Italy: Lecce and Otranto

Lecce is a southern Italian city that was founded over 2000 years ago by the Messapii people. The city’s main export is a very soft and malleable stone, which is traditionally used to carve sculptures. The city is also known for its olive oil, wine and ceramic production. The city landscape displays a plethora of baroque architecture. Due to this baroquian influence, Lecce is nicknamed “The Florence of the South.” 

Sant’Oronzo Square

Our first stop on our tour of Lecce was Sant’Oronzo Square. This main square was named after Lecce’s patron Saint, Oronzo, who is credited with helping to spare the town from the plague in 1656.  In the middle of the square is a column topped with a statur of Oronzo.  You can also find a mosaic of the city’s coat of arms in the pedestrian-only section of the square.  In addition to this, half of the square displays the preserved ruins of an unearthed 2nd century Roman amphitheater.

Paper Maiche

As we made our way through Lecce’s old town, we passed by a few local artist shops.  We briefly stopped into one shop that was still open despite it being around the time most southern Italians would be taking a siesta. As we made our way down the steps, we were greeted by beautiful handmade figurines hanging from the ceiling, a straw man with a molded/carved head in a corner, and many miniatures pilled in boxes around the store’s perimeter and the the artist workshop.

This store/workshop contained the most amazing paper maiche figurines that I have ever seen. The origin of this art style is unknown, but the ability to create such wonderful works carries a lot of status.  The artisans who craft and sculpt these items still form and make these figures the same way they were made when the art form first appeared in history.

It was truly a pure delight to see a master of this craft at work in his workshop. In my travels, I’ve never known or seen any artist using this form to craft such masterfully beautiful piece of art. I highly recommend if you are in Lecce that you stop by one of these shops and purchase one of these finely crafted items as a souvenir; there is nothing like it.

Cathedral in Duomo Square

Lecce Cathedral, which is dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, was originally built in 1144. It was restored in 1659 by Giuseppe Zimbalo. The cathedral has two entrances, with the principle entrance on the north side of the church and the other entrance facing Duomo Square.

The church contains a nave with two aisles and twelve altars. The cathedral is ornately decorated with beautiful stained glass windows, an exquisitely frescoed dome, and an intricately carved wooden ceiling. This church was extraordinary to view in person.

Castromediano Square

This square is located in the city center of Lecce. The square contains a bronze monument to Duke Sigismondo Castromediano and a monument to La Viola, unknown lady. This monument was commissioned in 1898 by the Mayor of Lecce Giuseppe Pellegrino. Its sculptor was Antonio Bortone. The monument commemorates Castromediano, who was an archaeologist, a poet and a patriot. Castromediano is portrayed standing with a manuscript of his memoirs in his right hand. The memoirs describes the riot of 1848, his condemnation and his eleven years in prison/exile. La Viola, seated at the foot of the statue, represents “Freedom.”

In addition to the monument, Castromediano Square also contains displays of a great archaeological find. Between 2002 and 2005, while working on reconstructing the paved road near this square, a complex layer of ruins ranging from the Iron Age to modern times were uncovered. This archaeological find is attributed to the Messapii, an ancient pre-Roman people, who are attributed with entering Italy from the Adriatic sea around 1000 BC.

20150325_053753To provide viewing access to these Messapian ruins, giant display cases covered by a curved shatterproof glass and marble with interior lighting were built.  One the day we visited this square, it was raining, which made it hard to see the ruins.

Basilica di Santa Croce (Church of the Holy Cross)

Although the first stone of this Basilica was first laid in 1353, this richly decorated Basilica was finally completed in 1695. The façade of the church has six columns with a row of animals above them. Atop the row of animals is a large rose window and four statutes. The beauty of this church extends into the interior of the church. Inside, you can gaze upon one of the seventeen alters or look up and wonder at the craftsmanship it took to create such intricate ceiling. Everywhere you turn in this Basilica, you will see some of the finest craftsmanship which took three generations of artist to complete.

Lunch: Oestria

This was the second restaurant in Italy that we asked the chef to surprise us with what was served. Our server brought up dish after flavor full dish.  As a starter, we were given taralli.  After the taralli, our server brought out a dish of pork with peas and carrots, fried dough with capers (delicious, may have been fried in olive oil), and a plate of broccoli rabe. The final item brought out to us was a beef in red wine sauce, which was melt in your mouth tender.

This meal was yummy!

Otranto

Otranto is a historic seaside town and port on the Adriatic coast of southern Italy. The towns Grecian origin is based on it siding with Greece against Rome during the Pyrrhus and Hannibal wars. Due to its strategic position near the Balkans and Greece, Otranto was an important commercial port for Jewish traders and Roman military expeditions to the east. The position of the city also made it susceptible to attacks from the sea.  Today, Otranto is known for its thick perimeter wall, its churches, its sunny beaches, its promenade, its bastion, a well preserved 12th century mosaic floor and many other delightful surprises that can be found while exploring the town.

Chiesa dell’immacolata

After arriving near a beach in Otranto, one of the first things I saw was this imposing fortress/wall with a wooden staircase leading up to a portal in wall. My initial reaction upon seeing the stairs was that I didn’t think they were safe to walk up. As I made my way up them, I realized that they were safe despite the slight sway while walking up them.  

I am not sure what I was expecting when I got to the top, but this is what awaited us there.

This wonderful decaying ruin is the Chapel of the Immaculate.  This church was originally built in the 17th century at Porta a Mare.  When whole, the building had a front door, a rosette and a right side wall where the sacristy was entered.  There were also tone alters inside, two of which still remain in the side apses. The church was officially closed to worshipers after World War II because the slow and progressive degradation caused instability in the structure.

