The Town of a Thousand Churches

I don’t know which is worse.  To be lost or not to be lost, but think you are.  I drove round and round the traffic circle. Then I gave up and parked down a side street close to the fountain.  In front of one of those hole-in-the-wall operations.   A music store.  The kind of music store frequented by people many decades younger than I.  The young man at the counter was the model of graciousness as he explained that what I was looking for – il centro storico di Nardò – was right in front of me.  Just past the lamp post to the right of the castle.   I put more money in the meter and headed over.


Hidden in plain view.  The lane to the historic centre of Nardò starts at the castle.

I may have mentioned this before, but since it’s one of those easily forgotten quirks, before we go on, a word about that accent at the end of the town’s name.  Unlike French, which, as even the linguistically challenged among you will probably remember from High School, has two of these apostrophe-like accents, Italian has only one.  And, you’ll probably be pleased to know, it’s much more user-friendly than the French ones.  It always points down to the right, is only ever found at the end of a word and has only one function – to let you know that the stress goes on that last syllable. Nar-doh.


On my way over to the castle, I passed a group of men standing in the shade of a tree.  A Moreton Bay Fig, aka Australian Banyan Tree.  It was rather small as these trees go – I have a post in the wings with a spectacular one in the Botanical Gardens of Palermo – but it still had the characteristic, octopus-like base.  In front of which was a plaque.


To Giovanni Falcone, Paolo Borsellino and all the victims of the Mafia on the twentieth anniversary of the massacres of Capaci and Via d’Amelio.

On May 23, 1992 Giovanni Falcone, the chief prosecutor in the anti-Mafia campaign, flew down from Rome accompanied by his wife and three body guards.  They landed at the Punta Raisi airport at 17:48, and within a few minutes were on the A29 heading to Palermo.  At 17:58, close to the off-ramp for Capaci, a few kilometres from Palermo, 500 kilograms of explosives hidden in a drain pipe under the highway, went off, killing all five of them.

Paolo Borsellino, who had worked closely with Falcone and considered him his mentor, led the funeral service.  Fifty-seven days later, on July 19, 1992, while on his way to visit his mother  – despite countless death threats he refused to give up this Sunday ritual – a bomb in a car parked in front of his mother’s building exploded, killing Borsellino and his five body guards.   In the preceding months those very body guards, believing that the narrowness of Via d’Amelio added to the level of danger, had repeatedly requested that the Palermo authorities prohibit parking in front of the building.


In front of the castle another of nature’s wonders, a Jacaranda Tree still in bloom.

The castle, built by the Aragonese rulers, is now the Villa Comunale.  The villa of the comune (coh-moo-nay). Town Hall.   I discovered this when I walked in expecting to see a sumptuous interior and found only uninspiring admin offices.  I suspect the upper floor – off-limits to the public – is quite different.


The pink and cream variety of lantana is much harder to find in nurseries back home than the orange, but to my mind well worth the hunt.

In the 18oo’s, the Aragon rulers long gone, the fortress castle was transformed into a sumptuous residence and the moat filled in, except along the west side.  Here they created a lush, private giardino inglese, the so-called English Garden that was all the rage across Europe at the time. I thought I recognized the tree hanging over the garden wall.


Tree ID is not my forte, but not many trees have red flowers like this one so when I first saw it – in the Vatican Gardens of all places – I looked it up.  (The guide wasn’t good on tree ID either.  Her focus was the Vatican.)


Erythrina cristina galli, aka Cockspur Coral Tree, the national flower and tree of Argentina. As exotic today as it would have been In the 19th century.

Like many gardens, this one had been neglected in the difficult post-war period and eventually was closed to the public. But recently the town had found the will and, even more of a challenge, the funds to restore the garden.  The goal was to recreate the original ‘giardino dello stupore‘ while respecting the stratificazioni nobili.  I have no idea what the ancient class structure had to do with anything, but as for the ‘wonder, that referred to another 19th century craze – exotica from far-off places.  I’m all in favour of such endeavours and was curious to have a look.  But – and maybe this was because I’d just come from La Cutura (previous post) – I struggled to feel the stupore.  Or maybe, as the gardener who was sweeping up put it, the garden wasn’t at its best right then.  I continued along the lane towards Piazza Salandra.


Not for the first time, I had to remind myself I wasn’t in Sicily. This baroque entrance was so like the ones I’d seen in  the baroque hilltop towns of the Val di Noto.

