I had just arrived in Gallipoli (gal-lee-poh-lee). Not the Gallipoli in Turkey that was the site of one of the most disastrous, and futile military campaigns of World War I. This Gallipoli is on the south-west coast of Puglia. Almost at the sole of the heel. I had made my way through a confusing tangle of narrow alleys to an enormous piazza overlooking the sea. In the middle of the piazza was a peculiar sight – a lone bench, that bizarrely faced away from the sea.
The narrow, twisting alleys were the legacy of the town’s Moorish conquerors. Although it was spared the horrors of its Turkish namesake, Gallipoli suffered a by now familiar succession of invaders eager to capitalize on its climate and strategic location – Greeks, Romans, Moors, Normans, Angevins, Aragons. As well as a few marauding Gothic tribes now and then. Luckily for today’s tourists, the various rulers left the layout of its centro storico largely intact and since it’s a peninsula – actually it’s an island, joined to the mainland by a bridge – you can’t get lost for long. Sooner or later you’ll come to the sea.
The range of shutters and door styles in Italy is seemingly endless. One of my favourites (photo below) is also one of the most popular in southern Italy. If you want a bit of fresh air, all you have to do is open the top shutters – which make a great rack for hanging the wash out to dry – and a simple curtain keeps the interior private.
Along one of the alleys was an Alimentari (a-lee-men-tah-ree) from the Latin alimentum which somehow comes from alere – to nurture. A mini grocery store. By the entrance was a bin of something called chiappiri.
I went over to see what these chiappiri were. No wonder I couldn’t understand the locals when they talked with one another. In the ‘Tuscan’ Italian I had learned, the pea-sized things are called acciughe (atch-choo-gay).
When I came around the corner past the chiappiri the last thing I expected to see was an enormous, ornately decorated church. Gallipoli’s cathedral. The alleys around are so tight and narrow – made even narrower because of the street vendors along the front – it’s impossible to get back far enough to get a good view, let alone a good shot of the whole thing.
If location of the cathedral came as a surprise, the interior was even more so. The walls above the altars along the nave are covered with enormous paintings that have a strongly secular – almost art gallery feel about them. Not at all like the frescoes in the churches of nearby Nardò (previous post).
Above the next altar, the miracles of the hermit monk, St. Francis of Paola,were portrayed. Without the explanatory panel next to the candelabras I wouldn’t have had a clue what was going on. The saint has just liberated a woman possessed of demons. I think it’s fair to say that nowadays the whole notion of exorcism is highly controversial. But a couple of centuries after the painting was finished, it wasn’t the subject matter was controversial. It was the abdomen – the clearly protruding abdomen of the woman in the red dress. Which was naked. That the viewer was meant to notice this detail is confirmed by the child at her feet reaching up to it. However, a couple of centuries later, the Ecclesiastic Board of Censure, having determined that the naked bit of anatomy was disdicevole (deez-dee-chay-voh-lay) – unbecoming, ordered an intervento. The offensive area was painted over. Which is why (you have to look closely to see this) the shade of red covering her abdomen doesn’t quite match the rest of her dress.
Coppola also produced the Trinità con le Anime del Purgatorio, a work he was particularly fond of, in fact so fond that in an era when it was still unusual for artists to sign their works, he displayed his name – preceded by the honorific Dottore – as well as the year of execution along the sword of the angel on the left. I can’t really make it out but I’ll take the word of the scholar who wrote the explanatory panel.
Close to the explanatory panel was another, less official-looking notice. IT IS ABSOLUTELY PROHIBITED TO MOVE THE CANDELABRA FROM THEIR PLACE. ESPECIALLY TO TAKE PHOTOS.
In a large area close to the main altar was a statue I initially took to be of the Virgin Mary. I later learned and should have known – after all the cathedral is called La Cattedrale di Sant’Agata – it was Saint Agatha, the beautiful and chaste young woman whose refusal to abandon a life dedicated to her Lord and rejection of the advances of a powerful suitor resulted in imprisonment in a brothel, then in a real prison (which may have been somewhat of a relief after the brothel), torture on the rack and a few other indignities before the enraged suitor ordered her breasts cut off.
From the cathedral I threaded my way along the narrow alleys towards the sea and landed in the piazza at the beginning of this post. The one with the oddly positioned bench.
After you’ve seen the cathedral and walked around the old town a while, the positioning of the bench makes a little more sense. It faces not one, but two of the small centre’s many churches.
While I stood there pondering the bench and the churches and the (to me) irresistible view of the sea, I began to notice some activity by the wall. A woman had arrived with a plastic bag which she handed to her companion, who then proceeded to climb down the rampart wall. As he approached ground level a bunch of cats appeared as if from nowhere.
At breakfast the owners of the B&B had been very insistent that I have a dinner reservation. There was going to be a lot of movimento that night and the restaurants were going to be very crowded. I was surprised. It was a Monday night. The tourist season hadn’t yet begun. But they had been right about Nardò so I agreed. They promised to call and make a reservation as soon as the restaurant opened. When I went back to the B&B to freshen up, I found a note. I had a reservation for 19:30 and I was to be sure to arrive on time. This struck me as a bit extreme. In any event, more because I didn’t want to make them look bad, than because I thought it was necessary, I was careful to arrive right on time. The restaurant was virtually empty. And as much as I like blue, I don’t find blue lighting conducive to eating under.
What with the empty tables, blue lighting and that semi-formal vibe I find so dissonant in seaside towns, I debated walking out. But then I thought of my hosts. So, not for the first time – hadn’t I done the same thing just the day before? – instead of leaving I ordered some wine. As usual, the label made for a fascinating read. ‘The line, Fregi Barocchi (Baroque Friezes) represents our day to day wine, omnipresent like the friezes that decorate the houses and follow you in the alleyways of the town. In your glass you will find the great vineyards of the Salento, made from young, aromatic and pleasant vines in which are present the emotions, aromas and taste that only the art of the baroque can give.’ Salute!
The menu, like the decor, was much more sophisticated than I would have expected my hosts to recommend. They were lovely, warm and caring, but like the B&B itself, simple and down to earth. I had expected something more in keeping with their style. It’s an assumption, a paradigm, I carry with me and that has tripped me up more than once. You would think I would learn. I ordered the seafood pasta. It too was sophisticated. And delicious.
While I ate – I’m a notoriously slow eater – the restaurant started to fill and before I was finished, the hostess was turning people away. I asked for il conto (be careful not to ask for il conte – the count), paid my bill and headed for the door. And that is when I caught my first glimpse of the movimento my B&B hosts had been so concerned about.
I waited until the procession passed and then darted across the lane and down another alley hoping to get in front of them. But I didn’t quite make it and ended up in front of the saint who, for my purposes, was going the wrong way.
I retraced my steps and raced down a couple more alleys, but it was no use. This time I came out behind the saint. In the end I just stood there and watched the procession. It’s probably a good thing I had no idea that later in my trip, when instead of a pleasant walk, I had a long drive back to my hotel along a narrow, unlit country road, I would get trapped in a much bigger procession.
Next – Beauty at the Bottom of the Heel