Straddling two harbours and set beside the deep blue waters of the Ionian, TARANTO is an unpretentious city with a thriving fish market, fabulous restaurants and a top-notch archeological museum. It also makes a good base to visit the nearby caves and grottoes of Massafra.
The city divides neatly into three distinct parts: the northern spur is the industrial area, home of the steel works and train station. Cross the Ponte di Porta Napoli and you’re on the central island containing the old town. The southern spur holds the modern city centre (Borgo Nuovo), the administrative and commercial hub of Taranto, linked to the old town by a swing bridge.
Known as Taras to the ancient Greeks, the port became the first city of Magna Graecia (the area of southern Italy colonized by the Greeks) and was renowned for its oysters, mussels and dyes – the imperial purple was the product of decayed Tarentine molluscs. Resplendent with temples, its acropolis harboured a vast bronze of Poseidon that was one of the wonders of the ancient world. Sadly, little remains of ancient Taras or even of later Roman Tarentum, although their monuments and relics are on display in the city’s magnificent museum. After being destroyed by the Romans, Taranto was for years little more than a small fishing port, its strategic position on the sea only being recognized in Napoleonic times. It was home to the Italian fleet after Unification, and consequently heavily bombed during World War II; attempts to rejuvenate the town have left its medieval heart girdled by heavy industry, including the vast and ailing Ilva steel plant that throws its flames and lights into the skies above.