History Amid The Palazzos


Having spent time in Taranto, Italy, I am a member of a very small club. Whenever I mention I was writing about Taranto — even when I take care to emphasize the first syllable — people immediately confuse it with the better-known (and more-visited) Canadian burg.

There isn’t much information online about Taranto, an Italian naval base that sits at the northwest entrance of the Apulian peninsula. What little press Taranto does get is usually negative: corruption, pollution, the usual Southern Italian scourges.

The city’s vast industrial waterfront is indeed a bit off-putting at first glance. But in a region of ugly, provincial cities with little greenery and even less in the way of sights, Taranto is an unexpected pleasure: an elegant town of columned palazzos where classical heritage is ever-tangible.

And besides, it has really fun trivia. Did you know that the tarantella, kind of a Southern Italian hora, takes its name from the city? Lore has it that the frenetic steps were originally an attempt to shake off the venom of the tarantula, the official spider of Taranto — but one I thankfully never saw.

Taranto is nobody’s final destination; Rome it’s not. But as the gateway to the Apulian coastal region, which I covered here last year, it’s a convenient stopover for those driving either east-west or north-south across Southern Italy. While inland Lecce is the clear standout in this region, and Brindisi a frequent departure point for Adriatic ferries, Taranto is a quick hop from the most beautiful beaches of the lesser-traveled Ionian coast.

Taranto was the pride of Magna Grecia (“Greater Greece”), the Southern Italian outpost of the ancient Greek Empire in the centuries before Christ. Rich and powerful, Taranto was settled by the Spartans before plunging into a decline under the Romans.

It was also, well into the Middle Ages, a major scholarly center for Sephardic Jewry. Among the tombstones unearthed here, several Jewish inscriptions date to the late Roman period.

Signs posted around the city try helpfully to illuminate the vestiges of Magna Grecia as you head into the Old City, with block-by-block factoids. The historic core is a spit of land perched between what Italians call the Mare Piccolo (the “Little Sea,” a protected bay) and the “Mare Grande” (the “Big Sea”), where open water facilitates Taranto’s constant marine activity.

The Old City, where you can occasionally still hear dialects with hints of Greek, has a crumbly charm. Centuries of history vie for space in the ancient piazzas, where I wandered past ducal palazzos, medieval churches, Roman archways and moldering staircases. A 15th-century castle harkens back to the days when locals were on the defense against Saracen pirates.

From both sides of the bridge that connects old and new Taranto, expansive water views and sprawling metal bridges are ubiquitous. As I strolled the lungomare, the air was fragrant with orange trees, making it easy to forget how serious Taranto’s factory pollution problem really is.

In the lovely city park, I discovered a shady refuge of greenery, burbling fountains and winding paths. It felt perfectly safe and well tended — but on a Thursday afternoon there, as elsewhere in sleepy Taranto, Oggi and I found ourselves nearly alone.

Indoors, Taranto’s chief sight is the National Archaeological Museum, a stunning collection that seems to be under perpetual renovation.

People nod their heads with weary smiles of resignation when I ask about gallery closures. These apparently began over 100 years ago, when city officials first decided the 18th-century convent could use a makeover to house its unrivaled collection of Apulian treasures, and continues with maddening unpredictability to this day.

Nonetheless, the exhibits — arranged in chronological order, starting with the Stone Age — are quite literally dazzling. Gold and goldworking were the glory of classical Taranto, and the glittering examples under glass are some of the best you’ll see anywhere.

Outside on the wide pedestrian boulevards of downtown Taranto, lunchtime felt strangely quiet. Oggi and I wandered past leather boutiques and gelaterias, many closed up for afternoon riposo, wondering where the locals ate – and whether we were the only tourists.

We may have been right on the second question. The first was answered soon enough when we followed a well-dressed couple into a stylish wine-and-jazz bar, where soft golden sconces lit a power lunch scene. Plates piled high with buffalo mozzarella and fresh green arugula were washed down with local red wine.

Like so much in Taranto, there was more inside than the exterior promised — a reward for the adventurous.