Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Italy 1 - The Salento Peninsula

Leaving Greece was a bit crazy in the end and Igoumenítsa port was chaotic to say the least. There was no check at the entry gates to see if you had tickets, but the army and police were ensuring that no-one was accidentally leaving the port with any illegal immigrants on board. There were certainly plenty of would-be stowaways hanging around outside the gates and we surmised that most were from African nations. Inside the port there was no indication of where to go or what to do. Our method was to just grab an official and say ‘Brindisi?’. In the end we worked out for ourselves that you had to go into the main building and check in, and only then would anyone tell you which departure number to queue up at. Our quay was number 4 and we were in good company as all the other would-be passengers had BG on their number plates. OK, so that’s Bulgaria, but it’s not too far off GB and anyway, we’ve been stopped so many times over the past few weeks by people asking if we were Bulgarian that we might as well be honorary citizens. While waiting we witnessed a group of three immigrants being chased across the tarmac by soldiers and police cars. Soon after that we saw a tanker being thoroughly checked over, with ladders brought, the hatches on top opened and someone actually climbing inside with a torch. The quayside entertainment helped while away the waiting time and as midnight approached we were told our ferry was now coming in at quay 10, which just about sums up Igoumenítsa port’s organisation!

Camping on board

The crossing was very easy though. If you try to book something called ‘camping on board’, where you park your motorhome on the upper deck and are allowed to sleep in it, you will be told it doesn’t run outside high season. However, if you just drive up the ramp to the upper deck and then stay in your van, no-one bats an eyelid. So we slept for the whole crossing, although not that soundly due to the accompanying throb of the engines. Still, the sea was very calm, which was great luck as the days leading up had seen decidedly choppy waters.

Arriving at Brindisi

We arrived at Brindisi on 5th February, and by 7:30 a.m. were sitting by the old harbour watching a little ferry shuttle back and forth to the tall pillar of the 1930s Sailors’ Memorial. Brindisi was a good (re)introduction to the country, as the narrow streets of the old town with their mediaeval feel and baroque churches in a mellow sandstone, combined with a few traces of ancient Rome, felt just so, well, Italian. An early morning cappuccino and pastry in a café only reinforced this impression. We had a quick look at the pleasant neo-classical cathedral, where a congregation of three were taking part in the morning mass in a side chapel, and then visited the nearby Roman columns marking the end of the Appian Way, which was the imperial route from Rome to Greece and the East. Well, in fact there was only one column and a stump, as the other was donated in the 17th century to the neighbouring city of Lecce.

Brindisi – cathedral, column and Sailors’ Memorial

We’d decided to head south towards Lecce via the coast, rather than along the expressway, and we were soon driving through an incredibly flat landscape. It could have been Norfolk, if it weren’t for the huge fields full of vines, olive trees or bank upon bank of solar panels. There was even a power station, though thankfully not belching any smoke. Maybe the solar panels and wind turbines have made it redundant. We thought we’d come across some fellow motorhomers at a seaside development, but they turned out to be gypsies. In many of the fields we saw small circular stone buildings, which we thought were windmill bases at first, but then realised that they were storehouses of a style related to the conical trulli that are used for habitation elsewhere in Puglia.
Pajaru (trulli-type buildings)

Lecce is a town where Baroque goes bonkers! Oh yes, after all those weeks of Greek Orthodox churches we are back to Baroque, and with a vengeance, since Lecce is positively festooned with so many white stone flounces and flourishes that at times it feels like you are sightseeing on some gigantic wedding cake. It is all toned down by the sandstone of the 15th century palazzi and houses, turned golden in the late afternoon sunlight and with their once beautiful details now softened and weathering away.

Lecce - Piazza del Duomo

The Baroque reaches a climax on the façade of the church of Santa Croce, whose large rose window is a veritable bouquet, beneath which the decorative line up is a rich fantasy cast of bizarre figures and creatures.

