If Puglia is one of Italy’s best kept secrets, then Gioia del Colle qualifies as one of it’s hidden jewels – literally!
Type in 'Gioa del Colle' into Alta Vista’s web-based translation service and the answer comes back as ‘Joy of the Hill’. The true meaning of the name is however a little more intriguing and actually comes from the legend of a Queen who, having found a cache of buried jewels, had them made into a necklace, thus giving Gioia its true name of ‘Jewels of the Neck’.
This is just one of the many little insights which bring Gioia to life and make it well worth your while to drag yourself away from the seductive white sandy beaches and crystal clear waters of the Ionian and Adriatic coasts.
Gioia del Colle is a little town in the heart of Puglia, nestled in the hills of Murgia, and strategically located half way between the Ionian and Adriatic seas to the east and west, and between the cities of Bari and Taranto to the north and south.
To the casual observer, Gioia seems like a small industrial town with little to distinguish it as a place of interest for the curious traveller. Scratch the surface however and it is quickly apparent that Gioia has hidden depths that are well worth exploring.
Its strategic location, standing as it does at the cross-roads of so many important locations has since prehistoric times conferred on the town a leading role in regional economic, commercial and cultural matters. It was also a natural rest-stop for merchants and travellers of old and this doubtless contributed to the fact that Gioia has 13 active churches, all of which offer Sunday Mass, this in a town with a population of 30,000!
Many boast tall, graceful bell-towers and are well worth visiting, if only to admire the beautiful interiors, paintings and sculptures, many dating back to the XVII century. Those looking for a real cultural treat should make a date to visit Gioia in May when, between the 24th and 26th, a huge procession visits many of these churches, carrying many of their most holy of statues through the streets.
The ‘Centro Storico’ or Historic Quarter is distinguished by a wealth of arches that hundreds of years ago marked the entrances to the private gardens of some of the wealthy families of old, but are today charming walkways across public courtyards. The town’s castle is one of several built by Frederick the II, with only 2 of the 4 original towers left standing. For the visitor with a little time, and a keen eye for detail, there are many other such features to be discovered.
Fascism, whilst a blight on Italy’s modern history, was nevertheless a boon to Gioia del Colle and the surrounding area. Historically ignored by its rich northern neighbours, Puglia saw many schools and public works built during this period, and if you look closely, you can still see symbols of the Fascist era in some of the most unlikely of places, including manhole covers from the period.
Typical foods from the area include mozzarella cheese (for which Gioia is famous throughout Italy), wine, extra virgin olive oil, Orechiette (small pasta shapes resembling little ears) and, believe it or not, pan-fried olives which have a taste not unlike aubergines!
Gioa del Colle is, surprisingly, a major producer of mozzarella cheese. Early mornings see an army of small trucks delivering fresh milk from surrounding farms to the many small businesses dedicated to producing this staple Italian food. A train-load of mozzarella leaves the city every day bound for Milan and the intense competition resulting from so many local producers means there is an almost constant price war in the town – and therefore lots of cheap mozzarella!
Gioia is less known however for being the birthplace of Primitivo wine. Increasingly popular in the UK, it is already a favourite in the United States, through its genetically identical sibling, Zinfandel, which is grown in California (see http://www.winepros.org/wine101/grape_profiles/zinfandel.htm for an interesting article on Zinfandel and it’s relation to Primitivo).
Local history records a 17th century Benedictine monk finding the first vines in the gardens of his monastery (now Gioia’s Police headquarters) and later planting them in the surrounding fields. In past years, the wine was sold to merchants from France and northern Italy who then sold it on as their own. Today, Primitivo wine is gathering recognition word-wide as a rising star and a host of small family owned businesses harvest, bottle and sell their own excellent private labels, many producing no more than 15,000 bottles a year.
Along with its wines, Olive oil has for centuries been an integral part of the Mediterranean diet and Gioia, with the rest of Puglia, shares in the tradition of producing what is acknowledged to be some of the best olive oil in Italy. The quality and uniqueness of the extra virgin olive oil produced in this region is the result of a combination of the unique iron-rich soil of the land, the particular climate which sees dry summers and wet winters, and the long tradition of producing a product that unites advanced technology and equipment to centuries-old traditional methods of workmanship.
Should you choose to visit this unassuming little town, then perhaps you too can uncover its hidden depths and the real treasures that lie in its art and history, its simple people and genuine food, and the many family owned businesses that almost achieve the impossible in conveying within a bottle or in a typical dish, the love for the earth and it’s fruits, and which ultimately makes Gioia del Colle a real jewel.
Our sincere thanks go to Angelo Coluccia for his knowledge, enthusiasm and insight, all of which were invaluable in contributing to this article.
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