Le Murge, through which runs the Merge River, is divided into the Low Merge, whose principal town is Andria, and the High Murge, whose principle town is Altamura. Altamura is known in some circles as the Lioness of Puglia, for its shape on the landscape, and it is somewhat famous for its delicious hand-made breads, which are shipped throughout Italy on a daily basis. The city is immersed in a wide swath of grain growing farmland - wheat and other flours for the bread and it is prettily dotted by farms.
Altamura, has been continuously populated since the 5th century BC when it was settled by an Italic tribe known as the Peucetians, whose Bronze Age fortifications, necropolis and other works are still in evidence today. Like many cities in southern Italy, it also has mythological origins, purportedly being founded either by Antellus a friend of Aeneas, who were exiles from the destroyed city of Troy or by Althea, Queen of the Mymidons. And, of course, where there are Greek founding myths, Greek colonization and all the influences one might expect to follow are sure to be found in the city.
A massive line of mortarless, cut stone walls - mura is "wall" in Italian - were constructed between the 6th and 3rd centuries BC, suggesting a place of some importance, but for reasons unknown to modern historians and archaeologists, the city's status declined until it regained some of its luster during the reign of Frederick II.
Fredrick built a castle nearby - now a ruin - and in Altamura he also ordered the building of the one and only church he had built in all of Puglia. Today, the massive, Romanesque-Gothic Duomo - or cathedral - originally constructed in 1232 (with restoration work in 1330, and later between 1521 and 1547), is Altamura's most memorable piece of architecture. Of particular note are the double bell towers and the inset rose window over the portal on the Piazza del Duomo.
Although Altamura was within the Kingdom of Naples, ruled variously by Spanish or Bourbon kings, during the middle ages the city was ruled over by a succession of feudal lords who, true to form, built numerous palaces and smaller churches, many of which are still extant today. These present a range of styles from Gothic to Baroque. Notwithstanding the attention paid to it by the Bourbon king King Charles, who had a university built in the city in 1748, the city rose in rebellion in 1799. The rebellion was short-lived however, and was ferociously put down just 2 days later.
During the Risorgimento, which culminated in the unification of the modern state of Italy between 1860 and 1870, the city also played a role as the headquarters of the so-called Insurrection Bari Committee which supported unification efforts, against the forces of the soon to be deposed King and local nobility.
The centro storico - the historical center - of Altamura shows strong Latin and Greek influences. The narrow alleyways or claustri are of the former, but they invariably give way to closed squares evocative of Greek courtyards. On Corso Federico de Svevia look for a tiny church, La Chiesa San Niccolo dei Greci which was built by Greek colonists in the 13th century and used by the Greek orthodox community for over 400 years.
One of Puglia's best archaeological museums is also located in Altamura (via Santeramo, 88) with exhibits that trace the evolution of the area from prehistoric to late-medieval times.
There is not much night life in the city, apart from the typical gathering of local people (and wide-eyed tourists) in the main piazzas on clement evenings. But, the city has a number of good restaurants, cafes and trattoria - where one can find food typical of the area. Naturally, one will want to sample the wonderful breads for which the city is justifiably famous. A panini at lunch perhaps?
About 9 kilometers from Altamura is the Grotta del Pula, an immense chasm once used as a stone quarry, but now a UNESCO World Heritage site because it is also the world's largest preserve of fossilzed dinosaur prints - numbering over 4000 or so - dating over 70 million years. Also included in the UNESCO area is the Grotta di Lamalunga, one of many caves formed in the karstic rock, in which the 13,000 year old skeleton of a prehistoric man was found. He was apparently trapped in the cave, and died a lonely death, so he has not minded being man-handled in recent years.
Posted by Vian Andrews, Mar 10, 2007