Otranto in common with much of Puglia boasts a rich and varied history. Originally a Greek colony, then the Roman port of Hydruntum, it is became part of the Byzantine Empire till later ruled by the Normans and Aragonese, who were responsible for building the fortified Citadel whose imposing defensive bulk dominates the Old Town and harbour below.
Otranto fell to the invading Turks in the 15th century after a siege that saw the 800 survivors of the town and garrison ritually beheaded – one at a time – for refusing to convert to Islam.
A vengeful army of allied Italians drove out the Turks the following year. The martyrs bones were then gathered from the execution field and carefully arranged in floor to ceiling glass cases in the towns Cathedral after its repair and re-consecration. This Romanesque Cathedral (open till noon and 3pm-7.30pm) retains one of the oldest mosaic floors still existing in Europe, rich with Biblical themes it adjoins ancient steps to the cathedral crypt where 40 pillars each made of different stone, in different styles support the floor. The crypt walls are covered with Byzantine frescoes, murals and icons, only partly destroyed by the Turks who quartered their houses in the Cathedral after their capture of the town.
Enter Otranto through the heavily fortified main gateway set into the encircling town wall defences. Roam past picturesque buildings in the winding streets of the old town, tasteful artisan and tourist shops abound and climb upwards and to the right to reach the Cathedral already described.
Continue on, and In front of the Citadel the road across the old defence moat on the right, leads inland towards the new town – but instead – cross the entrance bridge to the Citadel, which often houses temporary exhibits, and climb the stone staircases to the battlements on the summit and enjoy stupendous views across the town, harbour and Marina.
On clear days it is possible to see across the Straits of Otranto and view the snow capped mountain peaks of Albania 60 kms distant. Retracing your steps through the courtyard, past the huge old stone cannonballs, and stroll along the town walls above the harbour till it leads into the area by the harbour before the town gateway again.
A pretty palm shaded garden park, “ Villa Comunale” beside the sea front is a pleasant place to refresh with a coffee or ice cream from one of the many nearby cafes and gelaterias.
In the evening time, as all the old town is tastefully illuminated, and the lights twinkle across the marina from the bay, indulge by dining outside in one of the many small Trattoria or restaurants overlooking the harbour.
- L’Altro Baffo, (Italian cuisine) – 23 Via Cenobio Basiliano (Old Town between the Citadel and the Cathedral)
- Ristorante Profumo di Mare (Seafood) – 5 lgmare Terra d’Otranto (Outside the town, near the beach and just across the “Villa Comunale” from the Old Town gateway)