To Each His Own Folly

Santa Maria di Leuca is as far south as you can go in Puglia.  It’s less than 60 k from Otranto (previous post).  An easy day’s outing you would think, but when I checked how long it would take, the site I rely on showed an astonishing 1 hr 40 minutes.  On one hand I was glad.  It meant that this stretch of the SP358, the coastal road, really did follow the coast.  On the other, from past experience, I had a feeling that by the time I added in all the usual stops for photos and asking for directions, it would probably take me  2 1/2, maybe even 3 hours.   In addition my B&B hosts had told me about two sites along the way that were assolutamente da vedere.   Although I hadn’t come across either of them when I was planning my trip, their suggestions for sites I absolutely had to see while I was staying with them had been excellent, so I was excited to check them out.  What I did know was that I would be travelling through the most rugged and least inhabited part of Puglia, so when I arrived at Santa Cesarea Terme I stopped.  It was a bit early for lunch but I hoped there would be somewhere to have a quick lunch.

The few signs of human habitation I passed almost melted into the inhospitable landscape.

I usually avoid places with Terme in their name.  Terme means Thermal Baths or Hot Springs. For its size, Italy has quite a few of them.   If you google ‘thermal baths Italy’ you’ll see what I mean.  There’s even a site called ‘The 100 best thermal baths in Italy’.  From what I observed when I was living in Italy they are as popular now as they were in the days of the ancient Romans.  But I’ve never seen the allure of sitting with a bunch of strangers and their various ailments in what struck me as a large hot tub.   I’m obviously missing something, because even in a place as remote as Santa Cesarea there is evidence of humans enjoying the hot tub experience as far back as the Palaeolithic Period.  Even in the period we often think of as the Dark Ages, the comforts – and no doubt pleasures – to be found in the caves the hot water flows from were well known.  In fact some believe Santa Cesarea Terme was named for a virtuous young maid of the time.  In the story, Cesarea, who wished to become a nun, was forced to flee from her home to escape the incestuous advances of her father.  After searching far and wide she found shelter in one of the caves.   Not long after, the villainous father tracked her down.  And this is where the story gets a bit murky.  In one version, upon entering the cave, the wretch is swept away by the water and drowns and as his evil body decomposes it turns the water sulphurous.  In another, much earlier legend, the role of the dark forces is played by the Leuterni.  In case your knowledge of Greek mythology is as extensive as mine, the Leuterni were a tribe of giants who, having been forged in fire and sulphur, believed themselves to be invincible and for some reason decided to wage war against the Gods.  This of course did not end well for the giants, some of whom Hercules killed – ironically on the Campi Flegrei (Burning Fields) west of Naples – while others escaped to the grottoes in question and it was their decaying bodies that turned the water sulphurous.  Both these versions are of course problematic because sulphur, with its age-old association with the devil, is a crucial element of the water’s therapeutic benefits.  The problem was solved in the usual way.  The waters were purified – albeit still laden with beneficial sulphur – by the miraculous intervention of the young virgin.

Santa Cesarea Terme is now one of the biggest and most popular thermal centres in southern Puglia.  But not long after after Cesarea’s deus ex machina, it was abandoned for a couple of centuries.  Not because the hot springs dried up or people lost their taste for them, but because the non-stop attacks by the Ottomans outweighed any pleasure or benefit the waters offered.  The locals moved to the safety of inland settlements and the area was virtually uninhabited until the mid-1800’s.

In mid May the town was mercifully quiet.  The terme season had not yet begun and I easily found a parking spot and a table with a view of the sea.  It also had a view of something that looked like it was right out of The Arabian Nights.

With its rebirth the town took on a whole new life.  Amongst the aristocracy and wealthy merchants of the time, vivere bene, a kind of 19th century ‘good life’ was all in vogue.  The fresh sea air, spectacular views and therapeutic waters provided the perfect venue for  their social, as well as their physical well-being.  Following the example of the Venetians who had built magnificent villas along the Brenta Canal, ostensibly to be close to their agricultural enterprises, they began to commission extravagant, ostentatious villas for their summer sojourns.   The mirage-like cupola I was looking at belonged to Villa Sticchi, one of the most extraordinary of those villas.  After the waitress took my order I got up to get a better look.

Whatever did the neighbours think as they watched an Islamic palace arise in their midst?

I couldn’t decide which was more amazing – the mere existence of such an extravagant structure in the desolate countryside or the fact that its design was so ostentatiously inspired by the very culture that had, until not that long ago, terrorized the area.

When my waitress came back with what turned out to be a lovely lunch – I am constantly being amazed at how good the food can be, even in the simplest of places – she had a more down-to-earth take on the villa.  In his bid to outdo his contemporaries, combined with a weakness for gambling, the original owner had gone bankrupt.

Grilled vegetables and local cheeses were a nice break from all the seafood.

The palace brought to mind the garden follies that were in vogue in the 18th century gardens of France and England.  All the finest gardens had a mock Roman temple, or an ruined abbey or, if the owner’s tastes led to the more exotic, perhaps an Egyptian pyramid or a Japanese bridge.  But those ‘folies‘ were strictly ornamental.  They weren’t built to be used for any purpose other than to amaze and astound one’s visitors.  They certainly were not meant to be lived in.

A 19th century Arabian fantasy.  A real folly.

No mention on the plaque about the Ottomans who terrorized the coast for centuries.  Or the ignominious fate of the villa’s original owner.

A few kilometres further south was one of the sites my B&B hosts had recommended – the Grotta della Zinzulusa.  If it hadn’t been for them, I probably would have driven right by.  The view from the road gives no sense of what’s going on below you and the signs were not the type that would ordinarily induce me to stop.

From the parking lot  you go down a long flight of stone steps and then are taken on a short boat ride.

I’d had a hard time catching the name.  Zin-zoo-loo-zuh.  No wonder. It’s not Italian.  It’s from zinzuli, local dialect for the standard Italian word stracci (strach-chee) which means rags. The Grotto of Rags?

The small boat passed close to many caves along the way.

Our guides were waiting for us at the entrance to the grotto.

I found the story of how the grotto got its unusual name on an Italian blog – La Leggenda della Zinzulusa  Here’s the gist.

‘Once upon a time a terrible and powerful baron governed the area around Castro (the nearest town to the grotto).  He was so cruel and evil his wife died from the pain, leaving her defenceless young daughter to a life of misery, clothed in rags.  One day a good fairy decided to put a stop to the injustice of it all.  She seized the baron, and hurled him to the depths of a grotto along the coast.  Where the evil baron landed, the waters of hell gushed forth and formed a lake.  The young maiden married her prince and the wind carried off her rags to the grotto where they turned into stone.  Upon witnessing these terrifying events, the shrimp who lived in the grotto, lost their vision.’

