The most beautiful places of the Aosta Valley

The private association “I borghi più belli d’Italia” (“The most beautiful places in Italy”) was founded in 2001 with the mission to present and support particularly beautiful places in Italy. These places – small towns and villages – are prevalently situated beyond beaten touristic paths and are at risk of falling into oblivion. Many of them are of medieval of origin, even car-free, have a distinct charm and a harmonious townscape. You can find two such places in the Aosta Valley in the northwesternmost part of the country; places you absolutely should learn more about.

 

Étroubles

©Bigstock.com/emanisca

©Bigstock.com/emanisca

The first stop is Étroubles. You’re in the French-speaking part of the country, as the name suggests. At just under 500 inhabitants and a rather large area of about 39 km², Étroubles is a classic mountain village in the Western Italian Alps. Situated along the Great St Bernard Pass, its history can be traced back to Roman times. As such, Étroubles’ name likely derives from Latin and Occitan terms for “straw” and “fields of straw”, neatly describing the village’s magnificent surroundings.

 

Old customs and traditions remain important in Étroubles. The Veillà focuses on the old village life ranging from traditional crafts to agriculture to everyday social life. The cuisine reflects all of that including the fried dessert “bugie” and the rustic “seuppa freida” (stale brown bread dunked in red wine). One of the highlights in carnival season is an ironic procession satirising Napoleon’s march through the village.

 

Putting aside these amazing traditions and festivities where you will be most certainly welcomed with open arms, there are also some sights in Étroubles you need to check out:

  • Parish church: First mentioned in the Middle Ages, today’s church Santa Maria Assunta is far more modern as it was only built in 1815. Rocks of the former building were used for the new structure, but the belltower still maintains its Romanesque roots.
  • Torre di Vachéry: This tower was originally built as a lookout for the local defence system during the 12th century and later adapted as a residence. Burnt down during the Second World War and slowly restored ever since, Torre di Vachéry represents the medieval structures of Étroubles.
  • Open-air museum: An art project dating back to 2005 brings together the charming townscape and the surrounding mountains. 21 renowned artists turned house walls throughout the village into one giant open-air museum accompanying you on your walks through Étroubles.

 

Bard

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©Bigstock.com

Situated at the river Dora Baltea, Bard is dedicated to maintaining the cultural heritage of the Aosta Valley. Due to its ideal location in the narrow gorge, the area was already populated during the neolithic period and later became part of a road connecting Celtic Gaul and Roman territories. As such, the name likely derives from the Celtic “bar”, a fortress or fortified area. You probably won’t be surprised to hear that Bard (approx. 120 inhabitants, 3 km² total area) played quite a significant role as a defensive fortification throughout history even halting a surprise attack by the French army in May 1800 for quite some time.

 

Rather surprisingly for such a narrow strip of land, there’s some winegrowing happening on the terrace along the former Roman road. Regional winegrowers are very tenacious and seemingly unfazed by the adverse location with its tall rock formations. An intense red wine extracted from the Nebbiolo grape with a slight almond flavour delights the palate. Other regional specialities include the cookies “paste de meglia” made of corn flour and the popular Christmas broth “bœuf de Noël”.

 

There’s also many a treasure waiting for you in Bard:

  • Forte di Bard: Initial fortification structures can be traced back as far as the Ostrogoths in 6th century, but it was the Counts of Aosta and Savoy who had the fort expanded. Blown up and destroyed per decree of Napoleon after French troop progressions had been halted here, the majestic structure was rebuilt in the 1830s. It currently houses several museums and exhibitions, such as the amazing Museo delle Alpe presenting the history and nature of the Western Alps.
  • Parish church: Naturally, Bard has its own church with quite a few similarities to the one in Étroubles: dedicated to the Assumption of Mary, originally a medieval structure, and rebuilt during the 19th The belltower, again, managed to keep its Romanesque flair.
  • Surroundings: There are several smaller villages around Bard that lend themselves to touring the region. Medieval Albard and the rock houses of Crous amidst chestnut trees are particularly impressive. Don’t miss out on a trip to the enchanting Tête de Cou with its astonishing view.

 

The Aosta Valley is home to stunning places which are, like the region itself, overlooked and neglected far too often. Actually, however, Italy’s magical northwest is always worth a visit. Discover these and other magical places of the country during your next holiday and let yourself be enchanted by their pristine charm!

City of arts Noto in Sicilian baroque style

The late baroque style is very present and visible in wide parts of Sicily giving the cities and villages a very uniform yet enigmatic look. This cumulation is particularly striking in the Val di Noto, a region endangered by volcanic activities. Eight cities were declared World Heritage Site in 2002 including the particularly charming city of arts Noto. A complete rebuild after a devastating earthquake created the contemporary, fairly homogenous cityscape with a few modern touches and some remains of the rich ancient heritage. Your tour of the orthogonal road grid leads you past numerous tufa buildings and shows you some of probably the most beautiful examples of Sicilian architecture.

 

A tale of two Notos

Before Noto there was Netum, a sizeable ancient town approx. eight kilometres northwest of today’s city of arts. Founded by the Sicels and conquered by Syracuse rather early, the Romans gave the town to Hiero II of Syracuse, a key figure during the First Punic War, before eventually falling completely under Roman rule. You probably won’t be surprised to find out that Sicel, Greek and Roman structures and artefacts were found in this region. Noto became one of the most important places on the entire island during Arab rule and was Italy’s last Muslim bastion in 1091 before the Normans brought their wealth to town.

 

The town of notable intellectual figures experienced a devastating turning point on 11 January 1693 when a severe earthquake hit the Val di Noto. Medieval Noto disappeared almost completely, more than half the population was killed. It was decided to rebuild the city on the left shore of the Asinaro river, a bit closer to the coast. City architect Rosario Gagliardi oversaw the contemporary octagonal road grid and the uniform Sicilian baroque style. That’s why the city of arts Noto now has this almost consistent look throughout.

 

The churches

©Bigstock.com/Alberto SevenOnSeven

©Bigstock.com/Alberto SevenOnSeven

It probably goes without saying that plenty of churches were among the numerous buildings constructed after the earthquake. There even were plans to make the city of arts Noto into a diocese, and these house of prayer drove this suggestion:

  • San Nicolò: The city of arts’ cathedral is Noto’s largest and most famous church without a doubt. Initially built as a main parish church and greatly expanded during the 18th century, you can see the almost shining façade made of pale yellow limestone from afar. The ostentatious towers and the wide perron give the cathedral a grand presence. As a stark contrast, the interior seems fairly pale ever since the cupola and the side aisles collapsed in 1996 due to material fatigue and erosion. The cathedral has since been renovated extensively with new frescoes added to the rebuilt cupola.
  • Santissimo Salvatore: This combination of church and Benedictine convent is comparatively simple yet practical. One thing that stands out is the balcony with iron grillwork that allows the nuns of the convent to follow mass with a view of the piazza in front of the building. These days, the convent is for seminarists only.
  • San Carlo al Corso: The concave façade alone makes this church with adjacent Jesuit seminar and monastery an eye-catcher. The classic composition of pillars and capitals skilfully utilises Doric, Ionic and Corinthian elements. Ostentatious paintings, statues and frescoes line the richly decorated interior.
  • San Domenico: This church, too, stands out due to the stylistic plurality of its pillars using Doric and Ionic characteristics to playfully support Gagliardi’s masterpiece. The extensive, magnificent stucco of San Domenico depicting various biblical scenes perfectly fits the presentation.
  • San Girolamo: Also known as Chiesa di Montevergine, this building was originally established for Benedictine nuns. Another concave façade creates a rather imposing effect due to the rather narrow corridor outside the church. Let yourself be enchanted one more time by opalescent stucco.

