Mosaics and Martyrs: The Espressino Travel Guide to the Best of Otranto

December 5, 2014

 

Of all the beautiful and fascinating towns in Puglia, none have the rich and dramatic history of Otranto. Perched in a natural harbour on the Adriatic Coast, Otranto has witnessed Byzantine and Norman glory days, suffered a brutal Turkish invasion, gave birth to the castle that inspired the gothic novel and, after all that, somehow reinvented itself as a great town for sun, shopping and seafood.

 

In 2010 the historic centre of Otranto was recognized by UNESCO, announcing its importance to the rest of the planet. Otranto hasn’t been this busy since Medieval Times. So to make sure you get the best out of your time there, here are our five essential Otranto experiences.

 

Don’t Miss… The Cathedral of Santa Maria Annunziata

 

 

Is this the most fascinating church in all Puglia? Quite simply, yes. Not that you’d know that from its stern 11th Century Romanesque exterior. The magic starts on the inside, which is home to two of the most spectacular sights to be found in any church in Italy.

 

The first is the mosaic floor, created between 1163 and 1165 by a group of artists led by a monk named Pantaleone. A mad masterpiece that blends the bible, history and pagan mythology, the mosaic straddles the fine line between child-like innocence and full-on medieval psychedelia. Awash with unidentifiable monsters that wouldn’t be out of place in The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine, much of the fun comes from spotting the bursts of “reality.” See if you can recognize Alexander the Great, King Arthur riding a goat, the Tower of Babel, and in the left apse, Satan, complete with a flamboyant moustache.

 

In the opposite apse, the shrine to the Martyrs of Otranto, massacred by Turks in 1480, is a far more serious affair. Its walls are piled high with skulls and bones of the slain. An astonishing testimonial to man’s inhumanity, the shrine is a reminder that victims, even from centuries ago, should never be forgotten.   

 

Eat at… Laltro Baffo

 

 

You’re never far from a great plate of seafood in Otranto. However, when you ask locals where’s the best place in town to eat, they inevitably give the same answer: Laltro Baffo.

 

Chef Cristina Conte’s father owned the original Baffo (meaning moustache), which reached near-legendary status among the Otranto culinary community. Now it’s her turn. Bringing a genuine sense of creativity to every dish, Cristina is determined to keep local culinary traditions alive while providing a thoroughly modern (and delicious) dining experience. Sampling her innovative menu – which features stellar antipasti such as a re-imagined Polpo in Pignata and delicious crudo (raw seafood) creations, meticulously prepared primi and ultra-refined secondi, it’s clear why Chef Christina is one of the culinary stars of Puglia. The service, whether it comes in the dining room, on the rooftop garden or the streetside patio, is unpretentious perfection.

 

Go hungry. Once the food starts arriving, you’ll want to eat more.

 

Seek Out… Chiesa San Pietro

 

 

Many visitors to Otranto don’t even make it to the tiny Chiesa San Pietro. They’re missing something special. Hidden in the space between Corso Garibaldi and the Lungomare, San Pietro is a relic from the forgotten era between Imperial Rome and Medieval Italy: the Byzantine age.

 

You won’t spot its petite dome until you’re right next to the church. That’s ok. The excitement is in the miniscule interior, graced with the best Byzantine art to be found anywhere in Puglia. The stylized frescos of Jesus washing St Peter’s feet and the Last Supper both hail from the 10th Century. Within the fresco-laden walls of this tiny church, the vibrant history of Otranto comes alive.

 

Party at… La Notte in Rosa

 

 

Any time is a good time to visit Otranto. But if you can time your arrival for one of the many Feste that grace the city, you won’t regret it. Feste, or sagre, are Italian celebrations of what makes the town, or the region, or the season, or anything else, special. And in Otranto the biggest party of the year is La Notte in Rosa (literally ‘the night in pink’), celebrating women’s artistic contributions to Puglian culture.

 

You can expect the street party, which spans multiple stages and brings together traditional Pizzica, indie rock and 80s cover bands, to last well into the early hours. Dancing is fuelled by rosé wine, gelato and delicious Salento streetfood, all sold on the countless stands circling the waterfront. Check the Qui Salento guide to see when the next Notte in Rosa will be or to find another festive and filling sagra nearby.

 

Drink at… Il Maestrale

 

 

It’s easy to find the Lungomare in Otranto. It’s hard to make it into the Old Town without crossing and walking along it. Still, not many visitors take the time to put away the camera, walk down the stairs to the short pier and spend an hour or two sipping a drink (with snacks, naturally) at the waterside bar, Il Maestrale. Try to arrive just before dusk, as it’s the perfect spot to watch a gorgeous Puglian sunset as gentle waves splash and tiny fishing boats bob around you. It’s not paradise. But it’s pretty close.

 

 

Bonus tip: Free Parking!

 

Parking can appear to be expensive in Otranto. Don’t panic. Assuming you’re coming from the North, follow the road through town and head up the gentle hill on Via Catona. Drive straight and you’ll soon come to a plethora of white (and free) parking spaces. It’s only a five-minute walk from there to the heart of the town.

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