Otranto – Part II

On the way back from Torre dell’Orso (previous post) I couldn’t find the last site Sandro, my B&B host, had recommended.  Keeping an eye on the local drivers was already a stretch without the added challenge of looking for the turn-off, which even he admitted was pericoloso. (peh-ree-coh-low-zoh).  Dangerous.  Still, I had seen some wonderful things and was very happy with how the day turned out.  My host, on the other hand, was not.  When I got back, he took a break from his duties, made us espresso and sat with me in the little inner courtyard to hear about my day.  When I confessed – why did it feel like I was confessing? – that I hadn’t been able to find the third site, he immediately declared,  ‘Non si preoccupi!  L’accompagno domani in motocicletta.’   Not to worry.  He would accompany me there tomorrow on his motorcycle.  Accompagnare is a funny word.  I once saw a sign on a church door that read ‘Si prega di accompagnare la porta’.  Please accompany the door.  I had never been on a motorcycle and had no desire to get on one at this stage of the game, especially not on a narrow, busy road in the south of Italy.  I was still stewing over breakfast the following morning as I waited for Sandro to finish serving the other guests.  But of course, as Mark Twain said – or is said to have said – ‘I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened’.  When he was finished, Sandro asked me where I had parked my car and told me to wait for him there.  A few minutes later he came by, driving a motorcycle that was even bigger than I had been worrying about, and, at a gallantly unItalian speed, led me to the site.

If I had managed to find it on my own the day before, I’m not sure I would have stopped. It looked like the middle of the Arizona Desert.  And not the chichi part.  There was no-one around.  Just the kind of place a tourist’s car could get broken into.  Or stolen.   I tried to console myself with how solicitous he had been up until now.  The day before he had warned me about the speed trap on the way to the Turks’ Bay and today, not only had he taken the time to drive me to the site, but he was also very particular about where I parked my car.  There were no other vehicles in sight, but he still insisted I move it over closer to the edge of the open area.  Surely he would not abandon one of his guests – a lone woman of a certain age to boot – in an area where she would come to harm. My car finally parked to his satisfaction, he wished me una buona giornata and roared off. Reminding myself I had three whole weeks to explore Puglia and an hour or so wasted in a desert was not a big deal in the grand scheme of things, I set out along the path up the ridge.

And this is what I saw when I got to the top of that ridge.

It’s called the Laghetto di bauxite.  Little Bauxite Lake.   Not that long ago this peaceful, bucolic setting was a noisy,  dusty quarry.   In the 1940’s bauxite ore, the world’s primary source of aluminum, was discovered here.  Until the late 1970’s the quarry provided much-needed employment for many of the locals.  While I was researching bauxite – in fairness it’s not something a gardener would typically know about, given that it’s formed from sterile soil – I learned quite a few surprising things.  According to the Aluminium Association, and the label on the box of foil in my kitchen, aluminum is the ultimate recyclable material.  All of it – 100% – is recyclable and nearly 75 percent of all aluminum ever produced is still in use today.

I was so focussed on the flowers – how could they survive in such arid conditions? – I didn’t notice the lucertole until after I’d taken the photo.

When the costs of extraction became unprofitable – the ore has to be chemically processed to produce aluminum oxide, which is then smelted to produce pure aluminum metal – the quarry was shut down.  In some bauxite quarries the topsoil is replaced and the site is largely restored to its original state, but here the site was simply abandoned.

Benign neglect at its best. A self-contained ecosystem created by spontaneous re-naturalization.

Water from the Karst formations and aquifers that lie under Puglia’s rocky surface (I wrote about the region’s extensive underground aquifers in ‘It Doesn’t Exist’, July 17, 2016) slowly seeped into the hollow forming a pond.

I followed the path that visitors have made around the lake.

Bauxite ore is also rich in iron – hence the intense red of the ridges. Bauxite residues give the lake its vibrant emerald hue.

On my way around the lake I crossed paths with a couple I had seen making their way along the far side.  By their outfits – serious outdoors people clothes – I’m sure you know the look – it was obvious they were tourists.   My usual curmudgeonly approach to such encounters – invariably in English, which drives me crazy – is to offer a miserly smile or, if I’m feeling magnanimous, a ‘Buon giorno‘.  But to my surprise, they asked me, Ha visto le tartarughe?  No, I had seen a few salamanders, but no turtles. They pointed to a path down to the water’s edge.  On a rock shelf  ‘vicino a dove Lei stave prima‘  (close to where I was earlier) was a pair of turtles sunning themselves.

