Puglian Cathedrals

Posted on April 6, 2008 by Holly Hayes
Part of: The Great European Road Trip

Friday and Saturday were cloudy and rainy and we spent most of the time at the hotel, but we did manage to squeeze two more Puglian cathedrals in between the raindrops. And Sunday was glorious in every way.

Friday: Rain in Bitonto

Friday was especially rainy so we visited Bitonto, the cathedral with the most interior interest, in the hopes it would be open. Happily it was, but it's a shame we didn't have better weather as the exterior is really impressive too. It's one of the largest of the Puglian Cathedrals and has an abundance of carvings.

xti_4867 Bitonto Cathedral Bitonto Cathedral IMG_0743

We eventually found a door that was open, and got to explore not only the fine interior of the cathedral but also the crypt and excavations below. The crypt was locked, but when I asked a man straightening up the altar if there was a key, he made a call on his cell phone and moments later the doors opened from the inside! It turned out there was already an English tour group down there, and we took great joy in eavesdropping for a bit. It was fortunate they were there, as the man with the key locked up after us.

Capital in the crypt

There has been a church on this site in Bitonto since the 5th century and the foundations have been recently uncovered. They are very nicely displayed along with other finds from the cathedral, all accompanied by descriptive signs in Italian, English and German.


griffin mosaic
Very well-preserved medieval mosaic of a griffin

Saturday: Altamura

Altamura is a fairly large city with a nice enough old town and Romanesque cathedral. The main highlight of the cathedral is the portal, which is a Gothic creation of the 1200s. It stuffed full of wonderful detailed carvings of Bible stories.

old town
Old Town

north side

last supper
The Last Supper

flight into egypt
The Flight into Egypt (Mary and the baby Jesus on a donkey)

There was a large group of Italians outside the cathedral on a guided tour, and the leader helpfully told me the church would open in about 30 minutes. I really appreciated that, as southern Italy has not generally been a very friendly place. Unfortunately, the inside is still fully Baroque (most others have been stripped back to the original Romanesque form) and not very interesting.

On the way back to our hotel we stopped at Ruvo di Puglia's cathedral again, boldly parking on the marble pavement right in front of it. This time it was open! It was very cool inside, with tall Romanesque arches, carved capitals and fragments of medieval frescoes.

Today: Trani

Today was a real highlight. The sun finally came out and we made our long-awaited trip to Trani. It's right on the Adriatic Coast and said to be one of the nicest towns in Puglia. We agree! Still very few tourists, but more lively and a bit more prosperous. It has a very active harbor and the fishermen sell their freshly-caught fish right out of their boats on the boardwalk.

xti_5570 xti_5510 xti_5545 IMG_1256 templar church
This church is from the 12th century and was built by the Knights Templar. Lots of Crusades connections in port towns like this.

happy harbour cats
On one of the piers we very pleased to discover nearly a dozen cats, a little skittish but friendly enough to sit by us and occasionally touch our hand with their nose.

And then there's Trani Cathedral, seen in the background above. Absolutely magnificent. First of all, the location is incredible - right on the sea! And the architecture is pure, beautiful Romanesque, dating from the 12th century. The exterior has a good rose window and lots of interesting carvings.

xti_5792 IMG_1179 xti_5848 xti_5478 IMG_1662 xti_5919
This time it was David's turn to assume an unusual position for photography! I was seriously impressed.

Then, on the inside, you discover it has three levels! Quite unusual. There's a normal cathedral space upstairs, a crypt in the middle, and another crypt below that. All with wonderful old columns and arches:

steps to three levels steps to upper church aisle
Stairs to the various levels

upper church
Main cathedral level

crypt 1
Middle crypt

crypt 2
Bottom crypt

early christian ruins
And there's also a small catacomb area dating from the 5th century.

elephant mosaic
And medieval mosaics by the altar!

st george on bronze door
And a beautiful old bronze door! This is St. George.

While I was marveling at all the interior goodness (David having gone back to the car for sunglasses), I was accosted by another impromptu tour guide. This time it was a old man named Vito, who had exactly one and a half teeth. He had earlier approached us at the harbor and a German group too. Despite not speaking any English, and knowing full well we understood no Italian, he insisted on explaining, in Italian, the history and significance of just about everything. We politely listened and then managed to leave him behind for our walk around the harbor, but we saw him several times throughout the day. He also seemed to know everyone in town, as several passing cars honked and waved at him.

In the cathedral, he dragged me by the hand to numerous points of interest, several of which I had already visited. I kept a close eye on my bag but it was clear he was quite harmless and just really wanted to socialize, so I humored him as long as I could.

Finally, after having been shown the catacombs under the church (where I found two fellow Americans!), David appeared as we came up the stairs! Hooray! Then Vito wanted to show us where to buy books and where to find a good restaurant, but we firmly and politely declined, he gave me two Italian-style air kisses and shook David's hand, and I finally got my personal space back.

It would have been ideal for photos if we had stayed in Trani until evening, but we had arrived at 8:30am for the morning sun and by 2:30 we were ready to go home. But in that time we wandered all over the city, photographed the cathedral from every imaginable angle, and had such a nice time.