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History of Ostuni
Photo: Jelly

History of Ostuni

Ostuni, with its whitewashed houses and pretty mazes, is one of the most beautiful cities in Puglia. The Greek and Middle Eastern influence on its architecture lend it the charming nickname of La Città Bianca (‘The White City’).

The town is built on three hills and is indicative of a typical Puglian town. That is, the town’s appearance represents Puglia’s history of being ruled by Normans, Byzantines and Greeks, along with many other ruling civilisations. It was the Normans who established the layout of Ostuni, curating a medieval town built around the hill which stands at 200m above sea level.

As the hill looks over the point where the land and seaside meet, the town is sometimes referred to as ‘the gateway of Salento.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the Normans incorporated the town into the region of Lecce. In the 14th century, it was a part of Taranto. In the 15th century during the Italian Renaissance, the town blossomed under the rule of Isabella of Naples. In 1860, Ostuni joined the Garibaldi-led unification of Italy.

The town is particularly notable for the discovery of a Palaeolithic-era skeleton of a pregnant woman in one of the town’s grottoes. Archaeologists have also discovered inhabitation in the area dating back to the Stone Age. Established by the Messapii during the 1st century, the town was destroyed by the Punic Carthaginian general Hannibal and later rebuilt by the Greeks. The rebuild then gave Ostuni its original name of Astu Néon ('New Town'), which inspired the town’s current moniker.

The main quirks of the town include clay figurines called fischietto, which are functioning whistles, as well as brightly coloured Bougainvillaea; brightly-coloured flowers which hang over many windows and doors. Ostuni’s grand 15th-century Gothic cathedral also sits atop the hill overlooking the rest of the town.

Other landmarks include the Museo Diocesano Brindisi-Ostuni, which features a life-like statue of Our Lady of the Rosary. The town also hosts the Baroque church of San Vito Martire, which some say stands on either an old military outpost or a typical ancient Basilian monastery.

Ostuni is also home to the caves of Santa Maria di Agnano, in which were found traces of the town’s Neolithic, Japigian-Messapian and Medieval past. It is here that archaeologists discovered ‘Delia’ or ‘Ostuni 1’, the 26,000-year-old skeleton of a pregnant woman which brings tourists from far and wide.

Several of Puglia’s most beautiful beaches lie on the coast 8km from the centre of Ostuni, part of an area called the ‘Costa Merlata’. Spiaggia di Torre Pozzelle is one such beach. Once you’ve finished swimming in the crystal-clear waters, you can move down the coast to explore the sands and 12th-century watch tower of Torre Santa Sabina. It’s the beaches that provide a majority of tourism in the area.

The town has a population of 32,000, which can triple during the height of the tourism season. As well as native Puglians, the population is made up of German and English ex-pats, hosting the largest percentage of villa and house sales to British tourists out of all the Italian towns.