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  • Writer's pictureMark Tedesco

Our Italian Adventure: Spotlight on Martina Franca

PART 65: It might be interesting to share how we pulled off living in Italy for part of the year. I will post some steps we took.

We live in Puglia in the summer and then back again in the winter.

Step 1: As we explore towns in Puglia, we discover some gems worth sharing. Some of these are well-known tourist magnets; others are lesser known but always amazing. Let's explore Martina Franca, about a 90-minute drive from our home this week.

We went to Martina Franca on a whim, hopping in our car on a Saturday, ready for a road trip. We visited Martina Franca 6-7 years ago; comparing our first impression of the town with our second visit was enjoyable.

Step 2: History.

The city of Martina Franca dates from the 10th century AD when refugees from Taranto fled their town in the face of the Saracen invasions. Today, there are about 50,000 residents in Martina Franca; the city is on the edge of Trullo territory.

The town's name derives from St. Martin, a 4th-century French saint who used his sword to cut his tunic in two to share it with a beggar.

The term "Franca" derives from when the town was granted certain privileges in the middle ages, including tax exemption (franchigia).

Step 3: Layout.

A protective wall was erected in the Middle Ages, with only four gates and 12 square and 12 round watchtowers.

Once inside the gates, the visitor easily gets lost since so many twisting and turning streets branch off in every direction. This layout was purposeful to confuse an invading enemy and to give the townspeople time to evacuate or hide.

To faciliate escape, the townspeople developed a secret code in the street design, using black paving stones for streets that led to the gates and white stones for streets inside the labyrinth. Most of the dark stones were replaced, but some can still be found, dating from the Middle Ages.

Step 4: Architecture

The hill Martina Franca rises on is called San Martina, between the Adriatic and Ionian seas. The town center is filled with beautiful baroque palaces, whitewashed buildings, and cute houses, many dating from the 17th century, along narrow medieval alleys that open up to the countryside, which is peppered with white "trulli" houses.

Step 5: Sights.

  • Martina Franca city walls and gates

One can discover Martina Franca's medieval and baroque influences in the city walls and gates. Though constructed for protection during the Saracen invasions, today, they embrace and highlight the elegance of the city center.

Its four gates are named after four saints: St. Stephen, Peter, Nicholas, and St. Mary. The main gate or entrance is St. Stephen's gate and its baroque decor hints at what the visitor is about to see inside.

  • Ducal palace

One of the first sights after St. Stephan's gate is the ducal palace within the beautiful Rome piazza. The palace was built in 1688 on the foundations of a 12th-century castle. There are over 300 rooms decorated with colorful frescos by Domenico Carella. Most painted scenes are of biblical themes or illustrate life in medieval Puglia. Today, the building is used as the town hall and cultural center.

Entry is free, but only a small part is open to the public.

  • Basilica of St. Martin

The basilica was completed in 1747 on the foundations of a Romanesque church from at least the 1300s. The most impressive parts of the church include the massive facade, which displays intricate carvings depicting the life of St. Martin; the interior is in the form of a cross in which the baroque interior and the more modern stained glass windows seem to complement one another, forming a beautiful, unified whole. Above the altar is a statue of St. Martin, the city's patron.

  • Piazza Maria Immacolata

There are many beautiful piazzas in town, but the most amazing is Piazza Maria Immacolata. The piazza is surrounded by semi-circular buildings with shaded porticos, under which are cafes and restaurants. On some weekends, live performances and parades are held in this piazza, and it is a perfect place to people watch.

Step 6: Cool things

  • Wandering Martina Franca's whitewashed streets and La Lama

Martina Franca is one of Puglia's "white cities" because of its whitewashed buildings in the historic center, especially those in the neighborhood of La Lama, right off the main square. This neighborhood has no main sights, but it is a great place to wander since it is laid out like a maze, offering a surprise at every turn. This section was initially the poorest part of the city since it got little sunlight and was damp during the winter. Today, it is one of the most architecturally interesting areas to explore and get lost in!

  • People watching

When we went to Martina Franca the other day, we started to feel tired after all the driving and walking. We found a cafe in one of the squares, ordered coffee, and rested. Soon, we discovered the joy of people-watching in Martina Franca. Germans, Brits, Americans, Italians, Spaniards, and others strolled by under a partly cloudy sky in front of an incredible architectural playground. Our time at this cafe became one of our favorite activities in town!

Step 7: Things to remember when visiting

  • We came to Martina Franca in high season (August) on a Saturday and realized parking can be challenging. After driving around the historical center once, we got lucky and found a parking place only a block away. The next time we plan a trip there, we will go on a weekday or outside the high season.

  • Even though there were many tourists in Martina Franca, it wasn't unpleasantly crowded, the streets were immaculate, and the cafes and restaurants were charming.

Insights: Martina Franca is one of those towns that one keeps putting off visiting. "Some day, we will make the drive," we said repeatedly. Once there, the phrase one repeats is, "Why didn't we do this sooner?" It is a fantastic place; if one wants to get a taste of Puglia, it should certainly be on one's "must-see" list.

More next time.

My book is "Stories from Puglia: Two Californians in Southern Italy." Amazon US:

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24 oct 2023
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My daughters and I visited there 2 years ago, in September. We absolutely fell in love with the place and, of course, got lost in the maze of little streets. It is very interesting to learn the history of this beautiful town. Thank you so much for sharing!

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Mark Tedesco
Mark Tedesco
24 oct 2023
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Thank you for responding! Yes, we never heard of the town until our friends told us to go and see. So glad we did.

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