The renowned Italian hospitality and hedonism is without a doubt most genuinely experienced on a Jewish tour in the region of Puglia, more colloquially known as “the hill of Italy”. While the standard of living in Italy is said to decrease the more southward one goes, that factor is cancelled out by the evidently different state of mind the residents possess – positivism, vigour, kindness and openness are characteristics with which residents of Puglia are almost bound to leave any visitor disarmed and enchanted. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why Puglia has such a rich Jewish heritage.
The Jewish communities as you will learn on our Puglia Jewish heritage tours have proliferated in number during the Norman rule of the region, largely thanks to the increasing trade with other parts of the world, therefore making seaside cities of Bari, Otranto, Gallipoli and Trani important trade hubs and bringing all the benefits such places offer.
Bari, the capital of the Puglia region and one of the most important economic centres in the south, can boast with a rich Jewish heritage and history. It is said that the first Jewish community in Bari was founded by Jewish captives brought by Titus after the sacking of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Although Bari had been an important Jewish centre during the Middle-Ages there is hardly any evidence testifying to that rich period. However, one of the oldest Jewish cemeteries in Puglia, dating to 8th century CE, is located in Bari. Ever since the arrival of Normans in the 11th century, the Jewish communities were multiplying, largely due to increasing trade. Must-see sites are the Basilica of St Nicholas, built in the 11th century for safekeeping the relics of St Nicholas, the patron of the city, brought from Turkey, and the Norman-Swabian Castle which was built by the Normans in the 12th century. In recent history, namely during the Second World War, Bari was one of the gathering points for Jews fleeing to Palestine.
North-westwards from Bari is Trani. The Jewish heritage of Trani and the local Jewish community dates back to 1000-1100 CE. The Puglia Jewish Tour will lead to the sites were two synagogues are situated, in the Jewish Quarter, one of which is Scolanova Synagogue, recently renovated and still active to this day. These represent rare surviving examples of the looks of medieval synagogues. One of the gates leading to the quarter is still standing and can be seen. Unfortunately, the ancient community had been expelled and recently there have been efforts in restoring it.
The town of Oria served as the most important medieval centre of Judaism in Puglia. Like Bari, it is believed that the Jewish Heritage in Oria is very old and the first Jewish community was established by Jewish captives from Jerusalem. Oria’s medieval cultural prestige, which was at its peak between the 8th and 10th centuries, was achieved in great part thanks to its flourishing Jewish community. Many indicators of the rich Jewish past, even by the standards of the whole Mediterranean, are still visible and we will take you there on our Jewish Puglia Tour. The Porta degli Ebrei, or “The Gate of the Jews”, marks the border of what was once the Jewish Quarter of the town in the 15th century. An eye-catching detail on the gate is a large Bronze Menorah. Besides the gate, a Jewish Cemetery with numerous old headstones offers a small glance into a number of the former rich and thriving Jewish community that had once dwelled her. In the Jewish Quarter there is a marked site where once the local Synagogue stood.
Last not least the Puglia Jewish tour will include a Jewish Heritage tour in Lecce. On the hill of the ‘Italian boot’, on the very south of the Apennines, lies the city of Lecce. The height of the local Jewish community was reached in the beginning of the 15th century, largely due to trade, craft and arts. A major street running through the ancient Jewish neighbourhood is dedicated to one of the most important Jewish residents of Lecce, Abraham de Balmes. Renowned for its Baroque architecture, the city of Lecce has a number of charming structures, including the Palazzo Taurino housing the Medieval Jewish Lecce Museum, built on the site of a medieval synagogue and mikvah. With its artefacts and multimedia exhibition, the museum offers a great insight into the history of the local Jewish community. Lecce can also boast with splendid Basilica di Santa Croce and Basilica di San Giovanni Battista, glorious examples of Baroque, remains of the Roman amphitheatre which could accommodate up to 25.000 spectators, and various palaces as well.