71km (44 miles) W of Brindisi, 100km (62 miles) SE of Bari, 533km (330 miles) SE of Rome
Taranto, known to the ancient Greeks as Taras, is said to have been named for a son of Poseidon who rode into the harbor on a dolphin's back. A less fantastic theory, trumpeted by historians, is that a group of Spartans was sent here in 708 B.C. to found a colony. Taranto was once a major center of Magna Graecia and continued as an important port on the Ionian coast throughout the 4th century B.C. A long period of rule under Archytas, a Pythagorean mathematician/philosopher, was the high point in the city's history. According to some, Plato himself came to Taranto during this time to muddle through the mysteries of life with the wise and virtuous ruler.
Ten years of war with the Romans in the 3rd century B.C. ended in defeat for Taranto. Although the city lost much of the power and prestige it had been known for, it did survive the Dark Ages to become an important port once more during the time of the Crusades.
Taranto lent its name to the tarantula, but don't be alarmed; the only spiders here are small, harmless brown ones. The dance known today as the tarantella also takes its name from this city. (Members of various dancing cults believed that individuals who had been bitten by spiders should dance wildly to rid their bodies of the poison; the inflicted person would sometimes dance for days.) In modern times, the tarantella is characterized by hopping and foot tapping, and it is one of the most popular folk dances of southern Italy.
Taranto is a modern industrial city that many visitors pass by. The once-prosperous old city has begun to crumble, and the economy of the town has hit a slump, in part because the naval forces stationed in Taranto have been scaled back. However, the new city, with its wide promenades and expensive shops, still draws crowds. Come here if only to taste some of Italy's best seafood. Taranto's location on a peninsula between two seas, the Mare Piccolo and Mare Grande, ensures that plenty of oysters, mussels, and other shellfish will wind up on your plate.