Castle of Otranto: above the waves
In the collective imagination, a castle is usually clinging to a rock cliff, hidden behind clouds and looking out majestically over a valley, protected by thick walls. From this image, we construct fantasies about courtly scenes, with dancing and music, sometimes from there moving on to conspiracies, bloody battles and lengthy sieges.
In Otranto, a truly enchanting city in Puglia, the setting is a bit different, but no less interesting. There is an ancient castle in the city, but its walls seem to rise up from the limpid sea, forming, together with the water, a sort of defense for the town.
This historical town and its cathedral represent one of the jewels of Salento, a stretch of land that is full of surprises and marvels.
You arrive in Otranto’s city center through the Porta Terra gate, part of the city wall that, over the centuries, has been rebuilt several times.
The village is a maze of streets, passageways, sudden curves and blind alleys, often uphill, and paved in stone. This method of organizing the streets was part of its defensive strategy, adopted after the fall of the Roman Empire. In fact, as Otranto was vulnerable to attacks from the sea, when enemy ships were not spotted in time, so the citizens bought themselves time to organize their opposition while their enemies were lost, trying to orient themselves in the labyrinthine streets.
Today there is no longer a need to defend against pirates, and strolling through the alleyways is truly a pleasure. The city walls give it a white-tinged splendor, reflecting the rays of the Salento sun. The buildings have small doors and windows and are often adorned with flowers, and the streets are lined with houses and numerous shops selling handcrafted products.
The footpath along the city wall that hangs out over the sea is also breathtaking. You can take a break at any of the various bars or restaurants, sipping a drink while looking out over the sea that extends beyond the horizon.
The Castle, built in the 15th century, was subject to continuous modifications, from the beginning right through to the ones imposed by Napolean’s troops, who occupied the castle in 1800. It has an irregular layout, with three cylindrical towers and lance-shaped ramparts from 1578. A moat surrounds the structure. You can visit the upstairs rooms from a staircase in the center.
Another building that is worth a visit is the Cathedral of Santa Maria Annunziata. It is on the city’s highest point, built on the ruins of a domus romana and a paleo-Christian temple.
The cathedral dates back to 1080, under Pope Gregory VII, and features a stunning balance of styles: paleo-Christian, Byzantine and Romanesque. In 1480, the Turks attacked Otranto and the cathedral was partially damaged.
From the exterior, you can see the large rose window with 16 rays, decorated in the Gothic-Arab style, while the center of the façade features the Baroque portal built in the 17th century, with single lancet windows at each side.
However, the real treasure is found inside. The flooring is a magnificent mosaic completed in 1163. It takes up the entire central nave, part of the apse and two wings of the transept, and was created with multi-colored limestone tiles. It is not easy to interpret the scenes that make up the complex narrative. In the center is a large tree of life, supported by a pair of elephants, from which scenes branch out that mix elements from various sources: the Bible, chivalry fresco cycles, the depiction of work throughout the months of the year, elements from the classical world, Apocalyptic themes and the signs of the zodiac. It is likely that the mosaic attempts to symbolize the plight of humankind, who must constantly fight a battle of good against evil, choosing between virtue and vice, and the various temptations it entails.
Perhaps rather than trying to understand its narrative, the mosaic should simply be admired for its incomparable beauty and the power of its images.
The cathdral’s crypt is also noteworthy, as it is a miniature copy of one in the mosque in Cordoba, Spain. It has 48 spans, supported by more than 70 columns and pilasters. Various materials were used to construct the supports – marble, porphyry and Oriental landscape marble, as varied as their styles and the figures depicted on them.
In addition, the city was celebrated in Walpole’s Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto, which is steeped in the same aura of mystery that still permeates the ancient village. Once upon a time, it was a siren song calling out to pirates; today it attracts travelers eager to experience one of Italy’s most beautiful treasures.
In 2010, the town was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.