Visit: 22nd July 2015
This WHS was #5 of 7 on our summer holiday this year, after having covered Škocjan Caves, the mercury town of Idrija, the early Christian town of Aquileia and another part of the Longobard inscription. These are all located in northern Italy or Slovenia, but by now we had arrived in the south for something rather different. From Trieste we flew to Bari – in southern Italy’s Apulia region – on a domestic Ryanair flight that cost us only €60.
The city of Bari is not one of Italy’s most attractive. In fact, driving in from the airport we wondered what we had got ourselves in to – the dark, oppressive high rise tower blocks and rubbish-strewn streets made quite a contrast to the charming towns we had just come from in the northeast. We had three nights in Bari, however, using it as a base from which to drive out to three WHSs nearby. We did come to like the coastal city a little in the end, but it took some getting used to. It is no doubt a reflection of the relative poverty of Italy’s south compared with its north. Indeed, The Economist jokingly proposes redrawing Europe’s map, which would include slicing southern Italy off into a new republic called ‘The Kingdom of Two Sicilies’.
After a night in Bari we hit the road, heading 35 miles inland towards the barren Alta Murgia National Park, home of Castel del Monte. Built by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II in the 13th century, you might recognise the castle from the Italian 1 cent coin. As its name suggests, it is located atop a hill, giving it a commanding view of the surrounding countryside. As far as anyone can tell, however, this castle was never used as a military stronghold. Indeed, it was never intended as such, but as a grand ‘statement piece’. Frederick II had been involved in the Crusades, and this castle was imbued with symbolism, being a blend of Classical, Islamic and contemporary European features.
This was a time when the Islamic world was more technologically advanced than Europe. We see some features in this castle that it is thought only the Muslims were capable of designing – such as the advanced sewerage system for the time. The castle is also notable for its unusually precise geometric shapes: it forms a large octagon, with each corner protected by an octagonal tower, and the central courtyard is of course also an octagon. Why the octagons? The roof of Aachen Cathedral – where Holy Roman Emperors such as Frederick were crowned – has an octagonal roof. The Dome of the Rock – Jerusalem’s most important Muslim shrine – is also of octagonal construction. Thus, Castel del Monte was designed to embrace the octagon as a symbol of peace between the Christian and Muslim civilisations.
So, a fascinating history. But I have to say that to visit the site is not such a thrill. We had to park up at the bottom of the hill and then pay a grumpy bus driver to take us up to the castle. Then it is a separate entrance fee to get inside the building, in which you can see … not very much. The castle is entirely empty, and not particularly large. It was in pretty poor nick when restoration work began, and they have certainly made it feel pristine again. Perhaps a little too pristine, judging by the bright orange of this column! But what do I know, maybe it was like that in Frederick’s time. He is thought to have used the castle as a hunting lodge to pursue his love of falconry (this was a hobby he would have picked up from the Muslims).
On completion of our rather brief visit to Castel del Monte we drove back to Bari, via the pleasant Adriatic town of Molfetta. We then explored the city of Bari on foot, finding that it has a surprisingly authentic old town – it is a warren of narrow streets and alleys, but still absolutely lived-in by Baresi. Walk around a corner and you will see behind net curtains people sitting in ancient flats watching TV or cooking a meal, and children playing football in the courtyards. The area is fringed with tourist cafes, but the heart of the old town seems relatively untouched by modernisation, which is quite a thing to see in a rich-world country today.