Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Gallipoli and Rounding the Salento Coast

We poured out of Lecce racing for the sea like newborn sea turtles scampering for the surf in somewhat of a fledgling baptismal initiation to a new world. Ripe for awe, our destination was Gallipoli, on the western coast of the Salento Peninsula on the shores of the Ionian Sea in southern Italy. Once the largest olive oil market in the Mediterranean it is today a fishing center, not to be confused with the infamous Gallipoli in Turkey, the site of a horrendous battle in World War I. Heading west from Lecce along a scrub-lined road into a retreating sun, we looked at every road sign for clues that we were getting close, which seemingly only added further delay brought on by suspenseful anticipation on our part. Eventually, arriving on the outskirts of Gallipoli, we smelled the salty air and caught sight of gulls. That catharsis and sense of elation you feel when your eyes first meet the sea swept over us. We knew we'd arrived.

Gallipoli, from the Greek Kallipolis meaning "Beautiful City", is today a town of 21,000 inhabitants. It, like Lecce, was a colonial outpost of "Greater Greece" beginning about the 8th century BC. Authentic as it is, it is no picture postcard town like a classy Portofino or fashionable Positano with their upscale shops, nor would I venture to defend its claim to being a “beautiful city”. Charming yes, but beauty as ever is in the eye of the beholder. Gallipoli sits like a spoon jutting into the sea. The broad stem of its handle lies on the mainland while the bowl of the spoon is an island. Serving to connect the two at the throat of the spoon is a 16th century causeway (Ponte Citta Vecchia). This causeway divides the town into two contrasting parts; a sterile and rather hideous modern section of bland apartment buildings and an ancient quarter, the Citta Vecchia (Old Town). Just glance at a map of Gallipoli and you will notice how regimented, practically in Soviet city planning style, the layout of the streets on the mainland are, while across the causeway on "island Gallipoli" the pattern is random, capriciously unplanned, bordering on chaos. I remember something called "re-development" when it struck my home town. It gutted my town’s center sapping its vitality and eradicating its beauty forever, leaving in its wake an urban landscape I could no longer identify with. "Re-development", likely an early experiment on the path to odious political correctness, was more like reeking-havoc in the name of order than development. I suspect something similar had happened to Gallipoli.

Island Gallipoli, a stone and mortar community of whitewashed buildings, is reminiscent of a Greek seaside village with a layout set in motion apparently long before zoning ordinances and building permits came into vogue. Telling from its meandering hallway-like vicoli (alleyways), I doubt they have them even today on this limestone island, and if they do, I question whether its residents, like many Italians, aren’t quick to subvert the authority of anything of the kind and disregard their legal stipulations. Its appearance, in places evident of neglect, wasn’t off-putting, but only went to confirm my belief that Gallipoli is a functional community of people who make a living from the sea and to a far lesser degree pot flowers and fleshy succulents for the oohs and aahs of tourists. The political minestrone of urban reform aside, Gallipoli is largely a place of work not entertainment.

Though we didn't have a reservation, we did have an idea of where we would like to stay from the Internet. Knowing the off season had just begun, our hopes were high. We would give the Relais Corte Palmieri, located where else but on Corte Palmieri in the old town, a try. The trick was finding it even with the aid of the "How to Reach Us" section from their web-site! Luckily after only one orbit of the small island we spotted a sign for the hotel and equally surprisingly, a place to park. While Maria Elena stayed behind with the car, I disappeared into the obscurity of tiny alleys and the shade of narrow streets looking for the hotel, my directions in hand. Fortunately, this labyrinth had its limits since it is bound by water. Persistence would see me through or so I hoped. In a few minutes I was lost in the confusing network of streets. Without a street map you could imagine yourself abandoned in a French garden maze with only the sky above and no apparent way out. Thinking I’d found the right street at last, I knocked on a door bearing the same number, but receiving no response, I moved on. My reprieve was coming upon a group of people in a small square formed by intersecting streets. When I shared my problem with them, one gentleman was kind enough, even eager, to lead me to my objective, wouldn't you know, just a street or so away.

The boutique-like Relais occupies a marvelous historical residence that dates back to 1700. Characterized by sunny terraces, walls splashed with colorful bougainvillea and charm, this beautiful building with its lack of large exterior windows and emphasis on private spaces and courtyards (in this case located on luxurious rooftop terraces) was reminiscent of some Marrakech riad. Featuring unique styled rooms, we discovered no two to be alike. Our room took up two floors and though lovely and elegantly Mediterranean, it was an island room without a view. However, reminiscent of "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe", we could transition to a rooftop world, in this instance not through a wardrobe but by ducking and disappearing through our window onto communal terraces. It was not your normal roof either but an open-air maze of its own mimicking the streets below but here with interconnected multi-level spaces of rooftops used for the purpose of lounging and taking breakfast.

