Sometimes, as I’m gathering the photos and info for a post – especially one that strays from the ‘Loving Italy’s Gardens’ theme – I become vaguely squilibrata. What takes away my equilibrio (tacking ‘s’ on the front of a word turns it into its opposite) isn’t the disconnect between the snow blowing outside my window – as late as April some years! – and the photos I’m looking at, but rather the unsettling awareness of how familiar-sounding the events that occurred in these places are. And yet those events occurred hundreds, sometimes thousands of years ago. Take Otranto for example.
Otranto comes from odra, the ancient Messapian word for water, which may explain why the stress is shifted from Italian’s normal penultimate (second to last) syllable to the first, making it Oh-tran-toe. There are quite a few of these pronunciation anomalies in southern Italy, but not to worry, locals will quickly set you straight. Otranto’s location, far down the east coast of Puglia, at the narrowest point between Italy and the east coast of the Adriatic Sea meant that water has played a major role in its history. After the Greeks came the Romans, who developed the port into one of the most important in the eastern trade route, a role it would continue to play under successive conquerors. Its strategic location was also of interest to the Pope in Rome. Over 12,000 Crusaders were blessed in the cathedral of Otranto before setting off to liberate the Holy Land from the Infidels. (Add as many air quotes as you see fit.) But the crusades went two-ways – only the name changed – the Muslims called their crusades jihad, an ancient term that many of us, I suspect, only began to hear in the last decade or so – and in 1480 Otranto was attacked.
En route to Rome, a Turkish fleet of 150 ships carrying 18,000 soldiers landed along the shores around Otranto. After two weeks of fighting they stormed the town and proceeded to murder all males under 15 years of age, and round up the women and children to be sold into slavery. Except for 800, who along with the bishop, sought refuge in the cathedral.
From what I’d read, the highlight of the cathedral was a mosaic floor, which the Ottomans, despite having demolished the façade and frescoes and converted the church into a mosque, had inexplicably spared. Or perhaps dared not touch. Said to be the biggest in Europe, it portrays the Tree of Life. But this is no ordinary Tree of Life. This one grows out of the backs of two elephants, a male and a female and although many of the scenes along its branches are the typical stories from the Bible meant to show the illiterate masses the path from sin to redemption – the Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, the building of Noah’s Ark, Cain and Abel, Sampson, the Tower of Babel – there are many other, less typical scenes. Unicorns and centaurs from Greek mythology. King Arthur and other figures from legends and history. A veritable medieval zoo of domesticated and wild animals – including one four-bodied creature with a human head. And a bearded centaur with a chessboard on its head. Unfortunately I didn’t get to see much of it because of the chairs that had been set out for mass and the tour groups.
On the other hand I had a clear view of the ceiling.
After a while I got tired of peering over the heads of the group trying to see the various scenes their leader was pointing out and headed along the right nave to the front of the church. I began to wonder – there was a lot of glare – what was in the glass cases behind the altar. At a certain point there was no doubt as to what I was seeing.
After the Ottomans had hunted down and either killed or captured the citizens who hadn’t made it to the shelter of the cathedral, they turned their attention to the ones barricaded inside the holy building. Rather than massacring them outright, the Muslim leader offered the Christian captives a means of salvation. Any who renounced their faith and converted to Islam would be spared. Not one of the captives chose physical over spiritual salvation.
The poor bishop was hacked to pieces on the spot and then, as the story goes, his head was stuck onto a pole and paraded through the town, which doesn’t make any sense to me. For whose effect? Hadn’t the rest of the townspeople already been killed or captured? In any event the 800 ‘Martiri d’Otranto‘ as they came to be known were marched to the Hill of Minerva on the outskirts of the city where, one by one, they were beheaded.
Legend has it that the first martyr remained standing – headless – until all the last of the 800 fell to the executioner’s axe. If the story ended here, one could say it was meant to promote courage and stamina and the importance of standing by one’s convictions – hopefully head intact – even in the face of great adversity. But the story goes on. One of the Turkish executioners was so amazed by the strength of the headless Christian’s faith, he threw aside his axe and declared himself a Christian. For his conversion he was impaled. (I wasn’t sure I knew exactly what impalato meant. I looked it up in Italian and what I read turned my stomach. Then, to be sure, I checked the English. Same effect.) There was one more thing. Outside, on the steps leading up to the Chiesa dei Santi Martiri, the church that was built a couple of centuries later in memory of the martyrs, is a column, said to be the one on which the poor Turk died a slow, cruel death. What is the point of keeping the instrument of the would-be Christian’s agonizing death? And why place it outside the church? What kind of story is that? Sadly, the kind of story that is in the news all too often to this day.
