Two years ago I took part in a student exchange with Italy, the town of Foggia in Apulia to be precise, 1200 km south of the Austrian-Italian border and I want to tell you a bit about what we did and what you could do there.
One day we went to Manfredonia, about 30 km to the south. I wouldn’t assume you would go to Italy just to see that town, that would be strange indeed, but if you’re in the vicinity anyway, for example heading south to the destination of your summer holidays in Sicily or if you’re in Naples by chance and feel like looking at the other side of the leg of the Italian boot, then you shouldn’t pass the road signs and put in a stop in Manfredonia.
It’s a small town with a busy port and a considerable fleet. The hulls of the boats are built entirely of wood, you can watch the craftsmen working on the wharfs and if you ask nicely they’ll even show you around.
If you want to know what the fishermen bring back in their drag-nets from their tours taking them to about 20 km off the coast, you can go into the shop right at the beginning of the mole, the one with the blue front. Fish can’t be fresher! There are squids, octopi, shells of different colours and sizes, crabs, shrimps, prawns and dozens of (to me) unknown species most of them still wriggling and biting as I could see when one of the men working there looked at his bleeding finger!
Interesting as the port is, it’s the cultural heritage Manfredonia is known for. An imposing (renovated) fortress sits right opposite the port built by King Manfredi, one of the sons of the Emperor Frederic II, in 1256. Together with the town walls, this stronghold had to protect the Medieval Seponto, as the settlement was called before it took over Manfredi’s name, from enemy raids.
In 1620 the castle surrendered to the Turks, during the 17th century the towers were used as prisons, in the 18th century as barracks and later as the Military orphanage. (Why do I feel that the two latter purposes are somehow connected?) Today it houses the National Archaeological Museum.
When you’ve seen the port and the museum, there isn’t much to *do* in Manfredonia, you just stroll through the streets and enjoy a genuine Italian atmosphere, drink a cappuccino in a bar and watch people passing by. You can also buy some fruit and eat it sitting on a bench in the park around the castle. I’ll always remember the three oranges I bought for 12 (twelve!) p.
You probably won’t see foreign tourists, the tourists in the area are mostly the inhabitants of nearby Foggia who have their summer houses in the area because of the fresh air coming from the sea, Foggia being an oven during the summer months.
Let’s now drive inland, about 15 km, first to the north, then to the west, 800 m up a serpentine road to the big village/small town Monte Sant’ Angelo, the Mountain of the Angel, Archangel Michael.
The first apparitions of the Archangel Michael belong to the Byzantine Orient, the Christian churches of the East worshipped him already at the beginning of the 4th century. But only after 490 - 493 when St. Michael had flown to the West and appeared three times on the mountain of what is now Monte Sant’ Angelo did the cult spread across Europe big style. The Archangel had told a bishop to build a church on one of the many grottos (caves) in the limestone rock, emphasizing his wish by leaving a footprint.
The stories of St. Michael’s apparitions are a mixture of folklore, fairy tales and legends, very entertaining and not to be taken too seriously. Just one example: the site of the grotto was indicated by a bull which had escaped from the herd of a rich man. When his owner had found him, he was glad, but also furious because the search for it had been hard and taken a long time. He wanted to shoot it with bow and arrow, but instead of hitting the bull, he shot the arrow into his own foot.
Monte St. Angelo has become one of the most famous addresses for pilgrimages in Christendom, after the Reformation in Catholicdom. Popes and Emperors came, Bernhard of Clairvaux, Thomas of Aquin, Birgitta of Sweden, St. Francis of Assisi.
The pilgrims had to stay somewhere; the typical architectural aspect of Monte Sant’Angelo are the one-gabled houses attached one to another in rows of up to 20, each about 4 m wide and 2 storeys high. Even today new housing projects are built that way, behind the traditional fronts the houses are connected and larger apartments created.
We were there on May 7th, only to learn that the Catholic Church celebrates the Archangel’s apparition on May 8th! But we hope that St. Michael will hold his shield over us nevertheless!
After looking into the castle on the top of the mountain, another one built by the busy Staufen dynasty whose origin lie in southwest Germany, the area where we live (those connections being the reason behind our exchange visit) and buying a typical product of the area offered on stalls in the streets - two wafers with almonds in between glued together with honey, very tasty! - we’re ready to leave.
There is an alternative to that excursion, the saltworks of St. Margherita di Savoia, approximately 30 km to the south of Manfredonia, the largest of Europe, but you can go there only if you form a group and come by coach. Before you can visit them, you must write to the Ministry of Finance in Rome, Department Taxes on Tobacco and Salt and ask for a permit. Only with that piece of paper you’re allowed to enter, you must stay in the buses and will be shown around by a guide.
The area is about 20 km long and 5 km wide, the sea water is led through a series of shallow pans of 100 x 20 m until it arrives in the last after a course of one year where it remains for 4 to 6 years. All in all there are 40 pans. The liquid evaporises, the concentration of the salt becomes higher and higher until it can be taken out by excavators. 600 000 t are ‘harvested’ that way every year.
The salt coming directly out of the pans is so-called industrial salt, it’s used in winter as thawing salt and for various chemical processes, also for the production of leather. The salt for consumption is washed and dried in big ovens.
The remaining liquid and the salty ground of the pans is taken to the Hot Springs of St. Margherita di Savoia which are open from June 1st to October 15th. Cures of all kinds are used: mud baths, inhalation and sprays. The efficacy was already known to the ancients: it’s said that Hannibal after the battle of Canne, bathed himself in the waters to cure an ailment.
Who else comes? From November to February around 40 000 water birds, among them oystercatchers, ringed plovers, avocets, herons, the black-winged stilts and flamingos feeding on the shells, worms and larvae coming to the surface when the pans are emptied.
To come to a conclusion: I’ve found the people friendly, the dishes delicious, the wines divine. If you don’t trust my judgement, go there and find out for yourselves!