From the spectacular coastline of the Gargano promontory to the mesmerizing Baroque architecture of the Salento, Puglia possesses a beauty that rivals that of the Amalfi coast. But aside from that comparison, Puglia, on the other side of the peninsula, may as well be a world apart from the South. Campania is mountainous, Puglia is mostly flat, and the two peoples are just as dissimilar. Neapolitans are compulsive extroverts and wear their emotions on their sleeves, while the Pugliese seem quiet by comparison, as if they were holding back a secret.
The land casts an enigmatic, Eastern charm, and it does hold its share of secrets. Puglia thrives on the inexplicable, as anyone who has seen a rendition of the tarantella can tell you. The name comes from the city of Taranto, as does the word tarantula, and folklore dictated that anyone bitten by one of the region’s brown spiders (don’t worry”the local variety is much smaller than the big furry ones that now carry the name) was supposed to dance out the venom until he or she dropped from exhaustion. Popular festivals reenact the dance to the beat of tambourines.
Perhaps the greatest example of Puglian mysticism is the late Franciscan monk, Padre Pio, recently canonized by Pope John Paul II. Padre Pio’s body showed the stigmata, the five bleeding wounds on the palms, feet, and rib cage that Christ is said to have developed when he was crucified. In addition to that unexplained occurrence, Padre Pio was deemed responsible for at least two miracles, and he became a cult figure throughout the Catholic world. His followers believed he could be in two places at one time, and he was known for his ability to cast out demons. More than seven million pilgrims come every year to Padre Pio’s shrine in San Giovanni Rotondo (twice the number of visitors to Rome’s Colosseum), snatching up pins, mugs, and key chains adorned with the suffering saint’s likeness.
Even Puglia’s architecture has its own inexplicable miracles. One good example is the Castel del Monte, a puzzling castle built by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, and now featured on the back of Italy’s one-cent coins. Frederick was a lover of octagons. Almost every town in northern Puglia has an eight-sided tower, and the Castel del Monte was the granddaddy of them all: an eight-sided building with eight octagonal towers. Frederick based its floor plan on the Golden Ratio, coined by his friend, Leonardo Fibonacci, a kindred spirit and a fellow admirer of the Arabic world.
The building is perfectly aligned with each of Puglia’s other sacred monuments. No one knows why, but it was not likely a coincidence, since Puglia’s early surveyors were attentive to these kinds of details. But what is most unusual about the building is that no one can explain its purpose. It was too sparse to be a hunting lodge and too indefensible to be a fortress, so people have stopped guessing and just call it a fine work of art.
Castel del Monte in the Puglia region Finally, there are Puglia’s domed trulli, stone houses with cone-shaped roofs and adorned with strange symbols”a crescent, a plain orb, a star, and the like”that may or may not have indicated the profession of the owner. Historians have made guesses about who might have built the trulli”even the druids have been mentioned”but no one is quite sure.