An instantly recognisable landmark for sailors navigating the Adriatic Sea over the centuries, Trani's iconic seafront cathedral is one of the finest anywhere in Italy. But, as anyone spending a little time in Trani will quickly come to realise, the cathedral is just the cherry on a particularly tasty cake!
Although its history goes back somewhat further, Trani, which lies just north of Bari, became the lovely town it is today between the 11th and 13th centuries. Its strategic position on the Adriatic coast made it an important departure point for the Crusades as well as a flourishing commercial centre, attracting many families from Italy's great Maritime Republics, with whom it maintained close diplomatic relationships. In the same period, Trani was also home to southern Italy's largest Jewish community, testament to whose presence is the impressive Scolanova synagogue.
The old town centre, a charming mediaeval network of streets with plenty of fine architecture, is arranged around the picturesque fishing port, which is itself flanked by numerous bars, cafés and fish restaurants. From here, heading to the north end of the port, one comes to the cathedral, a fabulous example of Romanesque architecture whose creamy white limestone and lofty proportions emphasise its stunning location beside the deep blue of the Adriatic Sea. Completed in 1143 and dedicated to Saint Nicholas the Pilgrim, the cathedral has a basilica plan, with three apses, and a large crypt. Its (tri)angular roofs are supported by mighty walls punctuated by high windows, giving a fortified feel. The west end features a rose window and a finely sculpted portal whose original bronze doors, the work of Barisano di Trani (also responsible for the doors at Monreale cathedral in Sicily), are now conserved inside. On the south side is an imposing 60m-high tower, added in 1239.
The old town centre, a charming mediaeval network of streets with plenty of fine architecture, is arranged around the picturesque fishing port, which is itself flanked by numerous bars, cafés and fish restaurants.
Heading about 100m west of the cathedral, following the sea wall, one comes to Trani's other architectural marvel: Emperor Frederick II's castle, built in 1233. Rising directly from the sea, whose waves crash against its walls, the castle has a classic quadrangular form, with robust square towers at each corner. Various bits were added over the years, and the sea water-filled moat was filled in, but essentially Frederick's original structure remains. In the early 1800s it became a prison and only in 1974 were the last inmates moved to a newer establishment. It has recently been restored and is now open to the public and hosts frequent concerts, art exhibitions and other cultural events.
If, after a morning's wandering around Trani and a good al fresco lunch on the harbour front, you are still in the mood for exploration, why not head inland (a 40-minutes drive) to another of Frederick II's great constructions, Castel del Monte.