The zinzuli in the legend are stalactites, the strange icicle-shaped formations that hang from the ceiling. They’re formed from calcite, the principal element of the limestone that covers such a large part of Puglia.  Part of the fascination of caves like this, even for a casual visitor like me, is that in addition to the unearthly shapes hanging from the ceiling, there are equally bizarre formations rising out of the earth.

If you are paying attention – hard to do on the slippery path – you’ll notice that often where there is a stalactite there will also be a stalagmite.  This is because not all the calcite in the water that drips from the ceiling is caught in the stalactite.  The rest drips onto the floor of the cave, where it slowly solidifies into stalagmites.

No doubt scientists have their reasons for giving the two types of formations such confusingly similar names, but if you like to appear at least somewhat knowledgeable about the places you visit and your area of expertise lies elsewhere, not to worry.  Some kind soul has come up with an excellent mnemonic.  The ‘c’ in stalactite stands for ceiling.  And the ‘g’ in stalagmite stands for…

In time the upper and lower formations meet, forming columns.

The detail about the blind shrimp struck me as rather random until I read about a species of blind shrimp, Typhlocaris salentino, that live in the lake.  Perhaps a bit of retroactive embellishing?

Il Corridoio delle Meraviglie. Corridor of Marvels.

It takes all kinds and I am glad of it, but to willingly choose to spend one’s time – as a professional or as hobbyist – in these dark, dank places, when one could be out in a garden under the endless, warm embrace of the sun – OK I know, there’s the rain and planting bulbs on a cold, dreary fall day is no fun – but still, like the hot tub I guess, the attraction escapes me.

Back at the grotto entrance and the welcome blues of the sea and sky.

The views from the road south of the grotto made the slow going well worth it.  But after a while I began to worry that I had somehow driven past the second site my B&B hosts had recommended.  It was a bridge.  You would think that I’d know if I had driven over a bridge, but the entire day’s outing was only 60 k and according to the odometer I was almost there.  I hate retracing my steps so when I saw a couple with shopping bags getting out of their car I pulled over to ask. ‘Mi displace disturbare..’  Sorry to bother you, but do you know where Ponte Ciolo is?  Not for the first time, if only I’d held on a little bit longer.  The bridge was just beyond the next curve in the road.  As it turned out they weren’t in the least disturbati.  In fact they were happy to chat.  They were from the north of Italy and stayed here every summer.  The woman’s sister had a beautiful garden in Taranto (in the north-west of Puglia).  They asked me if I knew about ‘Cantine Aperte‘, the winery festival that was being held that weekend.  They knew the owner of one of the wineries.  I had difficulty understanding the woman, even when she repeated the name of the winery.  The husband caught on and said, Bisbiglio.  (bees-beel-yoh).  She had been saying ‘Whisper’. The owner of the winery was English. It was in a place that sounded like ‘in day-pres-suh‘.  It was in a depressed state?  That didn’t sound promising.  By this point I was totally muddled – not sure if they were speaking English or Italian.  But the fellow, who by now I realized was a real spiritoso – someone who likes to joke around – again came to my rescue.  All the people who live in the village are depressi, so they called it Depressa.  They were so delightful and so definitely not depressi I added the village to my list of must-see sites.

When I oohed and ached over the view from their villa and asked if I could take a photo, the spiritoso apologized. Just a few days earlier a magnificent regatta had sailed past. The bridge I was looking for is just beyond the curve.

Ponte Ciolo (choe-loe) crosses a particularly beautiful channel.  The name comes from ciola, dialect for gazza ladra, the (perhaps unfairly) maligned robber magpie that loves to nest in the rocky crags.

View from the bridge.

Fortunately, the season had yet to begin here too.  It wasn’t just the crowds – online photos show wall-to-wall bodies covering the tiny beach – that I was glad to miss.  Ponte Ciolo is 37 metres high.  The narrowness of the inlet make it seem even higher.  A perfect magnet for dare-devil divers.  I once came across bungee jumpers hurling themselves off the Pont de l’Artuby in northern in Provence.  It turned my stomach.  The year before a young fireman from Brindisi, an experienced diver, had suffered a pulmonary embolism after jumping off the bridge – they don’t dive, they jump – and lost consciousness on the way down.  When only his shoes rose to the surface, friends standing on the beach dove into the water.  He awoke in hospital with no memory of what had happened.   He owes his survival to those friends.

I decided to climb the path inland and get a view of the bridge from there.

View inland, the source of the water that carved out the channel.

Beyond the arch of the bridge, the aptly named Trattoria Incanto.  Enchantment. Also a spell.

Along the path there were the usual wild flowers and then I came to an extraordinary sight.  A clump of giant campanulas. Their botanical name is Campanula versicolor Hawkins, but because the only region in Italy where they grow is Puglia, here they’re known as campanula pugliese.  

Campanula pugliese usually flowers all summer long, beginning in early July.  Lucky for me they had got an early start this season.  Or maybe global warming has altered its flowering.

In 1992 the World Wildlife Fund and the Società Botanica Italiana published the Libro Rosso delle Piante d’Italia, the first in a series of Red Books on not only the plants, but also the animals and habitats at risk in Italy.  Although it is not native, the campanula is included in the list of endangered plants in Italy.

The flower is so gorgeous I’m not surprised it’s endangered. It’s a wonder there were any at all within such easy reach of an unscrupulous plant collector.

The ultimate rock garden.  Get yourself a humungous chunk of limestone and stick a bunch of plants in the crevices.

On a peaceful day in May it is hard to imagine this as the scene of so much folly.





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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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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.

Early one morning in May locals launch their boats, freshly painted for the season, into the calm waters of the harbour of Otranto.

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.

They say that on a clear day you can see Albania from Otranto’s harbour. As I stared at the horizon I thought I could make out land. But maybe it was just low-lying clouds.

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.

On the way to the cathedral, I passed through the public park. In the middle was the most spectacularly trimmed tree I’d ever seen.  The leaves resembled those of a bush I’d seen in Provence.

Pittosporum in the gardens of Les Collettes, Renoir’s villa in the south of France. In May the bushes were covered with tiny flowers that gave off an intoxicating, jasmine-like fragrance.

The signora at the B&B told me later it was indeed Pittosporum, but she didn’t share my enthusiasm for its fragrance.  She was allergic.

Santa Maria Annunziata.  It took me a while to get used to the idea of the Normans, a group I had  for years associated with northern France, down here in the south.  But slowly I began to recognize the austerity of the typical Norman façade

Like the façades of so many medieval churches, this one was subjected to many rimaneggiamenti over the centuries, the most successful of which, IMHO, was the addition of this delicate rose window.

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.

It was impossible to get any decent photos of the real thing, so in the end I made do with a photo of a poster for sale in a shop outside the cathedral.

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.

The glass cases behind the altar contain the bones of the 800 martyrs.

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.

I cannot even begin to imagine what it would have been like for those who arranged the bones – and the heads – inside the cases.

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.

