Population: About 5,500
Claims to fame: The setting for Horace Walpole’s 1764 book “The Castle of Otranto”, which is widely regarded as the first Gothic novel, Otranto was also the site of an Ottoman invasion around 1480, when more than 800 people were allegedly beheaded for refusing to convert to Islam. Pope Francis made these victims saints a few months after he was elected in March 2013.
Pros: Stunning views of the sea, pretty streets to walk around and a wonderful mosaic floor to admire in Otranto cathedral
Cons: The area is very quiet in the winter months and some establishments/sites are closed.
I came to Otranto mainly to see the cathedral, which I had heard boasted an amazing mosaic floor. A friend of the B&B I was staying in drove me down from Lecce, and I was surprised when I arrived to see how quiet the town was in December. There were almost no tourists there except us. You could see that as a negative, but I’m quite fond of visiting places when nobody else is there, because I get a much better chance to look around properly, and I don’t have to wait for ages in queues. It was so quiet that I was worried the cathedral might be closed, as the castle was, but I was in luck as I turned the corner to see this beautiful rose window, and the doors open.
When I walked into the cathedral, founded in 1068, I knew I had reached a true gem. The mosaic, created in the 1100s by a monk called Pantaleone, stretched across the whole of the floor, depicting images of animals and human figures around a “tree of life”.
We headed to the south aisle to see the Chapel of the Martyrs- where the alleged skulls and bones of many of the victims of the 1480 massacre are kept. This is quite a startling sight. It was interesting to see though, especially in the year that Pope Francis canonised these people.
After strolling around the fortifications and centre of Otranto, where there were a few trinket shops and great views of the sea, we headed even further down the Salentine peninsula, stopping in some of the smaller towns on the way to the bottom of the heel. Most of these were like ghost towns in the winter– but looked great places to spend the summer months in front of the splendid coastline. When we got to Castro however, we managed to find a restaurant that was open, where we able to sit in the sun, admire those views over lunch, and even get a tan- in December.
After lunch we carried on driving until we reached Santa Maria di Leuca- the town right on the bottom of the heel. Here we visited the sanctuary at “De Finibus Terrae” or “End of the Land” and saw the lighthouse marking what is traditionally called the most southeastern point of Italy (though apparently there is a point nearby that slightly beats it). At De Finibus Terrae you can see the meeting of the Adriatic and Ionian seas. It feels quite special to be right at the end of this part of Italy, with only sea in front of you. We enjoyed a Limoncello and a piece of chocolate cake as we watched the sun set.