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.
As I sit in the cool open-air courtyard of our rented apartment, on a hard-to-find street behind Lecce’s Duomo, the sound of carefully spaced church bells punctuates the silence of the mid-day pausa – Italy’s siesta. Our American instinct is to get out and “do something” on this warm, sunny day. But our newfound Italian inclination is to laze about, digest lunch, and think about what we’ll have for dinner.
When the mood strikes us, we venture back into the web of streets in this sultry city between the Adriatic and Ionian Seas, smack near the butt end of Italy’s heel. The streets of Lecce’s baroque centro storico were made for walking and the town’s well dressed residents are out in force, eating gelato, enjoying glasses of wine in sidewalk enotecas and stopping to greet one another, with an exchange of cheek kisses and a flurry of smiles. Overhead, crazy flocks of blackbirds, called rondini, in these parts, swirl and swoop in wild packs, making a racket and creating an eerie, tropical din I’ve never before encountered.
On our first passegiata in the city, we notice music and a crowd forming on Via Templari Street and follow our ears to see what’s going on. A street-side piano player is leading a group of middle aged Italians in a rousing version of what I later learned is a famous WWI era, Neapolitan love song, “‘O Surdato ‘Nnamurato” (The Soldier In Love). I’m not accustomed to seeing people set up pianos on the street, and I hadn’t seen people have so much fun in a very long time. I assumed it was some sort of special festa we were unaware of, but onlookers quickly disabused me of that notion.
“Nesuna festa,” the youngest member of the group told me. There was no festival.
“It’s drunk Naples people.”
But you don’t have to be drunk to want to break out in song on the streets of Lecce. Every evening, there’s a free show waiting to be experienced in the city’s atmospheric baroque piazzas and narrow cobbled streets. Life is lived on the streets here – the weather is warm, the wine is tasty and the Pugliese people are incredibly warm and welcoming.
Lecce and the Salento peninsula, which makes up the south end of the heel, has long been a trendy place for Romans and Neapolitans to vacation, but it’s quickly finding its way onto the radar of stranieri (foreigners) as well, thanks to a stream of good press of late. In 2010, Lonely Planet named Lecce one of the top ten places to visit in the world, and just recently, Fodor’s named the greater Puglia region as one of four “undiscovered” Italian destinations to visit in 2012.
Fabio Leo, an engaging tour guide who works in Lecce’s tourism office, assured me that Lecce was poised to conquer the world.
“The last two summers we’ve had more tourists visit Salento than any other place in Italy,” he said.
“More than Rome, Florence or Venice?” I asked, not quite believing it.
“Assolutamente!” he said.
Mr. Leo’s numbers may be off by a few hundred thousand, but the point is clear – Lecce and Salento aren’t the far-flung backwaters they once were. Salento is prosperous enough that there’s a movement to secede from Puglia and become its own official province. Below you’ll find several reasons why Lecce and the Salento peninsula make up one of the most underrated regions in Italy.
Lecce. I was based in Lecce for 10 days and every time I thought I’d seen everything, I’d discover a new street or piazza that warranted exploration, an inexpensive restaurant so good that I wished I had time to become a regular or another baroque church I’d want to visit. The city has a relaxed vibe and a huge percentage of the town’s residents turn out for the evening passegiata.
Food and Wine. Every region in Italy has its specialties and Salento is no different. Try the orchiette, the minestrone di fave con cicoria, pasticiottos, and the Salice Salentino wine.
Great Beaches and a Terrific Climate. This is one of the warmest, sunniest corners of Italy and the beaches, on both the Ionian and Adriatic coasts are quite nice. One word of caution on this front – if you don’t have a car, it is very difficult to reach the best beaches in places like Porto Cesareo and the Ionian Coast between Gallipoli and Santa Maria de Leuca via public transportation, especially off-season or in the shoulder seasons.
Endless Day Trip Possibilities. If you have a car, make a circuit of the entire peninsula. If you don’t, your options will be more limited, but you can still get to historic towns like Gallipoli and Otranto on the FSE Regional train line from Lecce’s main train station, and you can also get within 5 miles of Santa Maria de Leuca, where the two seas meet. (Take a connecting bus to complete the trip.)
Incredibly Welcoming Locals. Italians are a friendly, gregarious lot in general but I found the people of Salento to be remarkably warm and welcoming. We had complete strangers offer to drive us to get pasticiottos, I was welcomed into a local soccer supporters club, and my two little boys, ages 2 and 4, were accorded cheek pinches and kisses everywhere they went.