As I drove along the country road, past the fields of poppies, my spirits started to lift.

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.

Looking out over the soothing, crystal clear waters today, it is hard to imagine the locals’ terror as they watched the ships of the Turks appear on the horizon.

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.

To the north of the small beach, the scogli (skol-yee) begin.

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 rocky crags make for slow progress, but for me are much more interesting than the beach.

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.

It’s a good thing you have to keep an eye on where you’re walking.

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.

A hard-won pristine environment.

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.

From the road only a glimpse of the must-see site was visible.

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.

The water was tempting, but still a tad chilly. Perfecting for splashing along the shore line on a bright, sunny day.

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?

Problematic legend and all, it is a beautiful sight. And a wonderful way to end a day that had started with such macabre sights.




Posted in Puglia, Southern Italy | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

When the Saints Go Marching

Looking over my itinerary a few days before leaving for Puglia, I was struck by how many coastal towns I planned on visiting.   Maybe, even for someone who was craving the sea, too many.  But like a kid in a candy shop – or a gardener in a nursery – it was hard to say no.  Each one had a special allure.  Like the one I was on my way to today.  It was only 10 k south of Polignano a Mare, a village I liked so much I ended up visiting it twice (‘Lunch Bis’, July 10, 2016). In addition to the seaside setting, the new town also had a medieval centre interlaced with narrow, twisting alleys.  I wondered, would the two places, so geographically close, be carbon copies of each other or would they each have their own distinctive character?  And there was another thing – the name of the new place.  Who could pass on the opportunity to check out a town named for the most popular board game ever invented, a game so popular it has been translated into 44 languages and is played in 111 countries?

The fastest route to Monopoli was along Puglia’s main highway, which by now I had figured out went by one of three names – the E55,  SS16 or SS379.  It got so confusing I gave up trying to follow the carefully written directions I’d made at home.  Even when it was overcast  and I didn’t have the sun to guide me, as long as the sea was on my right I knew I was heading north.  Close to my destination I turned off the highway and continued along the litoranea, the slower but more scenic coastal road that led to a Marine Reserve. Like the highway, this road was also lined with luxuriant oleanders, the only downside to which was a tendency to luxuriate right over the road signs. Luckily there wasn’t another vehicle in sight and I was able to do a semi-legal manoeuvre to get myself headed in the right direction and then continued, a little more slowly – didn’t want to give my guardian angel any more grief than necessary in one day – towards the beach.

My car, parked under the Ciclovia sign (Cycling path), now headed in the right direction.

With all the challenges Italy has faced over the centuries, and continues to face to this day, it is probably not surprising that environmental concerns often get short-shrift. So it is always reassuring to come across an Area Protetta.  Even more so when it’s a protected area along the coast.

Amongst the various activities prohibited in the interests of protecting the area is the abandoning of one’s garbage.

And no picking the wildflowers! No matter how tempting.

Gray foliage is the plant’s defence against a scarcity of water.

So early in the season my favourite, the Sea Holly, is showing just a hint of its trademark blue.

For someone used to growing plants in proper garden soil, the sight of these delicate-looking things popping up out of ‘sterile’ sand seems like a miracle.

There are few amenities in Italy’s reserves, so locals know to bring everything they’ll need for the day.  Given the overcast skies, I was surprised to see so many picnickers. Even more surprised to come across a group of women playing cards.  A first in all my travels around Italy.

Women card players.  A rare sight in Italy.

I left the reserve and continued north along the coastal road. Soon it began to veer away from the sea and back toward the highway. When I saw the distinctive heads of artichokes, I pulled over to the side of the road and got out.  Artichokes are one of my favourite vegetables.  To eat and to photograph.

Beyond the fields, the oleander-lined highway.

As I walked towards the path between the two fields a young man was aerating, a rather large, middle-aged man appeared out of nowhere and started walking towards me.  The road I had been driving along was a narrow, dirt road and I hadn’t encountered any other vehicles, but I also hadn’t seen any signs that it was PRIVATO.  Nor had I seen any other people walking around.  As a woman travelling on my own, I think it’s fair to say I have a pretty low tolerance for compromising situations. But it was broad daylight.  To abruptly turn around and head back to my car would have been ridiculous and, I vaguely sensed, rude.  As usual, I needn’t have been concerned.  The looming figure was simply the owner of the fields come to check on his crops.

My ‘stalker’ did not of course, appear out of nowhere. He appeared out of the white truck I had parked not far from.

I explained that I was interested in plants and had stopped when I saw the artichokes.  Ah signora, he sighed.  Until two weeks ago the carciofi (car-cho-fee) had been sempre buoni.   It was the classic gardener’s lament.  ‘If only you’d been here last week … ‘ Except that in this case it wasn’t a matter of aesthetics.   The flowers I found so fascinating were a sign that the artichoke season was over and the plants would soon be chopped up and spread as compost between the rows of tomato plants the young man was working on.  Nothing more would happen in the artichoke field until July, when the pianta madre (mother plant – what a delightful term!) would start to sprout and by November the artichokes would be ready for harvesting again.

The obliging young worker, cajoled by his boss into posing for the artichoke-loving straniera.

The artichoke is an unlikely delicacy.  It’s a thistle.  2,000 years ago however, around the time of the earliest records of it being cultivated, our ancestors somehow discovered that like the caper, the unopened flower bud was not only edible, but also a rich source of vitamins B and C, antioxidants (although with their shorter life spans this might not have been as big an issue for them) and a whole host of other things.  (For more on the caper, ‘Are Gardeners All a Little Crazy? La Mortella – Part I’, Jan. 26, 2014)

The exact origins of the artichoke are not known – maybe Sicily – but by the 9th century an artichoke-like plant was being cultivated by North African Moors in Spain and Saracens, another Arab group, in Sicily.  The Arab name for the plant was qarshuf, which may explain, for those who wonder about such things, why it became known as carciofo in Italian, rather than Cynar – from the plant’s Latin name, Cynara cardunculus.  Which of course raises the question of why Italy’s bitter – VERY bitter – artichoke-based digestivo is called Cynar.

A fresh artichoke is heavy for its size and squeaks when you give it a squeeze. The open leaves and gorgeous purple blooms mean these artichokes are well past their best-before date.

Such an unusual looking plant was the perfect stuff of Greek legends. As usual this one started with Zeus, who was down in the sea visiting Poseidon one day.  When he came up – for air? – he saw a mortal female who was of course, this being a legend, beautiful and young.  As was his wont, Zeus promptly seduced the young thing, whose name was Cynar. He so enjoyed her charms that he made her a goddess so she could stay up in Olympia and be right at hand whenever Hera, his inconvenient wife, was away.  All went well for a while.  Hera, who could be quite brutal with the objects of her philandering husband’s desires, didn’t suspect a thing. But Cynar was homesick. So one day, when Hera was around and keeping an eye on Zeus, she slipped down to earth for a quick visit with her mother, whom she missed terribly.  When Zeus heard about the escapade, he went into a rage, transformed his newly made goddess into a prickly thistle and hurled her back to earth.

