When Kate and I began planning our trip to Puglia (Apulia), the first tour book that I opened said that the easternmost part of Italy is in the Salento area in the southern tip of the boot’s heel. I couldn’t believe it, so I got out a map of Italy that showed the longitudinal lines. Well, not only is the easternmost tip of Italy in Salento—it’s there by miles (well, kilometers)! Although I used to think that the Italian boot ran north and south, it actually tilts from the northwest to the southeast. The eastern half of Sicily, which is just west of the toe of the Italian boot, is even farther east than any part of the top of the Italian boot. Imagine that! But enough geography.
Saturday, our last day with Angelo, our guide from Experience Puglia, we toured three cities in Salento: Galatina, Otranto, and Gallipoli (the Italian Gallipoli, not the Turkish site of the famous World War I battle). We only ate lunch in Gallipoli because it began raining buckets as we left Otranto.
We began our tour of Salento in Galatina, where we saw the amazing 14th-century frescoes by Francesco d’Arezzo in Chiesa Santa Caterina d’Alessandria. Angelo told us that the church would remind us of the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, and he was right. Unfortunately, I couldn’t take photos, so I can’t show you the frescoes, but you can see them here.
Otranto is the easternmost city in Italy, lying only 45 miles west of Albania and 60 miles west of Greece. If it had been a clear day, we could have seen Albania across the Adriatic Sea. We saw three impressive sights in Otranto, the first two in the Cattedrale di Santa Maria Annunziata: one of the largest mosaic floors in the world, constructed by a monk named Panteleone between 1163 and 1166, covers the entire nave and the side aisles; and a gruesome and sad chapel honors 800 survivors of an Ottoman attack in 1480 who were subsequently beheaded because they would not renounce their Christian faith (12,000 other locals also lost their lives during the battle). Horace Walpole wrote about the third sight, the 16th-century Castello Aragonese, in his novella, The Castle of Otranto.
In the New York Times on October 8, 2006, Phoebe Hoban had this to say about the floor in the Otranto cathedral: “The astonishingly detailed mosaic looks like the work of someone tripping on acid. The nearly 1,000-square-yard pictogram borrows its images from everything from pagan times to ancient Greek and Hindu mythology to the Old and New Testaments to medieval history. Using the Tree of Life as its central motif, it weaves a wildly chaotic chronological web ranging from creation to the fall of Adam and Eve. Here King Arthur and Alexander the Great share floor space with the Tower of Babel, elephants, dragons, hydra-headed beasts, griffins, unicorns, minotaurs, Norse gods and horned devils.” Taking photos of the floor was difficult, because the colors were so muted and the lighting was so dim.
Late in the afternoon Angelo dropped us off at our hotel in Lecce and said goodbye. We were so lucky to find Experience Puglia. Thank you again, Angelo.
Here’s my advice for Salento. Go and stay in beautiful Lecce, which offers a lot to see and do (my next post will cover Lecce). Take a day or a half-day drive through the tip of the heel, and whatever you do, don’t miss the mosaic floor in Otranto or the magnificent frescoes in Galatina.