Episode #135: Ancient Connections Along Puglia’s Pilgrim Trails

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Puglia, in the South Eastern corner of the boot, the heel, is an ancient and undeniably gorgeous region. Full of beautiful scenery, varied and stunning architecture, and of course amazing food and wine. Puglia lies in a very strategic position in the Mediterranean and has a deep and rich history stretching back centuries, being on the path of Medieval pilgrim routes which you can follow all or part of still today. 

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Show notes
We talk to Paolo Maragliulo of Apulia Handmade, a local tour guide who has been working with visitors to his region for many years. He shares his knowledge and enthusiasm for Puglia and the stories of the trade and pilgrim routes of the Middle Ages, the imprint they have left, and how they are becoming more and more popular to explore today. He explains ways of following all or part of these routes and what to look out for when you’re there. 

What you’ll learn in this episode

  1. Puglia has recently become a hot destination in the travel world, but it’s still less visited than many other parts of Italy, has a very different feel and a fascinating past. It has welcomed tourists and is constantly improving its infrastructure to accommodate them. Getting around is not quite as easy as in Central and Northern Italy, so we do suggest a car, an organized tour, or as per the pilgrims – to walk!
  2. A few decades ago, Lecce, Paolo’s hometown, was almost abandoned, there wasn’t much going on there at all. Lots of the buildings and roads were run down, there were no hotels or bars. Paolo studied the preservation of cultural heritage and was keen to work as a tour guide and invest his energies in shining a light on Puglia. People slowly started to discover Puglia in the last 25 years and the region has gone from strength to strength with lots of companies investing in the area. Wine production had more or less stopped, whereas now they are again the number one producer in Italy
  3. The major change in recent decades is the show of pride people have in their region, their identity, their culture, and their food. They want to share this with visitors and the people are extremely friendly because so long with so few coming to Puglia, they’re excited to welcome and show off their region and towns. 
  4. In the past, there was almost a shame in the simple ways things were done. These days, of course, things being simple is a concept people embrace. They are not ashamed anymore of eating a simple bruschetta – just good bread, good tomatoes, and good olive oil. 
  5. Paolo’s dad was a tailor and they were fed the idea that the future was all in the north of Italy. So he moved north to Milan and Florence and tried to leave behind his origin and his dialect which back then, made him stand out, looked down on, and even treated badly. There was a horrible idea that people from the south were peasants and not civilized. But actually. If you want to go back in history, certainly to the Middle Ages, the Mediterranean Sea was the major highway for everything. Somewhere like Milan would have been on the outside and the center of the economy was around places like Puglia and Sicily. Most goods would pass through these places, including luxury goods – textile, silk, also spices, and pepper. All traveling from east to west, passing through. 
  6. Puglia is a long peninsula stretching down the southeast of Italy and it is very close to the other side – Albania, Montenegro, and Greece. The closest point is only 50 nautical miles. If you are in Puglia you can get a message on your phone welcoming you to Greece and you can see the mountains of mainland Greece, really clearly. So in the past, people traveling to Istanbul, Jerusalem, or even China and India people they would travel along the coast to Otranto, then cross to the other side to continue their journey east. 
  7. The Crusaders famously would travel to Jerusalem to free the Holy Land but the very first Crusade, at the end of the 11th century, was to establish a deal with the Arabs to give permission to all the travelers to freely go to see this Holy Land. In the Middle Ages, there were a lot of people from different classes and levels of wealth, who wanted at least once in their lives to travel to Rome and then onto Jerusalem. It’s the same route used by the luxury goods and even when this became a religious route, it was also big business because people traveling would require services along the way – accommodation, places to eat, but also money protection and hospitals. There were a lot of organizations/businesses that basically followed these people along these routes all the way to the east
  8. The Francigena Way is an ancient pilgrimage route known for running from the cathedral city of Canterbury, England, through France and Switzerland, to Rome, and then on to Puglia where they would move on to the Holy Land. It’s actually not just one path or route though – it’s a series of itineraries essentially leaving from all over Europe. The longest one started in Ireland, goes to England, and then goes from Calais to Rome, Rome to Brindisi in Puglia, and then to Istanbul and Jerusalem. It’s a very long walk now, let alone in the Middle ages. People would embark on this journey for several reasons – sometimes to thank God, for their good family or their success, they might also want to go to ask for something – if they have a relative that is ill, to ask for a miracle, or simply for an adventure, just to travel and experience these different countries and cultures