Despite the inauspicious legend, the ancient Greeks and later the Romans considered the artichoke a delicacy.  To be precise, an aphrodisiacal delicacy, that according to some, had the additional benefit of increasing the chances of a male birth.  I’ll spare you my usual rant and rave on that one.  By the 16th century, when there should have been plenty of time to reach a more scientifically accurate understanding of such things, the artichoke was prized for its ability to increase men’s potency, as well as women’s desirability. Increasing the desirability of the male never occurred to anyone and worse, when it did occur to some fool or other that there was a danger that along with a woman’s desirability, the artichoke might also increase her sexual power, women were prohibited from eating it.  Again, no comment.

In any event, now that the artichoke season was over, my increasingly eager guide’s attention was focused on his tomato plants.

Five local women had planted these tomato seedlings and in a few months would pick the tomatoes, which would be trucked to Treviso in the far north of Italy for sale.

Opposite the tomatoes was the field of artichokes. Now and then, trying hard not to appear rude, I took a photo. In this one, a bee, the artichoke’s main pollinator, is rummaging around.

He crouched down to show me the beginnings of what was obviously a prized crop and I, by now feeling more than a bit wary – he had done or said nothing untoward, but I was getting ‘that’ vibe – politely crouched down with him to get a good look.  When we got up he asked me about my plans for the day.  Undeterred by my vaguely accurate answer, he invited me to his house, in a village nearby, where he would show me all his photos of artichokes and make me a real pugliese lunch.  One of the things I love about the Italian language is how easily it lends itself to appearing gracious in ambiguous circumstances.

As we walked back to the road, I was sure I saw a couple of squeakers amongst the decaying artichokes. But I didn’t dare say anything.

Those tight, little buds amidst the decay were tempting. but not tempting enough.

While I was immersed in artichokes and tomatoes, the clouds had started to lift and by the time I reached Monopoli, it had turned into a lovely day.

As much as Puglia’s bright clear skies were a sight for sore eyes, the soft light was a lovely change.

I managed to find a parking spot, no small deal any day of the week, and on a Sunday in the middle of a ponte (bridge) even more of an impresa (undertaking), as a local discouragingly put it, than usual.  Despite the aggravation – over 20 minutes of driving up and down the narrow roads that surround the historic centre – I have fond memories of that parking spot.  As I drove round and round I kept going by an open spot only a few steps from the centro.  There was obviously some prohibition against parking in that spot. But by the third, maybe fourth time round, when I was hungry as well as exasperated, the empty spot, like a siren, had become irresistible. I decided to check it out.

Interpreting Italy’s parking signs is almost as challenging as finding a spot.  I still struggle with giorni festivi and giorni feriali.  Festivi sounds, well, festive, as in a holiday.   But  feriali is awfully close to ferie which means holidays or vacation.  (For the record, giorni festivi are Sundays and days of festa, like Christmas and the Festa della Repubblica, a national holiday held on June 2 to commemorate the day in 1946 when Italians voted, by a surprisingly slim margin, against the monarchy and in favour of a republic. Giorni feriali are all the other days.)  However, there is one aspect of the parking regulations that is fairly straightforward.  The colour of the lines around the spots.  Yellow means no parking, blue is for paid parking and white is free. The lines around this spot were blue.  But – and this was where things got murky – the sign next to it bore the red slash across a blue background that means ‘No Parking’.  I really wanted to park in that spot.  But I also really did not want to get a ticket, which is a nasty, unpleasant, expensive business in Italy. Even if you’re in the right!  As I sat there pondering, a car drove out of a white-lined spot on an alley a few metres away.  But before I could get the key back into the ignition, another car zipped right into it.  By now I was thinking how stupid an idea it was to visit a town just because it had the same name as a board game.  Especially one I always lost.  In any event I walked over and asked the driver about the sign.  It turned out that in Monopoli, unlike any other place in Italy I had ever been to,  only local residents are allowed to park between the blue lines.  I laughed and said ‘Era troppo bello‘.  (‘It was too beautiful’.)   As I was walking back to my car, he called out, Signora!  And to my astonishment – and enormous gratitude – proceeded to outline a solution to my parking dilemma. Being a local, he had the requisite tessera that allowed him to park between the blue lines.  He would back out of the spot he had just driven into and, no doubt anticipating how long it would take me to get into the new spot – in fairness, both streets were senso unico which meant a lot of backing up, and there’s nothing like having someone watching to rattle the nerves – he would stand in front of it to block anyone else from zipping into it.  I thanked him with all the Italian words of gratitude I could think of and as we shook hands good-bye asked him, since he was so good at solving things, if he could arrange for a bit more sun.  (Dark clouds had been gathering again.)  He laughed.  His ragazza (girl friend) who lived in a town not far inland – probably not too far from where I had been invited to lunch – had just called to say that they were in the midst of a deluvione.  A violent downpour

I set out for the centro storico under clouds that no longer seemed quite so dark.

Mr. and Mrs. Dog are asked to take their owners for a walk to do their business.

The town of Monopoli has of course nothing to do with the board game and tourists’ lame jokes about the name may fall even flatter with the locals here than the comments tourists make when they first set eyes on Neuschwanstein, the 19th century castle of mad King Ludwig in southern Germany, ‘Oh! It looks just like the castle in Disney World!’  The monopolitani may have even more reason to be irritati than their German counterparts. Monopoli was settled by the Messapians around the 5th century B.C. – the medieval centre I was wandering around was built on the ruins of their ancient fortifications – which puts it at roughly 2400 years before the board game was invented.  The town’s name comes from monos polis, Greek for ‘unique city’ and what made it unique had nothing to do with games.  It was the first settlement in the area  to convert to Christianity.

While a bit scruffier than other coastal towns I visited in Puglia, Monopoli has the same labyrinth of narrow, winding alleys and white-washed façades.  It also has a rather large number of churches.

Everywhere you looked there was a church spire.

For anyone who has ever played Monopoly, it may come as a surprise to learn that it was originally created (in 1903) to demonstrate the injustices of an economic system that puts no constraints on the creation of monopolies, and that the original rules allowed for cooperation amongst players, who could form pacts and refuse to pay unfairly high rents. Human nature being what it is, such a game would of course never have taken off, and by the mid-1930’s when Parker Brothers – who had originally rejected it – took over, it had morphed into the now familiar ruthless quest to gain absolute control of the board and drive all the other players into bankruptcy.

