Conversano, an expansion of the Iron Age town of Norba by the Normans who renamed it Cupersani, is found in the Bari Province of Puglia located along the ancient Via Traiana southeast of Rutigliano (ancient Azetium), where you'll find a delightful terracotta whistle museum. It is located inland between the coastal towns of Mola de Bari and Polignano a Mare.
Getting to Conversano is easy. Drive the coastal road until you see the imposting castle besides the road. Park.
The main attraction in Conversano is its medieval castle, likely to date from the 6th century but rebuilt in the 11th. Inside is a very important art gallery and the tourist office.
Conversano's Cathedral has been undergoing a restoration that finished in February of 2012, and is located a short walk away from the castle, as you can see on the map.
We highly recommend the Hotel Corte Altavilla in the heart of Conversano. The hotel is really an "albergo difusso," a diffused hotel, meaning some of the rooms are dispersed throughout the town. Some of those rooms predate the castle! There is a fine restaurant inside the main building.
For those who might like the country experience in a country house with owners who care very much about the local culture and food, we recommend Tenuta Pinto between Mola di Bari and Rutigliano. For pictures of some of the events held there, see owner Domenico Pinto's Facebook Page.
What to See in Conversano
As you can see on the map, the medieval part of town, the centro storico, is circular, with a castle at the highest point in the northeast corner. Below are a few of the top things to see, mapped on our map above.
Conversano Cathdral, Basilica Minore Santa Maria Assunta - A Romanesque style church built between the 11th and 12th centuries by the Normans and recently restored. The facade was redone between 1358 and 1379, but retains its original form. During the Baroque period, the church was redone in the style of the day. And finally, a 1901 fire gutted the interior.
Castello di Conversano - the big complex to the northeast on the map shows the castle. If you're coming to visit from the west, pass the castle hill until the roundabout, then turn in--there is an area of public (pay) parking there. The cylindrical tower was ordered by Giulio Antonio Acquaviva in the XV century and the polygonal tower by his son Andrea Matteo. There is rumored to have been a torture chamber in one of them.
Inside the Castello is the Pinacoteca di Conversano, where Neapolitan painter Paolo Domenico Finoglio's ten painting cycle dipicting the First Crusade in the epic poem Gerusalemme Liberata (Jerusalem Delivered) by an Italian writer Torquato Tasso is exhibited.
Monastero San Benedetto - founded in the 6th century, this was once one of the most powerful manasteries in Puglia, a fact that's evident in the bell tower, which is higher than the cathedral's to symbolize the status of the Cisternian nuns, who replaced the Benedictines in 1266, over the bishop. The cloister, with the carved column capitals that surround a rather overgrown garden, is very impressive. If it's open, visit the 11th century crypt, the oldest part of the standing structure. There are occasional music concerts given in the Monastero.
The Museo Archeologico (Archaeological Museum) is inside the former 11th century monastery of St. Benedict. You'll see some primitive chipped stone tolls from caves around Conversano and Monopoli to artifacts of the Middle Ages. Via San Benedetto 16.
The top choice is Pasha di Magista Francesco, or just plain Pasha, located across from the tourist office in Piazza Castello. It's a bar with restaurant upstairs, where those lucky folks at the window have a breathtaking view of the castle, as you can see in the picture to the right (make a reservation: tel./fax +39 080.495.1079). Great wine cellar, too, for those who wish to delve into those special Pugliese wines.
As previously mentioned, the Hotel Corte Altavilla has a fine restaurant as well.
Little Conversano has a large handball complex outside of town called the Pala San Giacomo and its teams regularly come out on top in handball competitions against larger cities. See their Facebook page for information in Italian.
Everyone knows the Lipizzaner stallions, right? But did you know that some of the blood lines of these noble horses lead to the counts of Conversano, who bred black Neapolitan stallions with Barb and Andalusian genetic backgrounds (according to Wikipedia) to come up with a horse named "Conversano" born in 1767 who became on of the principal stallions for the Lipizzaner horse. The breed is pictured in the first painting of Gerusalemme Liberata, shown to the left. For more, see: Horses counts and queens.
Lakes of Conversano. Outside of town are some Karstic depressions that form into lakes during the wet season and are home to many birds, reptiles and amphibians. These have been exploited since the Roman period as cisterns and were, until a few decades ago, the only source of fresh water for the locals. If you have a car, just follow the signs out of town--or you can take a carriage tour from a farm that breeds the Conversano Line of Lipezzaner horses.
The Madonna della Fonte, the town's patron saint, is celebrated in May with religious rites, a procession, fireworks and cultural activities.
On the 17th of January Conversano celebrates the Festa del Fuoco or Festa di Sant'Antonio Abate featuring the blessing of animals and a huge bonfire.
The festivity of Santa Rita and Saints Cosma and Damiano is celebrated on the first Sunday in October.