"The footprints of an endless procession of conquerors and cultures"

Lonely Planet

Our Top 5 Cultural Highlights

For this category we have tried to identify activities or places that help to understand some of the influences that have shaped life and continue to shape life in this part of Italy.

1. Matera

Masseria Giulio | Holiday Apartments Francavilla Fontana, Puglia, swimming pool, garden, Salento, Italian escape, hidden oasis, holiday house, Southern Italy, Matera, sassi

In many ways Matera embodies the history of much of Southern Italy. The area around Matera is rich in relics from its original prehistoric inhabitants with the city of Matera being founded by the Romans around the 3rd Century BC. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, Matera "enjoyed" a tempestuous history as it was conquered, liberated and over-run by various states. But it has always had a rebellious edge - for example, Matera was the first Italian city to rise up against the German occupation in 1943. For much of the 20th century life in Matera was dominated by poverty and disease, as highlighted in Carlo Levi's memoir "Christ Stopped at Eboli". In 1952 things were so bad that the Italian government had to forcefully relocate some 20,000 inhabitants from the Sassi region of the town (dominated by cave dwellings and houses built into the rocks) which was declared uninhabitable.

However, in the late 1980s the area started to be renovated and in 1993 it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Today, whilst many of the buildings remain uninhabitable, several have been converted back into shops, workshops, residences or boutique hotels / apartments. It is an absolutely incredible place to explore (be sure to wear good walking shoes!). We also recommend buying a ticket to visit the three Rupestrian churches in Matera to see their ancient frescoes and catacombs. Matera is the backdrop for many films / TV programmes and (together with Gravina in Puglia - about 20 minutes away and also well worth visiting) it was used as a location for the opening of the James Bond film "No Time To Die". The city has several fantastic restaurants - although we would recommend hunting for food just off the main tourist streets especially in the summer.

2. MARTA (National Archaeological Museum of Taranto)

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The Archaeological Museum in Taranto (affectionately known as MARTA) is formally recognised by the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities and Tourism as being one of the best 20 museums in Italy. The museum's collection charts the history of the city and the surrounding area from pre-history through to the late, middle ages. The building is also undergoing a huge facelift, which includes upgrading all the displays, installing interactive screens and updating all the information about the exhibits (now available in both Italian and English). When we visited in January 2016, only the First Floor had been re-opened covering the history up to the end of the Roman period. The second floor which covers the later periods is due to open in Spring 2016 - we will be back as soon as it is! The museum has an impressive array of Greek and Roman statues, funerary monuments, vases and pottery. However, the real stand out for me was the incredible intricacy of many of the smaller exhibits ranging from gold jewelry, ornamental wreaths and household objects (including the nutcracker pictured alongside). The quality of the materials and craftsmanship are indicative of the wealth and luxurious lifestyles of the local aristocracy during the Greek and Roman periods. Some of the pieces are jaw-droppingly beautiful and are amongst the best artefacts of this era that I have seen in any museum anywhere in the world.

3. Faggiano Archeological Museum - Lecce

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The Museo Faggiano in Lecce is an incredible demonstration of just how much human history exists in Italy and, indeed, in Puglia. The museum is housed in an unremarkable town-house a few hundred metres from the main historic centre. In 2001, the owner (who was hoping to apply for permission to convert the building into a restaurant) started what should have been a relatively straight-forward maintenance job to replace some of the sewer pipes under the floor to resolve some issues with humidity and to make them more suitable for a commercial building. Instead, they stumbled across some evidence that the building had previously been used in the 1600s as a Convent of Franciscan Nuns of the Order of Saint Clare. As the excavations continued, they uncovered artefacts that showed that from the 1000 to 1200 the building was used by the Knights Templar. Further excavation then uncovered underground cisterns, wells, a granary, tombs and underground escape tunnels from Roman times and back at least as far as Messapican times (500BC). So from one "simple" DIY task the family uncovered over 2,500 years worth of human history and have recovered over 5,000 archaeological artefects.
The fact that all of this exists in a house similar to hundreds or thousands of others in Lecce just highlights how much additional history probably exists just waiting to be discovered under the rest of the city. The museum / building is not very large and so is well within the attention limits of younger children, is well laid out and inspiring enough to tweak the interest of older children and is utterly fascinating for anyone with any interest in history and human development through the centuries.

4. Basilica Di Santa Croce (Church of the Sacred Cross) - Lecce

Masseria Giulio | Holiday Apartments Francavilla Fontana, Puglia, swimming pool, garden, Salento, Italian escape, hidden oasis, holiday house, Southern Italy, Lecce, Basilica Santa Croce
Lecce, one of our favourite cities in Puglia (see Our Recommended Towns), is famous for its incredible Baroque architecture of which the Basilica Di Santa Croce is the undoubted star. Work on the construction of the church began in 1549 and it wasn't until 1695 that the building was finally consecrated. The exterior is dominated by an incredible array of ornate sculptures and carvings in the local Lecce stone, including; mythical beasts; gargoyles; coats of arms, sheep, Turkish prisoners-of-war (from the Battle of Lepanto), cherubs, fruit and garlands of flowers. The centrepiece of this incredible fa├žade is a large rose window.
The interior of the church is of a slightly more conservative Renaissance style but is still lavishly decorated and contains several important works. One of the key internal features is the altar of San Francesco di Paola which was designed by Francesco Antonio Zimbalo, one of the lead architects responsible for the work on the exterior.

5. Basilica Santa Caterina d'Alessandria - Galatina

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Galatina is a beautiful medieval town just beyond Lecce. However, the highlight of a visit to the town is undoubtedly the Basilica Santa Caterina and its amazing frescoes. The church dates from the late 14th Century (although it was built on the site of a 9th Century Byzantine church, some traces of which can still be seen). However, the church is most famous for its medieval frescoes. The building was originally decorated by local artists but the patron was horrified by the poor quality of the painting and ordered for the whole interior to be re-decorated in the style of Giotto. The second layer of painting was completed in the first half of the fifteenth century. Now some of the original frescoes are visible. The frescoes show a number of stories from the Bible, the martyrdom of Saint Catherine and some mythological references. The art work is probably unlike anything you have seen before and is fascinating. The colour, vibrancy and grotesqueness are striking - be prepared for a few questions from the kids! The opening hours can be quite restrictive and there are a couple of old guys who sometimes follow you round to make sure that you aren't taking photos and leave exactly on time. Indeed it was quite the rudest reception anywhere I have been in Italy outside of the Sistine Chapel (which we were hurried through like we were vermin)! However, if you can avoid getting upset by them it is well worth a visit.