 

More sights in Noto

©Bigstock.com/vvoevale

©Bigstock.com/vvoevale

That’s merely an extract of the numerous churches in the city of arts Noto. However, we want to check out some other buildings you should stop by during your city walk.

  • Palazzo Ducezio: Named after the Sicel leader Ducetius, this palace currently houses city hall. The palazzo was visibly inspired by French palaces, the Louis-Quinze-style furniture adds a touch of rococo to the entire presentation. The balcony outside the assembly hall grants you a direct view of the cathedral.
  • Palazzo Nicolaci: Noto is all about the Infiorata between late May and early June. Creating these complex flower carpets and paintings on streets and staircases takes weeks and months. Its main presentation site is Palazzo Nicolaci with 90 abundantly decorated rooms. The palace is also home to the city library.
  • Museo Civico: Noto’s city museum is divided into two section. On the one hand, you get thrilling insights into regional history with numerous finds from the archaeological complex. The other fascinating section concerns the contemporary art gallery introducing you to Sicily’s more recent art history.

 

Netum and Villa Romana

Most of Noto’s ancient structures are covered by the ruins of the destroyed medieval town except for three chambers carved into rock. Excavations in the hinterland unearthed rather interesting finds, such as Christian and Byzantine catacombs, and Sicel and Greek cemeteries. Ruins of an amphitheatre, a gymnasium and a Greek inscription hinting at Hiero II of Syracuse were discovered in Netum or Noto Antica, as the old ancient town is called.

 

You can find even more witnesses to Noto’s ancient heritage. There’s Elorus or Helorus, an ancient Greek town at the coast and the estuary of the river Tellaro, some eight kilometres to the south. Greek ceramics confirm that Elorus was founded around the 8th century BC. Temples, roads, residential buildings as well as evidence of two square towers and a wall ring were discovered here. Travel another kilometre south and stop by Villa Romana del Tellaro, a Roman villa from the second half of the 4th century AD. It is best known for its excellently preserved floor mosaics that might remind you of Villa Romana del Casale.

 

The rather uniform appearance of the city of arts Noto masks fascinating smaller and larger masterpieces and insider tips that absolutely need to be explored. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is a little bit different in the best way possible introducing you to the complete splendour of Sicilian baroque style. Add exciting traces of the ancient heritage, especially in the hinterland, to the mix and find a gripping, absolutely thrilling destination presenting you with many a treasure hidden behind the fairly homogenous façade. The city of arts Noto is a must-visit destination when travelling to Sicily!

City of arts Palermo with rich cultural heritage

©Bigstock.com/magicbones

©Bigstock.com/magicbones

Italy’s fifth-largest city is located on Sicily. Palermo, the island’s capital, is one of the country most important places in more than one way. Not only is it Sicily’s political centre, its historical, cultural and architectural heritage holds its own against the largest, most popular cities of arts. Medieval Arab-Norman influences dominate the cityscape to this day. Countless churches and palaces, most of them arranged around central squares such as Piazza Pretoria and Quattro Canti, both surprise and impress due to their vastness, variety and uniqueness. The city of arts Palermo is one of those places where you can discover something new, almost magical, during every visit. We show you the must-sees for your next holiday. First off, however, let’s take a look at the city’s riveting history.

 

Palermo’s history between economic and cultural centre

The nearby Addaura cave suggests first human settlements in the region around 8000 BC. You can see corresponding finds in the city of arts’ Museo Archeologico. Palermo itself was founded by the Phoenicians in the 8th century BC as a trade hub. The city was likely called Ziz (“The Flower”), probably due to the fertile soil. Even though Palermo was never ruled by the Greek, they actually gave it its current name: Pánormos, the “wide haven”. The Romans conquered the city during the First Punic War and allowed it to thrive. The Vandal conquest and subsequent East Roman recapture initiated Palermo’s loss of significance. Muslim rule, however, became the catalyst for an unprecedented boom. You can still see traces of this era today. Named capital of the emirs on Sicily in 831, Palermo was Europe’s third-largest city for some time and a flourishing trade centre.

 

The Norman conquest in 1072 and subsequent Hohenstaufen regime resulted in the construction of several churches and palaces that are still among the most important sights of the city. Some buildings and structures were even declared UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2015. Charles of Anjou moved his kingdom’s capital to Naples. Palermo became more and more impoverished eventually leading to the bloody Sicilian Vespers. Frequently changing rulers set in motion a major loss of significance over the following centuries. Heavily affected by wartime bomb raids, Palermo saw a massive influx of new residents from rural areas leading to the construction of numerous poor buildings. Furthermore, the city was the site of violent Mafia wars. Mayor Leoluca Orlando’s mandate saw somewhat of a revitalisation of the public and cultural life in more recent years.

 

Palermo’s churches

©Bigstock.com/katatonia82

©Bigstock.com/katatonia82

Norman rule in particular saw the construction of numerous churches in the city of arts Palermo. Listing them all would go beyond the scope of this article. Here are some houses of prayer you must visit:

  • Cattedrale di Palermo: The largest and most important church of the city of arts, full name “Basilica Cattedrale Metropolitana Primaziale della Santa Vergine Maria Assunta”, dates back to the 6th After an earthquake the current Norman-Arab building was created between 1184 and 1185 and converted several times in later times, most notably by Ferdinando Fuga at the tail end of the 18th century. Ranging from the classic Norman fortified church structure to the Arab elements on the three apses to the late Gothic portico, the façade neatly shows off this architectural variety. Inside you get to experience Fuga’s conversions in all of their glory, accompanied by precious sculpting. There’s a sort of sundial along the astronomic meridian on the floor in front of the altar room. The sunlight coming in from the cupola crosses this line exactly at noon.
  • San Giovanni dei Lebbrosi: Palermo’s oldest Norman-Arab church likely originated around 1071 outside the former city walls. It’s situated in a small park featuring three apses and hemispherical domes characteristic for Palermo’s Norman houses of prayer. The slightly ogival windows, however, are likely some of the first ogives of the Christian West.
  • San Giovanni degli Eremiti: This building might have seen many an alteration, but it still carries its medieval gleam thanks to Giuseppe Patricolo’s baring and restoration in 1877. The characteristically Norman church with ogival window openings contains remains of old frescoes and murals shrouded in mystery.
  • La Martorana: Many changes also happened to this originally central-plan building from the mid-12th Initially, a Benedictine convent was annexed. A baroque façade and a belfry with upper floors adapted to Catalan Gothic stylings were added later. Ostentatious, radiant mosaics – especially at the highest point of the church, the nave dome – will most certainly enchant you.
  • San Cataldo: Find the former private church of Majone di Bari, admiral under King William I of Sicily, right next to La Martorana. The Apulian cube structure, very typical of its time, unveils tall, three-nave rooms with ancient pillars. San Cataldo is particularly popular for weddings.
  • Chiesa di San Giovanni alla Guilla: The former seat of the Maltese Order became a repeatedly renewed church with Sicilian baroque revetments which sadly are poorly preserved. The upper floors with old Romanesque elements actually look the best today.
  • La Magione: Also known as Santissima Trinità, this is one of Palermo’s final Norman-built churches. La Magione was renovated extensively after World War damages allowing you to marvel at the medieval wooden ceiling and the multi-layered cloisters.
  • Santo Spirito: There used to be a Cistercian abbey outside Palermo. Adverse climatic conditions led to its abandonment and demolition leaving only the church Santo Spirito behind. Having had later baroque touches removed, it now oozes Norman charm.
  • Sant’Agostino: As the name suggests, Sant’Agostino is an Augustinian church. The Gothic building dates back to the late 13th century, the richly adorned façade with rosette came a bit later. You will probably be surprised to find baroque stucco inside.
  • San Francesco d’Assisi: First Franciscan settlements can be traced back to the year 1235. The current church was built between 1255 and 1277 yet had to be renovated in the style of Sant’Agostino due to severe war damage. Astonishing paintings grace the chapels of this Gothic building.
  • Chiesa del Gesù: The oldest Jesuit church, however, is one of the newer sacred buildings of the city of arts Palermo. This house of prayer with a fairly plain façade was constructed during the second half of the 16th Works on the interior took until 1860 which shouldn’t surprise you when you see the ostentatious selection of paintings, frescoes and reliefs. The Jesuit house Casa Professa with Palermo’s public library is behind the church.

