Tourist First

Travel notes and advice from around the world. Above, the daily flight from Managua at the San Carlos, Nicaragua, airstrip.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Italy: Lecce, Otranto and Gallipoli

Extravagant architectural adornment is a hallmark of Baroque architecture,
the exuberant style popular during the Counter-Reformation of the late 1600s.
As we made our way from Rome to Palermo in spring-summer 2018, we made a considerable detour deep into the heel of Italy's boot to visit Lecce, the jewel of the Salento Peninsula, the southernmost part of Puglia. This city of about 100,000 people is said to date to the time of the Trojan War (about 1,200 B.C.E.), but its current fame comes from the relatively more recent 1600s, when Baroque features were added to older buildings and entire new buildings were built in the new style under Charles V, king of Sicily and Holy Roman Emperor.

Lecce is deservedly celebrated for its swirling Baroque architecture and its sophisticated lifestyle. Streets are lined with heavily ornamented facades, sidewalk cafes and restaurants, and filled with local college students, enthusiastic tourists and a very Italian gioia di vivere.

We stayed at a small inn on Via Lombardia just beyond the walls that enclose the historic center. Although the historic center is what we came to see, we decided to have dinner one night outside the walls, and eventually settled on a bar-restaurant catering to students and locals called La Drogheria (click HERE), one of several eateries along Via Tranto, a street that starts opposite the historic district's Piazza Angelo Rizzo. During our before-dinner drinks at a sidewalk table, we watched a group of men, from their 20s to several decades older, kicking around a soccer ball until it went over a high stone wall into someone's garden. All but two of the men wandered away, and we watched as one man struggled to hoist himself over the wall, threw the ball out and otherwise was invisible for quite a while. Eventually, his hands appeared at the top of the wall and with great effort he made it out. Thoroughly entertained but feeling the night chill, we went indoors and ordered hamburgers. Jane got one of our few souvenirs here, a wooded coaster with the motto in English: "Always believe that something wonderful is about to happen." Easy to believe when you're exploring southern Italy.

We had three nights and two full days in Lecce, and we used the two days to explore two other towns, Otranto on the southeast side of the heel and Gallipoli (not to be confused with the World War I battle site in Turkey) on the southwest side of the heel, on the Gulf of Taranto. Otranto is the easternmost point of Italy -- on a clear day they say you can see Albania -- and was a frequent point for foreign invasions. Famously, 800 people here were beheaded by Turks in 1480 when they refused to convert to Islam. Major attractions are the Aragonese Castle, setting for Horace Walpole's Gothic novel "The Castle of Otranto," and the cathedral Santa Maria Annunziata, which dates to 1088, and features an incredible mosaic floor and the skulls and other bones of the 800 martyrs.

Gallipoli is a fishing port; it also boasts a castle and an impressive cathedral where we and other tourists stood in the back during a wedding ceremony. We later saw the couple posing for photos at different places in town. There are sandy beaches near Gallipoli, but we were there on a rainy day. We drove to a lido, hoping for a break in the weather, but rain forced us back to the car before we could walk to the beach.

Stairs lead up from the entranceway
of a palace in Lecce. 

Columns all over Lecce bear
hallmarks of the Baroque.

A palace in Lecce. 

The Duomo or cathedral in Lecce is relatively restrained on the outside.
Inside, incredibly ornate columns and gilt surround
a painting of a Biblical scene.

Another Biblical painting and elaborate stonework in the Lecce cathedral.
The bones of 800 Catholic martyrs are behind glass behind the main altar at Cattedrale Santa Maria Annunziata
in Otranto. They were beheaded for refusing to convert to Islam. 

They were killed in 1480 by when the Ottoman Empire invaded
in a failed attempt to conquer Italy. The spread of Islam wasn't
necessarily a goal, but the traditional account is that after killing
or enslaving thousands of residents, the Turks offered clemency
to 800 men if they would convert to Islam. They refused and
were chained together, led outdoors and beheaded. The 800
have been collectively cannonized by the Roman Catholic Church.

One huge 12-century mosaic completely covers the floor at Santa Maria Annunziata.
It was the life's work of one monk and depicts Old Testament stories, Medieval
tales and seemingly random animals, all within a Tree of Life motif. 

Ancient frescos adorn the walls of the cathedral's crypt.

Looking almost like a sample display of exotic marbles,
this side altar at Santa Maria Annunziata was the height
of extravagance back when the use of rare stone
was a sign of wealth.

The harbor at Otranto as seen from the Castello Aragonese.

An old entrance into
the castle area.

Stairs to nowhere at Castello Aragonese.

Tourists visit Otranto, but at least in late June there
weren't very many of them.

These terra cotta figurines were on sale in Lecce (where one shop claimed to
have originated them) and in Otranto. We didn't see them elsewhere. Twelve
euros would convert to about 14 U.S. dollars.

Awnings shade sidewalk tables and storefronts along
one of Otranto's narrow streets. 

There was a wedding in progress during our visit to the Sant'Agata cathedral in Gallipoli. The
church is in the fortified old town (actually, an island reached by a bridge
from the "new town" on the mainland) and is staggeringly elaborate. Almost
every possible wall area is painted with Biblical scenes.

This appears to be a depiction of the
last judgment, one of many paintings
at Sant'Agata by southern Italian
artists of centuries past.

Incredibly carved columns frame
one of the Duomo's paintings.

Golden candlesticks at

Polychrome marbles are used in side chapels at Sant'Agata.

A fishing party arrives back at the Gallipoli harbor.

A corner of Gallipoli's working harbor.

A high seawall protects the old town of Gallipoli. It takes less than an hour to walk all the
way around the island. If you decide to cut through the middle of the island, prepare
to be lost in a maze of narrow residential streets.

A three-wheeled taxi awaits customers outside the
castle in Gallipoli, which, like the castle in Otranto,
is known as Castello Aragonese.

Stairs at the Gallipoli castle invite exploration but are
closed to visitors. The castle that we see today was started in
the 1600s and was built on the ruins of a Byzantine fortress.

Much of Gallipoli's castle
is used as art space. Centuries-old
walls co-exist with modern
conceptual art. The face, above,
is actually the back of a chair.

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