Otranto Cathedral: Where You Can See The Remains Of Catholicism’s Newest Saints

Otranto Cathedral
Pope Francis has beatified a long list of religious figures in the first creation of saints of his papacy, the Guardian reports. Included in this list are the 813 Martyrs of Otranto. These were victims of a massacre in the southern Italian town in 1480 when Ottoman soldiers beheaded them for refusing to convert to Islam.

It was common in Medieval and Renaissance Europe to display the remains of martyrs and saints, and the Martyrs of Otranto were no exception. They are on display in a huge ossuary in the Cathedral of Otranto. It’s a fitting home since many Otranto residents took shelter in the cathedral during the Ottoman attack on their city. Eventually, the Ottomans broke in, took away the people and turned the cathedral into a stable. The cathedral was reconsecrated the following year when the Italians recaptured Otranto.

The cathedral, first consecrated in 1088, has more to offer than the arresting sight of hundreds of bones stacked up on a wall. The floor is covered with one of the most impressive medieval mosaics in Europe – a complex 12th-century work of art showing Biblical scenes, Heaven, Hell and the Garden of Eden. There are also traces of early frescoes on the wall, a gilded ceiling and some fine Gothic tracery.

Some of the remains of the Martyrs of Otranto are kept in Santa Caterina a Formiello in Naples. Italy is one of the best countries to see bits of holy people from the past. There are numerous saints’ relics in Rome, including a crypt of mummified monks. The city even has a Purgatory Museum. The Basilica of Mary Magdalene at Vézelay, France, has Mary’s bones. Further east in Sozopol, Bulgaria, is a church with the bones of John the Baptist.

[Photo courtesy Laurent Massoptier]

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A Cast-Iron Church In Istanbul

Istanbul, cast iron church
This church on the shoreline of Istanbul looks ornate yet pretty normal – that is until you go up and take a closer look. The Bulgarian St. Stephen Church isn’t made of stone but rather of cast iron. It’s a rare survival of a 19th-century craze in prefab cast-iron churches.

Also known as the Bulgarian Iron Church, its parts were cast in Vienna in 1871 and shipped down the Danube in a hundred barges to be assembled in Istanbul. This building marks an important time in the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. Bulgaria and Greece were both ruled by the Ottoman Empire. Bulgarian Christians were under the domain of the Greek Patriarch, but the Bulgarians complained that he favored Greeks over Bulgarians. So the Sultan granted the Bulgarians their own Exarch, giving them a religious independence that they have to this day.

If you’re in Istanbul, head on over to this church, pull a coin out of your pocket and tap it against the wall. You’ll hear a loud ding ding ding that proves it’s really metal! Needless to say, iron buildings need love and care. Currently the building is undergoing restoration work so that it can amaze visitors and churchgoers for generations to come.

Liverpool can boast two cast-iron churches, St. Michael’s and St. George’s, although they are only partially iron. For the full prefab effect, you need to go to Istanbul.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

VIDEO: Jerusalem In 1896


Jerusalem is one of those cities that clings to you long after you leave it. The mix of faiths, the musky scents of the markets, the muezzin’s call … once you’ve been there you can’t forget it.

It’s prominent in the imaginations of many who haven’t even been there, so it’s no surprise it was one of the first travel destinations filmed in the first years of motion pictures. In 1896, a crew from the studio of Auguste and Louis Lumière headed to Jerusalem, then part of the Ottoman Empire, to film its sights and people in what might be the very first foreign travel film.

Like all films in those days it was silent – the narration in this video was added decades later – but much of the spirit of Jerusalem shines through.

The Lumière brothers of France were pioneers in motion pictures. Their American rival was Thomas Edison, who was soon making his own travel pictures. He convinced transportation companies to give his film crews free rides to far-flung places such as the American West, China and Japan. Edison was not only an engineering genius; he was a master of marketing and saw films as a good way to get some press trips.

Athens day trip: Acrocorinth, one of Greece’s greatest castles

Acrocorinth, Greece, castle, castles
Greece is justly famous for its ancient monuments. The Acropolis, Delphi, and other Classical sites are the reason most history lovers come to this ancient land. The medieval period, however, produced many equally impressive monuments and it’s a shame they’re so often overlooked. Greece is filled with giant castles, remote monasteries, and lovely churches decorated with gold mosaics and richly colored paintings.

One of the largest castles in Greece is Acrocorinth, less than an hour away from Athens by train. It sits atop a rocky hill 1,800 feet high overlooking the famous city and harbor of Corinth. Its strategic location close to the Isthmus of Corinth, the narrow strip of land connecting the Peloponnese with the rest of Greece, makes it one of the most important castles in the country.

I arrived there one rainy morning to find the hill and its castle wreathed in mist. A taxi ride from the train station took me up a winding road past sheer drops. No approach to the summit is easy, and from some sides it would take a skilled mountain climber to get up. Only the western slope is relatively passable, and it’s protected by triple walls.

Acrocorinth is such an obvious point for defense that there’s been a castle here for more than 2,500 years. The ancient Greeks built a temple to Aphrodite at the top and built walls made of massive stones to serve as a refuge for the Corinthians against pirates and invaders.
In AD 146 the Romans destroyed Corinth and its castle and for many years they lay abandoned.

The temple was replaced by a church in the 5th or 6th century AD. By this time the Western Roman Empire had collapsed and the Eastern Roman Empire, known as Byzantium, was a powerful Christian state ruling over much of the eastern Mediterranean with its capital at Constantinople, modern Istanbul. Corinth and Acrocorinth became important again as a Byzantine regional capital.

