Taranto, Italy (CNN) – The Puglia region envelops the “heel” of the Italian peninsula in the shape of a boot. Loaded with olive groves, surrounded by clear, sparkling water and dotted with charming historic towns and villages, its rustic appeal has made it an increasingly popular destination for tourists.
The list of must-see attractions in the region includes the UNESCO World Heritage sites of Alberobello and Castel del Monte, the verdant Gargano National Park, the azure sea caves of Salento, and quaint towns like Otranto, Ostuni and Gallipoli.
Missing from most of these lists, however, is a richly historical and significant place.
Nestled in the instep of the Apulian heel is the region’s second largest city, Taranto. Known as the Città dei Due Mari, or the City of the Two Seas, its heritage dates back to the Spartans, who founded it in the 8th century BCE.
The city is often referred to as the capital of ancient Magna Grecia, and it proudly bears its Greek heritage.
More recently, however, Taranto has only been associated with one thing: the Ilva steelworks, once the largest in Europe.
Built in the 1960s, the factory spat noxious fumes into the city sky for decades before magistrates asked it to either clean up its deed or shut it down. In May of this year, the former owners of the notorious factory, Fabio and Nicola Riva, were sentenced to long prison terms for their role in allowing it to contaminate the city.
While the fortunes of the town and the factory have appeared inextricably linked, there is now a feeling that Taranto not only has an opportunity to break with its recent past, but that the future of this neglected town may be bright.
Rinaldo Melucci is the mayor of Taranto. The 44-year-old office, in Città Vecchia, or old town, looks out to sea, but is not far from the steelworks that have defined modern Taranto.
“Over the past 50 years, Ilva has not only damaged people’s health and the ecosystem, but also damaged their mentality,” he told CNN. “It stifled education, creativity; the factory blackmailed Taranto and made the town believe it depended on Ilva. It became a factory yard.”
Discover the past
Rinaldo Melucci, Mayor of Taranto, has a vision for his city.
Jonathan Hawkins / CNN
Melucci, who took office in 2017, says he is trying to change that mentality, to show a vision of Taranto that revives the old identity of the city and presents a new, proud and more diverse future.
“For 2,500 years, this city has had a particular DNA,” he explains. “But over the past 50 years, a new identity has been imposed by a different ‘business strategy’. We must recover and regain what is left of this story. “
Taranto now has a war chest of 1.5 billion euros ($ 1.77 billion) to tackle this clawback, and the city suddenly feels full of possibilities.
In June, it hosted the Italian round of the Sail GP, joining cities like Sydney and San Francisco on the international tournament circuit, and in 2026, it will host the prestigious Mediterranean Games.
Much of its redevelopment, including a brand new stadium that will eventually house the city’s football team, focuses on this deadline.
Melucci was inspired by other industrial cities, especially Bilbao in Spain and Pittsburgh, both of which are reinventing themselves for a post-industrial future. But, he says, while Bilbao has used Frank Gehry’s extremely flamboyant Guggenheim Museum to spark its revival, Taranto’s future is more about discovering and restoring what already exists.
One of these projects is the gigantic Palazzo Archita, an imposing 20,000 square meter building that dominates the modern city center. He’s sat alone and empty among the shopping streets of Taranto like a sullen and decaying colossus for more than a decade, a symbol of the bureaucratic inaction that so often plagues big plans in Italy.
Soon, however, it is expected to reopen with spaces including a new art gallery, library, and educational facilities.
“When it is restored, it will change the life and the light of an entire district of the city”, believes Melucci, “because it is not only a building, it will be an emblematic site of Taranto”.
Labyrinth of streets
The old town is a maze of narrow streets.
Jonathan Hawkins / CNN
Perhaps the biggest and most important project in the city is much more complex, however.
La Città Vecchia, built on the original Doric platform of ancient Taranto, is a world apart. A literal island, separated from the modern city by the idiosyncratic Ponte Girevole, or “swing bridge,” the old town was the area most deeply affected by Ilva’s arrival.
It is an extraordinary relic, in ruins. A labyrinth of ancient streets and abandoned houses, with only a small community remaining of what was once the bustling center of town.
Nello di Gregorio is a local researcher and historian. “I’m just someone who loves, since I took my first steps, the city I grew up in,” he told CNN. “I have studied and re-studied, discovered and rediscovered this city, because even now, after 2,500 years, its history never ends and many secrets are still revealed.”
Now in his seventies, Di Gregorio has witnessed firsthand the decline of Città Vecchia.