 

Fascinating palaces

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©Bigstock.com

There aren’t just plenty of churches in Palermo, you’ll also find tons of palazzi. Located especially at and around central squares such as Quattro Canti and Piazza Pretoria (with the astonishing Mannerism fountain you absolutely shouldn’t miss out on!), they feature highlights such as:

  • Palazzo dei Normanni: The Norman Palace or Palazzo Reale awaits you at the highest point of the medieval city. Its oldest walls even date back to Phoenician-Carthaginian times. The former seat of Norman kings might have lost three of its four towers over the years but received a Renaissance façade that wonderfully harmonises with the rest of the original structure. Glorious Renaissance arcades and 19th century mosaics accompany your palazzo tour.
  • Palazzo Chiaramonte: Sicily’s 14th century late Gothic architectural style is also known as the “Chiaramonte style”, and that’s due to this palace. The cube shape and the almost windowless ground floor seem rather non-descript. However, the wooden ceiling in the main hall is must-see. Biblical, apocalyptic, mythological, erotic, and heroic epic scenes line the fascinating panelled ceiling.
  • Palazzo Sclafani: It took Manfredi Chiaramonte decades to build his palace. His brother-in-law Matteo Sclafani wanted to humiliate him by constructing this palazzo in no time. Several restorations added Arab and Norman elements to the originally Gothic architecture.
  • Palazzo Branciforte: This royal house turned pawnshop near the sea dates back to the late 16th A road divides the two parts of the building connected via corridors and bridges. Representative rooms richly decorated with frescoes line the ground floor. The palazzo currently houses numerous exhibitions and collections, including archaeological finds, majolica, coins, stamps, and sculptures.

 

Art and culture

Palermo’s cultural life saw a distinct upswing over the most recent decades. You can now find several museums, art galleries, and (reactivated) theatres and opera houses throughout the city that very much enrich the cultural life. We recommend the following:

  • Museo Archeologico: From Sicily’s prehistory to the Late Roman time, the city’s archaeological museum is dedicated to finds from the western part of the island. Fascinating Greek bronzes and finds from Selinunte with parts of temples are among the highlights of this three-storey exhibition.
  • Galleria Regionale: The two-storey late Gothic Palazzo Abatellis houses Palermo’s art gallery. It focuses on frescoes, paintings, sculptures and ceramics. Among the most exciting pieces are the “Annunziata di Palermo” by Antonello di Messina and the fresco “Triumph of Death” by an unknown master, both 15th century works.
  • Museo Diocesano: Palermo’s sacral art found a fitting home in the episcopal palace Palazzo Arcivescovile. A round tour leads you through the rooms where the architecture itself – including old Gothic windows from the early construction stages – become art. Various halls are dedicated to Sicily’s schools of paintings, including those of Antonello Gagini, Vincenzo Gaggini, and Pietro Novelli.
  • Museo Etnografico: If you’ve always been interested in Sicily’s culture and people, the island’s ethnographic museum is the perfect place for you. Handmade puppets from the popular Sicilian puppet theatre and the intricately painted Sicilian carts that used to be drawn by horses and donkeys up until the 1950s are among the most riveting exhibits.
  • Teatro Massimo: We cap things off with a piece of Historicism. The former site of the San Giuliano church and abbey is now home to this astonishing theatre finished in 1897. The richly decorated hall can seat about 1,300 people. Furthermore, the final scenes of “The Godfather Part III” were shot inside Teatro Massimo.

 

Palermo is one of those cities where one day simply isn’t enough. Our list of sites merely scratches the surface of the Sicilian capital with splendour and variety, tons of beaches, and the gorgeous views of the gleaming sea and even many a mountain wowing you anew day in and day out. We recommend spending at least an extended weekend in the city of arts Palermo to explore and enjoy the numerous churches and palaces at your leisure. Palermo is always worth the journey – give it a shot!

City of arts Messina: Gateway to Sicily

©Bigstock.com/ilolab

©Bigstock.com/ilolab

The Strait of Messina is also known as the gateway to Sicily. It doesn’t just connect two bodies of water – the Tyrrhenian Sea and Ionian Sea – but, first and foremost, the island with the Italian mainland. The link between Villa San Giovanni in Calabria (a few kilometres north of Reggio Calabria) and Messina is one of the most important junctions in all of Italy. One thing that’s overlooked far too often: Messina is a stunning, fascinating city of arts that managed to retain its magical aura despite numerous devastations and natural disasters. Visiting the city of arts Messina produces many a big surprise and should be part of every Sicilian holiday. Find out what the city has in store for you.

 

The ups and downs of Messina’s history

Messina’s roots can be traced back to the 8th century BC when Ionian colonists settled on this land and called it Zancle, which comes from the Sicel term for “scythe” and was likely inspired by the scythe-like shape of the land tongue. The name Messene came in the 5th century BC. Carthaginians and Mamertines pillaged and devasted the city, the latter eventually setting the First Punic War in motion. It resulted in Messina becoming a free city allied with Rome, then a part of the Roman province of Sicily as a major maritime base crowned by a tall lighthouse. However, the economic boom period wore off during the 9th century. The city saw many different conquerors, such as the Arabs, the Normans, and even a brief occupation by King Richard I (“The Lionheart”).

 

This set several highly eventful centuries in motion that saw Messina experience all the highs and lows imaginable. Genoese ships brought the black death to Western Europe via Messina in 1347. Contemporary reports talk about the arrival of “death ships” floating to shore without a single survivor on board. On a slightly different note, Messina’s coinage left its distinct mark on medieval currency until 1678. The city was also the seat of the Consolato del Mare, regulating body of global naval trade, and the Consolato della Seta, the consulate of silk traders. A severe earthquake with subsequent tidal waves destroyed most of the city, such as the cathedral and several palaces, in 1783. The rebuilding efforts put greater emphasis on wider roads and spacious squares. Another earthquake with a tsunami in 1908 levelled 90% of all buildings, over 60,000 people lost their lives. Even the brutal air raids during the Second World War didn’t manage to dishearten the population who rebuilt everything again. That’s why the city of arts Messina is so richly layered today.

 

Cathedral and cathedral square

As you’ve just read, the Cathedral Santa Maria Assunta was destroyed and rebuilt several times. Hardly anything is left of the original basic fabric of the church consecrated in 1197. A fire in 1254 destroyed the panelled ceiling. The body of the recently deceased and laid out King Conrad IV also fell victim of the flames. Walls collapsing during the two aforementioned earthquakes destroyed the interior, fires causes by war bombs burned pretty much everything inside to the ground. Its current basilica-like look with the layout of a Latin cross has heavy Gothic and Norman influences. The main gate is fully Gothic. The three naves are each separated by two rows of 13 pillars each and Corinthian capitals. The mosaic adornment inside the Chapel of the Sacraments is particularly worth seeing. It dates back to the 14th century and is one of the very few gems that survived the countless catastrophes.

 

The belltower (48 metres tall, newly constructed in 1933) also belongs to the glorious cathedral ensemble. Its medieval style perfectly fits the basilica. The side facing the cathedral square is adorned by scenes depicting religious and historic events with a connection to Messina. It starts moving at noon every day. Find the cathedral treasury at the church’s southside. One thing you must see is the Manta d’oro from 1668. The rather glorious Fountain of Orion with its scenic Renaissance flair neatly caps off this awe-inspiring ensemble.