Along the way I passed by the first of many churches.


The church of St. Joseph. Mid 1700’s.

Except for where they widened into little piazzas in front of the churches, the lanes were so narrow the sun had a time time reaching down to ground level.  This was no problem for the plant lovers who lived on the upper floors.


I wonder, before buying all those geraniums does the gardener take home a petal or two to make sure it matches the wall?


Here’s a nice railing for your plants. Although I probably would have gone for something a bit splashier.


Detail of La Chiesa di San Domenico.

Beyond the church dedicated to San Domenico, the spires of another church were visible.


Coming around the corner, I felt as if I had stumbled on the stage setting for a movie.


Piazza Salandra.  The social and political centre of the town.

Towering almost 20 meters over the piazza is the Guglia dell’Immacolata.  I’m not even sure what we call such a structure in English.  ‘Spire’ doesn’t sound right, but it seems that’s all we have.  Back in the 1700’s, when Nardò’s guglia was built – per volontà popolare (by will of the people) – building monuments like this was a popular form of devotion in the south of Puglia.


At the very top, a statue of the Virgin mounted on a globe.  How has she survived all the earthquakes and bombings – World War II especially?  And how did they get her up there in the first place?

Around the spire are all the important religious and administrative buildings that even a small village needs.  I thought the loveliest was the Chiesa di San Trifone, built in the 18th century, also per volontà popolare, in gratitude to San Trifone, protector of the crops, for having miraculously ended a particularly severe locust invasion.


La Chiesa di San Trifone, protector of the crops.

Continuing clock-wise around the piazza the next official-looking building was a rather plain, boxy affair dominated by a large arch.  I was happy to learn that notwithstanding the statues on top it was not a church, but the local Tourist Office, although here, as in many places in Italy, it is confusingly called the Pro Loco. (Or maybe not so confusingly, given that loco – I know, I’m mixing languages here – is how you often feel while you’re looking for these places.)


There are no signs or posters in front of Il Sedile.  Nothing at all to detract from the building’s 13th century façade.  Or to let visitors know the tourist office is inside.

On top of the Sedile was the typical kind of ornamentation you find on buildings all over southern Italy.  Arricchito di contaminazioni rococò is how one visitor put it. I’m not sure what ‘enriched with contaminations’, Rococo or otherwise means, but in any event, what was not typical and what I paid no attention to at the time (which is why I (sigh) don’t have a close-up) were the two medallions below.  They symbolize the heads of a group of peasants and six priests who, after a 17-year reign of terror and cruelty, had rebelled against Il Guercio di Puglia, the one-eyed Spanish governor, who according to one commentator seemed to be un impasto (dough or mixture) of religion and ferocity, who while he took pride in his name being prominently displayed above the church altars, also had no qualms about chopping off the heads of unruly citizens, clergy included, come se si fosse trattato di scapare acciughe.  As if he were chopping off the heads of anchovies.

The rebels’ demands were, of course, the usual modest ones – the abolition of exorbitant taxes on essentials like bread, flour and salt; the right to a more dignified life – and by this they meant the abolition of nefarious customs such as jus primae noctis, which I suspect is more commonly referred to in English by the French expression, le droit du seigneur.  (As if  medieval English lords didn’t engage in such foul behaviour.)

While the piazza was still flowing with the blood of the decapitated wretches, Il Guercio ordered that the heads of the priests be mounted on spikes in front of the Sedile, where, in the service of giustizia. (joo-steets-see-uh), they were to remain for 72 days.


When I took this photo I had no idea what I was looking at. Ignorance sometimes really is bliss.

I was surprised when the young woman at the Pro Loco handed me a rather faded, flimsy piece of paper – one side only – when I asked for a piantina.  Usually, even in the smallest of centres, you get a lovely, full-colour pamphlet on high quality paper with photos and descriptions of all the sights and a nice, big map that even travellers of a certain age can read without a magnifying lens. In any event, I was glad for the map such as it was.  Nardò is not one of those medieval centres a first-time visitor can just wander around at will.  It doesn’t have the typical, circular labyrinth pattern of the hilltop towns.  Was more like a star.  It had been easy enough to find Piazza Salandra.  There were lots of signs.  But from here, without the map, there was no way of knowing which of the narrow alleys around the piazza to take.  I certainly would never have guessed that one of the narrowest and least promising-looking, the one to the right of the Sedile, led to the cathedral.


