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Discovering the city of Taranto, Puglia

A GUIDE TO TARANTO

The real charm of Taranto, located on the beautiful Ionian Sea, lies in its contradictory nature. On the one hand, it is a city full of fishermen and mussels, on the other, it is a huge naval port, full of warships and submarines. Its tormented history, a consequence of its strategic position in the Mediterranean, has left a legacy that makes the town well worth a visit. Allied to this is its unique setting and shape, positioned, as it is, around two large bays: the Mar Grande, where the commercial port is located, and the Mar Piccolo, flanked by the old town centre, where the fishing fleet flourishes and the city can be appreciated in its purest form. Thanks to the presence of these two bays, Taranto is known as "the city of the two seas".

Taranto boasts a fascinating diversity of architectural styles, the result of the numerous invasions suffered by the city throughout its history. Under the Greeks the town became one of Magna Graecia’s most significant commercial hubs and the most powerful colony in southern Italy. Its moment of greatest splendour came at the beginning of the 4th century BC under the rule of the great statesman, mathematician, philosopher (and friend of Plato), Archytas.

During the Roman Republic, Taranto retained its status as an important Mediterranean centre, but under the rule of the Roman Empire it fell into decline. Emperor Trajan redirected the Via Appia to Bari on the Adriatic coast and Taranto’s provincial fate was sealed.

After the Romans, Taranto became part of the Byzantine Empire and then, for just forty years, was ruled by the Saracens. The 11th century was characterized by a bloody struggle between the Normans and the Byzantines, both of whom coveted the fertile agricultural Tarentine lands. The former came out victorious and Taranto became the capital of a Norman principality for almost four centuries.

In subsequent centuries, Taranto witnessed invasions by the Spanish and the French, but with the fall of Napoleon, southern Italy and Taranto returned under Bourbon rule, becoming part of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Finally, with the Risorgimento of 1861, Taranto joined the newly unified state of Italy.

In the build up to and during the 1st World War, Taranto reassumed some of the importance it had known over 2,000 years ago, as it became home to the Italian naval fleet. This role continued into the 2nd World War and the city became a target for the Allied forces. On the night of 10th  November 1940, the Regina Marina fleet, anchored in the Mar Grande and the Mar Piccolo, was severely damaged by British naval forces in the so-called Battle of Taranto. This raid was the first all-aircraft ship-to-ship naval attack (planes flying from an aircraft carrier to bomb an enemy fleet) and it gave rise to a whole new trend in military tactics. As Admiral Cunningham noted, "Taranto should be remembered for ever as having shown once and for all that in the Fleet Air Arm, the Navy has its most devastating weapon.” Three years later, on 9th September, British forces landed near Taranto as part of the Allied invasion that would slowly push north through the Italian peninsula.

If you’re interested in history, we recommend a trip to the National Archaeological Museum, home to numerous Greek, Roman and Apulian artefacts such as the Ori di Taranto, a collection of gold objéts d’art that bear testimony to the city’s glorious past.

Wandering around Taranto is a very pleasant experience and there is lots of interest to see. The Cattedrale di San Cataldo, right in the heart of old Taranto, dates back to the 11th century and houses the relics of the city’s patron saint Cataldo. The façade of the cathedral is baroque though the cupola shows clear Byzantine influence. Inside is a wonderful mosaic floor, similar to the one in Otranto’s cathedral, while the chapel of San Cataldo, where the saint’s relics are preserved, is adorned with a superb series of frescoes by Paolo de Matteis dating from 1713.

Taranto’s other great monument is the Aragonese Castle, built by King Ferdinand of Aragon in the 15th century. During the 18th century the castle became a prison before eventually passing to Italian Navy. Today it is open to visitors and is one of the town’s most popular tourist attractions. Nearby is the beautiful canal with its ponte girevole, a swing bridge that opens to allow the passage of the navy’s fleet. You might be lucky and see the locals watching, waving and cheering the sailors as they return home!

Right opposite the castle are two well-preserved Doric columns, remains of a Greek temple and the only visible testimony to Taranto’s past as a Greek colony.

The old town centre is a fascinating maze of narrow alleyways, many of which only allow access in single file. Echoing with the voices of fishermen returning from their arduous days at sea, these streets provide a charming and unusual setting for visitors. Fish markets rub shoulders with hidden architectural gems and cafés and bars spill out onto the pavements. In the background, if you listen carefully, is Taranto's very own soundtrack, provided by the Music Conservatory. This archetypal southern atmosphere is reinforced by the numerous seafood restaurants serving up delicious local specialities such tubettini con le cozze (pasta with mussels). We suggest you try some - Buon Appetito!

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