The owners of the distribution company for Italy, Editrice Giochi, which had been specifically created for the game – giochi  (joh-key) means ‘games’ – wanted a board exactly like the original American one.  But under the Fascist regime – this was 1935 – the use of English words was prohibited.  To get around the law they came up with a brilliant, and possibly foolhardy idea.  They would italianizzare the name, while keeping the English pronunciation.   The Italian word for monopoly is monopolio which is pronounced moh-noh-poh-lee-oh.  The plural is monopoli (moh-noh-poh-lee) which would have been the grammatically correct Italian name.  But instead it was marketed as Monòpoli. The accent on the second ‘o’ was to ensure it was pronounced ‘correctly’.  In case you are tempted to dismiss such things as the arcane triflings of pedants, a recent class-action lawsuit in Portland Maine, which resulted in an award of $10 million, hinged on the use of a comma.  (‘3 truckers, $10 million and 1 missing comma’, Daniel Victor, Toronto Star, March 18, 2017).

In some places more than one.

The biggest church in town is the Basilica Cattedrale Maria Santissima della Madia.  Like many of Puglia’s cathedrals, the most diplomatic way I can think of describing the exterior is to say it is unprepossessing. You have to step inside to see the riches.  A deliberate ploy?

Madia comes from the Spanish almadìa.  Amongst the various legends surrounding the Madonna della Madia I haven’t yet come across an explanation as to why she isn’t called Madonna della Zattera, the perfectly good Italian word for raft.  On the other hand, I have found several versions of how she came to arrive in Monopoli. The most popular – in a nutshell, as anything to do with the Byzantine Empire has a tendency to get very byzantine very quickly – during the 8th and 9th centuries the Eastern Church of the now divided Roman Empire went through two periods in which the depiction of holy figures was condemned as idolatrous.  Images were destroyed and anyone caught venerating an image was persecuted. To protect it from destruction, one of the outlawed images was smuggled out of a church somewhere in Asia Minor and, shades of Baby Moses, placed on a raft that drifted across the sea to the safety of the harbour of Monopoli on the night of December 16, 1117.  A rather precise date for a legend.  In any event, the Madonna then appeared in a dream to a priest by the name of Mercurio and told him of her arrival.  She also told him that she had brought with her the wooden beams that were needed to complete the new cathedral the Bishop was building.  Mercurio, a particularly pious priest, rushed to deliver the news to the Bishop.  Annoyed at having been awakened out of a sound sleep, the Bishop accused Mercurio of being drunk and sent him away.  On the poor priest’s third unsuccessful attempt, the angels decided to give him a hand and set the bells of the town’s churches ringing.  That got everyone’s attention and all the townspeople, including the Bishop, rushed to the harbour.

Behind the main altar the Madonna della Madia, aka the Madonna Odigitria, from ancient Greek for ‘she who shows the way’.The fingers of the Madonna point the way, symbolized by the document held by the baby Jesus.

A painting near the altar depicts the townspeople retrieving the beams that to this day support the cathedral roof. The miraculous event is reenacted twice yearly in solemn processions through the town.

Easy to miss amongst the ornate decorations were some lovely depictions of the Creche scene.

Some of the figures had a distinctly peasant feel to them.

But on the day of my visit, apart from a few tourists, the focus of attention was on two statues to the left of the altar.  Sitting at a makeshift table next to the statues were a couple of locals.  When I got closer, I saw why they were there.  The robes of the two statues were covered with jewellery.  REAL jewellery.

With all the jewellery and their delicate – ethereal – features, I first took them to be female saints, but then they would have been ‘sante‘.

The statues were of the Santi Medici Cosma e Damiano, the Doctor Saints. Born in the eastern regions of the Roman Empire in the second half of the 3rd century, the two brothers had devoted their lives to healing the sick, and were known far and wide for their kindness, especially towards the poor and the abandoned.  In addition to physical ailments, they also attended to the spiritual well-being of those who sought their help, and in a period when their fledgling religion was still frowned on, converted many ‘pagans’ to Christianity.   Their efforts eventually led to arrest and they were subjected to a martyrdom that was considered unusually fierce even for those times. First they were stoned, but the rocks bounced back and hit the soldiers who were throwing them; next they were shot at with arrows, but like the rocks, the arrows also bounced off the saints; then they were thrown into the sea with an enormous boulder tied around their necks, but the ropes undid themselves and the two rose to the surface unharmed; after that they were chained and thrown into a burning furnace from which they once again emerged unharmed.  Finally – and it’s probably as much a miracle he himself didn’t drop dead of  cardiac arrest from rage – Diocletian had them decapitated.

I watched as some of the locals – mostly elderly women – touched the robes.  Just in case, the ad hoc security detail kept an eye on things.

Next to the Doctor Saints was another statue.  No jewellery weighed down the robes of this one, but the cloth was more sumptuous, and the head covering was that of a high-ranking figure.  This was San Cataldo.  Or to be more precise – Saint Catald, the 7th century Irish – yes, IRISH – priest from Lismore County, Waterford, who on his return home from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem was shipwrecked and washed up on the shores of Taranto in the north-west of Puglia. The locals, sensing something about the stranger, invited him to stay and despite his longing for solitude, which is why he had set out on the pilgrimage, he accepted their invitation and in time, due to his good works and occasional miracle – plagues and floods that afflicted neighbouring settlements bypassed Taranto – he was made Archbishop.

San Cataldo, the Irish pilgrim who became the Archbishop of an Italian town.

On my way out I noticed a poster.  I took a photo, for ‘local flavour’ as it were,  but I should have paid more attention to the specifics of the various festivities advertised on the poster. In particular the entry for domenica 5 giugno. Sunday, June 5, the day of my visit, according to which, at ore 19,oo (7 pm) there was to be a solenne processione dei Santi Medici e S. Cataldo partendo dalla cattedrale.  A solemn procession of the Doctor Saints and St. Catald, starting at the cathedral.

While I was in the cathedral the deluvione inland had reached Monopoli.  The restaurants were overflowing – Sunday lunch, as I’ve written before, is the most celebrated meal of the week and this was the Sunday in the middle of a ponte, the long weekend of the Festa della Repubblica – but a lovely couple who had come down for the day from Bari invited me to join their table.   This post is already far too long, so I’ll just say that it was with mixed emotions that I listened to their observations of what it was like to live in the region I was so enjoying as a visitor.

The rain had stopped while we were eating and when we stepped outside the restaurant we were astounded to see blue skies.  We wished one another una buona giornata and went our separate ways. I had no desire to visit all of Monopoli’s churches, but there was one more that had caught my interest while I was researching the town.  As one British visitor put it, ‘Never in my ABC (another bloody church) of visiting sacred places on holidays have I ever come across a church like this’.

The façade of Santa Maria del Suffragio, more commonly known as La Chiesa del Purgatorio is unmistakable.

No matter where you look there are skulls and skeletons.

The church was built by the Fraternity of Purgatory, whose members prayed for the souls of those who, although ultimately destined for heaven, first had to be purified of their sins. The doors are – well, let’s just say not the sort of thing you’d want to have in the background of your wedding photos.

