Otranto – A City of Martyrs
Even now as we embark on a new adventure in the dark of a nighttime cabin at 35,000 ft. cruising past Halifax then on between peculiar sounding places like Goose Bay and Gander before brushing the tip of Greenland and crossing the Norwegian Sea to Iceland, I must first continue to describe our tale of adventure in Puglia.
By this point we had whisked through Lecce and spent a night and a portion of the following day in Gallipoli. From there it was off to drive, if not explore, the “Salento” coastline of Puglia until we arrived on the opposite side of this sea-worn peninsula at the coastal town of Otranto. Like many of its neighboring cities, it is of Greek origin, the site of the ancient Greek city of Hydrus. Its name and history are connected to water. The Romans called it Hydruntum for the presence of the River Hydrus. Under the Roman Empire it served as a point of embarkation for the East, since it is the nearest port to the eastern side of the Adriatic Sea. For a thousand years it was a thriving seaport and literally a bridge between the Orient and the Mediterranean. Otranto has therefore been historically at a cultural crossroads - where Eastern and Western cultures have come together and at times violently clashed. As a consequence, this frontier city has seen its share of brutal invaders, settlers, plunderers and conquerors. Turks, Crusaders, Byzantines, and Normans, each in its turn had had its way with her.
The happenings of 1480-81 were especially noteworthy. On 28 July 1480 without warning, a Turkish-Ottoman fleet of 128 ships discharged its forces nearby and within two weeks had taken possession of the town and its castle fortress. In the process, history records that 12,000 men were killed (800 beheaded) – among them the town’s Bishop who certainly suffered a cruel and truly unusual form of death by having been sawn to death! The Pope far off in Rome, in quasi panic, fearing an attack on Rome and possibly a worse fate than the Bishop’s, if one were possible, called for a Holy War. His appeal resulted in the formation of a massive coalition force headed by King Ferdinand I of Naples. The Turks in the meantime retained control of the city for thirteen months while the Neapolitan counter-force was assembling. The forces of East and West subsequently clashed late in 1481 resulting in the thorough annihilation of the Turkish forces and the re-capture of what remained of Otranto. The city, as you can imagine, had by this time been utterly destroyed as a result of these actions. Again in 1537, it was the famous Turkish corsair and Ottoman admiral, Barbarossa, who captured Otranto and the Fortress of Castro. In this instance, the Turks were repulsed. As a consequence of these attacks, Otranto was never able to fully recover its past glory and gradually faded in its importance to the region.
Fortunately, by the time we arrived, everything was in order and once again ship-shape. It was early afternoon so before entering the old walled portion of the town we thought we’d stop for something to eat. It had been a while since that earlier stop in Santa Maria di Leuca at the tip of Puglia’s stiletto heel. Orbiting the area by the port and the old town district, we found a parking lot. Confident I had it right after placing a paid parking receipt on the dash, we moved off into the town, which in this area consisted of a single street tracing the harbor’s shoreline. We soon entered the Ristorante Dal Baffo after a few looks and wave-offs of similar places. What I guess attracted me most was its name, “The Mustache”, illustrated on a large poster in addition to their specialty being marinare (seafood). There was a main dining room area inside but before you could get there you had to pass through a tent-like affair extended onto the sidewalk with plastic side-walls and a canvas top. It was sort of like an airlock though quite large with its own tables and chairs. Everyone was out there so we joined the small group of patrons by selecting a table of our own in a corner where one of the sides met the tent’s front. There was one waiter (camerière) and his girlfriend busied herself in the kitchen. With this kind of line-up you would expect things to be slow but then you could never imagine just how long that could be. Bananas definitely had time to turn yellow! But you always, always have to remember you are in Italy and take it in stride. I keep telling myself that! The waiter was great, while the other half of the staff in the kitchen had to have been on her cell phone talking to her mother. We ordered wine and salads for starters and they arrived promptly along with a basket of bread. That’s about when everyone, all two of them, seemed to go on sabbatical!
I think it was Einstein who said something to the effect that you only perceive a state of “now” because you have memories of days gone by. Without those memories, you would have no concept of a past or a future. Without memories then, we’d have no concept of time. In this instance we had a brief memory from the past of ordering our meals but time it seemed got hung-up sufficiently that our future meals were now in jeopardy. Though we may have been in a state of suspended time, out of bread and wine, somewhere between past and future, that parking meter remembered we’d only paid for two hours! I mentioned this to the waiter (who by the way didn’t have a mustache) when I happened to catch his attention but he continued the ‘rope-a-dope’ delay by suggesting that I move our car. This must have been subtle code for ‘expect further delay’! Lucky for us, he directed me to a free parking lot, meaning timeless, but following my return the food soon materialized. I have to admit, it was worth waiting for … mine was a pasta of tiny ears (le orècchiette) in a red sauce. Surprisingly, Mare had àglio-òlio spaghetti surrounded by a ring of mussels. Let me explain … being of Irish-English heritage, the natural conflict inside her also embraces the avoidance of most pasta and potato for that matter, only leaving more ‘per me’ (for me)!
