Some 10km south of the commercial port of Monopoli is the site of the ancient city of Egnazia. Here, an on-site museum houses an array of artefacts, including a stunning mosaic of the three Graces, an exquisite white-marble head of the Egyptian fertility god, Attis, and examples of the distinctive earthenware for which the ancient town was prized. Right next to the seafront excavations, the water is tempting and clear, so bring swimming stuff and a picnic.
Egnazia (also known as Gnathia) was an important Messapian centre during the fifth century BC, fortified with more than 2km of walls, large parts of which still stand in the northern corner of the ruined town – up to 7m high. It was later colonized by the Greeks and then the Romans (in 244 BC), who built a forum, amphitheatre, a colonnaded public hall and temples: one was dedicated to Syria, a popular early Roman goddess, who, according to Lucian, was worshipped by men dressed as women. Horace is known to have dropped by here to see the city’s famous altar, which ignited wood without a flame.
With the collapse of the Roman Empire, the city fell to subsequent barbarian invasions, and was almost completely destroyed by the Gothic king Totila in 545 AD. A community struggled on here, seeking refuge in the Messapian tombs, until the tenth century when the settlement was finally abandoned.