A JOURNEY ALONG THE PATHS OF THE SOUL
'Italy is in great need of a slow journey.
We have stopped travelling: we are on the move.
Thus the minor world disappears and so does memory'.
(Paolo Rumiz, È Oriente, ed. La Feltrinelli)
And so the 'journey', as a metaphor of human existence, helps us to overcome difficulties and the effort to reach the destination serves to keep alive that minor world otherwise destined to disappear, to keep alive the memory of the places and people who experienced those places.
Because of its location, a bridge between West and East, Apulia has been a land of passage for cultures, religions, goods, merchants and pilgrims since ancient times.
The cultural recognition of European civilisation starts from these paths. Even before the Christian pilgrimages and crusades, already in Mycenaean times, merchants arrived in our ports to exchange metals along the routes to Etruria, and then continued in the 5th century B.C., when trade with Attica brought Greek artists and divinities to the area, whose sculpted images bear witness to the journeys of the divinities from the Apulian ports of Brindisi, Egnatia, Bari towards Benevento and Rome.
Throughout the following centuries, the great road arteries traced out by the Romans, the Via Appia and the Via Traiana, became routes to the eastern world and, with the birth of Christianity and Christian pilgrimage, Apulia became an ideal bridge between Europe and the Holy Land.
As early as 333 A.D., the anonymous pilgrim from Bordeaux, returning from Jerusalem, crossed the Adriatic Sea to disembark in Otranto, travelling along the Via Traiana and the Via Appia to Rome, marking the posts of Brindisi, Egnatia, Bari, Bitonto, Ruvo, Canosa, Ordona and Troia. He recounts the difficulty of travelling by sea and carries a water bottle, the symbol of his pilgrimage.
Along the way, hermitages, basilicas, sanctuaries, monasteries, hospitals, lodging and resting places for pilgrims and wayfarers who, from Santiago de Compostela or Canterbury, created the Via Francigena towards Rome and the Holy Land. The Via Francigena, which crosses Europe from north to south, enters the heart of the central regions and heads straight for the core of Christianity.
It is among the oldest to be documented: in his diaries, the archbishop of Canterbury, Sigeric, travelled it in 990 A.D. on his way to Rome. Once in Apulia, the route divides into a series of paths: the Nicolaian path, with the cathedrals of Trani dedicated to St Nicholas the Pilgrim and Bari; the path of St Leonard, with the Hospitalia of Siponto, founded by Diomedes, the port of Arpi and later a Roman colony; and the path of St James, the 'first pilgrim' who returned to Jerusalem from Spain, where he had come for an evangelising mission.
These routes pass through the cities of Barletta, in whose Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre treasures from Palestine are preserved, Trani, Bisceglie, with the church of Santa Maria di Giano, Molfetta and down to Monopoli, Ostuni, and on to Brindisi.
This city is the terminal point of both the Via Traiana and the Via Appia, as witnessed by the Roman columns overlooking the ancient port. It is the best equipped port for travelling to the Holy Land, and in the city the church of San Giovanni al Sepolcro imitates in its structure that of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
Also rich in evidence is the via Traiana with Ruvo di Puglia, Bitonto, as far as Ostuni and Galatina, with the Church of Santa Caterina, and then the via Appia, with the churches and rock settlements of Gravina di Puglia, Mottola, Massafra, Laterza with the Church of San Giacomo in the ravine and Lecce.
Another more ancient and evocative path connects Apulia with Europe: the Via Micaelica, which joins Mont Saint Michel and Monte Sant'Angelo on the Gargano, where the North European Germanic culture, as testified by some 7th century runic inscriptions, and the Latin Mediterranean culture meet.
The Archangel's Path, the final section of the Via Micaelica, begins in Apulia, with Troia, the ancient Aecae, famous for its cathedral.
After crossing the Apulian "tavoliere", we arrive at one of the most exciting routes of the Gargano Way: we cross the Stignano valley, of great naturalistic charm, arriving at the sanctuary of the same name, one of the first Marian sanctuaries in the Foggia area, and continue towards the Convent of San Matteo, which overlooks the town of San Marco in Lamis, an island of silence and serenity for pilgrims.
Passing by the ruins of Sant'Egidio and San Nicola, we finally reach the Grotto of the Archangel Michael, an extremely suggestive place. The entrance to the Sacro Speco, where tradition has it that the archangel Michael appeared, takes one back several centuries. It is an exciting journey, accompanied by breathtaking landscapes, woods and perspectives that reach as far as the sea.
The rediscovery of traces, set and carved in doorposts, on archivolts or frescoed on interior partitions, the shells, the quadrangle, the bordone, the hat, become the leitmotif to the discovery of paths that are not only religious or devotional, but involve architecture and landscape.
Sandy coastlines, cliffs, creeks, accompany the traveller in the discovery of a vast cultural heritage made up of villages, cathedrals, archaeological sites and testimonies of a millenary history, the intangible heritage, the one made up of written and oral tales, which are interwoven in their main route. Almost 1,000 km of paths to reach Santa Maria di Leuca, the Italian Finis Terrae, the ideal end point of that long route from Santiago to the edge of the Italian peninsula.
This is where 'I Cammini del Salento' begin, 133 km to discover the most authentic Salento, a walk designed to unite the two parts, the hinterland from Lecce to Otranto and the coastal strip from Otranto to Santa Maria di Leuca. The connective tissue of all these paths is space: places that are settings for the history and culture of those minor worlds, in which Apulia is so rich, convey iconographies and allow the traveller to weave relationships with the local people, to rediscover the history and culture of the area, to reflect on the meaning of life.
But paths are not only historical routes, they can still be created today to follow in the footsteps of men who changed society. This is what happened with the establishment in 2019 of the Don Tonino Path, linked to the figure of the Salento bishop who led the diocese of Molfetta-Ruvo-Giovinazzo-Terlizzi and left an indelible mark through his work and writings. Starting precisely from Molfetta, the path stops in Alessano at his tomb, where Pope Francis also passed by to pray, and then continues and ends at the most extreme tip of Apulia.
One of the most interesting paths of recent formation, involving the Gargano, is the 'Path of Peace': it starts from L'Aquila, from the basilica of Collemaggio, to arrive at the mountain of the sun at Monte Sant'Angelo, in the sacred grotto of the Archangel Michael. It is a 470 km long path that joins 29 countries, crosses 3 regions, Abruzzo, Molise and Apulia, and 4 national parks. Arriving in Serracapriola from neighbouring Molise, walking the last stretch of the Centurelle/Montesecco sheep-track is a unique experience.
Or "Il Cammino dei Trabucchi" that winds through the Gargano's Sacred Mountain: an experience of inspiration, knowledge, and self-seeking in the face of the infinity concealed by the waves of the sea. You will walk along the coast between the pearls of the Gargano, Peschici and Vieste, in search of the scenic, natural and historical charms offered by the ancient path travelled since Neolithic times.
Lecturer in History of Art