|Puglia has always been a region to settle in or to conquer. It was the main departure point for the Romans to reach Greece and the East, the Crusaders to sail to the Holy Land, and the site of countless invasions from foreign countries. As such, the region houses the most magnificent mix of archaeological sites and architectural styles with countless Roman and Greek ruins, Swabian castles, Aragonese fortresses, baroque churches and Christian shrines, as well as the strong Oriental and Greek influences in so many of the buildings which make this a fascinating area of Italy to discover. There are many tourist guides devoted to the region and this is not intended to be a comprehensive guide to the many towns and sites of interest but rather a brief overview. One of the main attractions of Puglia is the coast and the sea. Both the Adriatic and Ionian coasts are lined with fine sandy beaches, often made more attractive by nearby rocks, cliffs and coves. These are too numerous to list but include (moving from Gargano down to the Ionian Sea) Rodi Garganico, Vieste, Polignano a Mare, Marina di Ostuni, Leuca, Gallipoli and Porto Cesareo. Gargano is the northern area of Puglia, with a peninsula jutting out into the Adriatic - if Puglia is the heel of Italy's boot, this is its spur. The area has steeper hills than much of Puglia, rising to Monte Calvo (at 1050m, the highest point in Puglia) and has a rocky coastline with many inlets, as opposed to the gentle beaches further south. It is covered in ancient forests of pines, oaks and beeches including the great Foresta Umbra (Shady Forest) and is surrounded by crystal clear waters. Here you can eat in the local trabucchi: the taverns where the fish is freshly-caught by nets dropped into the sea from the rocks. Just north of Gargano are the Tremiti Islands (so called because of frequent earthquakes under the sea): the mythical home of Diomedes. Consisting of three main islands (San Nicola, San Domino and Capraia) and two large rocks (the Vecchia and the Crepaccio), they are part of Gargano National Park and have exceptionally beautiful coasts and seabeds. The island of San Nicola has an ancient Benedictine Abbey that was later fortified to defend against Saracen attack and finally becoming a penal colony until the 20th century. The island of San Domino is covered with pine trees and is surrounded by steep cliffs and wonderful sea caves. High over the sea, on a spur of the Gargano peninsula, is Peschici: a picturesque medieval town, founded in the 10th century by the Slavonians sent to liberate the Gargano from the Saracens. It was important defensively for the Swabians and Angevins and there is a 13th century castle (rebuilt in the 17th century) at the top of the old town, as well as the ruins of coastal watchtowers, built to warn of Saracen attack. At the far eastern point of Gargano, Vieste is another lovely village, rising on a cliff overlooking the sea. There is an Arabic feel to the beautiful medieval district, with the closely-packed, whitewashed houses, the narrow lanes and flights of steps. Here you find a wonderful 11th century cathedral (destroyed by an earthquake but rebuilt and restored) and one of Frederick II's many castles (1240). King Frederick II of Swabia, a 13th century ruler of Puglia, was one of the most prolific builders of monuments the region has known. The evidence is everywhere today in his castles and churches dotted throughout the region, leaving his mark on virtually every town of importance and helping to make Puglia a cultural centre of Western civilization at that time. The surrounding coastline has cliffs, caves, rocks and coves as well as long white beaches, popular with summer tourists. Slightly inland you find two important Christian sites. The first, the village of San Giovanni Rotondo, greatly increased in importance in the 20th century due to Padre Pio, a priest based here who bore stigmata marks for 50 years of his life. His tomb lies within the Sanctuary adjoining the Capuchin Monastery in the village and pilgrims flock here from all over the world. The second site is the town of Monte Sant'Angelo and, in particular, the Sanctuary of St Michael, a natural cave where the Archangel Michael was said to have appeared. It has been visited by Kings, Saints and Popes, as well as departing Crusaders, and is still one of Europe's most revered Christian shrines. There is a huge Norman castle as well as a beautiful eight-sided Angevin bell tower by the basilica and sanctuary complex. Further round the headland, in the Gulf of the same name, is Manfredonia. It was founded by King Manfred (Frederick II's son) in 1256 for the inhabitants of nearby Siponto (made uninhabitable by Sarcacen raids, earthquakes and swamping). It is now a port with a pretty historic centre surrounding the huge Swabian castle and an 18th century cathedral. At the southern end of the Gulf of Manfredonia lies Margherita di Savoia. The city is situated between the sea and the largest salt-marshes