Would you visit Manfredonia for this?
A mediaeval castle, some churches, a couple of bronze sculptures and a dead dolphin make up the main attractions offered by a visit to Manfredonia. Yet in my mind the town will always be linked to football and a wild eruption of joy.
I don’t think, I’ve ever had such a warm and overwhelming reception as the one we had at our hotel in Manfredonia. The landlord had a deep interest in Vikings, he knew the players on the Danish national football team by name, and was ever so thrilled to house visitors from Scandinavia.
We had visited Manfredonia before, and knew the town wasn’t charmed in the same way as many other Puglian settlements along the coast. Main sights such as the ancient city of Siponto, Monte Sant’Angelo, the foresta umbra and the beautiful white cliffs on the way to Vieste can only be reached by car, and earthquakes, pirate raids and poverty have hollowed out the historic centre. From a tourist point of view, Manfredonia has not got a lot to offer. Still, I wanted to check if my prejudices were justified and planned to spend 24 hours in town, and the friendly hotel overlooking the gulf made a promising first impression. There were free public beaches in the direction towards the salt lakes and Barletta, and a long paved promenade leading into town.
We had reached Manfredonia on the day of the Euro 2021 final, where Italy was due to meet England at Wembley. National flags waved from shopfronts, windows and deckchairs, groups of people, mostly men, were making preparations for outdoor transmissions of the match and the air was thick with anticipation.
A Town of Three Trades and a Dolphin
Though Sunday we had the promenade to ourselves, as we walked up to town and were greeted by a bronze fisherman and a mural with another fisherman, who was kept company by a dolphin while mending his nets. Both images are essential to Manfredonia.
The town sees itself as being based on fishing, agriculture and pastoralism, and the three trades are strongly represented in local monuments.
Dolphins also play an important role in the local narrative, or rather one particular dolphin named Filippo. Filippo was a sociable wild dolphin that lived in the harbour of Manfredonia in the late 90s, where it became the town’s mascot and chief claim to fame. For instance a boy claimed to have been saved by the dolphin, when he fell overboard from his father’s boat. Not being able to swim, the boy sank until he was pushed back up into his father’s arms by Filippo. Filippo was a star, and although he died in 2002, he is still celebrated at memorials and on murals throughout the city.
Fountain with a History
The next highlight on our walk to town was a fountain by the Puglian sculptor Picitelli. It was made by order of Mussolini in the 1930s and displays some rather heavy fascist symbolism. It consists of a cup held up by a strong man representing Gargano. He is assisted by three women representing the three major trades of Manfredonia. On top of the cup three putti are raising a seashell. Originally the fountain was crowned by a bound bundle of wooden rods known as the “fascio littorio”. The sign had been adopted by the fascists from the ancient Romans as a symbol of the highest absolute power.
In Manfredonia Picitelli’s fountain stood in front of the town hall until 1967, when the fascist symbolism became too cumbersome, and the fountain was placed in storage. Then a seashell replaced the fascio, and in 2003 the fountain was transferred to its present location by the seafront.
From the Cathedral to the Town Hall
A group of men were selling tricolore flags in various shapes and sizes from a barrel at the end of the quasi deserted pedestrian street. On Sundays all shops are closed and most people remain indoors to avoid the scorching afternoon sun. I made a detour up to the cathedral, but were disappointed in the modern facade with gold mosaics hiding the original gothic building inaugurated in 1274. I didn’t get to see the 12th century icon of the Madonna di Siponto or the right arm of San Lorenzo Maiorano, which was all that remained of an effigy of the holy saint, when the original church was destroyed by Turkish pirates in 1620. The surviving right arm, which had so often been used to bless the insane, has since been interpreted as a reminder of human folly.
We continued past Piazza del Popolo and the Town Hall in a former San Domenico monastery and headed for the massive mediaeval castle, which is now the seat of the archeological museum of Gargano. The castle looks like a copy-paste of other castles along the coasts of Puglia with quadrilateral and cylindrical towers and seemingly impenetrable walls. Still, this particular castle could not withstand the Turkish pirates during the attack on Manfredonia in 1620 due to the lack of protective battlements.
The Origin of Manfredonia
Near the castle by the lighthouse in the old port we also encountered an newly inaugurated equestrian statue of Manfredi, who gave Manfredonia its name.
Manfredi, the last king of Sicily and prince of Taranto, and his men passed through the ancient city of Siponto during a hunting trip to Gargano in 1256. They found Siponto destroyed by earthquakes, malaria, and stagnant water, and decided to rebuild the city some 20 km further north. The aim was to create a new government centre and garrison the territory strategically positioned on the route to the Byzantine East. Manfredi named the new town Manfredonia as a sign of future prestige, honour and power. A troop of 700 workers and as many oxen were set to work on building the new city, and in November 1263 the Datum Orte decree officially recognizing the city was delivered.
And Then There Was Football
From the seaside promenade we crossed a large open square, where the local youth practiced their skateboard skills, and finally found ourselves in the oldest part of town. It consists of a few, narrow streets lined with unassuming whitewashed houses and is easily overlooked. We had booked a table at the Osteria Boccolicchio and got seated in a cozy yard along with friends of the house. While we ate, the football match was projected on a wall, and after a nerve wrecking 120 minutes and a penalty-shootout Italy won, and the restaurant erupted in cheers and hugs, while the owner opened an oversized bottle of champagne. We drank a toast and walked back to the hotel in an inferno of hooting and cheering football fans as a lasting impression of this visit to Manfredonia.