 

©Bigstock.com/milosk50

©Bigstock.com/milosk50

Other sights in Messina

The cathedral square is far from the only highlight in the city of arts Messina. You absolutely should check out the following gems:

  • Palazzo Monte di Pietà: There are (and were) plenty of palaces in Messina. This 17th century nobility palace, built on the former site of a small church, certainly is among the most beautiful of its kind. It stands tall with its impressive façade and loggia. You can also marvel at the remains of another church.
  • Chiesa del Carmine: The Carmelites had their first church on this site built as early as the mid-13th Today’s structure dates back to 1930, erected after the latest devastating earthquake. The smooth transition between baroque and rococo stylings makes the ostentatious, richly adorned church a sight to behold. It houses several equally spectacular chapels.
  • Chiesa della Santissima Annunziata dei Catalani: This 12th century Norman church is one of the few buildings that survived all natural disasters and is now three metres below the rebuilt streets. Here you get to experience fascinating Arab, Byzantine and even Roman influences. The apse is particularly grand.
  • Forte del Santissimo Salvatore: Some walls might have been torn down by the 1908 earthquake, but the stilly military-owned fortress mostly managed to maintain its original 16th century shine. You might spy bits and pieces of earlier medieval structures throughout the facility.
  • Forte Gonzaga: This fortress was built during the 1540s as a means of protection against the rapidly expanding Ottoman Empire. It rises high above the city overlooking the Strait of Messina. Forte Gonzaga became a city property in 1973. There are plans to turn it into a museum and conference centre.
  • Palacultura Antonello da Messina: The Palace of Culture is one of the city’s most modern buildings, at least from the outside. And this very look has been causing a lot of discussions for years due to its strong resemblance to Boston City Hall, which in turn has been supposed to be demolished for a long time. In addition, the Palacultura was built on an archaeological excavation site delaying construction by almost 30 years. Still, the multipurpose centre seems to be remarkably unimpressed by all discussions and controversies.

 

The Strait of Messina

We initially talked a bit about the strait between Sicily and Calabria. It can only be crossed by water although the ferry is equipped to transport the railway carriages of the line running between Palermo and Naples. Construction of a bridge has been in discussions for decades. A 2003 initiative came very close until all hopes were shattered ten years later. Among the high risks of building such a bridge are strong winds and the risk of earthquakes. Still, endeavours for similar projects continue to this very day.

 

Then again, the Strait of Messina was crossed in the post-war period . . . electrically. Installation of Sicily’s power supply via the Italian mainland began in 1955. Overhead power lines connected the Calabrian substation Scilla with the Sicilian substation Messina-Santo. The 224-m-high power pole still stand even though all power lines were removed in 1994 in favour of an underwater cable. You can scale the old Sicilian pole with its more than 1,250 steps. The view is astonishing as long as have a good head for heights.

 

As you can see, Messina is a fantastic, diverse city of arts with many a surprise. Merely travelling there from the mainland is awesome, but the city itself has so much to offer as well. The richly layered architecture with an exciting, forced mix of classic charm, modern wit and clever re-interpretations runs across all squares and through all roads. You absolutely shouldn’t miss out on the city of arts Messina – definitely a must-visit when travelling to Sicily and/or Calabria!

City of arts Cagliari with ancient highlights

©Bigstock.com/c_73

©Bigstock.com/c_73

Sardinia’s capital is situated in the south of the island. It is home to stunning beaches, glorious promenades and inviting parks. Something that doesn’t get talked about nearly enough: Cagliari is a multifaceted city of arts that showcases its extremely long, diverse history in the best way possible. Already populated in prehistoric times, it was conquered, destroyed, abandoned and re-established. Thus, you can explore the heritage of countless eras in and around Cagliari today in an architectural timelapse of sorts. To top it all off, there’s the gorgeous view of the Gulf of Cagliari from the elevated hilly city location . . . it doesn’t get much better than this!

 

A brief history of Cagliari

The roots of the region can be traced back to the Neolithic Age. It was very popular, particularly with the Monte Claro culture, due to its ideal position between the sea, a fertile plain, two swamp areas and, as a retreat, tall mountains. Caralis, as the region was known, later became a Phoenician colony, was placed under Roman rule after the First Punic War, served as a key naval base during the Second Punic War and eventually gained the status of municipium. Vandals invaded after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, but the incorporation into the Byzantine Empire ensured that Cagliari had a key role during the Middle Ages.

 

Once Byzantium started to lose influence during the 9th century five Sardinian Judicates formed, at least until Cagliari annexed Agugliastra and reduced them to four for several centuries. However, this period of independence saw the citizens leave town and found Santa Igia inland in order to escape repeated pirate attacks. The Republic of Pisa had Santa Igia destroyed during their conquests in 1258; Castel di Castro, established by merchants, became the predecessor of modern Cagliari. The region was placed under Spanish administration during the 14th century and came to the House of Savoy in 1718 giving birth to the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia. Cagliari experienced a massive boom after the unification of Italy. Numerous buildings rose into the sky, accompanied by the popular Art Nouveau style and flowery ornaments.

 

What remains of Caralis

We stay clear of such modern times for now as the city of arts Cagliari has so much palpable history to offer. Our first point of interest is Caralis, the name of Sardinia’s capital during Punic, Roman and early Christian times. Two particularly well-preserved places illustrate its unique role for this region in a particularly exciting manner. Our first stop is Tuvixeddu, Sardinian for “hill of the little holes”. It’s called that for good reason as this originally Punic necropolis on a hill in the north of Cagliari consists of thousands of rock tombs. Another necropolis and a Roman burial place were added in later times. Aerial photos show that this area actually looks as though it has been perforated.

 

The most important evidence of Cagliari’s Roman heritage – aside from the so-called Heroon of the Atilia Pomptilla with poetic Greek and Roman inscriptions – is the amphitheatre. Built directly into the hill with some seats carved out of stone, it was used as a quarry for centuries sadly destroying a great deal of the massive facility that likely held 8,000 to 12,300 spectators. Starting with the first restoration and renovation in 1866 the amphitheatre was given additional wooden structures, such as corridors and tiers, turning the historic ambiance into a contemporary event location.

 

Cagliari Cathedral

©Bigstock.com/Banet

©Bigstock.com/Banet

Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta e Santa Cecilia is one of many buildings where pretty much no stone was left unturned. The Pisans had a cathedral built in the then prevalent Norman-Pisan style as early as 1217. The first alterations in the 14th century changed the façade and added the transept. Similar changes occurred time and time again, although the baroque alterations that started in 1669 certainly had the greatest overall impact on the structure. You can see remains of the baroque façade – it was removed due to its ruinous state and rebuilt between the wars utilising elements of the Pisan Romanesque – in the cathedral’s museum.

 

These very baroque alterations are especially visible inside the cathedral as the interior was entirely adapted to this style. Among the highlights is the crypt where the remains of almost 300 Sardinian martyrs have found their final resting place. The crypt arch is decorated with 600 rosettes. The embossed silver antependium from Madrid, the finely chiselled tabernacle, the grand altarpiece with a crucifixion scene and the enthroned Madonna, and the artful multicolour marble floors will wow you. Don’t sleep on the mid-12th century marble pulpit, a Pisan gift and one of the most important Pisan works of art on the entire island.

