Like nearby Altamura, the walled city of Gravina in Puglia sits on the banks of the River Murge in the Parco Nazionale dell'Alta Murgia just to the south and west of Bari, and hard on the border with the region of Basilicata.
The origin of the town's name is in dispute with some saying it derives from the ravine that cracks the surface of the local landscape on one edge of the city, while others say it is a conflation of the motto bestowed upon the town by Frederick II: "Grana dat at vina" (It gives grain and wine).
Of course, the area was settled long before Frederick, probably in the Bronze Age by members of an Italic tribe. The ever-busy Greeks established a colony on the town's site in the 5th or 6th century, and eventually it gained the status of a polis, with the right to mint its own money.
Later it became a city within the territories dominated by the Samnites, who eventually found themselves at the losing end of a protracted war with the Romans (305 BC). Gravina then evolved into an important town on the Via Appia, the Roman road that ran from Rome to Brindisi.
After the decline of the Roman Empire, the city came under a long series of rulers including Byzantines and Lombards and even, at one point, Saracens who were content to slaughter the inhabitants - particularly those who had taken up residence in caves in and around the city - and destroy the town utterly.
In the early middle ages the Normans conquered all of southern Italy and established a long-lived hegemony. Later the entire south was within the Kingdom of Naples, ruled variously by Spanish and Bourbon kings. The city and the entire local area within the kingdom was dominated by a succession of feudal lords, the last of whom were the Orsinis (1386 to 1816). The people of Gravina in Puglia were restless and resentful under the yoke of their feudal oppressors and rose in revolt several times from the late 18th century until the Unification of Italy in 1860. The trials and tribulations of the city continued into World War II when part of the city was destroyed by Allied bombing.
So, what is to be seen in Gravina in Puglia today? To begin with are make your way to the ravine on the western edge of the city and tour the extremely evocative cave dwellings that were the refuge of local people in times of trouble - until they were massacred by the Saracens over 1000 years ago. That these caves were once busily inhabited leaves one incredulous.
In the old, delapidated centro storico - historical center - look for San Michele delle Grotte, a church inside a natural cave that was enlarged by some very hard-working souls hewing-out massive amounts of rock. It is dim, dank and dark, but marvellous in its way. Here you will find the bones of a number of poor souls who are said to have been the victims of the Saracen invaders.
The Romanesque cathedral was built by the Normans in the 11th and 12th centuries, but has gone through several cycles of destruction (fire and earthquakes) and rebuilding. The prize find in the Cathedral is a reliquary containing the arm of Thomas a Becket - an Englishman with a particularly long reach.
Other churches include Chiesa di San Francesco (late 15th-early 16th centuries), the Romanesque Chiesa Sant'Agostino with a simple, white facade, and a Baroque styled church, La Madonna delle Grazie with a rose window and a large relief of an eagle, the emblem of the Orsini's (an emblem much seen in Gravina). Also worth noting, La Chiesa San Sebastiano which purports to have been built in the Renaissance style, but which is a bit rough around the edges.
Museum aficionados will appreciate the Santomasi museum facing the Piazza Santomasi. The archaeological finds in the museum's collection include Roman coins, armaments dating from the reign of the Bourbon kings and a few 16th century paintings of unremarkable quality. On the 1st floor there is also a reconstruction of another cave church, San Vito Vecchio, which has very good frescoes dating from the 14th century.
Outside town, one can find the ruins of a castle built for Frederick II in the early 13th century, possibly on a design by Fuccio, a Florentine who would have been a long way from home.
We recommend a trip to Gravina in Puglia because it is one of those cities whose sum is greater than its parts. It's man-made structures are pedestrian, its streets, shops, restaurants, cafes and trattorias are of a quality that is commonplace in Italy. But, the overall impact of the city, sitting in its unique, ravine riven landscape in the High Murge, is undeniable.
Posted by Vian Andrews, March 11, 2007