Gravina in Puglia's city site defines it at the "city of the rock-cut churches" and the "City where Pope Benedetto XIII was born". Gravina's tourist information site calls it "the city of water and stone."
Yes, it is all that, but first and perhaps paramount to the travel planning tourist on a budget, Gravina is a beautiful city in which you'll pay little to vacation well. The residents are extremely friendly, and will help you find what you seek even when there is a language barrier.
Like the more well-known Matera a half hour away, a section of the city is composed of shelters and churches hewn out of the underlying rock lining the west side of the ravine that passes to the west of the city.
Like Altamura 20 minutes to the east which produces Pane di Altamura DOP, Gravina is known for its bread, made from the same wheat but the loaves are formed into a different shape. Wheat grows well just outside of Gravina, and has done so for quite a long time
Human settlements here stretch back into pre-history, and the inhabitants were cultivating the grapevine over 1,200 years ago. Emperor Frederick II of Swabia established, in 1200, his hunting preserve in the Murge, calling it a “Garden of Delights,” and contributed as well to the further development of the local viticulture. The wines produced here were famous in the surrounding territories for their quality, and for their freshness and fragrance, characteristics rather uncommon in Italy’s southern regions.
The local wines were widely traded even in antiquity, and were much prized by travelers, who left tributes to them in their writings, which are today preserved in the local Museo Fondazione "Ettore Pomarici Santomasi". ~ Gravina DOC, Some History
Frederick eventually gave Gravina the motto Grana dat et vina, "it offers wheat and wine". Some of Italy's best semolina comes from here. Frederick built a hunting lodge, which we will call a castle, and you can see the ruins from the archaeological site to the west of Gravina called Botromagno, free to visit and marked on the map.
Gravina's historic center is clearly visible on the map as the almost circular area to the right of the ravine.
The population of Gravina is about 45,000 people. There is quite a lot to see and do for such a small town. Still, it isn't Rome...or even Bari.
That said, like Rome you can, and should, go underground. Grab a ticket at Gravina Sotterranea (underground), marked on the map, and you'll soon be headed down the stairs to see what's under a typical building in Gravina. The tours take under various houses and churches, where you'll learn that they are built from the very rock, mostly calcarenite, they sit upon. the void left by removing blocks for the walls and floors becomes a cellar, where wine, "canned" goods, and cheeses are stored--or even were wine is produced.
Of course, these dark cellars were dangerous places for children to explore, so a variety of folk tales evolved to make them appear even more dangerous than they were. Wolves with very sharp teeth became popular denizens of these spaces in the folklore.
Like Matera, a section of the western bank of the ravine got carved into churches and other spaces whose function has changed over time, but the evidence still suggests a complex cave culture.
A tour will take you into cantinas where wine was produced, cult spaces, grain storage facilities and cisterns. On the other side of the ravine there are the rock-cut tombs and churches.
Chiesa rupestre di San Michele delle Grotte is carved out of tufo and features five naves and 14 stone columns. It's one of the most interesting churches in the area. It has several frescoes and three statues in stone and chalk.
One of the most striking sites during a visit to the church consists of stacked skulls and long bones that legend attributes to the Martyrs of the Saracen attack of 999, but most probably come from cadavers found and moved here in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The Ponte Acquedotto Viadotto della Madonna della Stella was begun in 1743 and completed in 1778 as a way to link the Santuario Madonna delle Grazie, a church with a beautiful facade done in 1602 to the Modonna della Stella a cave church consisting of a single room. The bridge was later turned into an aqueduct.
To visit these places, go to the tourist office marked on the map and request a tour. It's free at time of writing, but they ask for a donation after the tour is completed.
The centerpiece of Gravina is the bridge. It can be seen from everywhere.
Gravina itself is the focal point for another extrordinary operation. The Messors operate in the area, offering Art Restoration and the Fornello Cave Project workshops, volunteer projects you can participate in. Here's your chance to get inside the changing culture that created this extraordinary place.
We learned how the shepherds of the area make cheese, and how the industrial crap cheese industry now prevents them from making cheese for sale. Then we ate food from ancient recipes on the bridge.
Learn more: Can Tourists Save the Good Shepherd?
Il Parco Archeologico di Botromagno a Gravina in Puglia is marked on the map. This was the Roman town of Silvium, and although it is quite ruined it offers great views of Gravina. You can walk there from the parking area near the bridge; it's an uphill walk.
Among the funereal deposits, archaeologists found tools for milk production and what is thought to be a grater for hard crust cheeses--perhaps like the famous local cheese called Pallone di Gravina today.
The Cattedrale di Gravina was originally built in Romanesque style by Normans in the 11-12th centuries. It was destroyed by fire and earthquakes in the 15th century, but has been splendidly rebuilt. Tomas Becket's arm is found in a reliquary here, having been obtained in 1179 by Bishop Roberto. The cathedral is spectacular at night.
For more on the weather near Gravina in Puglia, see our Lecce Weather and Historic Climate page.
There is a train station on the north edge of town, marked on the map.
To the east of the station there is a bus station. Buses can take you to Altamura and Matera as well as to destinations further away.
We didn't have a bad meal in Gravina. For a fantastic value, head on over to the Caffe Bella Vista. It's not just a pleasant place to take your morning coffee; at lunch and dinner they offer the best deal I can think of. For 15 euro a head they'll overflow your table with antipasti, then pasta or risotto, a main course, vegetable, coffee, dessert. Go early for the Minni di vergini, or else you'll end up without as we did recounted in the story, "I'm sorry, we're all out of tits."
For your evening meal, ignore the touristy name and head over to Trattoria Mama Mia! You might want to reserve; the place has a great view over the ravine. All local cooking and friendly service.
The menu at Mama Mia is quite extensive--and inexpensive. Watch out for specials on their website.
We stayed at the spacious apartment very near the cathedral marked on the map, B&B La Cattedrale Suite. Fantastic value in a spacious and modern apartment with decent kitchen, nice bath, wifi, and spacious dining/work area. They provide a voucher so you can breakfast free at the nearby Caffe Bella Vista.
Despite its size Gravina is a hot bed of highly rated places to stay. There are 23 properties listed on Booking.com for Gravina in Puglia, many of them rated greater than 9/10.