%Gallery-146085%The Byzantines had their hands full fighting Muslim armies and were seriously weakened when they lost most of what is now Turkey. Little did they expect the next blow to come from fellow Christians. As knights from Western Europe set out on the Fourth Crusade, they originally planned on retaking Jerusalem from the Arabs. Instead they diverted to Byzantium and sacked Constantinople in 1204.

The Crusaders surrounded Acrocorinth but saw that an assault would be foolhardy and settled down for a long siege. Acrocorinth was defended by the Greek lord Leo Sgouros. For four years he kept the Crusaders at bay, but the strain of living within the walls eventually drove him mad. One day he mounted his horse and galloped over the cliffs to his death. This didn’t deter his garrison, however, and they continued to hold on until 1210, when the situation became so hopeless that they finally surrendered. The French knight William de Villehardouin built a castle on Acrocorinth and strengthened the walls.

The Byzantines slowly pushed the crusaders out of their empire and Acrocorinth was retaken in 1395. The ravages of the Fourth Crusade permanently weakened Byzantium. The Ottoman Turks were moving in from the east and took Constantinople in 1453. The Peloponnese held out for a time and Acrocorinth didn’t fall until 1458 after a long siege during which Greek soldiers snuck through Turkish lines and climbed the cliffs to bring supplies to the beleaguered defenders. The Venetians took the castle from the Ottomans in 1687 and many of the walls visible today are their handiwork. After a long war the Ottomans retook Acrocorinth, only to lose it for good to the Greeks in 1823 during the War of Independence.

The view from the top had me entranced. To one side, ancient and modern Corinth lay at my feet, with the Aegean stretching out beyond. To the other side lay olive groves and open countryside. As I explored the rugged hilltop with its medieval walls, Crusader keep, and remnants of temples, churches, and mosques, I was entirely alone. Two American tourists left just as I arrived, and besides a guard and a workman at the gate, I saw no one. That was fine by me. Places like this are best seen in silence and solitude.

It doesn’t bode well for the local economy, though. Sure, winter is low season, but there should be more people seeing this wonderful place. Low season in Greece also means shorter hours. Acrocorinth shut at 3pm. Old Corinth, with its important museum and picturesque Temple of Apollo, shut at the same time. If I wanted to do the castle justice I didn’t have time see Old Corinth.

As the guard closed and locked the castle gate I walked down the road back to Old Corinth a few kilometers away. It had stopped raining and I didn’t mind the walk. This being Greece, however, a passing motorist stopped to pick me up. It turned out to be the workman I had spotted on Acrocorinth, an archaeologist working on the restoration of Villehardouin’s tower. His English was limited but he expressed his gratitude at my visit. He loved the castle as much as I did, and was thankful that money for its restoration was still coming through. Not from my visit, though; entrance is free. I would have happily paid five euros.

Down at Old Corinth everything was closing. I took some photos of Apollo’s temple through the fence and wandered down a street lined with tourist shops and restaurants. All were open and none had customers. I settled in for lunch at a restaurant called Marinos. The owner and his family and friends were having a big, loud meal. I was the only customer. The food was excellent, though, and they serve a wine from their own vineyard not just a hundred meters away. I hope they have better business in the high season; they deserve it.

From the restaurant I called the taxi driver who had brought me up to the castle. It was getting late, the rain had started again, and walking all the way to the train station after sampling the local wine didn’t appeal.

“You liked the castle?” he asked as we drove down the hill.

“Loved it. Too bad I couldn’t see Old Corinth.”

“Yes,” he sighed in obvious frustration. “They should stay open longer. You would have bought a ticket. Instead you end up less happy than you should be.”

“Has business been bad?” I asked.

“The tourists are still coming but they’re getting a bad experience. I do day tours and sometimes we show up at a site and it’s closed. People fly all the way here and don’t get to see what they want.”

“People being the way they are I guess they sometimes blame you.”

“Yeah,” he grunted. “Sometimes they do.”

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Our Past in Peril, Greek tourism faces the economic crisis.

Coming up next: The Acropolis!

Luxury Vacation Guide 2012: Istanbul

Travel like a modern sultan with design-conscious hotels, bespoke shopping, and high-end dining at the crossroads of two continents: Istanbul, Turkey.

In 2010, Istanbul made headlines in every travel magazine and newspaper as it was home to one of the European Capitals of Culture. The influx of cash and visitors meant dozens of new hotels, art galleries, museums, and world-class restaurants. As many European countries’ economies have seen trouble in the last year, the Turkish Tiger is booming. Visitors today can relive the glory days of travel in the restored Pera Palace Hotel, built for the Orient Express passengers, or luxuriate in modern style with a water view at the House Hotel Bosphorus. Marvel at the jewel-encrusted treasures at Topkapı Palace and pick up something for your own royal residence at Paşabahçe, where home goods run from a few lira for a çay glass to thousands for a mosaic-tiled Ottoman-inspired vase; or invest in artisanal, limited-edition jewelry and textiles at Armaggan. Sample Turkish classics with a modern twist at Lokanta Maya for shared mezes or at the Michelin-standard Mimolett restaurant and wine boutique. If you haven’t put on too much weight from all the fantastic food, you can commission a bespoke suit, leather jacket, or customized pair of shoes at the Grand Bazaar or on the back streets of Nişantaşı, Istanbul’s fashion district. While no longer a budget travel destination, Istanbul has something to offer every taste, from an elaborate dinner aboard a private yacht to the simple (and cheap) pleasure of a ferry ride between continents.

[flickr image via Witt Istanbul Suites]