Does this look like it leads to a grand cathedral? Via Duomo.

And if it hadn’t been for the little church icon and the barely legible legend on my little map, I probably would have kept on walking right past the cathedral.  It looked like just one more of the town’s many churches.  By the way, there aren’t thousands of course, but with one seemingly around every corner, you begin to wonder how many there are.  And why there are so many.


La Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta. In a region where extravagant baroque is the norm, the façade of Nardò’s cathedral seems especially austere.

Don’t judge a book by its cover, they say.  Well sometimes, especially in ancient settlements like Nardò, which may have been founded as early as the 7th century BC,  it’s a good idea not to judge a cathedral by its façade.  Especially when it’s the result of centuries of rimaneggiamenti (ree-mah-nayj-jah-men-tee) – a fabulous word with a slightly pejorative note that perfectly captures the modifications, repairs and ’embellishments’ wrought by successive conquerors and religious denominations. And a few earthquakes.

When the Normans arrived in 1055 and drove out the Saracens, who were in the process of destroying the town after having driven out the previous invaders, who in turn had driven out the Byzantines, who had taken over the town after the fall of the (Western) Roman Empire in 476, which had been preceded by centuries of domination by the Romans, who had driven out the Greeks and on and on into the mists of time.  Back to the Normans.   Once the Saracens had been dispatched, like most conquerors, the next item on the Normans’ agenda was to build something to commemorate their victory.  Since the most powerful symbol in those days was a church, they scouted around and soon found a suitable site.  And in one of those twists of irony that history is full of, the site they chose was an abbey that had been built by Basilian monks who had fled persecution during the Iconoclastic Period when religious images – icons – were prohibited by the leaders of the Byzantine aka Eastern Roman Church.

I hadn’t planned on visiting Nardò.  In fact, before the owner of the B&B I was staying at in Gallipoli mentioned it, despite my usual extensive (excessive?) research, I hadn’t even heard of the town.  But she was very insistent.  Really, it would be well worth my while.  There were some magnificent frescoes in the churches.  Especially the cathedral.

She was right.  The columns and walls were covered with frescoes.


On one of the columns La Madonna del Giglio (mid 14th century) portrays the Christ Child reaching out for the giglio (fleur-de-lis), symbol of the Angevin (aka House of Anjou) rulers.


Detail of a 14th century triptych of the Madonna with Child, Mary Magdalene and St. Nicholas.


Saint Anthony. 14th century.

Some things about human nature, it seems, never change.  One of them is the urge to update.  Our kitchens.  Our bathroom.  Our faces.  Our cars.   And worst of all, our devices.  Every time I finally give in and agree to install one of those updates that I am promised will ensure my computer continues to work (relatively) glitch-free, the havoc that ensues in the few programs I know how to use makes me swear I will never do it again. In any event, back in the early 1700’s, the governors of Nardò decided that the Norman façade of the cathedral needed to be updated. Fortunately their ambitions did not extend to the interior of the cathedral, so before the demolition crew got going, items close to the façade were moved.  One of them was the Altare delle Anime del Purgatorio (Altar of the Souls of Purgatory).  However, although it survived the demolition crew intact, it did not fare so well during the transfer and ornate as it is, the altar we see today is in parte decurtato from the original.


The chopped off, yet still remarkably ornate Altar of the Souls in Purgatory.


Altar of The Archangel Saint Michael. 1647

There was so much to see I missed several note-worthy items, one of which was a Black Crucifix carved out of black cedar which, although officially from the 13th century, is particularly venerated because of a tradition according to which it started to bleed when some ‘Turks’ tried to steal it. In the 6th century.


Later on in my trip I saw statues like this carried in solemn processions through towns like Nardò.

I read later that the altar is rather special too, but at the time I hardly glanced at it. There was too much going on behind and above it.




Above the altar an enormous fresco of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary.

Back in Piazza Salandra, a couple of tourists – the only ones I’d seen all morning – were standing in front of an arch.  I went over to have a look.


La Fontana del Toro.  The (now waterless) Fountain of the Bull.

