114 km south east of Bari. From two arms of the sea the city looks east. At the Tancred Fountain crusaders watered their horses before embarking for the Holy Land. The low hills to the north are the ‘Balcony of the Orient’. After the Suez Canal was built (1869) Brindisi dispatched the Indian mails from Europe and from that, or from the amount of packing and unpacking that went on along the waterfront, geography books called Brindisi the ‘Suitcase of the Indies’. In Mussolini’s time the long-haul flying-boats from Karachi put down here and their passengers crossed Italy by rail.
The 19-m stone column, long supposed to be Roman and now known to be Byzantine, which stands on a noble flight of steps above the sea front not only marks the end of the Appian Way; it is psychologically the end of western Europe. (Virgil, poet of the Aeneid, died at Brindisi but the tablet on the house beside the monument should not be taken seriously.)
Follow the long slope to the ferry port and you come to a Greek enclave – shops, smells, food, taverns and signboards. Brindisi has a cheerfully cosmopolitan air, as befits a town which has been Roman, Saracen, Lombard, Gothic, Byzantine, Norman, Swabian and of course Greek, ancient and modern. For once you do not feel oppressed by the ecclesiastical style. The sturdy little ‘round’ church of San Giovanni al Sepolcro, built by Knights Templar, now sunk into its pavement and impressively forlorn, and San Benedetto on Via Marconi with its crumbling square cloister where children play football are friendly and inviting.
II Timone (‘The Rudder’, that being its shape) is the prominent sight – the naval memorial stone, rising gallantly from the sea’s edge to 53m and lit with an eternal flame. Here is the Italian naval college. The cadets occupy both the city’s castles: the Swabian (1227), now maritime HQ, and the more unusual Castello Alfonsino (1445), leaning out over the water with its landing-stage inside the ramparts. The beach, not a brilliant one, stretches along the southern arm of the harbour. Among aquatic events regularly staged are sailing, rowing and motor-boat races.
Detour – Francavilla Fontana
33 km west of Brindisi. ‘Freetown Fountain’ – a creation of Angevin governors (1364), endowed with generous civic privileges. It became a crossroads and market town and is today a centre from which to explore the countryside by slow train. The Palazzo Imperiale, a 15thC castle as grand as its name, is a masterpiece of decorative masonry in sandstone and local red carparo.
Find more in: Beach & seaside