The city of Taranto—half ancient fishing town, half steel and industrial powerhouse—is drawn out thin between two huge lagoons (one used to harvest mussels and oysters, the other Italy's second largest naval yard).
The narrowest portion of the land between these two "seas" is sliced across with two canals to create the rectangular, central island where the Spartans founded the colony of Taras in 708 BC, and where the medieval section of town survives.
The bays of Taranto still sport mountains of shell middens from the countless centuries during which its mussels were gathered and crushed to obtain the purple dye used across Europe to denote power, from Roman Senators' robe fringes to medieval kings' cloaks.
The modern city spreads broadly onto the mainland both to the east (the residential and business center, with the tourist office and a fine archaeology museum) and to the west (where lies the train station and most of Taranto's industry).
The sights of Taranto
The old city on its rectangular island is a confusing jumble of medieval churches, twisting Saracen streets, and the marvelous mayhem of the morning fish market on Piazza Fontana, at the island's northeast corner.
At the center of old Taranto is a Cathedral raised in the 11th century but overhauled in the 16th, with a baroque facade of 1713 (some exterior Romanesque blind arcading survives around the sides and transepts). The capitals inside are Byzantine, a few carved with leafy forests and birds peeking out. The baroque Cappella di S. Cataldo (just right of the altar) is a fantasy of stuccoes, niched statues, expensive marbles, and a frescoed half-dome.
On the modern, mainland portion of Taranto you'll find the Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Corso Umberto 41 (tel. 099-453-2112). It has the second largest archaeological collection in southern Italy (after Naples): loads of exquisitely painted vases—especially of Corinthian and local manufacture—dating back to the 8th century BC, along with Roman floor mosaics of hunting and animal scenes and a superb collection of ancient gold and other jewelry (the diadems of intricately interwoven leaves and flowers are particularly noteworthy). The archaic bronze of Poseidon is probably tied to the legend that Taranto was founded by the sea god's son Taras, who came riding into the harbor on the back of a dolphin. Admission is 8,000L ($4.70); it's open daily, mid June to August 8:30am to 1:30pm and 2:30 to 10pm, September to mid June 8:30am to 12:30pm. Take bus [1/2], 3, or 8.
[HE]Getting There By Train There's a daily train from Naples (4.5 hr.; 25,500L/$15); 3 daily from Salerno (4 hr.; 22,000L/$12.95); 19–21 daily from Bari (66–100 min.; 10,100L/$5.95); 8 runs from Martina Franca (40 min.; 3,900L/$2.30); and 11 trains (6 Sunday) runs from Brindisi (65–80 min.; 9,700L/$5.70).
By Bus There are 11 daily FSE buses (tel. 099-477-4627) from Martina Franca (40 min.; 3,300L/$1.95); and 6 daily SITA buses (tel. 099-459-4089) from Bari (80–110 min.; 11,000L/$6.50).
By Car From Alberobello, take the SS172 to Locorotondo, where it runs south to head through Martina Franca to Taranto. From Bari, follow the A14 highway south until it end at the SS7, which leads in 17km (10 miles) to Taranto.
[HE]Visitor Information The tourist office, Corso Umberto 113 (tel. 099-453-2392, fax 099-453-2397), is open Monday to Friday 9am to 1pm and 5 to 7pm, Saturday 9am to noon. To get to it from the train station, hop bus [1/2], 3, or 8.
* Trattoria Da Mimmo (Via C. Giovinazzi 18, 099-459-3733).
This article was written by Reid Bramblett and was last updated in March 2010. All information was accurate at the time.
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