Friday, April 6, 2012


Getting to Otranto was a bit of an adventure, or hassle, as some might say. First, I had to locate the Ferrovaria Sud-Est, the regional train service that is used in southern Puglia. There were no signs indicating its location, which turned out to be in back of the more often used Trenitalia station in Lecce. As it turns out, the FSE ticket agent was much friendlier than the Trenitalia guy, and did his best to make sure I understood him. Then I had to find binario (track) 7, though only 1-5 were listed. Oh, I get it, they added two more binari, but forgot to include signs for them. Then there were two trains available, one behind another, and one had to ask to find out which train went where. While waiting for information, I talked a bit with a couple from Saskatchewan, who were headed west but speak no Italian, and I wished them well on their journey as we parted ways on the two trains.

The landscape south of Lecce is rocky and covered with a virtual sea of olivi (olive trees), which some claim  to have been around for thousands of years. Puglia produces most of the olive oil in Italy, as well as most of the wheat. Mussolini, in an attempt to make Italy more self-sufficient, instigated large scale farming of wheat, which continues to this day. In my travels so far, I’ve not seen the vast fields of wheat that are akin to those at home in Kansas. Instead, the landscape I’ve witnessed has been filled with rocks, cactus, olivi and/or the Adriatic Sea. I tried to take photos, but it was impossible from the train. I do have a few good videos of the passing landscape, but they're too long to upload for this post.
I had to change trains in Maglie, and as the only foreigner on board, was looked after by the train porter to make sure I knew when to get off. From Maglie, we headed east for another half hour, and once we arrived in Otranto, I could feel the chill in the air: it was a good ten degrees cooler than it had been in Lecce. While trying to make sense of the map to my hotel, a man approached me, asking if I spoke English. He offered to help me find my hotel. It wasn’t the first time that a Puglesi has offered to help me without being asked. Several times when I lost my way in the streets of Lecce, people eagerly came to my rescue. Some even accompanied me along the way, eager to chat about the reasons for my stay in their city.

Otranto, centro storico
As it turns out, P. would become a too-eager companion for the next few days: he seemed to have little to do and appointed himself as my tour guide, and it was tricky trying to dissuade him from this task. Having studied English and being trained as a tour guide for five years, he wanted to share his knowledge, but his assumption that I would want to spend all my time with him was annoying.

There are three main sights in Otranto: the sea, the basilica with its mosaic floor, and the castle. It is also the most eastern point of Italy, and some say that the coast of Albania across the Adriatic can be seen on a clear day. The seascape is wilder than other parts of the Adriatic coast that I’d seen previously, and the water is pristine, earning Otranto its reputation as The Pearl of the Sea.

A view of the wild beach near the hotel.
There is a dark side to its history, however. In 1480, during an invasion by Turkish Moors, all the citizens were beheaded, after refusing to denounce their Christian faith. The remains of these martyrs are kept in the basilica, with their skulls on view behind glass plated windows. Behind the altar, they have stored the stone on which everyone was decapitated. A bit macabre, to say the least. (And it begs the question, if everyone was martyred, who was around to collect their remains?)

Part of the mosaic that covers the entire floor of the basilica. 
 For more views of the mosaic in intricate detail, check out this link: Otranto Cattedrale mosaici

The chapel with the skulls behind glass.
The hotel I stayed in, Hotel La Punta, had only one guest: me! For a large hotel, it was odd to have the place to myself. The staff was not around most of the time that I was there, but were friendly and helpful when I was there, and I was provided with a telephone number to call any time of the day and night, should I need it. Though the hotel was located near the sea, it was a good 15- minute walk to the town center, which I enjoyed most of the time. The main problem is that I was unable use the internet connection at the hotel, so I had to go to an internet point in town to access it. It was the last week of my online course, so I needed to check in daily for email from my students.

la strada vuota (empty street during siesta)
I had an excellent meal during my stay in Otranto, at a seafood restaurant: it consisted of polpette di melanzane (eggplant fritters shaped like meatballs) and arrosto di mare (grilled fillets of calamaro, swordfish and two large prawns.) I’d actually ordered risotto di mare (seafood risotto), but the waiter misunderstood and brought me the grilled plate of fish instead. When I explained his error, he apologized, and took the plate back, saying he would order the risotto. Well, that would take at least 30 minutes to make, so I said I would eat the fish instead. In fact, I’d wanted to eat fish in the first place, but was put off by the cost. Since he made the error, and I saved them having to discard the fish, I hoped I’d at least get a discount on the fish plate. Wishful thinking: I was charged the usual price. But I decided not to haggle with him about it, as I was the only customer that day, and it really was worth it.

A monument to the heroes and martyrs of Otranto, with the castle in the background.
In the end, staying for three days in Otranto was one too many: in fact, one would have been sufficient. I was disappointed that I was unable to have long walks by the beach, as I had envisioned doing: there were simply no beaches where walking along the shore was easy to do. And the few spots I did find were often littered with trash.  In addition, as P. became more insistent, stating that he planned to accompany me back to Lecce, I became worried about how to get away from him. He barraged me with phone calls, voicemail and text messages, demanding my attention. When he refused to listen when I told him that I didn't want him to come, I realized I needed to put a stop to his plans.  In the end, I left town several hours earlier than expected, simply to escape from him. His response: SEI MALEDUCATA! (You are rude!) Hmmm, I thought the same about him!

I'm glad I had a chance to check the town out, and perhaps it would be more interesting when the weather gets warmer, but my time there was spoiled by the creepy guy who wouldn't leave me alone.

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