The symbols of temporal power are depicted in the upper panels; in the lower panels are the tools of the labourer. In the middle, two skeletons – mirror images, stripped of their worldly distinctions – face each other, for all eternity.

It wasn’t just the exterior of the church that had astounded the ABC visitor.  Near the entrance on the left was a display not easily forgotten.

The cadavers were of 18th century governors of the town. Why were they here?  Who and why had it been decided not to bury them, but to put them on display?    Had the governors themselves issued a decree?

At the feet of one of the cadavers was a faded plaque with his name, birthplace – Caserta, title – Governor of Monopoli and date of death – Nov. 24, 1793. No date of birth, no words of remembrance.

The most disturbing cadaver looked like that of a small child.

Who knows what terrible sorrow lay behind the decision to put the dead child on display in this way?

The theme continued throughout the church, even above the confessional.

The ornately decorated altar, which in another church would have struck me as heavy, seemed positively uplifting by comparison.

It was a relief to leave the church and be back outside where the skies were still blue and the sun still shining.   And there was a lot going on.

I felt sorry for the band from Carovigno who were rather good…

… but got drowned out when Monopoli’s band came marching into the piazza.

Pied Piper style, the band marched through the town, picking up strays on its way to the piazza in front of the cathedral I had visited earlier.

The previously quiet piazza echoed with the sounds of the band and the townspeople.

I was amazed at how long and how patiently they waited. Those lovely, ancient stones are hard on the feet and legs. These older women had wisely left their heels at home.

Finally there was a commotion at the main entrance.

A few minutes later, to the cheers of the crowd, one of the Doctor Saints appeared.

A few minutes later out came his brother. They seemed to float through the crowd.

Last came San Cataldo…

… who followed the Doctor Saints down an alley to the left of the cathedral.

I watched for a while as the crowd organized into groups and joined the procession, and then, thinking of the long ride back to the B&B, decided it was time to leave.  Easier said than done.

Monopoli’s medieval centre was much bigger than Gallipoli’s and so was the crowd of determined faithful.

Even when a comparatively small group passed by, they spread out across the entire lane.

Now and then, for no apparent reason, they stopped.

This fellow is looking daggers at two young girls, dressed more for a Saturday night out than a solemn procession, who were standing next to me.

Finally, the Irish saint came into view.

And with him the end of the procession.

I suppose I could have barged my way through, but it felt disrespectful. And it’s not every day you get to witness locals take back their town.


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Stymied by a Saint

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 paraphernalia of the local fishermen decorates a shop.

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.

The lower shutters keep toddlers in and stray animals out.

Was it wash day?

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.

A local specialty with a local name.

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).

Chiappiri aka acciughe. Anchovies.

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.

On the narrow lane it shares with street vendors hawking the usual tourist trinkets, Gallipoli’s Cathedral of Saint Agatha.

One of the vendors tries to entice passersby with a whimsical sponge sculpture.

To get a more frontal shot you can bend over backwards or – much safer – sit down on the pavement.

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).

Adoration of the Magi.

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.

The Miracles of St. Francis of Paola (1653). Despite the highly devotional subject matter, Giovanni Coppola was not satisfied to remain its anonymous creator. The figure to the right of the woman in the red dress is a self-portrait of the artist.

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.

This work was also subject to an intervento. The wings of the angel in the centre were lengthened to cover the lower abdomen area of the purified souls as they ascend to Heaven.

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.

At the Toronto Botanical Gardens I regularly see visitors in the middle of the gardens taking photos, having stepped over one of many signs asking them to PLEASE DO NOT STEP INTO THE GARDEN.  Apparently the same type of people have also visited Gallipoli’s cathedral.

With so much going on behind it, the Crucifix almost seems to melt into the painting.

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.

Saint Agatha, holding two lovely little bouquets instead of the chopped off breasts she is usually portrayed holding. I would – to my dismay – be seeing more of her later that day.

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.

The view that the bench turns its back on.

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.

On the left Santissimo Crocifisso and on the right San Domenico al Rosario, founded by the town’s master tailors.

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.

Instead of a cat lady, Gallipoli apparently had a cat man.

The glass skyscraper marks the beginning of Gallipoli’s ‘New Town’.

Further along the shore, Santa Maria della Purità

Santa Maria degli Angeli

… and at the end of the peninsula, the Church of Saint Francis of Assisi.

Visitors in the know grab a table early at the bar on the ramparts. It’s the best place in town for a sunset aperitivo.

For those who aren’t in the know, the view further along the rampart wall is also very good.

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.

The VERY blue Angolo Blu.

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!

Fregi Barocchi.  Poetry and a rather delicious vino bianco.

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.

Even under the blue lighting the pasta was deliziosa.

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.

It hadn’t occurred to me that the movimento would be caused by the locals.

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 couldn’t help feeling that going against the flow would land me in Purgatory. At best.

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



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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.


Posted in Puglia, Southern Italy | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Simples, a Controversial Cactus and a Black Swan in a Quarry Garden

It’s time for a garden visit.  Even the most passionate gardener needs a break from poring over all those seed catalogues.  Admittedly Puglia, with its long, dry summers and all that limestone is not the first place that comes to mind when you think of gardens, but after a bit of digging around I found one that rivals anything I’ve seen in Tuscany or Italy’s northern Lake District.

I was a little worried about finding it. The hotel staff in Lecce, only 30 k to the north, didn’t seem to know anything about it and the website directions were not encouraging.  The on ramp to the SS16, the most direct route, was closed. PER CAUSE “SCONOSCIUTE”.  The quotations marks around ‘unknown’ struck me as vaguely ominous.


The garden is still something of an undiscovered treasure. As I drove along the isolated country roads I began to wonder.

It’s called La Cutura, from cute (coo-tay), local dialect for pietra (pyay-truh).  Stone.  The first time I saw the name, I did that misreading thing where we unconsciously ‘correct’ typos.  ‘Why do we make mistakes?  Blame your brain, the original autocorrector’ is a wonderfully entertaining rant/explanation by Yuka Igarashi about how our brains fool us into seeing things that aren’t there and unseeing things that are, all in an effort to help us comprehend the world around us (The Guardian, Aug. 9, 2013).   In case you think you’re immune, try ‘reading’ the following:  I cdn’uolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg: the phaonmneel pweor of the hmuan mind.   Surprised?  I was.  And also unnerved.  Although I was glad to learn I’m not the only one who yells at her computer.  Who wants to think they have anything in common with the generation that used to yell at their TV?  In fairness, those TV’s didn’t have Autocorrect, which, after much yelling and jabbing the keys, seems to have finally resigned itself to the fact that Igarashi’s first name is not Luka. There was also something perversely reassuring about Igarashi’s contention that ‘Anyone whose job it is to catch these mistakes – editors, copyeditors, subeditors, proofreaders – has to be an abnormal and malfunctioning human’.  Something to keep in mind the next time, after I’ve gone over and over a post, I still find a couple of typos lingering around.

