November 1, 2011 Otranto and Leuca

John: We hope everyone has had a safe and enjoyable Halloween!

Today is November 1, Ognissanti (All Saints Day) here in Italy which means that most everything that’s not a church will be closed. So today is not the day for a walking and shopping tour of Lecce. We decide to head down the heel of Italy – ALL the way down.

First stop, Otranto.

Otranto has been fought over for centuries due to its strategic location at the mouth of the Adriatic Sea (where it meets the Mediterranean). It’s been ruled by early Italian tribes, Romans, Goths of various stripe, Byzantines, Normans, Swabians, Angevins, Turks, Spanish,… you get the picture. If you control Otranto, you have a good shot at charging customs duties to any ship wanting to get into or out of the Adriatic.

Mary: It is so much fun traveling with John. He knows a lot about history. I would have been – “Oh, pretty harbor, let’s go see the church. Wow, what a floor.” Knowing the history behind a place gives you a better sense of why the place exists and how it came to look the way it does.

John: Our destination is the Cathedral, located inside the walled old city. The walls seem to form a giant fortress, with visible Norman, Swabian and Aragonese (Spanish) contributions. It all overlooks a beautiful harbor with incredibly clear water.

Beautiful Adriatic Sea at Otranto

The original version of the cathedral was built by the Byzantines in the second half of the 12th century, a bit before the city was taken by the Normans in 1178. Its most striking feature is its mosaic floor, executed by a monk named Pantaleone from 1163 to 1165. In the floor, he embedded an incredible array of images from the Bible, Greek mythology and Christian legend, plus a pictorial calendar / zodiac and an utterly fantastic Bestiary.

Otranto cathedral exterior

We are able to see only a fraction of the images. It’s a festival day, so we must wait until Mass lets out. Of course, the church is set up with pews obscuring much of the floor. Nonetheless, what we can see is jaw-dropping. We buy a guidebook at a local bookstore to fill in the rest.

Portion of the mosaic floor

Mary: Sometimes it is annoying traveling with John. Outside the cathedral a woman comes up to him and asks him a question in Italian. Although I’ve been impressed with how well he is speaking Italian, he doesn’t understand what she is asking. He asks, in Italian, if she speaks English. She says no so they settle on French. I am feeling more than a little inadequate.

John: After a walk around the walls, we pick up some wine and snacks for later and try to head down the coast road to the last place in Italy.

Well, perhaps Jack the GPS has other ideas. Jack has this curious habit of wanting us to cut corners. No matter that we are traveling on a main state road in the correct general direction. He wants us to veer off onto this side road that appears to be little more than a foot wider than our car. After trying this a couple of times, we decide to take Jack with a grain of salt and rely on the traditional European method of looking for signs that point to the next way point on your route. (This requires a map. We have one, yay! Very tiny print, boo!)

We get on the coast road and head south at last. It’s spectacular, some of the most rock-strew terrain we have ever seen. The road has no shoulders, only stone walls everywhere. Also olive groves. We spy a rest area with an old stone watchtower and spend a few minutes gazing out over the beautiful Straits of Otranto.

Looking back up the Adriatic coast

John by an old watchtower along the coast

We arrive at THE END OF THE EARTH, or at least its Latin equivalent. We are thrilled. It’s like reaching the end of US Highway 1 in Key West, Florida. The End. No more land.

Land's end

We take some pictures and head into the neighboring resort town of Leuca for some lunch. After a couple of passes, we are lucky enough to find a hotel restaurant that’s open. We have salads and pasta. Our pasta dish is Tubettini allo Spada (little tubes with swordfish.) It’s pretty tasty and best of all, the pasta is not undercooked!

Tubettini with swordfish

We get back to Lecce by the inland (and much more direct) route, and find our hotel easily, thanks to the wonderful directions given to us by the desk clerk. We are grateful not to have had a repeat of yesterday’s arrival adventure.

Tonight, wine and snacks on the terrace.

A toast to a successful day!

Tomorrow, a walk through Lecce!

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