  9. These ancient journies changed the villages and cultures they passed along the way. In Tuscany, for instance, there are lots of hill villages, because pilgrims used to travel on the hills to keep away from possible dangers and they would like to stop every 20 to 30 km in a village. These villages would have a very long road going village to village where the pilgrims would walk and would usually use a big church with a high bell tower to work as their point of reference for where to head next.
  10. They would also, along the way, want to visit tombs of important saints. So if you’re in Venice you can see the tomb of Saint Mark, one of the evangelists (the Venetians essentially stole the body of Saint Mark to have an important relic to be visited by travelers). In Puglia, they have the body of Saint Nicholas in Bari which was stolen in 1087 by sailors from Bari from Turkey, after which they build a massive church dedicated to the Saint, which is one of the most important stops if you’re a pilgrim
  11. In Trani, they basically invented another saint to compete with Bari. This guy, who also happened to be called Nicholas, was made a saint, which lead to some confusion for the pilgrims
  12. Each of these places like Trani, Brindisi, Bitonto, and Otranto all had a port, so they could attract these travelers with the possibility to get over to the other side
  13. There were big organizers that were almost old age travel agencies. One of the most famous, known for other reasons, is the Knights Templar or there was the Maltese Knights. These were essentially monks that asked the Pope to be allowed to carry weapons. They created a system to support the pilgrims with several services. A kind of banking system for instance. If you were in England, perhaps, you could ask the Maltese Nights to carry your cash all the way to Jerusalem as it wasn’t safe for you to carry. You could give them this cash and they’d issue relevant documentation, which you could then use to go to their offices along the way to get cash
  14. They also offered organized groups with somebody traveling with you carrying weapons, so you felt safe. These groups also attracted traders and merchants, because it was safer for them to travel with these religious groups because of the armed monks, who were basically trained soldiers
  15. All these concepts of banks, travel agencies, and tour groups seem so modern, but this is essentially what they were doing back then
  16. There are signs in certain places of itineraries designed by these specific companies. For instance, in Matera, the cave city in Basilicata which is not far from Puglia, the itinerary was sponsored by the Maltese Nights. In Matera, you can find churches with the Maltese Nights Cross on their doors because they were ruling that itinerary. If you instead go to Brindisi, you’ll see a lot of symbols of the Knights Templar. Along the pilgrimage on the way to Jerusalem, you would have wanted to make sure that every step is the right one, so you’re looking for those symbols or images. In Puglia, there are two major ones – the Saint (Archangel) Michael, and Saint Nicholas
  17. Pilgrims also used to wear a particular costume so they were dressed pretty much the same way. Wearing symbols also in order to be recognized by everybody. Then if someone had a restaurant or a hotel, they might have a special deal to offer for a pilgrim and they are able to recognize someone as one. Also bandits in the countryside, upon seeing a group all dressed the same way, they’d know that they weren’t carrying any money
  18. One of these symbols is the scallop shell that was used by pilgrims to drink. Along the most famous pilgrimage, the Santiago de Compostela in Spain – everywhere you go, you still see this symbol (Venera in Spanish)
  19. They have calculated that in Europe around 500,000 people took the pilgrimage, though it’s difficult to put an exact figure on is. This included the poorest people, as well as Kings and important rich families or businessmen. Every place has stories about famous people that used the castles or hospitals to stop for one or two nights. These days people are more used to seeing different cultures, languages, and ethnicities, but back then it must have been quite an exotic experience
  20. The Saint Michael’s Line is basically a line that connects all the most ancient and famous places dedicated to Saint Michael the Archangel. It starts from a tiny remote island in the southwest of Ireland called Skellig Michael. If you go there, you can see a structure built with bright stone walls that looks stunningly similar to the Puglian Truli houses with the conical rooftop. You’ll find similar structures in southern France or in Turkey
  21. In Taranto, in Puglia, which is famous for its saint’s procession, the patron saint of Taranto is actually an Irish saint. The connections that were developed along this line are amazing. There are many churches built by these Norman families that ruled southern Italy that left England to follow the businesses of pilgrimages
  22. The architecture in Bari can be incredibly similar to something that you might see in France and when they filmed movies set in Jerusalem, they often pick Matera as a location
  23. These routes are still available to follow today. There is a series of projects that have been around for the last decade or so and are becoming more and more popular, as due to covid, people are looking for experiences where they can get away from the world to a certain extent – hiking in remote areas
  24. These organizations and projects are actually connected but at the same time independent. The Calais to Rome is particularly a very organized path, where along the way you can collect the credentials – you can get a stamp in every place you stop, essentially validating your itinerary. A the end you have this stamped paper, almost like a work of art
