If Puglia is one of Italy’s best kept secrets, then Gioia del Colle qualifies as one of it’s hidden jewels – literally!
Gioia del Colle is a little town in the heart of Puglia, 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. Its name comes from the legend of a Queen who, having found a cache of buried jewels, had them made into a necklace, thus giving Gioia it’s name of ‘Jewels of the Neck’.
A natural rest-stop for merchants and travellers of old, Gioia boasts 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 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.
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 justly famous in producing some of the best tasting varieties you will find, red and white wines, 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!
Surprisingly, Gioia is also the birthplace of the increasingly popular Primitivo wine. 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. Primitivo is increasingly popular in the UK, and is already a favourite in the United States, via its genetic twin Zinfandel, which is grown in California.
Today, a host of small family owned businesses harvest, bottle and sell their own excellent private Primitivo labels, many producing no more than 15,000 bottles a year.
Gioia also shares in the Puglian tradition of producing what is acknowledged to be some of the best olive oil in Italy, its quality attributed to 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 its 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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