 

More sights in Cagliari

Putting the ancient remains of Caralis and the ostentatious cathedral aside for a moment, there are several more highlights that make Cagliari an impressive city of arts:

  • Basilica di Nostra Signora di Bonaria: The Bonaria hill in Cagliari harbours not only a necropolis, but also Sardinia’s largest pilgrimage centre. The first citadel was built around 1323/24 after Alfonso IV of Aragon had conquered all of Sardinia via Bonaria. Today’s basilica, however, is of baroque origin. Its name stems from a marvellous statue that was washed ashore in a box in 1370 according to legend. A painting by Antonio Corriga inside the basilica depicts the rescue of the statue by seamen. The associated monastery documents the history of adoration of the Virgin Mary in Bonaria in its cloister.
  • Bastione di Saint Remy: The Spanish built various fortifications during the late 16th century to protect Cagliari. Two eventually became the foundation for this bastion constructed between 1896 and 1902. However, the imposing neoclassical structure carries no military role whatsoever. There’s a large observation terrace that’s very popular with locals and tourists. Here you can enjoy a magnificent view across the city of arts.
  • The towers: Some parts of the old defensive facilities are still standing, such as Torre dell’Elefanto and Torre di San Pancrazio. They were originally part of the first Pisan structure in the 14th century and were used as prisons by the Spanish. Ever since the renovation in 1999 you can climb both the elephant tower – named after a small marble elephant above the gate – and the Pancrazio tower to enjoy the marvellous view.

 

Stone-age and baroque elements come together wonderfully and astoundingly in Cagliari. The city of arts lives and breathes many different eras finding a fascinating way of presenting all of them in their stunning variety. Gorgeous observation platforms, wonderful beaches, and numerous charming museums, cafés and restaurants set the scene for a city holiday that’s both diverse and enjoyable, even in autumn and winter. Here you get to see Sardinia at its best and most beautiful.

City of arts Reggio Calabria with ancient heritage

©Bigstock.com/byvalet

©Bigstock.com/byvalet

Italy’s south is home to the country’s oldest ancient settlements that left marks which you can still delightfully explore and marvel at to this very day. If you feel like a cultural holiday and are historically minded, we recommend the city of arts Reggio Calabria. The largest city of Calabria and former capital of the region – that honour went to Catanzaro in 1970 – is situated at the east side of the Strait of Messina. You can comfortably reach the Sicilian city by ferry in just 20 minutes which lends itself perfectly to an artful, cultured double city holiday. You will find vast ancient heritage, diverse architecture and of the most beautiful promenades in the entire country in Reggio Calabria. Let’s get to it!

 

Greek roots in Calabria

There’s most certainly plenty of history in Reggio Calabria. Its predecessor, Rhegion, was one of Italy’s oldest Greek colonies aside from Cumae. Likely founded around 720 BC by settlers from Chalcis, it saw a massive boom period thanks to busy trade activities and a fleet of 70 battleships at times. Conquered and destroyed after severe combat by Dionysius I of Syracuse – Rhegion had allied itself with Athens against Syracuse – in 387 BC, the now enslaved population lost all its wealth. It eventually fell to the Romans just before the First Punic War, became a flourishing city under the name of Rhegium Julii and, after the fall of the Western Roman Empire and several invasions, was eventually made a Byzantine property.

 

The following centuries turned out highly eventful. Reggio Calabria was conquered by Sicilian Arabs in 918, received some Norman touches and was eventually incorporated into the Kingdom of Sicily and the Kingdom of Naples. It maintained its Greek undertones until the 17th century and even survived looting by the Osman Turks who planned to spread Islam across Italy from here. After the Habsburg, Spanish and Napoleonic reign Reggio Calabria eventually became part of the united Italy. Struck by brutal earthquakes as early as ancient times, the severe 1908 Messina earthquake with its tsunami destroyed most of the city. At least a third of the population lost their lives. That’s why numerous sights in Reggio Calabria have a decisively more modern look.

 

A walk on the beach

Reggio Calabria is situated directly at the ocean and has countless beaches that lend themselves to a dip in the water – certainly essential in the hot summer months. An extended walk at the carefully restored beach promenade is just as neat. Built at the tail end of the 18th century as a central hiking trial through the then village, you get to see numerous villas and astonishing buildings. Artfully decorated facades will wow you over and over again. Among the highlights is the seaside amphitheatre, one of Reggio Calabria’s most popular event venues. Aside from all the representative buildings, the numerous clubs and beach bars, you shouldn’t forget to look out into the sea. On clear days – and there are more than enough here – you can easily see Messina.

 

Museo Nazionale della Magna Grecia

We initially recommended the city of arts Reggio Calabria to you as a wonderful cultural and historical destination. The main reason for that is hidden behind the walls of the national archaeological museum, also known as Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Reggio Calabria or MArRC. The building – designed in 1932, completed in 1942, but empty for several years until way after the war – looks rather unspectacular from the outside. The four floors of this extensively renovated museum has all the history of Reggio Calabria you need from its earliest Greek settlements to more modern times. The ground floor with its 15 halls is dedicated to finds from the Sibari plain and from Locri with various items from Greek sanctuaries and a reconstructed rock-cut tomb. Ancient Reggio Calabria and a fascinating collection of old coins are situated on the first floor, while the region’s art history from the Middle Ages to the present is being told on the second floor.

 

The absolute highlight, without any doubt, can be found in the basement, the perfect place for an exhibition titled “underwater archaeology”. You will see finds from the Calabrian seas and from sunken ships, such as amphorae and anchors from Greek and Roman times, in the first two halls. Hall III, however, manages to top that. Aside from the head of the philosopher found in Porticello and a 5th century BC sculpture of a ruler, you get to marvel at the Bronzes of Riace. They were found outside the coast of Riace in the Province of Reggio Calabria in 1972 and carefully restored over several years. The statues, both around two metres in height, likely used to carry wooden shields and cutting weapons. They might have been consecration gifts for a temple and could have been placed on pedestals.

 

More sights in Reggio Calabria

©Bigstock.com/Aliaksandr Antanovich

©Bigstock.com/Aliaksandr Antanovich

While the archaeological museum of Reggio Calabria is a must-see for sure, this city of arts is home to many more glorious sights we simply have to tell you more about:

  • Duomo di Reggio: Basilica Cattedrale Metropolitana di Maria Santissima Assunta in Cielo, the city’s cathedral, is one of the buildings that was severely affected by the 1908 earthquake. What started around 300 AD on the ruins of a Greek temple and saw many a restructuring and expansion over the centuries had to be fully rebuilt in the 20th The now neo-Romantic cathedral with its 28-m-high campanile at least managed to retain some of its 15th and 16th century endowments. The richly decorated front portal alone is worth the visit.
  • Madre della Consolazione: Another destroyed building is this 16th century votive church. Provisionally stabilised as a wooden church for decades, the new pilgrimage church has a decisively mode modern touch creating a fascinating contrast to Reggio Calabria’s ancient roots. The altarpiece, a painting of the Maria della Consolazione, is part of a procession that sees it carried to the cathedral in September and returned in November. This commemorates centuries long gone when the piece was repeatedly brought to the Duomo di Reggio during epidemics.
  • Castello Aragonese: Our final stop is another landmark sight of the city of arts Reggio Calabria. Fortified structures likely existed as early as ancient times. Back then the hill on which this fort now rests was far more striking. While its name is due to heavy architectural alterations under King Ferdinand I of Aragon, who had the striking round bastions with merlons built, the actual origins of the fort likely lie somewhere between the 9th and the 11th century, in Byzantine times.

 

The rich, multifaceted Greek heritage, plenty setbacks and austerity, but also pure euphoria and maritime bliss accompany your tours of the city of arts Reggio Calabria. Experience Calabria’s largest city in all of its glory and variety between invaluable statues, majestic views and mighty fortress walls. An additional trip to Messina by ferry is a welcome bonus – time to plan your next holiday!

