Salento’s inhabitants describe their land as the place of sun, wind and remorse. So deeply etched into the land, ruins and architecture are the stories of the people, who have lived, conquered, and passed through its rolling fields and rocks that it is easy to understand this dramatic description. Perhaps Otranto, the port city on the peninsula’s most eastern point, best embodies this history and temperament.
Upon arrival, one is immediately struck by the clear blue water. Small fishing boats bob up and down in a port with water of unparalleled clarity. Even on a cloudy day, it is easy to see the bottom at least 15 feet below the water to the sea floor. There is peacefulness in finding that water can indeed be clean and pure even as man goes about the business of fishing and fun. There are tide pools perfect for children to dip their toes into in the spring and summer months.
There is a pathway that winds around the old part of the city for strolling around on temperate evenings. There are, of course, plenty of places to stop in for a quick coffee, pastry or gelato. As well as bars and restaurants that fill to capacity in the summer.
Pass through gates into the old city and a story of contrasting harshness unfolds. As a port city Otranto has been conquered and besieged on more than one occasion, but the one most remembered is the invasion of July 28, 1480 by the Turks. It was a battle of religious doctrines and more than 800 Christian inhabitants were slain by the Turks when they refused to convert. Legend has it that their bodies were left to rot in the streets, in the midst of the summer heat. However, the bodies didn’t decompose and miraculously stayed perfectly preserved. The bones of Otranto’s martyrs are now arranged and preserved in glass tombs behind one of the altars in the city’s cathedral. It is a ghastly sight and a difficult story.
Also well preserved, even though the Turks used the cathedral as a horse stable for some time, is the twelfth century floor mosaic that spans not only the cathedral, but also a variety of mythologies. Each sign of the zodiac is represented as well as a menagerie of animals including elephants and monkeys, Adam and Eve as well as King Arthur. The wealth of images included in the mosaic tell, not only a mythological story, but also a tale of a town rich and diverse in culture. It is interesting to imagine an artist in the middle of south Italy during the 12th century including King Arthur in his panorama of images. Yet it happened, and is still there for those who care to see.
I would have liked to ask the priest, who for years tended the cathedral and recounted its history and wrote numerous books about the building, what his thoughts might be on King Arthur’s inclusion in the mosaic. The priest, however, passed away only three days before our visit and his life’s contributions are now a part of the cathedral’s long history. It would have been nice to cross paths on with this avid historian, but then it is a place where the past and present coincide, a place of sun, wind and remorse
Written and photography by Kimberli Waack