Take a walking tour of Laterza with a trained, local guide and gain an insider’s view of what life is like in these labyrinthine historical hill top towns today, and in the past.
At the end of January 2018 I got to explore an area of Puglia I had not visited before: the regional park of the Terre delle Gravine. The land of the ravines. An area just above the Gulf of Taranto – or the instep of the Italian boot, where it joins the heel. As the name suggests, this is an area that has many ravines – some of which are amongst the largest in Europe. Besides being an area of outstanding natural interest, the history of this region makes this an ideal destination for anyone with a passion for archaeology and history.
Of course it is possible to explore the towns and ravines by yourself. There is abundant material freely available both online and in print to help you do just this. But, many of the historical sites are understandably under lock and key. Consequently the only way to visit them is with a guide.
Guided walking tours have become such a big thing in bigger towns and cities that everyone is now offering them. Even smaller towns are getting in on the act, with local, trained guides that can offer something guide books and whistle-stop tours can not. And this is also true for the towns in the Terre delle Gravine. Puglia’s tourism has become very well organised, and each town with ts own tourist office not only hands out the usual leaflets and information to visitors. Increasingly they are providing their own guided tours of the towns they represent.
One of the many benefits of this kind of initiative is that archaeological sites that were once inaccessible to most tourists are now accessible again. They are being included on the itineraries of local walking tours. And this is how I got to see so many wonderful historical places in towns like Ginosa, Massafra, Mottola and Laterza. In each of those towns local guides who were engaging and spoke excellent English showed us the highlights as well as the hidden gems. They were not only prepared with facts and fascinating anecdotes, they also offered a glimpse into what it is like to live in these places.
Each of these walking tours was as different as the town we were visiting, but doing a walking tour of Laterza at night was a special experience. While I can not capture the character of our guide, I can certainly share some of the more interesting things not to miss in Laterza if you are unable to get a guided tour yourself.
1. Palazzo Marcesale & Museo della Maiolica di Laterza
Our tour started inside the courtyard of the Palazzo Marchesale. This is a perfect vantage point from which to see how the building was modified over the centuries. What started out as a defensive fortress at the end of the 14th century was, in the mid 16th century, converted into a palace fit for a Marquis.
Many features are easily spotted: the regular, dressed stone used in the 14th century castle; small irregular stone used in the later rebuilding; and the late Renaissance balustrades on the stairwell. But the most spectacular sight has to be the 18th century fresco. For us the fresco is perfectly light for maximum dramatic effect. It was painted on above the entrance to the castle, on the inner wall. Since restoration work here in 2005, the high entrance passage has been painted brilliant white. And so the fresco is strikingly conspicuous at the end of a well lit passage. A visual effect that is made more dramatic by the contrast of the dark castle walls in the night light.
For someone who prefers paint and image over bricks and mortar, this was a visual experience that will stay with me for a long time. Moving through the courtyard, we stay with the theme of historic representation.
One of the rooms in the palazzo has been sensitively restored, preserving many original architectural features, and is now used to house a nationally important collection of pottery. Our guide told us this collection was insured for around €4 million! Laterza was well known for its production of a distinctive style of majolica; white enamelled vessels decorated in light blue, yellow and orange. Stunning plates, cups and bowls painted with mythical figures decorated the houses of noblemen (bottom left in the photograph above, 17th century). Rich men had their own shaving bowls (bottom right, in the photograph – 18th century), and even apothecaries has beautifully decorated jars (bottom centre).
The decoration is rich with symbolism, and wether or not the Museo della Maiolica is included on your itinerary, it is well worth visiting and spending time following the history of this tradition and how the collection came together.
2. Bone Roof Supports
This is one of those examples where not only does it pay to ‘look up’, but also to have a knowledgeable local show you around. Here we are walking through the narrow, winding ‘street’ of historic Laterza. Our guide stops us and asks us to look up and to think about what we could see. There protruding from the wall so as to support the rain gutters at the edge of the roof were bones. Presumably the long bones from the legs of animals.
As our guide explained, this is something people used to do in the past, but it can still be seen around the town today. Bone does not perish like wood and iron do, particularly when wet. These bones were a more effective and longer lasting support for gutters.