in Europe. This reclaimed land is full of great white mountains of salt and the sulphur, bromine and iodine salts in the waters of the baths are renowned for their therapeutic effects, attracting visitors from all over Europe. Inland, to the west, is Foggia, the capital of the area of Capitanata. Known as Foggia due to the swampy ground ("foggia" meaning marsh), it is well positioned for trade and by the 12th century was already an important commercial centre, taking over from its neighbour Arpi that was sacked by the Saracens. In the 13th century, Frederick II built a large fortified castle and the city developed rapidly under his rule. Foggia has since suffered a massive earthquake in 1731 and then heavy bombing in WWII but, despite its modern appearance now, there remain some tourist attractions. After the devastating earthquake the castle was rebuilt, as was the Cathedral (first constructed by Robert Guiscard in 1072) in a fine Baroque style. Nearby is Lucera, dominated by Frederick II's pentagonal Fortezza Angioina. This massive castle has 24 towers on its perimeter walls and was once used by Frederick to imprison twenty thousand Saracens. Before the Norman invasion the town was called Lucera Saracenorum ("of the Saracens") and was full of minarets and mosques but unfortunately, nothing remains from those days. It is home to a simple Gothic cathedral and the Roman amphitheatre (1st century BC) is one of the oldest in existence. Just south is Troia, with its fine cathedral that combines a Romanesque facade with Oriental carvings. It has 12th century bronze doors and a beautiful rose window. Moving down through Puglia you reach Andria. This small town is famous for one thing: the Castel del Monte. This octagonal castle was built in the 13th century by Frederick II. It has eight towers and eight trapezoidal rooms on each floor. The mathematical and astronomical precision of its shape and layout has made it of great interest to scholars and tourists alike and has led to it being known as the "Stone Flower" and the "Star of Murgia". In fact, the lack of a moat or other defensive structures shows it was never built to serve as a castle but was in fact a hunting lodge for Frederick. Pale in colour, its style is Gothic but with Romanesque and Arabic influences. UNESCO has declared it one of the world's heritage sites. Back on the coast you find Barletta, with its pleasant medieval centre, an impressive castle (a 13th century residence of King Manfred) and a Romanesque and Gothic cathedral. However, Barletta is better known for two other reasons. Firstly, the "Heraclius Colossus": a 16-foot tall bronze sculpture, one of the finest of the ancient world. Cast in Constantinople in the 4th century, it was taken by Venetians in the 14th century, and then washed ashore here when they were shipwrecked. This is also where the "Disfida" ("Challenge") took place in 1503 during the war between France and Spain: thirteen Italian horsemen defeated thirteen French cavaliers who had challenged them and this is celebrated with a huge annual festival. Trani has one of the most attractive and lively old town centres in the area and, as with Barletta and many other villages along this stretch of coast, is a good place to stop and taste the wonderfully fresh seafood cuisine. The Romanesque Cathedral is perched at the edge of the water and has been called the "Pearl of the Adriatic". Bari, capital of Puglia, is the second most important city in the south, after Napoli. It is a pleasant, modern city - "The Milan of the South" - but is not particularly beautiful apart from the old quarter. An important Byzantine town, it then flourished under the Normans as a principal port for armies setting off for the Crusades. This was the time when its main monuments were built, such as the beautiful cathedral with its Apulian Romanesque architecture, the Norman/Swabian castle and the Basilica di San Nicola (Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of Bari and some of his bones, stolen by merchants from Asia Minor in the 12th century, are buried here under the altar).The Grottoes of Castellana, the largest set of caves in Italy, are just outside Bari. Full of stalagmites and stalagtites, they include the magnificent "Grotta Bianca" (the white cave): "The most beautiful grotto in the world", due to its dazzling white walls of pure crystals. Just down the coast lies Monopoli, an important port from the time of the Byzantines and the Normans. The historical centre is still enclosed today by Aragonese fortifications, which protected it from sea-raids and there is a wonderful cathedral spanning the Apulian-Romanesque and the Baroque styles. The town is now a centre for seaside tourism with the nearby coastline varying between sandy beaches and sheer cliffs. Further inland you reach Altamura, one of Italy's oldest settlements (as seen by the megalithic boundary walls). It has a pretty old town and large Romanesque cathedral, with twin campaniles (founded by Frederick