With a newly gained sense of direction, I was soon back at the car to gather up Mare and our luggage. I’d learned that parking was not allowed in the historic center and moved our car to the nearby Porto Mercantile pier for the night. The local constabulary hadn’t caught up with me yet! Back at the hotel, guests like ourselves arrived in dribs and drabs. It was how we met one particular couple from Vancouver. Lynda was arriving just as I was returning to the car one more time and explained that her husband was looking for a place to park. I found Ken near where we’d first parked and directed him toward the pier. We saw them again later that evening as they, like us, strolled through the streets of old Gallipoli. These streets, still very much retaining an old world atmosphere, were clotted with nighttime life. I loved the area for its family ambiance - the beaded doorways, the fluttering curtains of dimly-lit windows where you could almost feel the eyes of black robed phantoms watching your movements, residents sitting outside their doors on stools, smiling, chatting and the sound of voices at table in competition with television sets. No cable here, satellite dishes and antennas sprouted from rooftops like weeds. For a time we sat outside the 17th century Sant' Agata Duomo in the center of the town observing the local hoi polloi. This cathedral, like the churches we'd seen in Lecce, was of a Baroque architectural style. A service of some sort was underway and the men, being men, especially being Italian men, remained outside in groups solving the world’s problems while a predominance of women and children filled the inside. Apparently, sufficient proximity to the church may have been enough to give them credit with God for attending!

As you’d expect, telling from the restaurant menus we chanced on and the outdoor fish market on the pier that we hoped to visit the next day, fresh seafood abounds in Gallipoli. Following our walk we decided to eat at Trattoria L'aragosta near the causeway. We had wanted to try Trattoria Scoglio delle Sirene on Riviera Nazario Sauro atop the seawall but it was closed, an early victim we assumed of the off-season. We sat in a large room with a shallow domed ceiling reminding us of a grotto carved into a mountain. While the waiters were occupied with analyzing a soccer game on the ‘tele’, we did a play-by-play of the menu. The L'aragosta had sea urchins on the menu, actually a specialty of Gallipoli, but I passed on them when all I could imagine was eating something approaching a salt water porcupine! I settled on a Frito Mista da Mare which lacking sea urchins, turned out to be fried squid and shrimp along with an order of trophy pasta in red, as they say, ‘gravy’ (tomato sauce). Maria Elena stayed on the lighter side with an appetizer of shrimp, calamari and fresh whole sardines doused with oil. The thought of sardines as a pseudo main course might cause some readers to cringe but Maria Elena knew better. God knows if anyone were to recoil at the thought, it would be Mare. Unlike what we're accustomed to, these were deep-fried sardines, not what we find in an oily tin of sardines on your grocer's shelf. We had had something similar in Calitri as luncheon guests of friends once. On that occasion, yes for sure, we had had those second thoughts ourselves when we learned we would be having anchovies! The dish turned out to be baked, fresh from the sea, whole anchovies that we couldn't get enough of. Along with these true sea flavors our waiter, Piero, with relatives in New Rochelle, New York, of all places, at our request brought us a liter of a local beet red wine. Life is good! We paid our check just a Spain scored and found our way back to the hotel.

In the morning we were up and about early. Before breakfast, we were on the commercial pier watching the fishermen, their faces reddened from the wind as they busily unloading their catches, or like fish mongers, sold directly to early shoppers from the sides of their boats (see photo album). Under colorful beach umbrellas to shade them from a brilliant sun, seated amidst piles of tinted nets, shore-bound fishermen deftly flipped threaded shuttles through their damaged nets. Later we passed through the fish market. It was just setting up for the day to the sound of crushed ice being spread in stainless steel display cases and wash-hoses blasting the inlaid stone pavement. It was an attractive area, arranged in a circle with store fronts proclaiming family names along and their specialties. Surprisingly, when I examined a label on a netted bag of black and blue muscles it indicated they came from Greece! Like us it seemed, the shellfish were imports!

We took our breakfast at a table in the lounge just off the Corte Palmieri reception area. We missed out - breakfast service on the roof terraces had already been discontinued for the season. We got to know our Canadian acquaintances who happened to sit across from us. We mentioned our plan to spend that night in Otranto. Gallipoli would be our launching point to further explore the coastline of the secretive and wild southern tip of Italy. Otranto was just about opposite Gallipoli on the Aegean coast and itself reportedly a terrific place to visit. Coincidentally, Lynda and Ken had just been there and recommended we stay where they had stayed only the day before. With that and a few farewells we were off.

Like pirates ready to plunder, we set off along the coastal road. Word of our approach must have preceded us for we found many of the seaside towns abandoned as if its residents had gone out to sea with the tide. We drove through ghost town streets, the only signs of life a few contractor trucks making home repairs. We soon realized that for the most part, unlike Gallipoli, these were summer communities. By some Italian equivalent to the Labor Day holiday in the US, they underwent an evacuation of sorts as the summer season ended. Our intermediate destination along this coast kissed by the sun and a blue sea would be the very tip of Puglia's boot, the town of Santa Maria di Leuca. You couldn't miss it; it had a soaring lighthouse. From there we'd turn north up the opposite coast to Otranto.