Stone-age city of arts Matera with modern charm

There are old Italian cities uniting hundreds, even thousands of years’ worth of history in one place. And there’s the city of arts Matera, one of the oldest cities in the world. The capital of the eponymous province in the Southern Italian region of Basilicata was populated as early as the Neolithic Age. Cave dwellings from that very era still form the core of the historic city and are one of the country’s most fascinating UNESCO World Heritage Site. But that’s far from everything you get to experience when visiting Matera.

 

A hint of Matera’s history

Experts continue to debate when the region was first populated. Current consensus hints at the Palaeolithic, somewhere around the 10th millennium BC, although the famous cave dwellings themselves might’ve only been created during the Neolithic. The Roman city Matera, however, was founded as Matheola by the Roman Consul Lucius Caecilius in 251 BC. Matera had many different rulers after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, was desolated by the Saracens in 938 and experienced a lasting heyday the following century when the Normans took over. Changing ruling houses and dynasties, earthquake and pestilences continued the tumultuous history until the unification with the Kingdom of Italy.

 

Sassi di Matera

©Bigstock.com/rosariomanzo

©Bigstock.com/rosariomanzo

People still lived in caves without running water or electricity during the mid-20th century, something that was seen as a cultural disgrace in Italy, especially after a severe outbreak of malaria. This expedited the relocation of the cave inhabitants to newly built apartment buildings during the 1950s and 1960s. However, it would take until the late 1980s for the renovation of the Sassi, the presumably Neolithic cave dwellings, to finally be put into motion. The Sassi di Matera have been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1993 and are supposed to become actual accommodations again with the aid of grants; at least that’s the ambitious plan of the city.

 

Matera lent itself to the construction of these kinds of dwellings due to its location on a large, exposed tuff rock. The material was easy to transport and process, hollowing and sealing was simple even in prehistoric times. The Sassi di Matera gained complex expansions in later centuries, such as several different rooms or fountain and irrigation systems. Caves were even built on top of one another later on to make even more space available. You can visit the Sassi during guided tours, and that’s an absolute must. While you’re at it, why not check out the Park of Rupestrian Churches? The archaeological and historical nature park covers a territory of more than 8,000 hectares expanding into the adjacent village Montescaglioso and is dedicated to old houses of prayers in stone.

 

Castello Tramontano

There’s no doubt that the Sassi alone are more than reason enough to visit Matera. However, the city in the Basilicata region has so much more to offer. The fortress Castello Tramontano on the Lapillo hill overlooks the historic core. Its origins date back to Norman times. The former residence with its eight towers on a square layout was supposed to protect against potential attacks yet was torn down to give way for a more suitable fortress. Construction of the Aragonese-style structure only began in 1501.

 

Originally, a bridge connect both towers; a battlement parapet to Castiglione Normanno, however, was never realised. Additional towers and elements were planned as well but Castello Tramontano remained unfinished. The rather imposing structure with its central keep, old tuff stone walls, large moats and ample park has been in restoration since 2008 and continues to regain its old splendour step by step. Sadly, you can’t check out the fortress at the moment, but the hike there is more than spectacular.

 

Other sights in Matera

©Bigstock.com/DinoPh

©Bigstock.com/DinoPh

Lots of tuff and old rock accompany your tour of Matera. However, the city in the south has far more in store. The following three highlights are must-see!

  • Cathedral of Matera: Construction of this church on the highest point of the city between two Sassi structures began in 1230. The former site of the Benedictine monastery saw the creation of a large cathedral for the newly established archdiocese over the following four decades. The outside with the large rose window and the pillars resting on large atlases remained almost the same. In turn, the interior was redecorated from 1627 onward gaining ostentatious sculptures, frescoes, ceiling paintings and altarpieces.
  • San Pietro Caveoso: There are actually plenty of churches in Matera. San Pietro Caveoso is one of the city’s gems. Situated amidst the Sassi, the baroque façade with its three statues alone is quite the sight. Various paintings and an astounding 13th century baptismal font make it worth sneaking a peek inside.
  • Palazzo dell’Annunziata: With a city of such long history this palace can certainly be seen as a modern piece since construction “only” started in 1735. Being a symbol of wealth and abundance, it originally displaced an important monastery for representative reasons and feels alien. The palace currently houses Matera’s public library.

 

Culture and cuisine

A few places you’ll come across while walking through Matera might seem familiar. The Sassi have been used as the cinematic setting of ancient Jerusalem for decades. Parts of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ”, Pasolini’s “The Gospel According to St. Matthew”, the new 2016 version of “Ben-Hur”, and Daniel Craig’s final Bond movie “No Time to Die” were shot here. The unique location has also attracted artists from Metallica to Robin Schulz to film music videos.

 

And then, there’s Matera’s excellent cuisine that will most certainly spoil your palate. Here are some of the delights you’ll sample in the city’s restaurants and cafés:

  • Crapiata, a soup of Roman origin that used to be predominantly consumed by peasants
  • Pasta with peperoni cruschi, a dry and sweet kind of pepper, and added breadcrumbs
  • Orecchiette alla materana with lamb, mozzarella and pecorino cheese
  • Crumbly Strazzate cookies with almonds and coffee
  • DOC wine from the Matera region in eight different varieties from red to white to rosé

 

Welcome to the Neolithic . . . and to modern times because the city of arts Matera has it all and so much more to offer. The Sassi are the definite highlight without doubt, but the manner in which contemporary elements and cinematic masterpieces have been incorporated into the historic setting will wow you over and over again. Time to travel down south!

City of arts Lecce with baroque treasures

Have you ever been to the “Florence of the south”? Lecce carries this soubriquet (“Florence of the rococo” is another popular one) with pride. The Apulian city is situated on the Salento peninsula and among the southernmost places in all of Italy. Wine and tobacco grow well in this particularly warm climate. Additionally, this still very wealthy city is an important military centre with its own airport and training ground as well as other facilities you’ll discover during a walking tour. And this walk is quite something as the city of arts Lecce will surprise you with architectural highlights ranging from Roman times to more recent additions.

 

From Troy to baroque art

©Bigstock.com/SchnepfPictures

©Bigstock.com/SchnepfPictures

You’re probably wondering how Lecce became this underrated gem. It actual origin is the stuff of myths and legends as the city supposedly already existed during the Trojan War and was allegedly founded by the Messapian king Malemnius in 1211 BC. Continuing this legendary origin story, Licitus Idomeneus occupied the city after the destruction of Troy and gave it both its name and the Greek culture. However, it remains unknown when Lecce was actually founded. The Romans conquered the area in the 3rd century BC and called it Lupiae. Emperor Hadrian later had the city moved three kilometres to the northeast. By then, it was known as Licea or Litium. Saint Oronzo advanced the Christianisation of the region during the 1st century AD. He has been venerated as the city’s patron saint since the plague epidemic of 1658.

 

Lecce remained part of the Eastern Roman Empire for over five centuries even after the Western Empire had fallen, notwithstanding a couple of intermittent conquests. It took the Norman’s conquest of Southern Italy to finally put an end to this affiliation. By uniting with Conversano, the seemingly dozy County of Lecce began its slow rise in 1360 leading to a magnificent heyday from 1550 to 1750. Charles V made the city his administrative centre of the Salento and fortified it. The iconic Lecce baroque style was born and spread across the entire cityscape in no time. The “Florence of the south” managed to retain this classic look to this very day.

 

The cathedral

Your wanderings of Lecce will lead you to a plethora of impressive monuments of classic architecture. The city cathedral, also known as Duomo di Lecce or Cattedrale dell’Assunzione della Virgine, is one of our personal favourites. Now a baroque masterpiece, this structure is way older than you might think at first glance. Built in 1144 and renovated in 1230, the cathedral was rebuilt in 1659 at the bishop’s disposition. The main portal is widely regarded as a baroque masterpiece. Statues, pillars and pilasters grace the main entrance.