  25. The pilgrimage is becoming big business again as more shops are opening along these itineraries, bed and breakfasts and restaurants start to offer more discounts to pilgrims
  26. Hiking the pilgrim route is pretty straightforward. It’s either on asphalt but along back roads with few cars passing by or on gravel so more like a trail
  27. You can also do it by bike. There are lots of cyclists that love the routes and do it bike packing, If you walk it you’ll cover 20 to 30 km per day and if you cycle you can do 50 to 100 km
  28. Along the way, you will come across people who will say “Buen Camino” in Italian which is basically “enjoy your walk”
  29. There are a lot of signs now added by the local government and it’s easy to follow with GPS (GPX is the name of the file you can download). So you can follow the itinerary completely on your own or you can ask a local company to help you. They can help with luggage for instance – so you don’t have to carry them with you, they will deliver it from one hotel to the next one. You can also pick long routes – from  France to Jerusalem or you can do just a small portion, like from Rome to Brindisi.
  30. The part from Rome to Brindisi has recently been recognized by the European Union. There are three or four different itineraries.  There are already a lot of signs but they’re still working on improvements. There are lots of websites with lots of information to provide
  31. You get to explore areas where regular tourists don’t go. They are not affected by over-tourism as in other areas of Italy. You can visit the real country, The locals love to see you, and are generally really friendly and helpful. They admire what you’re doing, and appreciate that you may be experiencing some fatigue so will often offer you water (or wine) or even share a meal
  32. There is a newer route, from a group who decided to create a series of itineraries in Puglia – essentially going from Bari to Matera. This is called the Camino Materano. You can make this a long multi-day itinerary, but you can also do just a weekend. You may decide to stay in an agriturismo perhaps, with a pool for a week, and just hike for a day or two. It’s really open to your imagination and to your creativity.
  33. Puglia is actually quite flat, so for walking you can get by without needing mountain-hiking level fitness. Paolo used to work with a company, back in the 90s, that actually chose to introduce routes in Puglia, after realizing how flat it was – so leisure cyclists didn’t have to worry about struggling up mountains
  34. You also have different experiences from one part of the region to the next. To go from Matera to Lecce is about 1 hour 45 drive. You are starting in Matera which is a town made of caves. you can then in less than an hour, stop in Alberobello, which is a town full of Trulli. Then a little bit further on and you’re in Ostuni, which is a white-washed town, then onto Lecce, which is full of baroque architecture with super ornate decoration
  35. In Matera, they make deep-fried sun-dried peppers, which you would never find in Lecce. In Lecce, they cook pasta deep fried with chickpeas. Then in Bari, you have the Orecchiette (ear-shaped) pasta with broccoli and anchovies. Even the bread is different from town to town. 
  36. The people in Matera are very proud of their bread and will insist it’s the best in the world. But you then can go to a village which is 15 km away, where they make basically, exactly the same bread, but they will say that it’s different and that theirs is much better than the one in Matera! 
  37. English speakers won’t really notice the difference, but if Paolo speaks his Lecce dialect in Bari, they won’t understand – it’s like two completely different languages. When he talks Italian, he has such a strong accent that they will immediately know he’s from Lecce – within the same region
  38. There is a word in Italian that doesn’t exist in English, which is campanilismo. Translated it kind of means bell tower-ism. So this reflects how a town will be very proud of their bell tower and will insist that their bell tower is better than the next town’s bell tower and they feel they have to fight to protect the proud identity of their bell tower. It creates competition between all these cities and towns – Lecce hates Bari and Bari hates Lecce, but in a fun way and it translates into the soccer rivalries and how everything in their town is the best – the market, the buildings, the food, the teams! 
  39. Locorotondo is one of Puglia’s beautiful white towns and is famous for its decorations, especially at Christmas.  They have a contest in the town for the best balcony or courtyard, so each household decorates with a lot of flowers and plants and they are judged on who is the best. They are incredibly stylish and if you head to Instagram at Christmas time you will always see some beautiful pictures of Locorotondo
  40. An example of how far things traveled and were influenced, centuries ago, is that in various places such as the church of Saint Nicholas in Bari, a church dedicated to St. John the Baptist in Brindisi and in Otranto – they all have references to King Arthur. An interesting connection brought by the Normans
  41. Paolo works as a tour guide and loves to help people to plan itineraries specific to their desires or needs. He can also personally guide you and can help to pick restaurants or choose hotels. The perfect consultant or tour guide for anyone visiting Puglia or Matera and Basilicata and for anyone interested in the pilgrim ways