This coastal area is a land for nature lovers for here nature is pristine, as yet unspoiled. Sandy beaches, caressed by pleasant breezes and the bluest of blue waters uncluttered of umbrellas or otherwise any signs of development, gently slope to the sea. Our route was dotted with towns many with torre (tower) in their names - Torre del Pizzo, Torre Suda, Torre Sifonò, Marina Torre San Giovanni, Torre Mozza, and more torri. Their significance being that each had a lookout tower or the remains of one. In days of yore these formed a point of defense from approaching marauders. But defense may be too strong a word for it connotes resistance. Saracen pirates cruised these waters like sharks and any amount of warning could mean life verses death or something slightly less, slavery. Life was less intellectual then and more on the cusp of daily survival without need of a scimitar's blade to hasten its ending. With little in way of fortifications, my guess was that the inhabitants quickly sought safety by heading further inland after hiding anything valuable they couldn't take along. The towers were simply tripwires serving only to sound the alarm. I wonder how long the tower watchman remained at his post once he rang a bell, lit a fire or just shouted his warning? Was it steady work?

One particular 'torre town' we visited briefly was Torre San Vado. In keeping with its name, it had a tower, this particular one, like most, two stories high. This specimen was in pristine condition with crenellated ramparts similar to the battlements of a classic English castle. Others we had and would see had crumbled or were in much need of repair. Torre San Vado itself is perched at the entrance to a present day marina busy with the comings and goings of fishing boats. An attractive breakwater jutting into the sea, complete with a causeway and squat utility buildings, formed a harbor with an orderly line of vessels anchored, their noses into the pier (see photo album). I was familiar with agroturismo but pescaturismo placard on the side of one craft was something new! It seems that on the working motorboat ATTILA II you spend time at sea helping the crew retrieve triple layer "trammel" nets laid out the day before. You might also choose to fish, dive, swim or even explore coastal caves. The scene here was similar to those in Gallipoli - men in waist high rubber overalls dangling from suspenders busied themselves knitting repairs to their pink nets while others made ready to get underway. It was striking how clear the water was. So clear in fact that you could see the entire hull of a boat down to its keel and then some. This was unexpected especially in a harbor where you'd expect to see refuse and fouled water. I double took, uncertain at first of the exact phenomenon but my eyes weren't deceiving me. In fact, this part of Italy is noted for its pristine beaches and clean, crystal-clear waters. Here was proof.

Arriving in Santa Maria di Leuca, it was time for a break. Cappuccinos frothy enough to give Maria Elena a mustache (and make mine still whiter) and something sweet to go along with them was in high order. We found a roadside open-air cafe, Martinucci's, with little trouble. Some sort of franchise operation, you see these stylish cafes throughout Italy. We dallied just long enough to enjoy our refreshments then resumed our coastal drive, this time in a northerly direction up Puglia's Aegean coastline. The visual drama of this coastline was markedly different. For the most part the beaches were gone, replaced by a craggy, precipitous cliff-like shoreline. While the Ionian Sea had battered and worn down the western coast, here the calmer Aegean was still working at it. The beauty of sugar-colored deserted beaches only a few hours earlier had been replaced by panoramic coastal vistas where Italy leapt from its cliffs and disappeared into the east. Stretched out before us, a kaleidoscope of gray aged stone mixed with prickly pear cactus. We made frequent stops to more fully appreciate the dramatic seascape before us. Private homes, bordering on villas, dotted the landscape with some sporting swimming pools and patios with sun shades jutting out toward the sea like the brims of baseball caps. Unfortunately, although we were receptive, no one asked us in!

At the Commune de Santa Cesarea Terme we stopped to examine the remains of one last shoreline tower. Its top had been cleaved at a sharp angle as though a hot knife had cut through a candle. Climbing over its stone block remains to the water's edge we discovered a stone quarry long out of use. The stone courses for this watchtower had obviously been taken from here long, long ago. Now, the multiple gashes in the sea cliff had the look of giant steps fit for Neptune himself to climb from the sea. Surprisingly, time had passed quickly as we drove this sun-kissed land. Before long, we found ourselves in the outskirts of Otranto, in ancient times a meeting place of very different cultures. With its splendid castle bastion, a rich history and foreign sounds in the air mixed with the aromas from numerous restaurants, it would be our anchorage for the night.

We had been to the sea under a curtain of blue sky having rounded the Salento horn from Gallipoli to Otranto - you could see it in our rouged faces. This day, our eyes like those of newborn turtles had been fixed on the sea, only distracted when we'd stopped to explore. Forging our own path we'd experienced a different part of Italy, a resplendent fusion of sun, and sea and shore. We had only begun to scratch its layered history and appreciate its texture. It had been a correct decision to get away from countrified Calitri and glimpse the sea. Truth be, every time you see the sea, it's as if you are seeing it for the first time. And having now glimpsed these Italian seas, we now know their wild beauty rather than merely wonder and speculate about them from a distance.

From That Rogue Tourist, Paolo

For related photos, click here on Eyes Over Italy. Then look for and click on a photo album entitled “Gallipoli and the Salento Coast”.