Close to where I had parked my car another path led down to the level of the lake.

I looked all around but could not see the turtles.  As I was standing there, another couple came down the path I’d first taken.  The fellow had one of those serious cameras, with an equally serious lens attached to it.  I watched him as he took a bunch of photos.  I was pretty sure neither he nor his companion had spotted the turtles, so abandoning my usual rule about not encroaching on other tourists’ experiences – perhaps reacting to the kind gesture of the couple I’d met on the ridge – a small act of paying it forward, if you will – I went over and asked them if they had seen the turtles.   They hadn’t.  All three of us looked around.  It didn’t take long before the fellow, with his powerful zoom lens, spotted them. I still couldn’t see them and was turning to leave when, to my astonishment, he held out his obviously very expensive camera to me and said ‘Here, have a look!’

If you look really closely, you will see two little round humps on the ledge by the water’s edge on the left.  The turtles.

When I recounted my day’s adventures to Sandro, he knew all about the tartarughe. They were not auctoctone, a fancy word that can be used to impress when needed in English, but is the normal everyday word in Italian for ‘native’.   Someone, perhaps tired of caring for what had started off as cute baby turtles, had dropped them at the old quarry lake.  Their survival was a worry.

The visit to the laghetto had been such an unexpected success that when I saw the path down to the sea, rather than getting back into my car, I decided to check it out too.

White, purple-pink and yellow. Nature’s bouquet.

The next stop for the day was Il Faro della Palascìa, the lighthouse at Capo d’Otranto, the most easterly point of Italy. As I sat on the shore, two hikers set off on a path to the right of the bay.  No doubt it led to the lighthouse.  But the walk down to the sea had turned out to be a lot further that it looked.  It seemed even longer when a car drove by me and I realized the path was a road.

Baia delle Orte.  Is it because I come from a place where farming tends to be located inland, that Puglia’s seaside olive groves and wheat fields seemed so strange?

Since my travelling mode does not include lovely people in the background who do things like drive one’s car to a lighthouse, I had to consider that it might take me a long time to walk all the way to the lighthouse and back.  Possibly well past l’ora di pranzo.   And if I don’t enjoy visiting gardens on an empty stomach, retracing my steps – even if it is along the sea – on an empty stomach makes me even more miserable.

In the distance, Faro Palascìa, the most easterly point of Italy.

Later I regretted not following the hikers.  I hadn’t counted on how far inland the ‘coastal’ road would go.  Nor had I anticipated that getting to the lighthouse from the road would involve a long, steep climb up followed by a long, steep walk down.  And then back.

Perhaps to encourage visitors as they huff and puff their way up the hill – from which you can see neither the lighthouse nor the sea – there were several plaques with information about lighthouses which you could stop and read – or pretend to read if you don’t know Italian – while you caught your breath.

In case your Italian isn’t yet up to it, here’s the gist.  (By the way, I may have said this before, but I think it bears repeating.  Study after study has shown that the absolute, numero uno way to minimize the effects of Alzheimer’s is to learn a second language.)

‘The name of the lighthouse is derived from the presence of the ancient ‘tower of Pelasgia’. The map of the 366 towers along the coast of Otranto place it between the towers of the Serpent and St. Emile. The tower was demolished in the last quarter of the 19th century. Before Palascìa was built, the only warning light along the treacherous shoreline was provided by the oil lamp at the top of the Torre del Serpe.  But many a stormy night there was no oil in the lamp and the light went out.  This wasn’t because the guards assigned to keep an eye on the oil level had fallen asleep or were off carousing.  No, no, no.  A gigantic serpent had climbed up the tower and drunk the oil.  And as soon as a ship crashed on the rocks, the serpent, at what must have been an astonishing speed, would slither down the cliff and devour the poor wretches floundering around in the waves.’  (And yes, I took a few liberties with the last bit.)

Palascìa Identity Card. I’m sure the title sounds fine to Italian ears, and probably to anyone for whom their ‘Identity Card’ is like a second passport. To a Canadian ear however, it has a strange ring.