It was time for a breath of fresh air. Preferably fresh, sea air. And I knew just where to go. Sandro, at the B&B, had given me the directions at breakfast that morning. La Baia dei Turchi (buy-uh day tour-key), just a few kilometres north of the city.
I followed the signs for a percorso cicloturistico (bicycle route) along a narrow, rough road that abruptly ended at a pine grove. There were NO PARKING signs all over the place, but a local assured me that despite the gorgeous weather, the stagione (season) hadn’t started yet and I could safely park. A path through the pine trees led to the sea and the bay where the Turkish fleet had landed so many centuries ago.
The crystal clear waters and the shoreline unmarred by development, didn’t happen by chance. The bay is now part of the Oasi Protetta dei Laghi Alimini, one of the most important ecosystems in Puglia. In 2006 a company had started building a huge resort along the shore. Local citizens, supported by the WWF and Legambiente, Italy’s largest environmental association, mounted a series of protests against the project, which everyone, the developer more than anyone, knew was illegal. The following year FAI (Fondo Ambiente Italiano) the non-profit foundation established in 1975 to safeguard Italy’s artistic and natural heritage, added its voice to the protests. It included the Baia dei Turchi in its list of luoghi del cuore, 100 ‘Places of the Heart’. It was, as these protests are everywhere, a David and Goliath battle, pitting the cash-strapped protectors of the environment against a powerful developer with deep pockets.
Eventually – the wheels of justice turn agonizingly lentamente in Italy – the authorities decided in favour of the protestors. They ruled that several violations had been made in the procedura and realizzazione of the resort, including damage to the surrounding Mediterranean vegetation and ordered the site shut down. But the protesters’ celebrations were short-lived. Less than a year later the developer, having modified his application from the original stabilimento balneare (beach-side resort) to a (deceptively) more modest spiaggia libera con servizi (public beach with services) was granted a new licence to build.
The protesters resumed in greater numbers, demanding that not just the authorities in Otranto, but also the governors of the Region of Puglia join the fight and pass legislation that ensured the bay would remain free of commercial structures. In July 2007, the city of Otranto withdrew the construction permit and ordered the removal of the structure by Oct. 7 of that year.
A desultory show of dismantling the structure at the beginning of October came to an abrupt halt after only a few days. The developer had launched an appeal to the local TAR (Tribunale Amministrativo Regionale) one of 20 regional tribunes in Italy. Unlike the OMB (Ontario Municipal Board) which, as far as I can make out, ALWAYS decides in favour of developers, the TAR in Puglia decided in favour of the protesters. But the real effects of victory were still a long time coming. The developer dragged out the clean-up operation and beach goers had to keep an eye out for rusty nails, and metal fencing half-buried in the sand and other hazards until the site was finally totally cleaned up in 2009.
Sandro had also told me of another place that I assolutamente needed to see. Some people walked to it from Baia dei Turchi, but it was probably better that I took the car.
The bay of Torre dell’Orso is a kilometre-long stretch of soft, sandy beach. At the north end is The Bear’s Tower and the town full of hotels and restaurants that would soon be packed. But today the beach was quiet, just a few visitors. After all, the season hadn’t yet begun. I rolled up my capris and walked down to the south end of the bay.
At the south end a cliff rose abruptly out of the sea. It didn’t look as if there was room for a path along the shore line. Do hikers from the Baia dei Turchi have to climb the cliff? Maybe if I lived here, I would have walked, but for now I was glad I’d taken Sandro’s advice and driven. I’m sure the hike here would have been wonderful, but I wasn’t so sure about the return trip.
The two faraglioni (rocky outcrops) at this end of the bay are called le due Sorelle. The Two Sisters. They have been watching over the bay ever since the day when, having grown tired of their household chores, they decided to go for a dip in the sea. When they reached the coast, they dove off the cliff into the refreshing waters. As a storm arose. And were unable to swim back to the shore. Moved by compassion, the gods transformed the two sisters into lifelong companions. As far as legends go, I don’t think this is one of Puglia’s finest. Surely even back then people knew that diving off a cliff into shallow waters was not a good idea. And why did they have to dive off a cliff in the first place? Why didn’t they wade into the water from the beach? And if the gods were feeling so compassionate, why didn’t they just end the storm?