Despite a rich and expansive natural history dating back to the dinosaurs, Alta Murgia National Park is still officially in its teens.
The park, designed to preserve, was created by an Italian Presidential Decree in 2004 as part of a wider commitment to protect Italy’s only remaining subtropical steppe area. Over 600,000 inhabitants are at home within the park, spread over 13 different municipalities on 68,000 hectares of land. For scale, this is the equivalent of over 168,000 football fields.
The land itself is characterised by charming countryside and hidden sinkholes. Going deeper, you’ll find limestone, clay deposits and drystone constructions amongst the herby vegetation consisting of stupa and many varieties of orchids. Amongst these, mushrooms and asparagus also grow freely. The park’s plant life represents 20% of all floristic species found in Italy.
However, not all of it is completely natural. The land saw the benefit of reforestation many years ago due to forest fires, the result of which now sees it covered in Aleppo Pine. Dotted around these are many almond trees, plum trees and olive groves.
The park is rich in animal life, with many hundreds of species scientists are still attempting to track. Amongst the amphibians and mammals are the birds who visit a key migratory rest spot from Africa to the European continent. Perhaps the best-known in the area is the lesser kestrel, a small falcon known to favour steppe-like ecosystems around the Mediterranean.
Other notable birds in the area include the short-toed snake eagle, the swamp harrier and the Milvus. During migration periods you can even see cranes and golden plovers.
Yet there are lots to satisfy more than just flower spotters and bird watchers. Within the park are many notable sites of interest. The 13th-century Castel del Monte, a World Heritage Site and Puglia’s most famous landmark, proudly sits on a hilltop overlooking the city of Andria.
Visitors can also venture to Minervino Murge for stunning views over Puglia. The town offers a vantage point of over 400 metres above sea level. Also in the town is the two-million-year-old St Michael’s Cave.
Alta Murgia also contains the pretty Ruvo di Puglia, home to some of the world’s best DOP olive oil. Walk the streets in autumn and be sure to avoid the almonds falling from the surrounding trees.
When you’re not bumping into one of the many travellers capturing a sunrise or sunset, you can go on the hunt for some of Murgia’s hidden delights. In Lamalunga, an eight-metre-deep karst sinkhole leads to The Cave of Lamalunga. Within the cave is The ‘Altamura Man’ (Uomo di Altamura) a 150,000-year-old perfectly-preserved hominid skeleton covered in cave popcorn. Elsewhere, in Pontrelli, archaeologists have discovered fossilised dinosaur footprints from at least five different species.
For any hiking enthusiast, the park has many different walking routes. Trails will take you from the tip of the highest mountain (Torre Disperata, 686 m.) to the edge of the lowest sinkhole.