II in 1232).Nearby is Gioia del Colle, with its lovely Norman castle, founded in the 11th century by Richard Seneschal (brother of Robert Guiscard) and then rebuilt by Frederick II around 1230, returning from the sixth Crusade. It is better known nowadays for its large NATO airbase. To the east of this is the Valle d'Itria. This is Puglia's best-known and most magical region, full of the extraordinary round trulli houses, made of limestone blocks and with strange medieval inscriptions on their conical or domed grey roofs. Alberobello is the most picturesque of the towns here, with about 1500 whitewashed trulli lining the streets and even a church in the trullo style. Locorotondo is planned out in a circular style and sits on a rise dominating the valley. Its narrow streets wind through the houses and trulli, and it has an interesting Gothic church. Fasano, another lovely whitewashed town, was a refuge in Ancient Roman times after the nearby town of Egnazia had fallen into ruin. In the Middle Ages, it came under control of the Knights of Malta, who built the church (with beautiful rose windows) and their palace (now the town hall). Both Locorotondo and Fasano have wonderful views over the valley and the trulli farms dotted amongst the vineyards and olive groves. Just down the coast is Ostuni, "The White City". Built on three hills, it is famous for its dazzling whitewashed buildings. The main square (actually triangular) is overlooked by the 70-foot spire of the Church of Sant'Oronzo (patron saint of the town). There is also a 15th century Gothic cathedral with lovely rose-windows and the Bishop's Palace. Brindisi, one of the safest ports on the Adriatic, has always been a vital link to the East. It was the main naval base for the Roman Empire's wars with Macedonia and Greece and the famous Appian Way linked it directly to Rome; one of two marble columns marking the end of this ancient road still stands by the busy port today. Today it is a modern industrial city and port for ships serving Greece, Turkey and Africa but there are some medieval and baroque churches and an imposing Aragones Castle (15th century) on an island opposite the port. A visit to Lecce provides relics from each civilization that has settled here since Ancient Greek times, including the remains of a huge Roman amphitheatre (1st century BC). But it is for its more recent architecture that Lecce is best known. It is the pink city, "Florence of the Baroque", and is often described as the most beautiful city in Italy. The soft local sandstone meant masons could add incredibly ornate decorations to the buildings, giving rise to their own unique style - barocco leccese. The quiet winding streets of the old town are lined with buildings constructed in this golden Lecce stone, sometimes finished off with fine wrought-iron ballustrades. Among the many Baroque monuments to visit, there is the lovely Piazza del Duomo, overlooked by the cathedral with its 240-foot high bell-tower, the Bishop's Palace and the Seminary. Nearby is the stunning Santa Croce basilica. As a Greek colony then part of the Roman Empire, Otranto rivalled Brindisi in importance, being the most easterly port on the Adriatic. It has a rich mix of architectural styles due to the variety of civilizations that have settled there. The main sites of interest are the 15th century Aragonese castle and the cathedral (with a fabulous 12th century "Tree of Life" mosaic on the floor). The crypt contains the remains of 800 martyrs, massacred by invading Turks in 1480.Santa Maria di Leuca is a pretty coastal resort and fishing village on the very south-eastern tip of Puglia. Sitting right on the peninsula is the beautiful Basilica of the Madonna de Finibus Terrae ("the end of the world"). It was here that Saint Peter was said to have landed in Italy on his way to Rome, marked by an Aragonese column in the square. Nearby are more wonderful caves, so typical of Puglia, such as the Cave of Zinzulusa (full of stalagmites and stalagtites and with the prehistoric "blind fish" living in its pools) and the Cave of Romanelli (where prehistoric wall drawings have been found).Moving up the Gulf of Taranto you reach Gallipoli. The name comes from the Greek "kalli poli" (beautiful city) and Gallipoli does feel very Greek, with its whitewashed, medieval centre on an island, reached by crossing an ancient bridge. There is a Byzantine castle, a Baroque cathedral and an ancient Greek fountain (supposedly the oldest fountain in Italy).Travelling up the coast, past some of Italy's most pristine beaches, you arrive at Taranto. Founded in 707 B.C. by Spartan sons of freed slaves, Tarentum, was firstly an aristocratic, then democratic, republic (its government was praised by Aristotle). The old town stands on a central island between two canals and, amongst its narrow, winding streets, contains Roman ruins, an Aragonese castle, an 11th century Baroque cathedral with a Byzantine cupola and a Doric column from the Greek temple of Poseidon.