Italy / Exploring Altamura

Surrounded by fields and fig trees, we followed the main road up the hill where the view flattened out and I could see the two towers of the cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta. Until now, we had only assumed that we were going in the right direction.

Flanked by lions, the portal of Santa Maria Assunta is one of the most elaborate and beautiful of its kind in Puglia. The religious motifs carved along its arches depict the life of Jesus - the last supper, his death, and then resurrection. I could happily sit in front of the door deciphering the meanings of all the motifs but the July sun doesn't allow it. Already the sun is at a sharp angle and the edges of the carvings are starting to glisten. Soon the light, reflecting off of the pale flagstones will be close to blinding.

We tried to enter the cathedral but it was packed with people attending a baptism. We couldn't get past the inner doorway. The streets here were different from those of Bari Vecchia. Here the streets were long and narrow. Ever so often we would come across an arched alley that led into a courtyard surrounded by apartment-like houses stacked one on top of the other. Here the people seemed to live secluded in their courtyards away from the main street whereas the residents of Bari Vecchia treated the old labyrinthine streets as an extension of their homes.

I learned later that cloisters - the grouping of homes around a courtyard - is a particular feature of Altamura’s architectural history. In 1232, Emperor Frederick II of Swabia called upon various ethnicities to come and repopulate the abandoned city. In exchange, those who came were exempted from paying taxes. These communities co-existed within these various cloistered areas. For defence reasons, each courtyard had only one exit out to the main street.

The various courtyards were quite charming with their fruit trees and fairy lights and pictures of saints. There were narrow stairs that led to little wooden doors and worn out walls decorated with faces and vines made from stucco.

While exploring, we wandered down a set of steps and found ourselves in what we first thought was the back end of a kitchen. Off to the side, I could see the bread oven still burning; various focaccia lay on wooden boards, trays of tarelli on the shelves and in the corner, stacks of Altamura bread. While standing in the doorway, eyeing everything on offer, a young lady popped out and asked if there was something we wanted. We pointed at the bread and asked how much.

Later in the afternoon, we had lunch on the steps of the Cathedral. We couldn’t decide which restaurant to eat at so we decided instead to buy sandwiches filled with grilled vegetables and bottles of cold water from a little shop next to the square.