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Otranto: A Bridge between the West and the East

Otranto is a historic seaside town and port on the Adriatic coast of southern Italy, in the region of Puglia. The town is situated on the easternmost point of Italy and it is within the area known as the Salento, the tip of the peninsula which is the heel of Italy’s boot. The name derives from the word Hydruntum, which indicates a small river that crosses the valley of Idro.

The Otranto is a jewel of Salento, a bridge between the West and the East, a territory full of beaches, a place rich in history, art, culture. On a clear day, it is possible to see over the Strait of Otranto to Albania.

Like all southern Italian cities, especially those along the coast, Otranto was subject to continual attacks by the Turks. One of those attacks is still remembered today as one of the bloodiest ever. In 1480, an Ottoman army sent by Mehmed the Conqueror captured Otranto. Some 800 citizens were beheaded after refusing to convert to Islam and, for this reason, Otranto is called the city of the Martyrs. The bones and skulls of the martyrs of Otranto are now stacked behind glass in the cathedral in a manner that would have satisfied Walpole’s Gothic imagination.

The small historic center of Otranto, surrounded by imposing defensive walls, is a beautiful place, dominated by three main monuments: the Cathedral, the Byzantine Church of San Pietro, and the Aragonese Castle.

The bones and skulls of the martyrs of Otranto are now stacked behind glass in the cathedral in a manner that would have satisfied Walpole’s Gothic imagination.

Walking along the labyrinth of alleys and streets gives the impression of being brought back in time, with the houses, the stairways, the courtyards, the shops, the atmosphere of the past. It is a pleasure to untangle yourself among the thousand little streets, discover hidden sceneries and enjoy the hospitality of the people of Otranto.


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Cathedral of Otranto

The Cathedral of Otranto, built on top of ancient Messapian and Roman settlements, was constructed during Norman rule, around the 12th century, and dedicated to Santa Maria Annunziata. Its portal is surrounded by a decorated frame. Above it, a Renaissance-style rose window was added in 1481, soon after the Ottoman invaders abandoned the city.

The cathedral has a Latin-cross floor plan and is divided into three naves with marble columns and capitals. In the south aisle is the Chapel of the Martyrs of Otranto, where the remains of the 800 martyrs killed by the Turks are kept.

The Romanesque mosaic floor, created between 1163 and 1165 by a group of artists led by Pantaleone, covers the whole floor of the basilica, represents a ‘tree of life’, which shows the conflict between good and evil and the journey of mankind from the Garden of Eden to the Last Judgement. On the branches of this tree there are scenes from the Old Testament, as well as chivalric cycles, and figures from medieval bestiaries.


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Church of San Pietro

This church, located in the heart of the city, is an important example of Byzantine art in Puglia. It was built between the 9th and 10th centuries in the shape of a Greek cross, with four large columns that hold up a central dome. The interior of the church is decorated with a series of vivid Byzantine-style frescoes, some dating back to the 10th century.


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Aragonese Castle

After having been damaged in 1067 during a siege, the fortress was repaired and modified. But it was after the historical Saracen attack of 1480 that the defensive structure was reinforced and equipped with cannon towers.

The castle has a pentagonal plan, surrounded by a protective moat, has three cylindrical corner towers, and a large coat of arms belonging to Charles V above the main entrance. It is currently used as a splendid theater hosting international exhibitions and cultural events.

The fortress inspired the first gothic novel of history, the Castle of Otranto, written by Horace Walpole in 1764.


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Otranto beaches

The coastline outside Otranto is renowned for its beauty, and there are more stretches of popular beaches to both the north and south. These are easiest to reach if you have a car, but there is also a summer bus service to popular seaside spots.

To the north of Otranto lie the sandy beaches of “Baia dei Turchi”, the historic site of the landing of Turkish soldiers, and the Laghi Alimini, large lakes close to the sea. Tourist villages were built here in the late twentieth century and the area remains a popular holiday base. A good seaside destination to the south of Otranto is Porto Badisco, a picturesque rocky cove.


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