Rising gently from the Adriatic coast, Le Murge – a low limestone plateau – dominates the landscape to the south and west of Bari. The towns in the region are not natural holiday destinations: the area is sparsely populated and the small settlements that exist are rural backwaters with a slow pace of life. But they do make an interesting day out or a good stopover if you’re heading for the region of Basilicata.
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Castel del Monte
Castel del Monte
Easily reached from Barletta or Bari, the main town of the Low Murge is ANDRIA, a large agricultural centre at its best during its Monday-morning market – otherwise it has little to entice you to stay, unless you are heading to Castel del Monte on public transport.
Despite its lack of appeal today, Andria was a favourite haunt of Frederick II, who was responsible for the major local attraction, the Castel del Monte, 17km south – the most extraordinary of all Puglia’s castles and one of the finest surviving examples of Swabian architecture.
Begun by Frederick in the 1240s, the castle is a high, isolated fortress built around an octagonal courtyard in two storeys of eight rooms. A mystery surrounds its intended purpose. Although there was once an iron gate that could be lowered over the main entrance, there are no other visible signs of fortification, and the castle may have served merely as a hunting lodge. Nonetheless, the mathematical precision involved in its construction, and the preoccupation with the number eight, have intrigued writers for centuries. It’s argued the castle is in fact an enormous astrological calendar, or that Frederick may have had the octagonal Omar mosque in Jerusalem in mind when he designed it; yet, despite his recorded fascination with the sciences, no one really knows the truth. There is only one record of its use. The defeat of Manfred, Frederick’s illegitimate son, at the battle of Benevento in 1266 signalled the end of Swabian power in Puglia; and Manfred’s sons and heirs were imprisoned in the castle for over thirty years – a lonely place to be incarcerated.