the outside), one of many in Puglia. It was built by Frederick II, who also built Castel del Monte.
While I found the cathedral breathtaking, the real draw of Trani for me was, of course, the sea. I love the sea, and this port with its blue-painted fishing boats and many pleasure boats, was beautiful, especially with the cathedral rising high above the north end. I also enjoyed wandering through the tiny medieval streets between the basilica and the port.
After a spectacular lunch Angelo drove us to the marvelous, unusual, and mysterious Castel del Monte, Puglia’s second most visited attraction (after the trulli). UNESCO named it a World Heritage Site, calling it “a unique masterpiece of medieval military architecture.” The castle sits seemingly in the middle of nowhere on a 1,770-foot-high hill in a region known as Le Murge, and we could see it from miles away. Built by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II (who was from Swabia—now part of southern Germany) from 1229 to 1240, Castel del Monte is featured on the back of the Italian version of the one-cent euro coin.
No other castle in the world looks like this one, and Frederick II, who loved mathematics, seems to have been obsessed here with the number eight. The castle has eight octagonal towers supporting the eight outer walls, an octagonal inner courtyard, and two stories consisting of eight trapezoidal rooms. The emperor built 200 castles after his return from the Crusades but only one octagonal castle. Castel del Monte has no kitchen, chapel, stable, storerooms, moat, or drawbridge, so while some scholars believe that the castle was used as a fortress, others doubt that, despite its location. Some speculate that it may have been used as a school, others think it was a hunting lodge, and still others believe that it was an astronomical observatory. Angelo also told us that the mottled red marble (a kind of coralline breccia) used on the exterior door is unusual, and no one has ever discovered its source.
I found the inside of Castel del Monte less interesting than the exterior, except that seven of the eight rooms on each floor have two doors so that people can pass easily from room to room, but the eighth room has only one door. Furthermore, the upstairs room with only one door does not sit atop the downstairs room with one door, so the purpose of these rooms is unknown.
Here’s my advice for Trani and Castel del Monte. GO! You can see them both in a single day. If I had to choose just one, I’d choose Castel del Monte, but I would have hated to miss Trani and that beautiful cathedral. Puglia offers so many mysteries—and such a wealth of riches.