The city


The region of Altamura is extremely rich in finds testifying to human settlement in the Old Stone Age, the New Stone Age and the Bronze Age, the era to which the earliest signs of urban development are thought to date.  Groups of huts dating back to the first Iron Age paved the way for the Peucetian city, which was defended by a double circle of megalithic walls (5th–4th c. B.C.).  After the site had been abandoned for over 1,000 years, Frederick II of Hohenstaufen founded Altamura in 1243, building his new city on the ancient settlement's former acropolis and granting would-be residents tax exemption in order to encourage them to move there.

Sparano da Bari, the lord of the city in the late 13th century, completed the walls that still encircle the city centre today with its wealth of noble palaces and churches.


Ottavio Farnese became lord of the city in 1542, initiating a flourishing period of economic, cultural and artistic splendour.  The Farnese family maintained the city's lordship until 1731, when the title passed through the female line to Charles of Bourbon, who was to be crowned king of Naples in 1734.  Charles authorised the establishment of a Royal University, which operated from 1748 to 1811.  Altamura joined the Parthenopean Republic in 1799, only to be looted by the Sanfedista troops, led by Cardinal Fabrizio Ruffo, after putting up strong resistance.

The plateau


The region of Altamura stands on a limestone plateau known as the Murge, consisting of carbonate rock from the Cretaceous era shaped by the phenomenon of karsting.  The landscape has been modelled by centuries of erosion caused chiefly by rainwater, whose carbon dioxide content has a dissolving action on calcium carbonate.  Karsting produces such natural phenomena as sink-holes, deep ridges known locally as "lame", canyons, potholes, wells and grottoes, the latter often lending themselves to human habitation in the prehistoric and historical eras.  The Alta Murgia, seemingly so barren and inhospitable, is in fact a unique environmental eco-system, being the last surviving example of Mediterranean pseudo-steppe in peninsular Italy and one of the most important anywhere in the Mediterranean.  Its rocky, scrub-filled expanses, its garigue-like bush, its grassy steppes and now rare patches of oak forest host some 1,500 species of plant life whose unquestioned stars are the myriad varieties of wild orchid.

Roughly 80 species of bird populate the Alta Murgia, the substantial group of birds of prey including in particular the only nesting population of lesser kestrels in peninsular Italy.  The area designated as the Alta Murgia National Park with its unique landscape, flora and fauna is remarkable for its countless farmhouses, livestock pens and tracks, dry stone walls and watering holes.

The flavours


The local cuisine is renowned for its generous use of wild herbs and plants, not to mention the exquisite king oyster mushroom (Pleurotus eryngii), while the age-old tradition of cereal-growing lies behind the excellent bread, focaccia, taralli and fresh pasta.  Local farmers produce a range of outstanding cheeses including ricotta, bite-sized mozzarella, treccia, scamorza, treccione and pecorino made from ewe's milk, alongside such meat dishes as lamb roasted over charcoal, lamb boiled in wild herbs (cutturidde), sheep with greens and herbs cooked in a terracotta dish in a wood stove for hours on end (alla rezzaule), roulade of lamb sweetbreads and lights cooked over charcoal (gnumurérre) or hand-chopped pork sausages and salami.  Traditional sweets include "sighs" (sospiri), almond-paste biscuits and cookies made of boiled figs and grapes (mustazzéle).

The celebrated Altamura bread, increasingly popular with connoisseurs, has been awarded P.D.O. (Protected designation of origin) status by the EU.  Quality varietals of durum wheat grown on the western Murgia and traditionally ground in local mills provide the twice-ground semolina that is one of Altamura bread's crucial ingredients, alongside yeast, sea salt and water.  The loaves in a range of characteristic shapes may be cooked either in old ovens fired by oakwood or in modern mechanical ovens.

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