About our guest – Paolo Maragliulo

Paolo is originally from Lecce, but now lives in Matera.
He has studied “Conservazione dei Beni Culturali” which is basically art history, history and restoration; when he started his area (Puglia and Basilicata) were far from being as popular as they are now.

His dream was to tell everybody the beauty of his region and he bet everything on that. Paolo now works as a tour guide for European and overseas companies. 

Paolo does food tours, cultural and archeological tours, hiking and cycling tours, and also works as a trip designer and consultant for individuals and companies. He has also worked for 5 years for a British theatre company so he has millions of stories to tell you with his theatrical style and it is there where he made plenty of experience leading groups of people on a multi-day tour

He has lived almost all his life in Lecce, but I am an addicted traveler; no matter what means of transport – his aim is to explore and that is the way of living my life.

He is now based in Matera, an amazing UNESCO site, and a perfect location to go exploring Southern Italy.

You can find Paolo on these channels:

Stops and routes of the pilgrimages

From Calais to Rome

From Northern France to Rome, this route has a very good infrastructure with lots of signs, and clear stops along the way. Visit www.viefrancigene.org for more info. 

Via Francigena South

The leg of the pilgrimage from Rome to Brindisi is a little less well-trodden but has recently been recognized by the European Union and improvements to the infrastructure are being added all the time. Visit www.viafrancigenasud.it for more info. 

  • Monte Sant’Angelo – UNESCO site. Church built over a cave where a local bishop saw the archangel Michael in 490AD
  • Trani – Cathedral of St. Nicholas
  • Castel del Monte –  a 13th-century citadel and castle situated on a hill in Andria
  • Melfi – Castle and Cave church of Saint Margaret
  • Bitonto – in the town nicknamed the “City of Olives”, the Cathedral (Concattedrale di Maria SS. Assunta)
  • Matera – La Palomba church and hospital, Cave church of Santa Lucia and cave church of Tre Porte (three gates)
  • Bari – Saint Nicholas Basilica (King Arthur on the side door)
  • Brindisi – San Giovanni al Sepolcro (King Arthur)
  • Otranto – Cathedral and floor mosaic (King Arthur)
  • Lecce – Santa Maria a Cerrate, of Puglian Romanesque architecture
  • Supersano – Le Stanzie
  • Santa Maria di Leuca – in the Salento peninsula

Cammino Materano

A variety of trails which go from Bari to Matera. Visit www.camminomaterano.it for more info. 

Places mentioned in the show

  • Cisternino – picturesque town in Puglia
  • Locorotondo – town in Puglia, listed as one of the most beautiful villages in Italy
  • Otrantoa coastal and harbour town south of Lecce
  • Bari – capital city of Puglia
  • Brindisi – on the coast of the Adriatic Sea. Historically, this Puglian city played an important role in trade and culture
  • Trani – seaport on the Adriatic Sea
  • Skellig Michael – island in Ireland from which the Michale line pilgrimages would begin
  • Acerenza – town in the Southern Italian region of Basilicata with a strategic position, meaning it was often a target for invasion
  • Alberobello – a town in Puglia known as the city of Trulli
  • Taranto – in Puglia, famous for its processions where the patron saint is Irish
  • Ostuni – gorgeous town in Puglia, so famous for its white-washed houses that it is known as the white city – la Città Bianca


  • Knights Templarwere originally monks who were sworn to poverty, chastity, and obedience, and committed to fighting “infidels” in the Holy Land
  • Santiago de Compostela – famous pilgrimage in Spain
  • trulli houses – a traditional stone hut with a conical roof, unique to Puglia
  • “Buen Camino” – means enjoy your walk
  • Orecchiette – the ear shaped pasta of Bari
  • campanilismo” – coming from the Italian word for bell tower (campanile) it means a sense of pride for one’s hometown

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