Much of the southern slope of the hills that descend from Martina Franca towards Taranto is occupied by the Bosco delle Pianelle (or Parco delle Pianelle), a wild wood, which is what remains of the lands that, in the XIV century, were granted by the Principality of Taranto to the martinesi, (the inhabitants of Martina Franca) to grow trees for wood and breed cattle. Today Parco delle Pianelle is a well known destination for tourists, sportsmen, walkers and nature lovers.
The area of the natural reserve Le Pianelle is quite vast, about 600 hectares. To visit the park it is advisable to be accompanied by a guide who knows the main paths and the most suggestive attractions.
Bosco delle Pianelle is of sedimentary origin: the territory, currently occupied by the forest, was, more than 100 million years ago, a seabed that later emerged and originated a vast limestone platform.
Over the last few thousand years, the action of rainwater channeling into the cracks has generated some spectacular caves, ravines and karst cavities.
The best known cave is the one known with the name of Cave of the Briganti (or the Sergente Romano): a large cave of 50m of extension located at the base of the overhanging wall of the Gravina del Vuolo. The Pianelle woods were a safe shelter for the brigands and it is known that the Grotta del Brigante was the base where those commanded by the legendary Sergente Romano were reunited in the summer 1862, the year following the Unification of Italy, to reorganize the actions against the National Guard, Guardia Nazionale and the looting of towns of Alberobello, Noci and Carovigno. La Gravina del Vuolo has other minor karst cavities some of which were home to the man in the Stone Age.
Excluding the most naturalistic and wild part of the Bosco delle Pianelle, all around there are cultivated lands, pastures, farms and trulli, used as service buildings rather than a dwelling.
Walking in the reserve occasionally some large ditches are found that served as liming and charcoal, to produce , respectively, lime by cooking limestone and charcoal by burning the timber. These ancient jobs required a period of stay in the woods during production, in not comfortable and temporary shelters..
The forest altitude goes from 349 to 459 meters. On the higher part the original forest mantle is characterised mainly by the fragno, an oak of Balkan origin that in Italy is found only, in the south-east area of the Murgia (the so called calcareous hills of the region Puglia), an important plant for wood production and for the acorns used to feed pigs. This wonderful plant with semi-deciduous leaves colors the woods of red-rust during autumn. The undergrowth is made up of shrubby species such as the Maple, the Ash, the Asparagus, the Lentisk and the butcher’s broom
Descending the hill the fragno gives way to the holm oak, an evergreen oak that is present in the wood in some giant specimens tall up to 20 meters. Here and there there are also specimens of downy oak (Quercus pubescens), another semi-deciduous oak tree used for the production of firewood and, in the past, for railway sleepers.
Here the undergrowth is typical of the Mediterranean scrub with specimens of shrubs such as the Laurestine, the Terebinth, the Strawberry tree, the Viburnum and hornbeams.
The lower part that slopes down to the plains it is covered by the typical low Mediterranean scrub. Here, in addition to the species associated with the already mentioned holm-oaks, there are cistus, rosemary, broom, pears, holm-oak and even wild olive trees.
The Bosco delle Pianelle is populated by some species of amphibians like the toad, reptiles including the viper, the gecko, the tortoise, the columbro leopardino, the black snake, the cervone, the rural lizard and the lizard. Many nocturnal birds of prey inhabit the forest: the cuckoo hawk, the kestrel, the brown kite, the buzzard, the hoopoe and the jay. Recently the wolf has returned to populate the most remote areas of the forest. Other mammals commonly found are the fox, the mole, the wild boar, the badger, the hedgehog, the hare, the marten, the moscardino, the weasel and many bats.
There are many itineraries to walk or ride on horseback or by mountain bike following the signs on the paths that also provide valuable information on the reserve. On the official website of Bosco Pianelle, there are detailed information about those tracks as well as and the possibility to download the paths in electronic format.
Alternatively it is quite interesting the route proposed by the Associazione Passaturi of Teresa Acquaviva, a professional Environmental Hiking Guide (gae) expert in cultural heritage: this is a 6 km loop that enters the deepest forest following the paths that lead to fog, charcoal, limestone and iazzi and then climbs up a small gravina that leads to a panoramic area from which it is possible to admire a boundless landscape from up to the Gulf of Metaponto and the promontories of Pollino.