In any event, on my first read, I – or rather my brain – had added an ‘l’ and I had ‘seen’ La Cultura.  Culture.   As things turned out, my mistake was of the felicitous kind.


The austere entrance – the courtyard of an 18th century masseria (fortified farmhouse) – gives little hint of the garden beyond.

I was somewhat sceptical of the website’s description of the garden.  Such things tend to be on the florid side in Italian, but this one was especially so.   La Cutura is not just a garden, but a museum of life that stimulates the visitor’s most hidden senses, awakening a profound desire to learn not felt since childhood. A place born in stone where the visitor is overwhelmed by the marvel of existence and the perfect harmony of nature and pleasure.

I decided to take things easy and start with the Giardino dei Semplici.  Garden of the Simples.


The cows and their calves who once grazed within the walls have long been replaced by a variety of ‘simples’.  Plants like sage, artemisia, lavender and mint, all the herbs and medicinal plants of the medieval convent garden.


Hidden amongst the roses and other showy perennials apparently there are some herbs.

Comparisons are odious, I know, but as I walked around the walled garden – which frankly looked more like a rose garden than an herb garden – I couldn’t help thinking of another garden of ‘simples’ I’d visited.  The Jardin des Simples at the Château de Villandry in the Loire.  (‘Of Cabbages and Kings, Aug. 17, 2014) With its extravagant topiary and geometrically clipped borders, it was hard to see how the French garden had anything in common with the one I was in right now.


Those medieval monks must have used a lot of rose water in their tinctures. Or maybe they made a lot of rose hip tea.

Here the plants were allowed to grow freely, to all appearances untouched by human hands.  If the herb garden was any indication, this was not like any botanical garden I’d ever visited. I headed to the Giardino Roccioso. The Rock Garden.


Was it the ancient walls that added to the sense you really were on a voyage of discovery?

If I hadn’t been following the guide I would never have guessed I was in a rock garden. The first thing that hits you is the Opuntia.  50 varieties of it and all absolutely gorgeous.


In May the Opuntia, aka Prickly Pear, looks like it’s covered in roses.

I’d always associated rock gardens with pristine, somewhat austere, alpine settings.  Or minimalist scree-type creations.


It’s hard to see the rocks for the Opuntia. Which is more amazing – the blooms or the thorns?

I tore myself away from the Opuntia to an area that looked more like a traditional rock garden.  Although even here the rocks were overshadowed by a fabulous collection of artfully half-buried amphoras.


Looking for some more atmosphere in your garden? Try a cleverly half-buried amphora or two.

The Rock Garden was designed to recreate the landscapes of South America where many of these plants originate. In addition to the Opuntia, there are 80 varieties of Agave and ‘numerous’ varieties of cacti.


As this Agave unfolds, the spikes leave a fascinating pattern.

It was the botanical equivalent of being a kid in a candy jar.


And when you remembered to look up, there were more of nature’s diversità affascinanti.


With so much going on a ground level it’s easy to miss the plants towering above.


Peppino, the owner of Giardino Il Ravino on Ischia had called these colour variations ‘anomalies’.

There are 11 gardens in all, so you have to push on if you want to see the whole thing.  Next to the so-called Rock Garden is La  Serra  (sair-ruh) di Piante Grasse e Tropicali.  The Greenhouse of  Succulents and Tropical Plants.  Note the double ‘r’ in serra.  You don’t want to be caught wishing someone a pleasant greenhouse.   (Buona sera – Good Evening – has only one ‘r’.  Bwoh-nuh seh-ruh)

In any event the outdoor gardens were so captivating I wasn’t keen on ‘wasting’ time in the greenhouse.  That would have been a BIG mistake.  Luckily, on one of my visits I managed to join a guided visit led by Dr. Salvatore Cezzi, the creator of La Cutura.


The greenhouse is enormous.  It has to be to contain the 2,000 or so succulents and tropical plants that Dr. Cezzi had collected over the previous four decades.


Despite his reputation as a world-renowned expert in the genre, Dr. Cezzi was a surprisingly low-key guide. Maybe he knew the plants would speak for themselves.


In all the confusion and amidst all those thorns it’s a wonder this plant managed to pull off even one bloom. Yet look at all those buds.


The essence of ‘higgledy-piggledy’.


I wonder if fashion designers visit places like this for inspiration.


Good thing they move so fast. I was so focused on the plants I might have stepped on one of them.


Most of the flowers were red, but there were a few pink ones.


A shoe shot. In case you thought the pink flower was one of those little gems.

Some of the plants were just plain unbelievable.


Looks so soft and furry.


They say seeing is believing, but even as I stood staring at it and even as I look back on my own (unadulterated) photo I have a hard time believing this is for real.

And then there were the monsters and the crests.  Those are actually the accepted botanical terms for what we were looking at.  The bizarre shapes are a result of a disruption in the normal function of the apical meristem, which, for the initiated like me, is the plant’s growth centre.  Its HQ.  In a nutshell, this is how it goes.  In the normal course of events the apical meristem produces new cells from a single point and the new cells push the older cells outward in a more or less symmetrical pattern.  Which is why stems and branches are roundish.  But now and then something comes along – a change in light intensity, bacteria, hail, an insect infestation, some well-meaning person over-waters the plant – and the cells start growing along a line instead of from a single point.  Now, instead of expanding outward in all directions, the plant starts to flatten, resulting in fans and crest-like protuberances.  Not surprisingly – remember the striped aberrations that went for astronomical prices during the 17th century Tulip mania? – the mutations have become coveted collectors’ items.


A modern – or is it post-modern? – sculpture by Mother Nature. Myrtilocactus geometrizan crestato.

Personally, I’m not into mutants.  As much as I love the striped tulips – especially the pale green, pink and white ones – there is something creepy about beauty caused by a virus or a bacterial infection.  A bit further on was a gorgeous, more or less normal clump – I’m not sure if the upright bits are part of the snaking thing at its base – that had sprouted flowers in my favourite colour.


With all the strange and wonderful things grabbing our attention, the group started to splinter.  Some of us fell behind while others went on ahead.  Dr. Cezzi didn’t seem at all fazed by this until, all of a sudden he got molto agitato and in a tone that was markedly at odds with the laid-back approach we’d seen so far, called us over to where he was standing.  Next to a plant we had barely glanced at.


There is more to this plant than meets the eye.