On another was a mini history of the lighthouse.  ‘The 1st was built in 290 BC on the small island of Pharos at the entrance to the port of Alexandria in Egypt.  After the Greeks came the Romans who continued building lighthouses until most of the Mediterranean coast was dotted with the sentinelle luminose.  These early ‘bright sentinels’ were simple rock piles on top of which pieces of wood, charcoal or sometimes tar were burned.  By the 17th century maritime trade had become so important that to minimize the potential for shipwrecks – and lost profits – lighthouses were built even on rocky outcroppings beyond the shore line.  At the end of the 1800’s the first electrically powered lights were installed, but it wasn’t until the end of World War II that the transition from gas to electricity was complete.  The 20th century also saw the introduction of automated lighting systems controlled by radio as well as special signals for foggy conditions.’

In Italian, storia means both story and history.  Given the multitude of viewpoints writers of history can choose from, the elision seems appropriate.

Finally, at the top of the ridge.  In the distance, the bay I’d walked down to.

With a terrain like this, no wonder the few sheltered harbours and beaches along Puglia’s coastline have attracted enemies and visitors over the centuries.

Finally the lighthouse came into view.   I was tempted to stop here.  It may not look like it from the angle I took this photo, but it was still a long walk down and despite the fact that the stagione had not yet started, it was hot going amidst all those rocks.   But to have been so close to the most easterly tip of Italy and not gone all the way to the point seemed smidollato.  Lacking in midollo, the centre bit, the character.  Besides what would I say to Sandro?

From the lighthouse it was a short drive further south to lunch in the tiny harbour of Porto Badisco. I liked Porto Badisco so much I ended up having lunch there twice. Given that I only stayed in Otranto two nights, that is saying something.  I used to think it was bad form to go back to the same place while on a trip, but now, when I find a place I really like I have no such qualms.  I want to enjoy it as much as I can.  It’s not like I’ll be back any time soon.

From the narrow road down to the harbour, first glimpse of Porto Badisco.

On my first visit I was on my way to Otranto from Santa Maria di Leuca, the most southerly point of Puglia (next post).  I arrived around noon.  There were a few vehicles, but no-one in sight.  Maybe this was another of those places where the stagione hadn’t yet started.  I could hear voices coming from L’Approdo di Enea.  ‘The Landing of Aeneas’, son of the goddess Aphrodite, was the rather grand name for a simple building set back a bit from the beach.  Hoping against hope this was not the weekly giorno di chiusura (closing day) I went over to have a look.  The sounds and smells coming from the kitchen were promising.   Still in doubt – you never know – I asked if the trattoria was aperta.   Yes, it was open and no, it was not necessary to make a prenotazione, (pray-no-tats-yoh-nay), but of course, they would keep a window table for la signora while she went for a walk around the harbour.

I waded around in the shallow waters.  They were surprisingly warm already.  I had to look down quite often to avoid stumbling on the rocks and one time I caught a glint of silver.

There were little fish everywhere.  But you really had to look for them.

After wading around a bit, I set out along to explore the coast beyond the harbour.

The sun was strong, but there was a nice sea breeze.

No picking the spontaneous mushrooms.

A few bays over was one of the guard towers that once kept watch over the coastline around Otranto.  The lair of the ravenous serpent?

When I figured a respectable amount of time had passed – enough for at least a few customers to arrive, I headed back.  Eating alone is one thing.  Being the lone diner in an establishment, no matter how lovely the view, is quite another.

A few more people had arrived while I’d been exploring the coast.

When I came back the next day, there were lots of visitors, all remarkably well-equipped.  Some had brought lunch, but many, after respectably covering themselves up, came over to the trattoria.

As much as I love the sun and the heat and being by the sea, after a long morning clambering around the rocks, I was looking forward to the cool shade of the trattoria.  To my astonishment it was packed.  I wondered about my window table.  But the young woman I had spoken to earlier greeted me warmly and led me over to a lovely table she had been saving for la signora.

As promised, a window table had been saved for me.

Vino bianco locale, pesce fritto, insalata and a view!  My idea of a great lunch.

Next – at the southern tip of Puglia







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2 Responses to Otranto – Part II

  1. LMSantarossa says:

    Fascinating history of the bauxite lake and lighthouses..and that pesce misto!

    • donnafenice says:

      It really is fascinating. And yet, still relatively unknown as a tourist destination. Perhaps because it is such a long way down and there are so many ‘distractions’ along the way. Grazie, Donna

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