Even though it was the newest monument in the piazza, after the centuries of architectural pastiches I’d seen so far, the fountain didn’t look at all out of place.  Or maybe I’m showing the limits of my architectural knowledge.  In any event, it was created in 1930 to fill the empty space left when the office of the clerk responsible for lighting the town’s gas street lights became redundant.  It portrays a much loved legend of the ancient origins of the town, according to which a toro, with a single blow of its paw, had caused water to gush forth from the rocky ground.


The toro is also a symbol of the powerful Aragon families who once ruled the area. In the arch surrounding the mighty beast, writhing eels symbolize the purity of the water.


To make sure everyone got the point, on the right, another bull, wearing a Spanish crown, paws the earth.

When I got up close to take a photo of the crowned bull, I noticed the inscription.  Since it had a Latinate feel about it, I initially read the ‘V’s’  as ‘U’s’. But somehow I also inverted the V/U and the O in the third word and read TAURO NON BUOI.  And immediately up popped – who knows how these things happen? – a memory.  A highly disagreeable one.  This was not one of Proust’s lovely madeleines-inspired memories.  It was of a proverb that had been explained to me decades earlier.  Mogli e buoi dei paesi tuoi.    Wives and oxen from your own villages.  It means exactly what you’re thinking.  In the old days, when oxen were used to plough the fields and perform all sorts of hard labour, everyone knew that it was important that the oxen, who always worked in pairs, were compatible. Therefore, to minimize the risk of an unhappy marriage, the wise peasant looked no further than his own village for a wife.

The actual inscription reads TAURO NON BOVI.   Toro non bue.  Bull not ox.  Apparently the distinction is an important one. It was time to explore the rest of the town.  I set off along another of the alleys around Piazza Salandra.  I soon came to another charming little piazza.


Chiesa di Sant’Antonio da Padova in the very lovely and very quiet Piazza di… Sant’Antonio.

The façade was lovely, but simple.  Not surprising, given that the town’s cathedral was only a few blocks away.  I stepped inside thinking to find a simple interior to match.


Not at all what I expected.


There were more churches, but by now I felt I’d got the gist of things here.  Besides, I was hungry.  But since I’d spent a lot more time than I’d anticipated, before I started looking at places to eat, I went back to put more money in the meter. I needn’t have worried.  It turned out that while it may not be as well known as some places, Nardò is one of those beacons of civilization where parking is free during the generously long, lunch break.  Since the young man in the music store wasn’t busy, I asked him if there was a place nearby where the food was semplice e genuina.   Sì, signora!  He knew the perfect place for me.  The owners were wonderful.  The food was exquisite, beautifully prepared.  It was the best restaurant in the region. I began to be concerned.  It may have been genuina, but it was not sounding at all semplice. I was not to preoccupare myself.  No worries Signora, you will not be disappointed.  He got up and pointed past the Banyan tree to a small alley on the right.  All I had to do was turn right at the first alley I came to and after a few hundred metres I’d be there. It seemed ungrateful not to check it out.


Even if the restaurant wasn’t as simple and genuine as I hoped, the walk along the alley was worth it. I walked back and forth under this Bougainvillea trying to see what was holding it up.

When I got to the Hostaria Corte Santa Lucia, well past 1 pm, a respectable hour even for the south, all the tables in the corte (courtyard) were empty.  Not a good sign.  But it was hot and I was hungry.  The warm greeting of the young woman who would be my waitress was all it took to make up my mind.  It was cooler, she suggested, in the sala interna – an enormous, beautifully decorated room, obviously the main eating area – but after a long Canadian winter I was craving sunlight.


It was mid May. The tourist season wouldn’t begin for a few weeks at least. Even so it was surprisingly hot. I sat down at a table in the shade.

I began to have second thoughts when she brought the menu.  It was one of those tomes you typically find in upscale restaurants. Not in a simple ostaria or trattoria.  Or at least what those words used to represent.  Nowadays you can’t always rely on the old hierarchy – expensive, elegant ristoranti at the top; inexpensive, simple trattorias at the bottom.   Maybe it started with young chefs who wanted to create high quality food without the stuffiness of the formal restaurant.  In any event, having sat down, I found I had no desire to get up.  Instead I ordered un quarto di vino bianco locale (1/4 litre of local white wine).     Then I started to explore the menu.  There were lots of dishes I would have liked to try if I had been staying in town and if this was dinner.  But since it was lunch and since I had to drive back to Gallipoli, I turned to the page with the Piatti del giorno.  Specialties of the day.   I ordered Burrata artigianale e Capocollo di Martina Franca.  Artisanal burrata (a Pugliese specialty similar to, but creamier than the mozzarella di bufalà produced in the Amalfic Coast area) and capocollo from Martina Franca, a town in northern Puglia.