The unassuming-looking little plant is called Hoodia gordonii and Dr. Cezzi was so agitated because it is at the centre of one of the most egregious cases of biopiracy in recent times.  Nomadic Bushmen, who have long known of its ability to suppress appetite, eat the stems to stave off hunger during long hunting trips to the deserts of South Africa and Namibia, its natural habitat.  But when agents from the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research learned of its appetite suppressing qualities, they saw not a plant that helps humans survive extremely harsh conditions, but a plant that in the multi-million dollar weight-loss industry would make them a lot of money.  They lost no time patenting the plant and then sold the rights to Unilever, one of the largest packaged-food firms in the world, who began a world-wide campaign marketing hoodia products as an all-natural, easy way to lose weight.   Even the BBC (in 2003) and 60 Minutes (Nov. 21, 2004) aired shows on the miracle plant.  Many of the Bushmen had their land confiscated and taken over by outsiders eager to cash in on the craze.  As collectors and growers poached the plant in its natural habitat, the Bushmen found fewer and fewer on their hunting trips and it ended up on the (ever-growing) list of endangered plants.  Despite numerous lawsuits and controversies as to its effectiveness and safety as a weight loss tool, hoodia products are still being sold.

Chastened, we followed Dr. Cezzi outside.  There was no gradual transition.  We went straight from the desert to a lush, tropical pond.


The lily pad pond is topped up with water from a cistern that stores rain water.

Nearby was Il Bosco.  It was like we were on a mini tour of the world through its trees.  A couple of spiky ones really caught my attention.


The spiky trunk of the Silk Floss Tree from the tropical and subtropical forests of South America.

Unlike the Silk Floss Tree, which while impressive didn’t pose any real danger – unless I suppose you tripped and fell onto its trunk, a tree close by was another matter.  As we approached it, Dr. Cezzi warned us not to get too close.  The thorns coming out of the trunk of this tree were more like miniature lances.  Get impaled on one of these and you’d be in serious trouble.  Its official name is Acacia erioloba, but it’s more commonly known as the Giraffe Thorn Tree.


This native to the drier parts of southern Africa can grow up to 17 meters tall.  Perfect for a giraffe.


Somehow giraffes, who go crazy for the leaves, manage to get their tongues around the long thorns without getting stabbed.

As I learned more about La Cutura, it began to have a surprisingly familiar ring.  La Cutura was created on the site of a former limestone quarry.  There is a garden on Canada’s west coast that was also created on the site of a former limestone quarry.  Dr. Cezzi, who had created La Cutura, was an ex-banker.  The woman who was largely responsible for creating the garden in Canada was the wife of a retired cement mogul.  Close enough.  If they’d lived in the same country, they would undoubtedly have travelled in the same social circles.   And, a final serendipitous touch, the Canadians called their haven Benvenuto,  Italian for ‘Welcome’.  Although nowadays – many of you will already have guessed – the world knows it as Butchart Gardens.

At the far edge of the property was the newest addition to the gardens – the Roseto (roh-zay-toe).  Rose Garden.


Il Roseto, ‘born’ in 2010.  Dr. Cezzi was not happy. There had been a heavy rain the night before and the roses were sciupate (shoe-pah-tay). Ruined.


I thought they looked lovely.

Often, as I walk through the gardens of Italy – and France – I’ve noticed that after a while I begin to lose that sense of being in a foreign country.  In any country really.  Even if the plants and design are quite different from those back home. Even if the people around me are not all speaking English. Maybe it has something to do with some universal quality of gardens.  Or maybe with the daily exposure to languages from all over the world that are part of living in a cosmopolitan city like Toronto.  In any event, the view beyond the garden fence – the vegetables, poppies, grape vines and the huge olive trees – left no doubt as to where I was.


A classic farmer’s field in Puglia.

What did seem strange – out of place almost – was the Giardino all’Italiana.


The clipped boxwood and yew and the formal geometry of the (so-called) classic Italian garden.

It had the strangest effect on me.  As if I’d been transported back to Tuscany. The only other time this had happened was in the Giardini Giusti in Verona, where a homesick exile from Tuscany had created a garden to remind of his homeland. (In the City of Star-Crossed Lovers, Apr. 5, 2016)  The Pugliesi are very proud of their region.  Somehow I got the feeling this garden was less about a longing for somewhere else, than a desire to show that the (oft-maligned) ‘heel’ of Italy could produce a garden that rivalled those of the much more famous – and much more visited region in the north.


Way off to one side was an enormous fenced off area.  Signs reminded visitors to ensure the gates were firmly closed behind them.  This was the realm of the fauna – over 100 animali da cortile e ornamentali.  I recognized the screeching of one of the ornamental animals long before I reached the gate.


The peacock is a well-loved symbol of immortality throughout southern Italy. And it seems to know it.


I had to wait quite a while before it deigned to turn around.

There were all sorts of ‘courtyard’ animals too.


There have to be a couple of eyes in there somewhere. Love the foot covers.


Having a bad hair day?

Off to one side was a fenced area with a large pond.  Sitting on the island in the middle of the pond was the symbol of all things that cannot be, that should not be.  But, now and then are.  A black swan.  The creature that up until the end of the 17th century, when Dutch explorers ‘discovered’ them in western Australian, was believed to be as real as the unicorn. Not long before this trip I had read a fascinating book about black swans.  Only the swans in this book were of a featherless nature. They were the highly improbable, highly impactful events or circumstances that according to the author, Nassim Taleb, have been responsible for almost all major scientific discoveries, historical events, and artistic accomplishments in the history of mankind and the world.  And will continue to do so.

It’s pretty heady stuff, but it’s not as heavy going as you might think.  Taleb, clearly seeking to attract as wide a readership as possible, writes in a surprisingly un-expert style and breaks concepts down into easily digestible bits like ‘How to Learn from the Turkey’, ‘Remembrance of Things Not Quite Past’, ‘To Be Wrong with Infinite Precision’ and one of my favourites – ‘Learning from Mother Nature, the Oldest and the Wisest.’  The book is called “The Black Swan:  The Impact of the HIGHLY IMPROBABLE.”  Irresistible.


Enterprising explorers brought back black swans – the feathered variety – to England where private collectors paid handsome prices for the ‘exotics’, but over the years many of them escaped and headed to more natural habitats, where they now pose a serious threat – they are extremely aggressive, even apparently to humans – to the white natives.


When the black swan got up and headed for the water, I thought, Uh oh!,  but he and his two white companions seem to have reached some sort of détente.  Not a feather was ruffled.

It was a long walk back to the entrance, which gave me lots of time to notice things I’d missed earlier and to think about what a wonderful experience it had been.  And one I had just stumbled on by chance.  Why wasn’t La Cutura better known?  Why wasn’t it more crowded? (Not that I didn’t mind having so much of it to myself.)  In comparison, close to a million visitors go to Canada’s Butchart Gardens, every year.  Granted, and I feel safe I’m not being swayed by national pride when I say this, the gardens at Butchart are on a grander scale.  But still.  Perhaps La Cutura shares the same fate as many of Italy’s wonderful gardens. Even those in Tuscany.  There are just too many other, must-see sites vying for the tourist’s limited time.  Maybe, as more of us Slow Travellers hit the roads, there will be more visitors to lesser known treasures like La Cutura.


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