Italy

The Last Steppe

A wild, stone treasure chest: the rebirth of Alta Murgia

If there were a ranking of Europe’s most magical and forgotten lands, then Alta Murgia would surely be in first place. Italy’s last arid steppe, with its dry stone walls, limestone caves and grazing sheep, resembles a slice of Ireland just a stone’s throw from the Mediterranean.
While 60 years ago some of the area’s deep ravines housed nuclear missiles aimed at the USSR, today they serve as film sets for blockbusters like the latest in the James Bond film franchise.

“No one knows us yet,” explains the president of the Alta Murgia National Park, “but we are the best preserved jewel in all of Puglia, and we are destined to grow.” There is just one problem: Alta Murgia hates notoriety.

The “heart of stone” loved by Frederick II is still a wild and unpopulated land, described in 1925 by the writer Tomasso Fiore as “desolate, bleak, repelling, evocative for its stark boundlessness”. In this karst desert, however, something has changed in recent years.

Keen new generations are renovating old family farmhouses, new museums are being opened (like the museum dedicated to Altamura Man, the remains of a Neanderthal man discovered thirty years ago), rock-hewn churches that have been closed for years are finally accessible and thousands of dinosaur footprints dating back 85 million years are on display at the incredible Pontrelli quarry. All the while, the Castel del Monte on its hill continues to attract visitors from all over the world.