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The spell cast by that castle gripping the hillside The ravines of its territory, full of stone settlements, fascinated Pasolini, who shot Il Vangelo secondo Matteo (The Gospel according to Matthew) there. In the alleyways of the old town center, amidst age-old dwellings and churches, plenty of places to enjoy the local cooking and excellent wine by Maria Grazia Rongo
Massafra (Taranto). The Castle. Photo courtesy of Giuseppe Chiarelli
A “massa”, a territory owned by the bishopric of Taranto, between the present day ravines of Madonna della Scala and of San Marco, between the fifth and the sixth century A.D., became home to a group of refugees who had fled from North Africa on the arrival of the Vandals. So, in that Carsic patch, Massafra sprang up, on a territory which conserves traces that date back to the Neolithic Age. Right at the foot of the ravine stands a castle, whose first-laid stones were placed around 970 B.C, and was then later completed by the Angevins and the Aragons with a distinguishing characteristic; a great octagonal tower that even today dominates the panorama of anyone who looks up from the Appian road towards the town clinging to the hill. The ravine, its fascination still intact after thousands of years, rich in stone settlements that become a sightseeing must for anyone who is a visitor to the town, made the great Pier Paolo Pasolini choose Massafra as his set for the film of Il Vangelo secondo Matteo (The Gospel according to Saint Matthew).
In the Massafra ravine stands the Sanctuary of Madonna della Scala, built around 1791 on the site of the apparition of Our Lady together with Baby Jesus and a fawn, to some local shepherds. This apparition rid the area of Massafra of a terrible famine that was gripping it, and so the Madonna is venerated as the patron saint of the city. Going down into the bed of the ravine, about two hundred meters from the Sanctuary, there is the Pharmacy of Greguro the sorcerer, unusual in its innumerable niches scraped out of the rock. The legend goes that Greguro the Sorcerer and his young daughter Margherita inhabited the grotto in about the year one thousand, and prepared miraculous unguents with the medicinal herbs that they collected in the area. Very probably, the pharmacy was also lived in by the Basilian monks, who dedicated themselves to the same activity. In the alleyways of the old town, whitewashed in the oldest parts, you can catch a glimpse of the simple beauty of ancient cobbled streets, that lead to small historical dwellings, or churches that tell of age-old rites and beliefs – like that of the Sainted Doctors, Cosimo e Damiano – and the church of Baby Jesus, the seat of an ancient convent, now in disuse. Continuing the walk, you reach the Chiesa Madre, a classical architectural example from the sixteenth century, and lastly the seventeenth century Cappuccini Convent, which will soon become the seat of a center dedicated to the art and creativity of young talents.
In the ancient heart of the town, many interesting restaurants and eating places have sprung up in recent years, where you may try inviting culinary specialities and the very good local wine. Massafra also holds one of the longest-running, and most appealing of Carnivals in Italy (the first edition goes back to 1953), a real street party that involves young and old and that attracts thousands of tourists to see the huge allegorical floats built by the local papier-maché artisans pass by (every year between the end of February and the beginning of March).
The Ionian sea is only a few kilometres away, with its fine sandy beaches, where the local people, but also many tourists, come to seek out a little idyllic corner for themselves in this little world of Southern Italy.
WHERE: Massafra (TA)