“For 30 years, the old town has literally been totally abandoned,” he explains. “Finally, new projects have emerged, and these are very important. We hope that, in the next decade, we will finally be able to totally change the face of this region of Taranto, which is also the most beautiful, historic, archaic part. “
The historian Nello di Gregorio in one of the underground chambers of the old town.
Jonathan Hawkins / CNN
Among Di Gregorio’s passions are the many underground chambers that weave their way under the old town.
Opening an indescribable door into one of the narrow streets of the Old Town, he takes CNN up a series of dark underground stairs, guided by torchlight through chambers, or hypogeums, and tunnels, eventually leading to the sea.
“There are 60 to 65 hypogeums here,” he says, “of which only half are accessible at the moment. Almost all of them are from Greek times. The caves were dug to collect materials to build the ancient temples, then the medieval city, until around 1800 AD. ”
Their uses range from funeral ceremonies to smuggling, he explains.
The underground chambers are one of the many hidden assets of the old town.
Simone Marchesi, who has been working as an architectural consultant for the municipality of Taranto for four years, retraces its journey.
“The old town was abandoned because the new jobs brought in by heavy industry made it possible for people to aspire to better quality housing, so the old buildings in the old town became less and less attractive. “
“In the early 90s we had a situation where only a small fraction of the population 30 years earlier still lived there,” he continues, “so most of the buildings had become empty shells, and a very important part of this property belonged, and still does, to the municipality.
“This gives us an incredible opportunity. The Old Town has been left out of real estate interest for decades, so its original architecture and infrastructure is still intact. A lot of the buildings are in very poor condition, but they are still the same buildings that have been developed throughout history. Everything is very authentic. “
The rebirth of Città Vecchia can be a spark for wider change, Marchesi believes. “One of the main things we are trying to do to regenerate the Old Town is to make sure that we can unleash the potential of the Old Town’s cultural assets, to act as a catalyst for growth.”
The city and the sea
A tall ship crosses Ponte Girevola from Taranto to Mare Piccolo.
Courtesy of the Municipality of Taranto
Taranto’s strategy for the old town revolves around catering, restocking and accessibility.
Like other Italian cities, the municipality has experimented with selling 1 € housing on the island, almost all of which has been sold.
The University of Bari has taken over some of the tallest buildings in the old town, while new shops and restaurants welcome visitors.
A classic old Italian monkey, the larger cousin of the Vespa (Vespa means wasp in Italian; Ape means “bee”), transports tourists through the labyrinthine streets of Città Vecchia.
Among these streets, CNN finds Giovanni Fabiani, a tourist from Rome. His eyes light up when asked about his impressions of the Città Vecchia.
“There is nothing here that should be jealous of Rome,” he exclaims. “The museum, the old town, this island, it’s really beautiful. I love to walk through these little alleys and hear their stories. Unfortunately, I don’t think it was maintained as it should. Two days. here, surrounded by that, it’s definitely worth it in life. “
A major project that goes against restoration is the 36 million euro redevelopment of Taranto’s Mar Grande waterfront – a sleek, modern walkway that will tie a ribbon along its various neighborhoods.
City councilor Ubaldo Occhinegro, responsible for urban planning and innovation, said that the Mar Grande project “will recover and implement the relationship between the city and the sea, reconnecting its three neighborhoods via an uninterrupted footbridge at the level from the sea, equipped with various services and access points. ”
The project will also connect the new Taranto cruise terminal with the lower part of the Aragonese ramparts that surround the old town, offering a new perspective to visitors, he explains.
Collectively, the hope is that these new projects completely change the perception of Taranto, for visitors and locals alike, and unravel the fate of the city from that of Ilva.
The dilemma for Taranto has always been the fact that Ilva employs up to 10,000 people. Eliminating those jobs altogether would be a drastic step, but Melucci believes a compromise is possible, mainly through the decarbonization of the plant.
“The idea is to free ourselves from Ilva, so that it is no longer ‘the factory’, but simply ‘a factory’. We want it to be a smaller, more modern and safer version of what we are. it has been in the past. “
Ultimately, and perhaps appropriately for the City of Two Seas, Melucci believes Taranto’s fate is best focused on the water around it.
“For Taranto, I see the sea, the sea and the sea. Whatever the question, the answer is the sea,” he says. “Because the sea is our DNA, it has been our fortune, our livelihood, our health, the games of our little children, and it will probably be our future.”
“It’s a big city and you can’t survive just on tourism, on fun events,” he continues.
“You also need the factory, you need the port, you need to balance everything. We have been an Ilva site for 50 years, we are no longer. This is the image we want to deliver at the end of this journey. “