The over 400 kilometers-long land stretching at the very end of Italy, bordering the Adriatic and the Ionian Sea and occupying what is currently referred to as the “heel” of the Boot, is the region known as Apulia.
In its heart, and long neglected by the tourist routes, often only considered as a convenient stop-over on the way to Salento, Daunia actually is a fascinating destination, showcasing a rich heritage of culture, nature, art and great food. Daunia’s hidden gems are the close-by cities of Lucera and Troia, set right between the foot of the Daunian Mountains and the valleys of the Tavoliere.
Inhabited since the Stone Age before becoming a province of the Roman Republic, Lucera once was the capital city of the Capitanata, as the region used to be called in the Middle Ages when it was the seat of the Catepan, a military and governmental delegate of the Byzantine Empire.
One of three hills where Lucera is perched upon – the Holy Hill where the cemetery stands, the panoramic “Belvedere” and the Albano hill overlooking the whole Tavoliere area – was chosen by Frederick II, King of Italy and the Holy Roman Emperor, to host his Palatium (Palace), later on turned into a massive defensive fortress by his successor Charles of Anjou. Frederick’s cosmopolite court brought here many artists and literates as well as Muslim philosophers and advisors, contributing in the creation of the peculiar local tradition where cultural contamination can be still seen in architecture, art and culinary traditions.
Lucera kept its preeminent role up to the fifteenth century, hosting the Custom house along the route of the transhumance, the annual migration of the herds from the high grazing lands of Abruzzo (ideal in summer, yet too cold in winter) to the warmer ones of the local plains. Since the sheep and cattle had to wait at least one night to be assigned to a specific pasture, the city’s economy flourished. Despite the progressive political and economical decline of the area, nowadays mainly exploited for the high-intensity agriculture – a huge part of the country’s grains, olive oil and tomatoes, the staples of the Mediterranean Diet, grows here – Lucera still bears traces of this glorious past.
Beside the evocative Fortress with its remaining bastions (open to visitors, yet largely cloaked by the growing wilderness and partially collapsed after the many earthquakes which struck the area) the historic centre of the city, still enclosed by the ancient walls, is scattered with splendid noble residences. The eighteenth-century Palazzo de Nicastri-Cavalli, for instance, hosts the interesting MAU- Urban Archaeology Museum named after the local archaeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli, showcasing a number of stunning Prehistoric and Roman artefacts as well as the evocative remaining of the noble mansion.
The beautifully kept Palazzo Cavalli – belonging to another branch of the same family – has been partially turned into a romantic Bed&Breakfast, from whose rooms decorated with the family’s memorabilia, guests can enjoy a unique view over the main square and the magnificent Cathedral dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. Also known as St. Mary of the Victory and enshrining a revered wooden statue of the Virgin, the church was built by Charles of Anjou to celebrate the winning of an arduous battle. A beautiful and rare example of authentic French Gothic architecture in Southern Italy, yet the interior was later refurbished in the Baroque style, the cathedral overlooking the huge square is the true heart of the city, and the tolls of its nine bells mark the slow rhythm of the local life.
There are many other attractions to visit in Lucera, such as the remarkable Roman Amphitheatre still hosting concerts and shows, the interesting Basilica of st. Francis, the library and art gallery hosted in a former monastery on the Belvedere hill, or the charming Nineteenth century theatre entitled to the glorious Italian general Giuseppe Garibaldi.
Yet one can also opt to relish a moment of peace sitting on a bench or maybe munching the delicious taralli (round salty biscuits, buy them at the Panetteria del Duomo) and sipping a glass of the local DOC wine Cacc’e Mitte, a fresher and easily drinkable version of the usually vigorous local wines obtained by the Nero di Troia grapes. To enjoy a good sample of the regional culinary traditions, book a table at Il Cortiletto restaurant, where chef Paolo Laskavy wisely interprets local productions – from tomatoes and cheese to the precious local wild arugula, with its zingy character - in modern versions of the typical country cuisine. Or go to I Gastronauti, where the young pizzaman Sabino Stingone puts them on masterfully risen pizzas or serve them in well assorted antipasto platters.
Then, take a ride to Troia, founded in 1019 as a strategic stronghold by the Catepan Bonjoannes, yet standing on a much older settlement and eponymous to the legendary Greek city at the centre of the Troian war. Visit this pretty town on the recurrence of its 1000th anniversary, which includes a rich calendar of events and celebrations. The traditional Procession of the Patron Saints is held in July and the evocative Chains’ Procession at Easter, when a silent parade of worshippers visits the five churches of Troia to pay homage to the different saints wearing chains, whose dragging is the only sound to be heard.
Troia has much more to see, though. While the beautiful Palazzo d’Avalos hosts the interesting Museo Civico shielding findings dating back to the Roman era through the centuries up to the Middle Ages and further, the real treasure not to be missed is the outstanding cathedral dedicated to the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Built in the 12th century, it’s a true masterpiece of Apulian Romanesque architecture, rich in artistic and symbolic signs both in its interiors – with its spare pilasters, the baroque chapels and the magnificent pulpit used to read the Exultet rolls with its sung proclamation to the people – and in its stunning facade, adorned with an impressively decorated rose window.
Right in front of the Cathedral entrance, another place is well worth a different sort of pilgrimage. The little shop on the corner is the realm of the pastry chef Lucia Casoli. Her specialty is the Passionata, from which the shop takes its name: a delicious shell of marzipan made with Apulian almonds wraps a creamy filling of fresh local ricotta set over a biscuit base. The ricotta cream is flavoured with different ingredients revealed by the colour of the coating, from the classic one – pink – to the purple one made with Nero di Troia wine or the orange one with the lovely scent of local citrus. The choice is hard, the satisfaction in guaranteed.
In a distant past the region was formed by three historic places, which still today mark the geographical and cultural differences amongst the districts. Salento in the very south, a popular summer destination with Carribean-like beaches and lively nightlife, was part of the Messapia historical area also including Itria Valley and Taranto gulf. The so-called Terra di Bari, a huge land going from the coast to the Murge plateau and embracing the city of Bari, the county seat, stands in the centre and was once known as Peucetia. And then there is the area once called Daunia, which nowadays includes the rocky Gargano Promontory. This is the "spur" of the Boot creating wonderful bays in the Adriatic Sea, the green and fertile plain of the Tavoliere delle Puglie, the “Table of the Apulias" and the Daunian Mountains, bearing their name from the pre-Roman tribe of the Daunians.
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