The Romans called them finis terrae. Over the years I’d been to a couple of ‘Land’s Ends’. One in Portugal decades ago, so I have no photos, only memories of standing on a cold, desolate, windswept cliff watching the waves crash below. The other was off the north-west tip of Brittany in northern France.
I didn’t know what to expect at Puglia’s ‘finis terrae‘. But it most certainly was not what I saw when I drove round the last curve and got my first view of Santa Maria di Leuca.
To my mind, here in this multicoloured, architectural orgy was incontrovertible proof of the powerful effect geography has on human activity. I’ve always wondered about people who seem to be totally unaware of, or expend a great deal of energy trying to minimize the extent to which their actions are influenced by geography. Perhaps they really aren’t affected by their physical surroundings. (Although, when I see someone in shorts on the streets of Toronto when everyone else is bundled up in heavy winter coats and scarves, I can’t help it – my eyebrows just start going all twitchy on me.) Maybe they’re uncomfortable with the idea that their free will might be constrained by something as ‘primitive’ as the shape of a rocky land mass. In any event, it seemed obvious to me that the rocks that form the sheltered bay at the tip of Puglia had a lot to do with what those 19th century vacationers decided to build.
By the end of the 19th century there were 43 of these holiday homes and despite the dramatic variations in style, they all had a number of features in common – a decorative garden in front; a veggie garden out back; a well to collect fresh water; a private chapel; a stable for their horses and a shed for their carriages.
During World War II many of the wrought iron fences and balcony railings that decorated the villas were seized for the production of armaments. In some cases entire villas were requisitioned to house displaced citizens. After the war was over, villas that had been severely damaged were simply abandoned, while a lucky few escaped relatively unscathed and are to this day virtually unchanged – inside and out – from their original state.
I walked to the end of the lungomare, past the last of the villas and then for a stretch along a narrow, wooden walkway that led to la Cascata Monumentale, a 250 metre long, 120 metre high waterfall. It was one of Mussolini’s pet projects, created to glorify the Patria and all that. It marks the end of the Acquedotto Pugliese, the longest aqueduct in Europe. Staircases on either side ‘enrich the scenographic effect desired by Il Duce‘ and presumably leave all who climb the 300 steps in awe and out of breath when they reach the top. For the final triumphal touch, in 1939 an ancient Roman column was brought down from the capital under Mussolini’s orders and mounted at the base of the cascade.
I’ve never been a fan of the ‘monumental’ Mussolini style – or the man, it goes without saying, I hope – so I didn’t bother going all the way to his waterfall. Besides, although the stated flow rate is pretty impressive – 1,000 litres a second – a visitor’s chances of seeing any of that water are basically nil. The waterfall is ‘closed’ except on special occasions. For which, the tourist office is at pains to point out, there is no calendario.
I turned around and headed for Puglia’s Land’s End.
Although my preference for the colourfully painted villas probably gives a different impression, the dominant colour is white, the colour the town gets its name from. Leuca comes from ‘leucos‘, ancient Greek for white, the colour of the rocks bleached by the morning sun as the ancient Greeks first approached the shore. A second meaning – the colour of the sea spray of waves crashing against the rocks, leads to Leucasia, a siren whose enchanting song no mortal man had ever resisted – until Meliso, a poor shepherd who grazed his sheep along the craggy shoreline where the siren was in the habit of luring sailors to their death. His heart already belonged to a young maiden whose name was Aristula. There being nothing like rejection to stoke the fires of passion, Leucasia fell madly in love with the shepherd who of course, this being a legend, stood steadfast in his love. The enraged Leucasia bided her time. Until one day when the two young lovers went for a stroll along the edge of the cliff. The wind gods must have owed her a favour, for she had no trouble convincing them to get up a violent storm which washed the hapless lovers out to sea. Not content with merely drowning the innocents, she then ordered the winds to smash their bodies on the rocks at the opposite ends of the bay to ensure they remained forever separated.
In the meantime, Minerva, the Goddess of Wisdom, who had observed the entire scenario, felt badly for the young lovers, and decided to do something. She couldn’t bring them back to life, but she could do something even more powerful. Unite them for all eternity. She transformed their bodies into stone so that the waters in the bay would forevermore flow back and forth between the shepherd at Punta Meliso and his young love at Punta Ristola. There is a rather awkward coda to this story according to which the siren, suddenly develops a conscience and overcome with remorse, begs Minerva to turn her into stone too. For reasons beyond my mortal mind, the supposed Goddess of Wisdom obliges the (evil) siren and turns her into the rocky site of the town between the two promontories.
A few – or depending on your view of legends – many centuries later, in what seems to me a decision of questionable taste, to commemorate the Virgin Mary’s rescue of some local fishermen from a terrible storm, her name was united with that of the vengeful siren to form the town’s official name. I am happy to report that most locals just go with Leuca.
Lovely views and fresh sea breeze and all, it was still a very long walk to the end of the earth. I began to wonder what the point of renting a car was if you were just going to leave it parked and walk for miles. I was probably getting hungry. But, like Capo Palascia at the most easterly point of Puglia, you can’t very well come this far and not go all the way. Even if the experience is somewhat anticlimactic.
On the (LONG) walk back to my car, I was delighted to see that the umbrellas of a trattoria I’d passed by earlier were now open. Apart from one table where a family of three generations was, by the platters piled high with antipasti, just starting a leisurely feast, there weren’t any other customers. But I wasn’t worried. By now I knew that despite the glorious blue skies and hot temperatures, the stagione had not yet begun.