Otranto is a charming seaside town near the very tip of Italy’s heel in southern Puglia. Like Gallipoli and Ostuni, Otranto had the dubious distinction of being strategically located for foreign invasions of Italy and Europe.
The Castello Aragonese, a castle in the center of town and overlooking Otranto’s port, was built in the late 15th century by the Aragonese to defend the town and Otranto has managed to survive despite its particularly vulnerable location at the easternmost point of the peninsula of Italy.
Ruled by the Greeks, Lombards and Byzantines, it eventually passed to the Pope only to be attacked and eventually fall under the rule of the Normans. In 1480, Otranto was attacked and almost completely annihilated by the Turks who transported and beheaded 800 of the townsfolk to a nearby hill for refusing to deny their faith.
Otranto was one of four stops on the road to Jerusalem for pilgrims. The cathedral, completed in the 12th century, is known for its beautiful Baroque portal, fine rose window and magnificent interior.
The cathedral is significant for two other reasons, one of which is its precious 12th century mosaic floor, reputed to be the largest mosaic in Europe. Completed in an astonishing two years by a monk, it includes the ‘tree of life’ with intertwining Norman, Greek and Byzantine designs as well as fascinating animals, images and words whose meaning are still being studied and deciphered to this day.
The other reason this cathedral is a sacred destination is the chapel where the skeletal remains of the 800 townspeople are encased in glass walls. It is a moving experience and only last year were they canonized by Pope Francis (May 2013).
Characterized today by ancient walls and crystal clear waters, the only invaders are the tourists who come to enjoy Otranto’s seaside charm as well as its superb seafood and shopping.