Today we drove from our adorable little place in the town of Salve on the Ionian coast, to the seaside town of Otranto, on the Adriatic coast. The drive from the very tip of the heel of the boot of Italy along the Adriatic seaside was absolutely gorgeous. It is a rocky and dramatic coastline with trees, flowers, and beautiful rock outrcroppings. Otranto’s centro storico (old town) is surrounded by golden walls, complete with a castle, a basilica and several other churches, all overlooking the pale green waters of its lovely bay.
We have been in so many churches in Italy that they are all beginning to blur in my mind, but this one had some features that made it stand out. The entire floor of the basilica is a giant mosaic called the tree of life with fantastical characters and creatures twisting every which way.
A chapel at the front of the church commemorates a grisly and storied event in Otranto’s history. In 1480, the Turks sacked the town. All those who survived the battle were required to convert to Islam. Those who refused, 800 men, women and children in all, were marched up to a nearby hill and beheaded. The stone that was used for turning these townsfolk into martyrs is displayed under the altar in the chapel. Even more striking though are the 7 glass cases artfully displaying the bones of all 800 people who were killed.
I know you’d never guess it from my sweet countenance, but I am fascinated by cemeteries and charnel houses (also called ossuary or bone houses.) A few years ago we saw an amazing charnel house chapel in Halstatt Austria containing the decorated skulls of the deceased from the town. Halstatt is located on a tiny patch of solid rock next to a lake. The local church only has enough workable ground to contain the bones of deceased residents for about 10 years. In order to make space for others, the bones are removed from the cemetery, bleached in the sun, and then the skulls are lovingly hand painted by descendants and placed in the chapel.
For most people, this is a creepy thought. For me, it is a practical solution to a real life problem that is carried out with love and dignity. I like it. The practice actually stopped mid-way through last century when the Catholic Church decided that cremation was permissible after all. The last bones to be placed in the charnel house were those of an elderly woman who passed away in the 1980s. She wanted to rest forever with her ancestors.
But, I digress. After the fascinating viewing of the bones, we walked around the rest of the town and attempted to get into the castle, but starting in October it is closed every Monday. Oh well. The heat and humidity were increasing, so after staring at the fish in the beautiful green harbor for awhile, we set out in search of a beach where we could swim, too.
A few miles north of Otranto we located Baia dei Alimini (Alimini Beach), a stunning stretch of white sand and turquoise waters, backed by a pine forest.
After some serious swimming and some serious napping, we lunched on grilled veggie antipasto and potato croquettes.
On our drive back along the coast, we discovered a stretch of road we had missed earlier due to the creative meanderings of our GPS unit on the trip out. Suddenly, rock cliffs and lush greenery rising straight up out of the sea surrounded us. On our left, a small gorge opened up to let the Adriatic in.
To our right, the canyon continued and curved up and out of sight. We decided we had to get out and take a look. THIS turned out to be the real highlight of the day.
As we looked off the edge of the bridge, we saw a tiny “beach” and a water cave down below us.
We followed the trail down to the beach and then up into the canyon. At the top of the trail we found an old deserted village made of stone structures typical of the Salento region.
They’re called pajara. I have no idea how old this village was. There were no signs of any kind, although there was a maintained trail leading up the hill, topped by a parking lot. Apparently you can drive in from the other direction. I know we didn’t discover it or anything, but it felt like a secret we had stumbled on to, all because we were willing to get out of the car and follow our feet and our hearts up a beautiful canyon. Benissimo.