Lecce – Santa Croce

The 20th century barely intrudes in the narrow alleys and flagstoned streets, until you arrive at the wide open space of Piazza Sant’Oronzo, which was expanded in the 1930s in order to display a Roman amphitheatre that had remained buried under the square for more than a millennium. Large public buildings, built during this refurbishment, now line the square, providing fine examples of Italian fascist era architecture. For us these buildings, with their straight lines and tall arcades, had echoes of 1950s Warsaw, Coventry’s Broadgate or Norwich city hall. Piazza Sant’Oronzo is also the location for the missing Roman column from Brindisi, as the grateful Brindisians donated it to Lecce in the 1600s after Saint Oronzo, the patron saint of Lecce, cured the plague in Brindisi. Saint Oronzo now gets to sit on top of the column in Lecce, looking out over the piazza. On an everyday note, it’s also a good place for a coffee at one of the many cafés, and it was warm enough to sit outdoors when we were there.
Lecce - Piazza Sant'Oronzo

While in Lecce, we stayed on an area di sosta di camper, or camper stop, just outside the town. It was clean and friendly, but had variable (and mostly weak) voltage which meant that the fuses on the plug sockets blew whenever we turned our electric hotplate on. Although we saw a few Italian motorhomes out and about for the weekend, we were the only ones here.

Lecce lies in the middle of the Salento peninsula, which you might otherwise call the stiletto heel on the Italian boot. We left on Monday 7th February to see some more of Salento, and headed for the nearby Adriatic coast, in the direction of Otranto. The landscape was at first flat, criss-crossed by dry stone walls and with olive groves towards the coast, but around Otranto it began to rise until the coastal road was clinging to vertiginous slopes high above the shore. Each village had a road down to its marina but there were otherwise few side roads on this stretch, and the settlements had a rather upmarket holiday look about them. This continued to the tip of the peninsula at Cape Santa Maria di Leuca. Most of the more obvious seafront areas had ‘no camping’ signs, but we found some out-of-the way alternatives and wild camping was never a problem.
Santa Maria de Leuca – sanctuary

Otranto is scenically located around a bay, and has immediate tourist appeal. One side is occupied by the old town, a quite small area of picturesque old streets behind massive bastions, that lead up to the 11th century cathedral. This is truly remarkable for the mosaic floor which fills the entire ground plan of the church with depictions of biblical scenes and stories (as well as later intruders such as King Arthur!), all in a naïve cartoon-like style that has a strong whiff of the Simpsons about it. They were executed in the 12th century under the Normans by a monk called Pantaleone, and we wondered whether anyone actually checked the quality of his work before he finished. The other possibilities of course are that Norman art was just like that – look at the Bayeux tapestry – or that the cathedral elders had a sense of fun and saw the comedy in Pantaleone’s attempts to depict people and animals (his elephants are a sight to behold!).
Otranto cathedral mosaics

The other noteworthy feature in the cathedral is the display of skulls and other bones of the citizens of Otranto who were massacred by an invading Turkish army in 1480. The Turks were expelled again in 1481 by a multi-national Christian force, and the next few years saw the construction of the so-called Aragonese Castle that forms a kind of fortress within a fortress on one side of the old town’s hill (although we struggle to remember what the connection with Aragon was).
Otranto views

The west coast of Salento is much flatter, and lined with villa resorts that are quite neat but utterly dead in winter. Outside these developed areas, several areas of coast had drivable tracks down to the shore which were much used by fishermen, and we found that these could be good places to stop for the night. One night we parked on rocks by some heathland near Gallipoli, where large bushes of wild thyme, rosemary and juniper grew through the sand, providing another foraging opportunity. For days afterwards the van was filled with a sweeter smell than the general “Eau du chien Charlie” we’ve become used to.
Punta di Pizzo (near Gallipoli) - overnight spot

The port town of Gallipoli – not to be confused with the one in modern Turkey where the World War I landings took place – lies on the west coast of Salento, more or less opposite Otranto but rather different in character. Gallipoli is essentially a working town, and although its old town is no stranger to tourism, it has a lived-in feel, with more local grocers’ shops and bars than boutiques and souvenir shops. The old town is on an island, accessed across a short road bridge from the more modern districts on the mainland. This bridge and the surrounding streets are plastered with ‘no motorhome’ signs, but there is in fact a large parking area just over the bridge to the left, accessed via its own road rather than the main bridge road, which is where you should be directed (although we missed it, and squeezed in with the trucks behind the wholesale fish market at the port).

