At times Puglia feels Greek, and certainly its history is partially Greek: the Greeks founded a string of settlements along the Ionian coast in the 8th century BC. Their major city was Taras (Taranto), settled by Spartan exiles who dominated until they were defeated by the Romans in 272 BC. Fewer than 100 years later, in 190 BC, the Romans completed Via Appia, the road from Rome to the south.
The long coastline made the region ripe for conquest. The Normans left their fine Romanesque churches, the Swabians their fortifications, and the Spanish bold baroque buildings. A form of Greek dialect (Griko) is still spoken in some towns southeast of Lecce. No-one, however, knows exactly the origins of the strange 16th-century, conical-roofed stone houses, the trulli, unique to Puglia.
Apart from invaders and pirates, malaria was long the greatest scourge of the south, forcing many towns to build away from the coast and into the hills. It only came under control after WWII.
After Mussolini’s seizure of power in 1922 following WWI, the south became the frontline in his ‘Battle for Wheat’. This initiative was aimed at making Italy self-sufficient when it came to food, following the sanctions imposed on the country after its conquest of Ethiopia – Puglia is now covered in wheat fields, olive groves and fruit arbours. In recent years immigrants have increasingly supplied much of the agricultural workforce, and there have been scandals about their treatment in the tomato farms around Foggia.