Exploring the City

Otranto’s demure size and narrow alleyway-like streets makes it very easy to transverse. While walking these pedestrian alleyways, you will encounter churches, storefronts, interesting architecture, accidental art (limestone columns that look like they were etched by a craftsman when it reality this was the work of tiny crabs making hairline cracks in the structure of the stone), a beautiful promenade overlooking the Adriatic, and many hints of nature (whether it’s flowers growing through cracks in the limestone or ivy winding its way up the side of a building).

Otranto Cathedral (Cathedral of Santa Maria Annunziata)

Otranto Cathedral, founded in 1068 by the Norman bishop Guglielmo (William), was built on the remains of a Messapiic village, a Roman house and an early Christian church or temple; it was consecrated in 1088 under Pope Urban II.

Within the Cathedral, there is a well preserved 12th century mosaic on the floor. The mosaic was commissioned by the first Latin archbishop of the city, Gionata, and created between 1163 and 1165 by a group of artists led by Pantaleone, a Basilian monk from the monastery of San Nicola di Casole. This mosaic depicts scenes from the Old Testament (Noah’s Ark) and depictions of historical, mythical and pagan figures, including Alexander the Great and King Arthur.

In 1480, when 18,000 Turks led by Gedik Ahmet Pasha besieged the town, the townsfolk managed to hold the Turks at bay for 15 days before yielding. After seizing the town, the Turks killed all of the males over 15 and sold the women and children in to slavery. However, eight hundred survivors had barricaded themselves inside the Cathedral with Bishop Stefano Agricoli where they prayed for rescue. Eventually the Turks captured the survivors and demanded that they renounce their faith and convert to Islam. When no one capitulated, the townsfolk were lead to the hill of Minerva where they were beheaded because of their refusal to convert.

During the time the Turks controlled Otranto, they destroyed the frescoes and then turned the church into a stable for their horses. The Turks thought this was a fitting way to desecrate such a sacred Christian place. In doing this, they accidentally played a vital role in preserving the 12th century mosaic by covering the floors; they did not think having their horses walk on the mosaic tile would be good for the horse’s shoes.

The Turks reign did not last long. In 1481 the city was retaken by force under Alfonso V of Aragon and turned back into a church. The church was rebuilt to house the relics of the Martyrs of Otranto. The reconstruction included the addition of a rose window on the west-facing front of the Cathedral. In 1711 Ferdinand I of Naples ordered that the south aisle become the Chapel of the Martyrs. This part of the church houses the relics (bones) of the martyrs in seven large coffins and the ‘stone of martyrdom’ (the stone that was used to behead the martyrs). In 1771, a Papal decree formally beatified the 800, who became known as the Blessed Martyrs of Otranto.

The history of this Cathedral was the most interesting thing to learn about while I was in Italy.  Seeing the mosaic floor with my own eyes was EPIC and understanding that a twist of fate left it intact for future generations simply amazes me. Seeing the martyrs bones displayed in such a fashion is a fitting reminder that they were willing to die for their beliefs. The church and its history is one of the reasons why I am so grateful that these structures are still standing and that their stories are being preserved and shared.

Leaving Otranto

After visiting the Cathedral, it was time to say Ciao to beautiful town of Otranto.  On our way back to our luxurious bus, the last thing I saw was a behemoth sculpture of a boat/ship.  I have no idea if this was attribute to a moment in history or simply a piece of art; what I do know is that this is a fitting last image to the wonderful beach side retreat that I now know as Otranto.

Winery Tour, Tasting & Dinner

After some free time in Otranto, we made our way to Scorrano where we visited the Don Carlo Guarini estate for a winery tour, a wine tasting and dinner.  The vineyards where the grapes are grown are located in the Italian countryside; we did not get to see the vineyards.

Our first stop was the bottling facility and wine cellar tour. The upper level of the facility was very modern.  The casks were made of large metal vats and there was a machine that was used to insert the corks into the bottles.  Even though the top level was modern, you could see remnants of the old method of aging wine by looking down at sporadic openings place in the floor.

In the cellar you could really see and feel the history of this great vineyard. We saw historic tools that were used to make wine, oak wine casks, and bottles of wine that were over 400 years old (which when found the early 90s, no one dared to taste).

I’m not gong to lie, THIS was pretty cool to see.

After the cellar tour, we were seated in the main house where the matriarchs of the Guarini family had prepared a fine meal by the fireplace.

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Our wine tasting including sampling two reds and one white wine.  These wines were produced from either the Primitivo, Negroamaro or the Malvasia NerA grapes which are native to the Puglia region. Prior to the early 90s, very few people knew of the existence of the wines that could be produced solely from these grape. These grapes were often shipped to Northern Italy and blended with the ‘thin’ red wines produced in that region.  In the early 90s, the Guarini produced the first bottle of Primitivo, writing on the label the name of the vine, and ushered in a new era of wine making from these grapes..

The dinner consisted of a banquet of traditional dishes served family style. Among the specialties  served was: homemade pasta, fresh cheeses of the farm property, seasonal vegetables, a delicious pork dish with primitivo, and tiramisu served with grapes (not the kind used to produce the wine).

After all of this excitement, we headed back to our hotel for some rest and relaxation.  Overall, this was a great day exploring two towns and experiencing some very awe-inspiring things.

Best,

Winter
 Up Next: Otsuni an Alberobello, Part 1

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