Gallipoli views

The busy retail fish market, however, is right beside the proper carpark, and the main items on sale when we were there seemed to be mussels and sea-urchins. We obliged by buying a kilo of mussels, along with six quite enormous prawn-like things, as long as your hand, which were delicious that night quickly fried with some white wine, oil and garlic. We had started to realise that it is hard to buy small quantities in Italy – we only asked for four prawns but the vendor just added more to round up the price rather than give us change, and it was all we could do to make him stop at six. We have more lemons than we can use for the same reason.

Giant prawns meal

The coast north of Gallipoli gave more opportunities for wild camping beside flat, rocky shorelines, and the weather was so nice that we stopped for two nights near Torre Inserraglio. The Puglian coast is dotted with these ‘torre’ place names, after the network of 17th century towers that were built as defence against raids by Saracen pirates, and these massive square stone towers are a common sight in many a seaside location.
San Isidoro tower - one of many on the Salento coast

I (Rob) went for a couple of bike rides while we were in the Salento area. It is surprisingly flat when you consider the high cliffs on the north side, and mostly well-used agricultural land. There is stone everywhere, gathered into dry-stone walls and the little stone storehouses (called apparently ‘pajaru’ in local dialects) that resemble flat-topped trulli, or pushed into piles in fields. Houses are built of square blocks of the same grey stone, that look from a distance like breeze-blocks, and many of the older farmhouses are large, semi-fortified affairs, and often now abandoned and roofless.
Masserie – estate houses

Almost every village and town has an attractive old walled centre, so that you start taking these splendours for granted, but it still felt great to wheel into a mediaeval square and pull the bike up by a cafeteria for my lunchtime shot of ultra-strong coffee. I passed through some villages where a dialect of Greek was their first language until quite recently, but the most evidence of Greekness I found were the names of one café and one guesthouse.
Salento villages - Nardò, preparing for local festival, Galatina and Corigliano

BSaturday 12th February we had more or less driven round all the coastal areas of Salento and so we headed inland, via Manduria, towards Ostuni. Around Manduria we passed many quarries, where you could clearly see how the stone has been cut in large, breezeblock shapes, leaving behind strange stepped formations, looking all the world like some ancient ruins. We stopped in the lovely little hill town of Oria. It is very typical of many of the inland towns, with a small, higgledy-piggledy centre of limewashed houses interspersed with churches and doorways in soft, golden stone.

We enjoyed the Salento peninsula and were surprised by this part of Italy that we previously knew nothing about. All in all we’d recommend the area as well worth visiting. The old towns were lovely and we discovered some new food items – sea urchins, which we found fiddly and not really worth the effort or cost, and cicorie, which sounds like chicory and certainly tasted like chicory, but looked nothing like the chicory we were used to, having long green leaves and a bulbous base. I think it’s wild chicory or Catalogna chicory, and is a speciality of the region, often found topping a puree of broad beans and definitely worth trying if you are ever here. As we headed towards Ostuni we passed our first real trulli, standing in their own walled enclosures. They looked interesting. One of us, I forget who, said “trulli amazing”. Unfortunately that’s probably a taste of what’s to come!

1 comment:

  1. That was interesting to read. I really regret I hadn't heard of Pantaleone's mosaics when I was in Puglia. But with Italy it's always the same: there is so much to see, you simply can't see it all. Are you planning to go to Gargano, the spur on the heel of Italy? I loved the lonely wild mountains there but then the whole Appennine must be a bit like that.

    Your photos are really great! I love them!
    I hope you'll go on having such a fun and interesting journey.
    Love from Maggie