I was concerned that with our extended stay at the Baffo, going on four hours by then, the hotel we had in mind might fill up. The waiter, however, was kind enough to called ahead to Hotel Palazzo Papaleo for us. Maybe this was some kind of reparation on his part for our prolonged stay at the Baffo. My mustache certainly had the time to grow longer! Hotel Palazzo Papaleo was the same hotel that Lynda and Ken, the Canadians we’d met at the Relais Corte Palmieri in Galipoli (read “Galipoli and Rounding the Salento Coast”), had recommended we try. When Maria Elena mentioned their names to the manager, she immediately assigned us their former room. Clearly Ken and Lydia share our taste in things. The room opened onto a small balcony, which sneaked a peek of the harbor, had a beautiful bathroom with robes and slippers and a bed large enough to lose yourself in. As nice as it was, we weren’t in it for long for Otranto beckoned.
Old Otranto is small. The illusion is that it is much larger. We had entered on foot through Porta Alfonsina where round towers flanked each side of the massive doors. This walled old town was in many ways reminiscent of towns in Tuscany. Its little lanes, small squares and narrow streets you could just about eat off of were alive with color and steeped in a history whispered from cobble to cobble along its antique alleyways. Just a street or two away from our hotel, upon entering Piazza Basilica in the shadows of the Cathedral, we stumbled upon a funeral procession just entering the square, moving toward us. A modern hearse led the way followed by what I’d easily estimate were a hundred mourners. We later learned that the deceased was a woman over one hundred years old. It was for her, her last moments in Otranto and for us our first. One spirit gone replaced by others, something Issac Newton (a favorite of mine this month) certainly missed while at Cambridge, best called for want of a name, the Conservation of Souls (in a fashion, its own form of momentum). We never were able to enter the cathedral because of the funeral ceremony. If we had, we understood that there behind glass on the walls surrounding the altar, lighted by a Renaissance rose window, is a massive ossuary of the skulls and tibia bones of the eight hundred martyred in 1480. It is recorded that the gray and white mosaic floor, still there today from when it was laid in 1166 and depicting scenes of life beginning with the Tree of Life supported by two elephants, was covered with their blood. No wonder then that this place was chosen as a “Peace Messenger Site” by Unesco. In a way I’m glad I missed seeing this reminder of the unnecessary carnage of war. I’d seen war myself but always from the comfortable distance of 30,000 feet in an air conditioned cockpit, never up close. The monk who over four years once fashioned these mosaics had skipped this aspect of life, the violent death kind, where his gray and white bits of stone had become red. We had also.
We continued to wonder Otranto’s narrow lanes, which are lined with attractive shops (a far cry from the simple sponge and T-shirt variety of Gallipoli), pubs, markets and restaurants, until we came upon Castello Aragonese. It was built in the mid to late 1480s on the remains of the previous fort that had unsuccessfully confronted the Turks. This castle is different than most for it had a surrounding moat, a classic drawbridge and the shape of a pentagon. It was not clear to me whether this moat ever had water in it, which is my idea of a proper moat or whether the moat served only as an obstruction to frontal assault. I’ll have to leave that answer for another visit. Surprisingly, after over 500 years, some of the massive granite cannonballs fired at the old fort by the Turks still lie in the moat. Inside the fort in the corners of the walls were three round “keeps”. It was a place of refuge during an attack but not much more. From the Castello we walked the battlements to Bastioni Pelasgi overlooking both the commercial and civilian port complexes. Later, as we walked along Lungomare degli Eroi (The Heros’ Promenade) just outside the walls of the old town, we had a wow moment when we caught sight of a triple-masted schooner flying what appeared to be the red cross of a Swiss flag (above photo). In an instant we were transported back hundreds of years to a time when these vessels were commonplace. Only with the arrival of a tourist bus did we sober to the here and now. It was evidently a luxurious and I’d estimate troppo caro (very expensive) cruise ship for the well to do or as it is politically popular to say here in the States (or wherever I am at this moment), for those “top one percenters”.
The following morning, early, before breakfast, I slipped away on my own to the hotel’s rooftop terrace. From this vantage point I could clearly make out the private marina, the seawall pier where the Swiss schooner had been the day before and on across the rest of the harbor, off toward the Dal Baffo restaurant where an occasional fishing boat motoring about after rounding a sheltering breakwater. I headed for the pier where it was obvious one of the fishing boats was headed, getting there just as he did. This modern man of the sea was alone among his nets in a craft not much more than an oversized row boat. He was obviously tired, from I assume, having been out overnight or at least much of the early morning. In his wet yellow slicker he said not a word as he busied himself with his nets, which still concealed his harvest. Tugging and flipping at their mesh he’d extract a fish now and again only to have it fall to the floor flapping in a heap among others. Soon others like myself arrived and bartering ensued with customer after customer leaving with their plastic bag, their catch of the day, filled with one or two fish much as we had seen in Gallipoli. This fisherman’s day was ending as ours was only beginning - in a metaphysical way, another kind of conservation of momentum. But this day would not end for us until we would trade the serene home-away-from-home ambiance of Otranto for another catch of our own (and another story), this one once shrouded in poverty and disease, yet in its own way equally beautiful, Matera.
About then my attention was broken by an announcement from the stewardess - time to shut-off my computer, put my tray-table away and position my seat “to the full and upright position”. Dawn and Reykjavik, Iceland were outside the window along with Italy somewhere farther distant. Ah Italia, again and again, a love to cross an ocean for.
From That Rogue Tourist,
For related photos, click here on Eyes Over Italy. Then look for and click on a photo album entitled “Otranto”.