 

A monumental building with a layout modelled after a Latin cross awaits you on the inside. Several paintings by Giuseppe da Brindisi depict Saint Oronzo and the salvation from the plague epidemic. The main altar is dedicated to the city’s patron saint. An incredible twelve small chapels, each with altars and elaborate artistic designs, can be found inside the cathedral. The slightly slanting 17th century belltower tops out at 72 metres. On clear days you can even see the Albanian mountain ranges beyond the Adriatic Sea.

 

Churches and basilicas in Leece

©Bigstock.com/Cordeschi

©Bigstock.com/Cordeschi

The imposing cathedral alone would be reason enough to visit Lecce, but that’s just the sacral start, if you will. Many additional churches and basilicas line your tour of the Apulian city of arts. Here are another three personal favourites you shouldn’t miss out on:

  • Basilica di Santa Croce: Started in 1549 and only finished in 1695, this baroque church is the epitome of pomp. There’s so much to marvel at from the ostentatiously decorated façade with its pillars, grotesque figures and the rose window to the carved and gilded coffered ceiling.
  • Santa Irene: Here’s another church that was built over a longer period of time, which you’ll see immediately. The upper and lower part of the façade are clear evidence of different stylistic influences. The numerous richly decorated altars with their paintings and busts, however, are the real highlight.
  • Chiesa dei Santi Niccolò e Cataldo: This church certainly stands out among all the stunning baroque buildings as it managed to retain its original look. Despite extensive renovations of the façade in the 18th century and the addition of new statues Chiesa dei Santi Niccolò e Cataldo remains a Romanesque masterpiece.

 

Even more sights in Lecce

Enough churches for now? Time to check out a different side of Lecce’s architectural heritage. Or several sides, actually, as exciting journeys through time are next on the itinerary:

  • Castle of Charles V: The fortification of Lecce during the rule of the Habsburg emperor was accompanied by the construction of an entire castle. A medieval structure was extensively reinforced and expanded in the 16th These days the castle is home to several cultural unions and events.
  • Piazza Sant’Oronzo: Lecce’s population attributed the end of the plague epidemic to Saint Oronzo and made him the city’s patron saint. There’s an ancient pillar on the eponymous piazza. It was part of the twin pillars that marked the end of the Via Appia in Brindisi. A special statue of the saint was cast in Venice in 1739. It now rests atop the pillar.
  • Amphitheatre: The Roman roots of the city were buried in oblivion and many houses and monuments had been built on top of them. Among these ancient Roman structures is an amphitheatre that used to seat more than 25,000 spectators. Partially excavated today, it serves as an event location. You can explore and marvel at other finds from days long gone in the archaeological museums Faggiano and Sigismondo Castromediano as well as in the archaeological park of Rudiae approx. three kilometres outside the city.

 

All that and much more accompanies your journey through Lecce. The southern city of arts in Apulia unearths unimaginable baroque treasures and is widely regarded as an Italian insiders’ tip with good reason. Let yourself be enchanted by art and architecture of days long gone and take a walk through over 2,000 years of palpable history. Enjoy your next holiday!

City of arts Bari between Saint Nick and promenade

It’s always Christmas in one of the southernmost Italian cities. Well, alright, that’s not entirely true, but the remains of one of the main protagonists for the run-up to the festive season rest in Bari. Saint Nicholas is both venerated and celebrated in the Apulian coastal city, and that’s just one of many aspects that make Bari a genuine city of arts. Situated near the heel of Italy, it opens up vast museums, spectacular churches, endless beaches and monumental military facilities to curious eyes like yours. Strap in, we’re heading for the capital of Apulia!

 

A city all about (maritime) trade

Bari’s history begins at a time before saints even existed. Earliest finds suggest first settlements during the Bronze Age. Trade relations with Greece were established soon, some Greeks even settled here later on, at least until the Romans took over the city and expanded it into a key trade hub with a port. The foundation for today’s archdiocese of Bari-Bitonto was laid as early as the 4th century AD. Like many other cities, Bari was a hotly contested commodity among roaming and invading nations after the fall of the Western Roman Empire becoming, among other things, the centre of the Emirate of Bari for about 20 years.

 

Bari itself blossomed during the 13th century. Frederick II saw to the extensive modernisation and expansion of the large castle. At the same time, wealth and trade increased throughout the city. The massive port construction/expansion was quickly abandoned, yet Bari continued to enjoy preferential treatment by bankers and merchants who took up residence here and/or had their major trade routes run through the Apulian port over the following centuries. Joachim Murat, as King Joachim of Sicily, had the new town redeveloped and expanded, modelling it after an octagonal grid. The quarters still carry his name.

 

Basilica and Festival of Saint Nicholas

©Bigstock.com/ielanum

©Bigstock.com/k.samurkas

Unlike other large maritime cities, such as Genoa, Venice and Amalfi, it took quite a long time for Bari to “adopt” their own saint. Southern Italian seafarers cracked open the sarcophagus of Saint Nicholas in Myra, today’s Demre in Turkey, in 1087 and stole his bones. Basilica San Nicola was built solely for these relics. Even though the crypt of the now Dominican church was consecrated as early as 1089, the actual final consecration only took place in 1197. The construction period of the monumental pilgrimage church might have stretched across a whopping 110 years, but the result speaks for itself. Being the epitome of Barese Romanesque architecture, the three-nave basilica became an ideal for many other churches throughout the region. Norman and Lombard influences adorn the entire building, yet the towers either disappeared completely or remained incomplete. Baroque alterations were extinguished completely save for the carved and gilded wooden ceiling, although the radiant depictions form a breathtakingly stark contrast to architectural sculptures which were revolutionary for their time.

 

According to legend, myrrh emanates from the bones of Saint Nicholas. A small bottle is lowered to his tomb on December 6th, St Nicholas Day, to capture some of it, anointments apparently resulting in numerous miracles. The actual saint’s festival, however, Festa di San Nicolo, takes place on 7 to 9 May to coincide with the presumed arrival of the relics in the port of Bari. The statue of Saint Nicholas, usually positioned on the left side aisle of the basilica, is carried to the port during a large procession where it circles the bay in a boat.

 

The castle

©Bigstock.com/ielanum

©Bigstock.com/ielanum

Bari’s landmark stands tall at the edge of the old city. Castello Normanno-Svevo di Bari, the Norman-Hohenstaufen Castle, was presumably built on the ancient site of the fortress predecessors as recorded by Horace and Titus. The Norman King Roger II of Sicily had the medieval castle built in 1132 only for it to be destroyed around 1156. Upon arriving in Bari in the 13th century, Frederick II realised the necessity of such a facility and ruled its re-erection with additional fortification. The Norman foundation was reinforced utilising exterior weir systems, two polygonal towers, a massive barrel vault with quadrangular pillars, and a moat. Renowned Muslim masons were hired for the arches and pillars – richly decorated, as was standard during the Hohenstaufen era.

The castle of Bari was far from being Frederick’s only defensive fortification; there’s the octagonal UNESCO World Heritage castle Castel del Monte about a one-hour car ride northwest of the city. Castello Normanno-Svevo saw numerous conversions and expansions over the following centuries to eventually become a museum. With its additional Aragon-era walls and rooms plus the grand sea view, the castle is one of the city’s main sights with good reason.

