On Route 16, 55 km North West of Bari. You can sit in the cantina (cellar tavern) wherein a prickly post-mortem on a battle of 1503, a French officer taunted his Italian ally with cowardice. The upshot was a duel between 13 Italians and 13 Frenchmen, the event passed into history and a hill-top monument called the Disfida (challenge) of Barletta, 16 km south, commemorates it. The Italian captain’s apt name was Fieramosca (‘Proud Fly’).
This ancient port has its Swabian castle (photograph) and several churches in the local Apulian-Romanesque style. Its most wonderful antiquity is a gigantic bronze statue, green with age, recovered from a shipwreck, said to be of a Roman emperor, now glowering down on a main shopping street.
Towards Bari smaller ports are evenly spaced out on low tongues of bleached rock, introverted little communities, each disdainful of its neighbour. Trani, Bisceglie and Molfetta are tucked into natural inlets with bijou harbours and tar-scented streets where you are quite likely to meet a new fishing-boat on rollers, built in someone’s backyard, being coaxed with seaman-like ingenuity towards a slipway. Trani’s rose-pink cathedral (1097-1197) is the perfection of ruler-and compasses Romanesque austerity, all the more impressive for standing on a patch of waste ground.
Detour – Canne Della Battaglia
Off Route 93, 10 km South of Barletta. With an outflanking movement unparalleled in classical warfare, Hannibal crushed the Romans yet again and yet again failed to follow up his advantage. Canne’s serene site above the arid bed of the Ofanto river is cut with many trenches – the graves, not entirely of casualties of the battle of 216 BC, but mainly of victims of 11thC genocide by the Normans. Helpful diagrams, reconstructions and a museum bring the battleground to life without spoiling the atmosphere. The whole layout, unlike that of many battlefields, acts as a spur to the imagination.
Detour – Canosa
On Route 93, 22 km south west of Barletta. Prominent on maps as a junction of motorways, Canosa has a few Roman remains, a ruined medieval castle and a cluster of funeral chambers from the 4thC BC; but what you will remember best is the sombre mausoleum of Bohemund, casting its shadow over town-centre streets. The massive granite slab was obviously designed to ensure that this hero of the First Crusade (died 1111) would never rise again.
Detour – Margherita di Savoia
On Routes 16 and 159, 14 km north west of Barletta. No stereotype of an Adriatic resort, this clean quiet town of drowsy harbour and coloured boats sits among angular causeways, saltpans and glistening mounds of salt. There are 500 salt cisterns round about. Salt’s normal concomitant, curative waters, is not in evidence but one hotel does offer brine baths and the town is officially described as a spa.
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