Burrata and capocollo.  Two Pugliese specialties.

The burrata and capocollo were so good I had to try a dish made by the chef.  Even though the grigliata mista was tempting, from past experience I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to eat it all and then the waitress would be worried I hadn’t liked it, so I decided on the pasta del giorno.  I love fresh pasta and I love trying local specialities.  To make pasta alla chitarra, the dough is rolled out in sheets, then placed on wires strung along the length of a rectangular wood frame – the guitar – and pressed through the wires with a rolling pin.

While  I waited for my pasta to arrive I took a closer look at the menu.  There were a lot of words I didn’t recognize – spunziali and stanati were probably either a local delicacy or dialect.  The type of things even Italians from other regions wouldn’t know.  And then there was a word that appeared in several items that I did know, but had a hard time believing it was what I knew it was.  Amongst the Piatti del giorno was an entry for something called ‘Pezzetti’ di cavallo al sugo and among the secondi (main courses) was a meat dish called Miero e cavallo.  I’d seen cavallo for sale in markets in Sicily as well as in Puglia, but I did not expect to see it on the menu of a high-end restaurant.  Cavallo means horse.

Apart from a few locals, who arrived shortly after me, there were no other customers, so the second time the manager walked by my table, as if looking for something to do, I asked him what the words meant.  He was delighted to enlighten me.  Spunziali is dialect for green onions.  It comes from spuntare, standard Italian for ‘to sprout’.  Stanati are the grandi padelle (enormous pans) used for preparing many traditional local dishes.  And, I asked hesitantly, cavallo? By now it was obvious that despite not knowing a few local terms, I had no difficulty with italiano.  It was also obvious that I knew what cavallo, a standard Italian word, meant.  He looked at me, rather intently, and then, to my relief, said, ‘Siccome Lei è curiosa.. Since I was  curious, he was going to indulge me and explain.  Miero, from the Latin merus meaning schietto (pure, unadulterated) was a local word for the extremely strong red wines of Puglia.  If you wanted your wine less strong – ‘tagliato‘ (cut) – you could of course add water, but water has always been scarce in the Salento.  In the past, since pigs need lots of water, there were very few peasants who could afford to raise them.  Even sheep were expensive.  So most peasants only kept horses, which they used to transport them to and from their often distant fields.  When the horses were too old to work, they were slaughtered and twice a year the peasant and his family ate meat.  In the mid 1800’s an English doctor visiting the Salento was amazed to discover that notwithstanding the obviously hard life, the average lifespan of the local peasants was much longer than in his native country. Eventually he linked the longevity and extremely good health of those peasants to their diet which consisted of lots of vegetables, fish, pasta, miero and very little red meat. It was the original Mediterranean Diet.  And, my instructor concluded,  Miero e cavallo was the peasants’ twice yearly feast of horse meat stewed in red wine.



Thick, squarish spaghetti in a tomato-free (in bianco) seafood sauce. Deliziosi!

I managed to eat all the guitar pasta, but as tempting as it was, I could not find room for the dessert of the day – panna cotta with coffee and almond cream.  I ordered an espresso and when I couldn’t put it off any longer, I left the cool courtyard and went out into the now blistering afternoon sun and headed back to my car.

As I walked past the Banyan Tree again, I thought of all the men and women who had died in the seemingly endless war against the mafia.  When asked how, despite all the people who had been murdered, many of them close friends and colleagues, and despite all the death threats he continued to receive, he found the courage – and the will – to go on, Falconi would refer to an old saying:

‘Chi tace e chi piega la testa muore ogni volta che lo fa,/Chi parla e chi cammina a testa alta muore una volta sola.’  Those who remain silent and look the other way die every time they do so,/Those who speak up and walk with their heads held high die only once.


In the distance, Gallipoli.


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2 Responses to The Town of a Thousand Churches

  1. LMSantarossa says:

    Another great post. But is Nardò in Puglia or Sicily? Oh wait, I see it is Puglia from the “This entry was point in Puglia, Southern Italy!! What a wonderful town and what great food. We really need to plan that trip. I want to see so many of these places, it will be hard to narrow them down!

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