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Puglia under the Greeks
Puglia, or Apulia as it’s sometimes written in English, is right on the heel of Italy, only separated from Greece and Albania by a stretch of the Adriatic sea. You can take a ferry from the port city of Brindisi, in Puglia, to the port of Igoumenitsa, in the north of Greece – it’s a journey of around 9 hours and some 260 kilometres. This close proximity makes it easy to see why the region of Puglia has such close links with Greek culture, dating back as early as the Mycenaean period. However, it was not until the 8th century B.C. that the region actually underwent colonisation by Greece, which lasted through to the 15th century A.D. – to the point that the wider area encompassing Puglia, at one point, became known by the Romans as ‘Magna Graecia’, which translates to ‘Greater Greece’.
The colonisation of this part of the world was driven by economic prospects as well as changing conditions in Greece, such as famine and overcrowding, that combined to make the search for new territory appealing. It was the Iapygian people who called these lands home before the Greeks arrived and it’s interesting to note that the Greek colonisation of this region massively predates (by a couple of thousand years!) Puglia’s integration into the Kingdom of Italy. Centuries later, the influence of this period is still felt and the connection between Greece and Puglia lives on. While it is said that aspects of cultural fusion can be seen in all areas of life, from food, to dance, to road signs, perhaps the most interesting piece of history is preserved in language. A dialect called Griko is still spoken in Puglia (and Calabria) today – with the language holding its place in around 9 towns (including Soleto, Calimera, and Melpignano) in an area known as Grecìa Salentina, in reference to the name of the Salento peninsula portion of Puglia. Griko remains somewhat mutually intelligible with standard Greek, however, the dialect itself is considered severely endangered by UNESCO given that Grecìa Salentina is home to only 40-50,000. What is remarkable is that the language has maintained elements of ancient Doric and Koine Greek that modern Greek, spoken elsewhere, has lost.
But Griko is more than just a language, it’s a community of people. Sadly, with urbanisation and the widespread use of Italian, the existence of Griko culture is threatened – so much of the storytelling tradition, folklore, and music could be lost. Though there do not seem to be many unified efforts being made in preserving this rich culture, fortunately, it is documented in literature and films such as ‘Encardia, the Dancing Stone’, which follows a folklore group that plays ‘Tarantella’ music – a tambourine driven rhythm which accompanies a dance said to originate from the manic movements required to excrete poison from the body after suffering a venomous spider bite. Likewise, should you visit Puglia, make sure to stop by towns like Zollino and Castrignano de’ Greci to experience this unique, ancient cultural marriage for yourself.