 

Other sights in Bari

However, there’s a lot more to Bari even beyond these two major highlights as you can see for yourself during a walk through Apulia’s capital. We’ve chosen a couple of additional favourites for you:

  • San Sabino: Bari’s second large church is actually a cathedral. The current seat of the Archbishop of Bari-Bitonto was mostly built during the late 12th and the late 13th Its roots, however, date back much further. You might stumble upon an inscription of Bishop Andrea who was in the region from 758 to 761. The impressive pseudo gallery basilica houses medieval frescos and the eponymous relics of Saint Sabinus of Canosa di Puglia.
  • Teatro Petruzzelli: There are (and have been) many theatres in Bari. Some of them were completely destroyed during the devastating air raids in the Second World War, but Teatro Petruzzelli is still standing, fortunately. Italy’s fourth-largest theatre used to be the home of great operas, ballets and concerts. A massive fire destructed it in October 1991; it would take 18 years until the grand reopening.
  • La Passeggiata: Admittedly, it might seem a bit odd to call a beach promenade a sight, but you will most certainly be swooning after a walk on La Passeggiata. Pass the old port, the castle walls and Teatro Margherita in just over half an hour. Numerous benches along the promenade lend themselves to sit down and enjoy the view. Your half hour might double and even triple easily!
  • Pinacoteca: The Pinacoteca metropolitana di Bari “Corrado Giaquinto” is a rather artful stop along the promenade. This art gallery inside the palace introduces you to medieval sculptures and paintings from the Middle Ages to modern times with Venetian and Neapolitan focus. The Pinacoteca was named after rococo painter Corrado Giaquinto, known for his paintings of Saint Nicholas and of scenes from Greek mythology.

 

There are, without doubt, more than enough reasons to visit the city of arts Bari. The imposing castle, the incredibly long beach promenade, the monumental churches and cathedrals, the hidden treasures – together with the divine climate and the beautiful beaches Apulia invites you to an unforgettable stay in the south of Italy.

City of arts Amalfi on the magical Amalfi Coast

One of the most beautiful regions in all of Italy is situated at the Gulf of Salerno. The Amalfi Coast in Campania is home to breathtaking nature, magical views and numerous small villages, all connected by just one single road. The main town Amalfi with its steep hills, countless cafés and amazing beaches is a must-visit during a tour of the UNESCO World Heritage Site Amalfi Coast. But that’s not all by a long shot: Amalfi is a genuine city of arts with pretty exciting architecture, a storied history and many a surprise. Join us on our coastal tour!

 

The power of the former maritime republic

The exact origins of Amalfi are unknown. The city was likely founded by soldiers of Constantine the Great from the Adriatic coastal village Melphe around 320 AD. “A Melphe” (“from Melphe”) might have become Amalfi, but there’s no definite documentation about that. What we do know, however, is that the residents quickly turned to maritime trade as there was hardly any fertile soil in the region. Amalfi was mostly autonomous, gained independence, and became one of the first ever maritime republics. It had way over 50,000 inhabitants during the 10th century and was the main trade hub between (Southern) Europe and the Orient.

 

Norman threats and invasions considerably weakened Amalfi while it was at the peak of its power; eventually, Norman ruler Robert Guiskard conquered the maritime republic in 1073. It gradually lost its significance after that and was lastingly debilitated by two Pisan attacks in 1135 and 1137. A devastating tsunami, the result of an earthquake, destroyed most of the city in 1343. Amalfi never fully managed to recover. However, the Tabula Amalphitana, Italy’s first codification of maritime law, survived the maritime republic by centuries. Amalfi finally experienced a proper upswing in the middle of the 20th century thanks to the blossoming tourism and has been a popular summer destination since.

 

The Cathedral complex

©Bigstock.com/NejroN Photo

©Bigstock.com/NejroN Photo

Amalfi’s cityscape was established on and around the steep hill unearthing many an unexpected treasure hardly noticeable during a mere coastal tour along the Strada Statale. The Cathedral of the Diocese of Amalfi-Cava de’ Tirreni is among the most splendid buildings of the entire city of arts. The first church was established as early as the 9th century and now houses the diocesan museum. Today’s Cattedrale di Sant’Andrea dates back to the 10th century and was converted multiple times. It first received an Arab-Norman look, then got a baroque overhaul. The colourful mosaic façade was added during the 18th century.

 

The cathedral’s actually a fairly large complex of buildings consisting of a crypt with the remains of Andrew the Apostle (Amalfi’s patron saint), the Basilica of the Crucifix with the diocesan museum, the cloister of Paradise, and the cathedral itself. You will certainly notice the hefty triumphal arch supported by two Egyptian granite pillars inside the church. Don’t miss out on visiting the other buildings, particularly the cloister Chiostro del Paradiso with its idyllic atmosphere.

 

Sights in Amalfi

But that’s far from everything there is to see and experience in the city of arts Amalfi. Strolling through the place will get you close to the region’s thrilling history. Don’t miss out on the following sights on your day in Amalfi:

  • Santa Maria a Piazza: This small Renaissance church, hardly bigger than a chapel, was built in the 15th century where numerous stores and craftspeople used to be. The compact beauty is full of stunning paintings and reliefs.
  • Museo della Carta: Amalfi’s citizens learned the art of papermaking many centuries ago turning the city into one of Europe’s first paper centres. The old paper mill was turned into a museum in 1969 exhibiting machinery and equipment from days long gone.
  • Sant’Antonio: It is said that Saint Francis of Assisi founded this church and its convent during a pilgrimage to the remains of Andrew the Apostle. The convent is closed for visitors expect for one afternoon per year. However, the colourful, very impressive interior of the otherwise seemingly plain church fascinates.
  • Gli Arsenali della Repubblica: Trade ships and warships had to be built, maintained and stored during the days of the maritime republic. Amalfi owned the largest galleys in the Mediterranean during the Early Middle Ages. What survived of the arsenal are mostly architecture and sculpture remains, partially due to erosion. Various ships and the boats of a historical regatta are exhibited here.

 

The Amalfi Coast

©Bigstock.com/mailos

©Bigstock.com/mailos

If you’re in Amalfi, you pretty much have to tour the entire Amalfi Coast, don’t you? Look forward to gorgeous views of the Gulf of Salerno and the steeply sloping coast along the magnificent coastal road Strada Statale 163 Amalfitana on its 50 km from Meta di Sorrento to Vietri sul Mare. This drive is certainly not for the faint of heart due to overhanging rocks and the narrowness of the road, but the scenery is just divine. And that’s far from all you get to experience up and down the Amalfi Coast:

  • Wine and limoncello: La Dolce Vita is everywhere at the Gulf of Salerno. The Amalfi Coast is a popular winegrowing region with excellent red wines and white wines carrying the controlled destination of origin label DOC since 1995. How about some limoncello instead? Excellent lemons with juicy meat and little pips grow in the coastal region. Taste the result in the lovely cafés and inns along the way.
  • Long-distance hiking: You’d rather travel on foot and love challenges? Several hiking trails run along the coast. Six taxing full-day stages from Salerno to Sorrent or Schiazzano via Amalfi await you on the CAI-300 and on parallel paths. That’s up to 74 km for the longest trail version with 4,380 altitude metres uphill and 4,718 altitude metres downhill. Are you ready for the challenge?
  • Stunning places: Whatever you have planned for your coastal tour, there are many great places to explore beyond the city of arts Amalfi. Take Ravello, for example, where many rich citizens lived during the Middle Ages. Numerous well-maintained villas including the awe-inspiring Villa Rufolo make you feel like you’re in a different era altogether. There’s a Benedictine monastery founded in the year 973 on a rock high above Maiori. Furore even has its own fjord and is regarded as one of Italy’s most beautiful villages for a very good reason. And then there’s Positano, a colourful place with countless churches, Roman ruins and an unusually holey rock.

 

Visiting the city of arts Amalfi is a must when planning a tour of the Amalfi Coast. The main town hasn’t lost any of its maritime republic allure even though things are a bit smaller and quieter these days. The friendly town with its charming sights and the endless views is perfect to kick back and dream the day away.