Leaving Cinzia and Michele was like leaving old friends in the sure knowledge that we would never see them again. They had been the perfect hosts for our stay in Lecce. Their stylish B&B below their apartment in the suburbs oozed Italian style and passion. Books lined their walls from floor to ceiling – interior design and the great Italian painters, photos of Apulia adorned their walls and tasty pastries and cakes greeted us each morning for breakfast: their hospitality was second to none.
It takes about 35 minutes to travel, on the SS101, from Lecce to Gallipoli on the shores of the Ionian Sea. It sounds so romantic, but the journey is anything but romantic. This is what it’s like in Apulia – wonderful, fairy-tale cities of secret cobbled streets, passionate people and profound history with unattractive, repetitious countryside in between. It’s a blessing in disguise – maybe we needed some time to recover as we travel from one gratification to the next. But it’s not to say that the gaps in between lack meaning: on the contrary, field after field is packed with olive groves for oil, and vines producing Primitivo and Negroamaro – the soils of Apulia provide abundant local produce – something of great value to the local economy, not to mention the region’s identity.
We parked a little way outside the centre as usual and walked in beside the sea.
On our approach to the old town, we passed a small harbour filled with colourful boats and saw fishermen mending their nets.
We crossed the 16th century bridge into the main centro storico – the old town, which rests on an island jutting out into the sea and we could see parts of the city’s fortifications looking in remarkably good condition, considering how old they are.
Being beside the sea again was like balm for the soul and the warm, salty breeze brought on a healthy appetite. We settled on a little restaurant, the Cafe Del Mar, right on the edge of the water, with views of silvery and glistening blue and enjoyed Bruschetta: toasted bread, topped with tomato, zucchini and garlic, drenched in olive oil. A glass of Vino Bianco was essential. There was a space and quietness that allowed time to just be: to exist in the moment, with nothing to afflict the mind but the feel of the breeze, the saltiness of the air and the taste of Italy on our tongues.
After resting for some time, we strolled around Gallipoli’s streets. It was all so quiet and there were very few people about. It was a lazy, sunny day and all we could do was linger in street after street, taking in the atmosphere and eat ice cream.
After lunch we headed for our second destination of the day – Otranto, on the Adriatic coast.
It had been a lazy day so far and our visit to Otranto on the east coast continued in the same vein: we were weary from so much walking and we slowed to a saunter as the day wore on.
We visited only two main sights in Otranto, the first of which was the cathedral – a rather ordinary looking structure on first inspection.
On entering, it seemed like many other ‘regular’ churches one visits when in Italy and it’s only when we looked looked up at the ceiling and down at the floor that we could see how special this place really was. Above us was a 17th century Moorish ceiling, its chunky, regular pattern loaded with gold. But it was the floor that grabbed our attention.
It consists of a vast 12th century mosaic, mind-boggling in its complexity and captivating in its beauty. It shows a tree of life, its main trunk developing into smaller branches and reaching into the side aisles and depicting, it is said, the human journey, fall and salvation, good and evil. It also appears to contain images that are completely unrelated and spurious. Whatever it means, it’s a work of breath-taking art of enormous proportions. This cathedral is not all about beauty, however, and has a very sinister and disturbing history. During the invasion by the Turks in 1480, Otranto was captured and those who survived – 800 men, women and children – took refuge in the cathedral. When they refused to convert to Islam they were slaughtered and beheaded. The skulls and bones of these ‘Martyrs of Otranto’ can now be seen forming the backdrop to the altar – gruesome and thought-provoking in equal measure.
As darkness closed in we headed for the castle – Castello Aragonese – a strangely irregular, five-sided structure with a moat around its perimeter. On entering, it was clear that it has been cared for and maintained to meticulous standards.
There was not much to see, just room after room containing displays with bewildering descriptions and there was too little time to begin to digest their meaning. But wandering around the castle was pleasant enough and we spent most of our time enjoying the art of the Italian painter Amedeo Modigliani, which was on display in a number of the rooms – nudes and portraits depicting women with strange, but not unpleasant, elongated faces and necks.
It was dark and we still had the drive home. It had been a relatively restful day, which we needed as there was still plenty of walking to be done.