Ótranto

Italy

Follow the coastal road 35 miles south of Lecce—through the wild olives and scrub of the San Cataldo nature preserve, passing modest resort towns and, every few miles, a crumbling fifteenth-century stone defensive tower—to Ótranto, an ancient city of twisting, flagstone streets girded by a mighty wall.

Arriving at Otranto, the usual road leading into the Old Town from the top end is often blocked, so you have to park and walk along the curving road around the medieval walls to the gate by the sea. It is a worthwhile exercise, because in these days of rental cars and convenience one often forgets how well fortified these ancient seaports were.

A sheer wall of solid honey stone blocks rises 40 to 50 feet to your right the whole way around, topped by crenellations behind which archers could hide and planted at each corner with a fat guard tower. When you finally get to a doorway cut through the 10-foot-thick city wall, it leads only into a courtyard and gatehouse, with another fortified 60-foot wall you had to pass through, and under another guard tower, before you finally get into the narrow, twisting flagstoed streets of the ancient center.

Impressive.

This old Roman port is today a small fishing community with a rich medieval history. It's reigning sight is the 11th-century Cattedrale (tel. +39-0836-801437), whose floor is one gigantic canvas for wonderfully crudely medieval mosaic scenes entwined in the vines of a Tree of Life, all laid down by Norman craftsmen in 1163–65.

The floor is a wall-to-wall phantasmagoria of fantastical creatures: elephants aotrsnnd peacocks, cats with human feet, a horse body with three human heads atop serpentine necks, four lions' body sharing a single head. Two men battle with whirlpool shields and two long sticks. A huntress shoots a deer that is trying to pluck an arrow from its neck. Builders scramble up ladders to lay stone on some massive construction. A woman hunts a human-headed stag.

Alexander the Great stands before two griffins, Cain kills Abel by the choir, and up near the altar King Arthur ("Rex Artu") is surrounded by symbols of the months of the year, each represented by a typical scene of a peasant's life in that month. A few details seem downright inappropriate for the setting, especially the siren spreading the two halves of her tail in a kind of prehistoric Penthouse pose; it's an ancient symbol of fertility.

Up above the altar are Adam and Eve, bow-brandishing centaurs, King Soloman, and a scene of Hell where the damned wrestle with man-eating serpents below an enthroned, fork-tongued Satan.

The crypt below preserves Byzantine frescoes. The church is open daily 8am to noon and 3 to 5pm (7pm in summer).


The tiny round 7th-century church of San Pietro preserves a jigsaw of badly weathered but fantastic Byzantine frescoes from the 900s; open daily 9:30am to 1pm and 3:30 to 8pm (if closed, get the key at Piazza Duomo 1).

You can wander the halls and ramparts of the Castello Aragonese (built 1480) Monday to Saturday 9am to 1pm and 5pm to midnight, Sunday 10am to noon and 5pm to midnight (it may close earlier in winter).

Otranto is 46km (27.6 miles) from Lecce on the SS16. From Lecce, FSE runs one morning and two mid-afternoon buses to Otranto (80–115 min.; 6,500L/$3.80), as well as nine daily trains to Zollino, where you transfer for Maglie, where you can transfer again for Otranto (all the transfers are quick and easy; total travel time 70 min.; 4,700L/$2.75). There's a tourist office at Via P. Presbitero 12 (tel. +39- 0836-801-436).

Hotels in Ótranto

www.booking.com
www.airbnb.com
www.bedandbreakfast.com
www.hostelworld.com

Where to eat in Otranto

Trattoria Da Sergio – I first found this trattoria a short walk from the cathedral by following the clink of cutlery and tinkle of glasses to an open doorways. When I entered, the chef was sitting at a table with his family and bouncing his young son on one knee. He smiled a "buongiorno" at me, kissed the toddler on the head as he passed him to his mother, and got up to head back into the kitchen while owner Sergio wanderd over to help me decide (there was no menu in evidence) that I would have heaping plate of linguine studded with a generous helping of two kinds of shrimp. Sergio then went back into the kitchen to come out with a conga line of appateizers and an oversize plate piled with the best of the day's catch, which he picked himself down at the docks that morning. I chose the roast sea bass, and Sergio insisted that it needed a couple of giant prawns, "to keep the fish company on the plate." I foudn that it's best to just crack open a bottle of Salice Salentino wine and order whatever Sergio suggests.
Corso Garibaldi 9, Ótranto,tel. +39- 011-39/0836-801-408

La Terrazza – If you've made it this far sough in Puglia, you're probably sick of orecchiette and involtini. The owners of this new popular spot may be Italian, but the wine is Cretan, the chef from Corfu, and the Greek feast sublime. First they brought out spanikopita (phyllo dough layered with spinach and cheese) and various Greek dips for your bread. By the time the herbed octopus and rice-stuffed red bell pepper arrived, I realized they weren't going to show me a menu, so I sat back and enjoyed it. There followed a baked eggplant-based moussaka, souvlaki (chicken shishkebobs), cake, and Greek yoghurt drizzled with honey and chopped nuts. You can sit under the high vaulted ceilings or out on the namesake terrace overlooking the bay from the outermost corner of the city's ancient ramparts.
Via Scupoli (up on first floor). tel. +39-340-189-7828. Reservations highly recommended.

Tips & links

Tourist information

Tourist offices
Via P. Presbitero 12
tel. +39- 0836-801-436).

Piazza Castello
tel. +39-0836-80-14-36
www.comune.otranto.le.it

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Details

Tourist offices
Via P. Presbitero 12
tel. +39- 0836-801-436).

Piazza Castello
tel. +39-0836-80-14-36
www.comune.otranto.le.it



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