3. Museo della Civiltà Contadina
The Museum of Rural Life is one of those delightful museums you only find in small out-of-the-way places. Filled with fascinating artefacts that contrast so sharply with the objects we use in everyday life today. Artefacts are arranged in a loosely thematic manner, so a simple horse-trap is next to a selection of agricultural implements, while a bed is surrounded by various items you would expect in a bedroom. There are a few different types of spinning wheels, next to a dummy seemingly spinning cotton by hand.
The museum is housed in what was the parsonage of the 17th century church of Saint Carlos. The ruins of the church are to the right of the entrance to the museum. The museum was set up by the local cultural association to raise awareness of historic traditions in new generations.
4. The Ravine
Look closely at the map above and you will see that the Museum of Rural Life is at the very edge of the town, overlooking the ravine. Coming out of the museum we took a short walk to the very tip of the spur of land on which Laterza is built. This is a perfect spot from which to appreciate the depth (at places 200 metres) and width (400 metres at its widest point) of the ravine. Perhaps nothing in comparison to the Grand Canyon, but this is one of the largest ravines in Europe. From this vantage point you get an appreciable sense of how townsfolk relied on this immense natural barrier to protect them and their town.
At this stage of our guided tour it was too dark to get any decent photographs of the ravine. The above photograph was from a designated vantage point on the edge of the ravine nearby (marked with a red pin on the map). Once you have had your fill of history in Laterza, equip yourself suitably for hiking and take one of the many organised paths and trails into the ravine. The ravines in the Terre delle Gravine each have their own micro-climates. Consequently, the flora and fauna in the canyons are very different to what you see on the plateaus between them. Besides hiking, these ravines attract mountain bikers and rock climbers.
5. Chiesa Matrice di San Lorenzo Martire
Sadly, all my photographs of this beautiful church were out of focus. Even though I do not have a photograph of the church, I just could not leave it out of this account. What struck me though was late Gothic façade with its delicately carved rose window. It reminded me of the façade on the cathedral in Ostuni. Inside the church are some stunning frescoes. The church was built between 1408 and 1414, not that long after the nearby castle. Unless I find a photograph to add here, I will just have to return to Laterza.
6. Fountain of the Masks
And so to the final stop, the Fontana dei Mascheroni. Here a natural spring has provided communities with a social focal point for millennia. Although much of what we see today at the fountain dates to the 16th century (there is an engraved date of 1544), some features are Roman. It was the same man, the Marquis D’Azzia, responsible for converting Laterza’s castle into the palazzo who is responsible for restoring the fountain.
All that remains of the Roman fountain are the arches that supported the aqueduct that carried the water from the spring to the collection basins. In 1544 the Roman aqueduct was replaced with a concrete pipe transferring water from the spring to a cistern. From the cistern the water pour outs through the bronze masks into the drinking trough. The overflow goes into a canal that takes it to the ravine. The coat of arms on the building housing the cistern belongs to the Azzia and Brancaccio families.
In ancient times this was an important source of water for those living in and around Laterza. And today, on summer evenings people come to the fountain bringing their watermelons. They place the fruit in the water trough to cool it down. There is so much more to this evening ritual at the fountain than simply the pleasure of sharing a slice of cold watermelon with your neighbours.
Walking Up An Appetite – Macelleria Tamborrino
After the tour was over we headed out of the old town up the main road to have dinner at Macelleria Tamborrino (Tamborrino’s Butcher). In 1950 Domenico Tamborrino’s father started the butchery, fast gaining a reputation for the quality of the meat products he prepared and sold. Later a restaurant was added, serving the meat prepared in house. When we arrived it was quiet, we were the only table. It turns out we were a bit early, it soon filled with local families – always a good sign. After seeing our dinner being prepared, and after a long day that included Taranto and Laterza, it was good to eat.
Planning Your Visit to Laterza
At the time of writing, there were over 20 different activities available to visitors. These range from standard walking tours of the old town to guided trips into the canyon for hikers, cyclists or photographers. Take a guided tour of majolica museum or try your hand at pottery, pasta making or learn some traditional dances. All of these activities can be booked through the tourist office in Laterza.
InfoPoint Laterza can be found in the Palazzo Marchesale, more specifically in what was the stables of the castle. Besides being able to get all the information you need for your stay in Laterza and reserve your splace on any of their activities, the tourist office is also the to the Palazzo Marchesale and the Museo della Maiolica di Laterzaerza.
Address Piazza Plebiscito, Laterza
Telephone + 33 (0)3 572 6138 | 347 673 0441
Everyday except Mondays:
10h00 to 13h00 and 17h00 to 19h00