Slowly the Greek coast disappeared behind us. Finally, it was time to sail to a new land – Italy! We had hopped along the Sicilian coast in 2019 on our way east along the Mediterranean, but so far, we had never made landfall in mainland Italy.
We had stayed in Greece for three years, much longer than anticipated. Because of the covid and lockdowns, we had postponed our more ambitious travel plans. It felt sensible to stay in a place we knew and felt safe. And we love everything about Greece – the beautiful islands and anchorages, the hospitable, wonderful people. Greece has enough to explore for an entire lifetime, but we decided to tear ourselves away and see something else for a change. The winds blow both ways – we can always come back.
We headed out to sea past Corfu in a light morning breeze. The forecast showed strengthening winds during the day, and they came. The waves started to build up, too. By evening, the comfort factor was firmly on the negative side of the scale. The swell seemed to come from several directions at once – mainly from the side, but with occasional big waves from both aft quarters. Sailing dead downwind in this kind of spin dryer seas, our most important job was to keep from falling overboard and avoid getting excessively bruised. As the night fell, a bright harvest moon rose. I was thankful for such a companion during a miserable night watch. I also sent a big thank you to the people we were five years ago for choosing such a seaworthy, sea-kindly boat.
Early morning, the wind died, but the waves kept roaring. We motored the rest of the way, but it was hard to know which way to point to keep the boat from rocking violently from side to side. By the time we reached Otranto, we had a brand-new interior decoration style!
Otranto is the easternmost town in Puglia, the heel of Italy. The Strait of Otranto is the narrowest point between Italy and Albania, and it connects the Adriatic and Ionian Seas. There’s plenty of space to anchor in Otranto bay, and a fishing harbour and marina for small boats in front of the walled city. The anchorage is fairly protected, but the swell enters the bay in most wind directions.
From the anchorage, the town looks somewhat nondescript, but it’s very charming and cosy inside the medieval walls. Cobbled streets lead to the top of the hill, where the Aragonese castle and the 11th-century cathedral proudly sit. The first night, however, we skipped the sights and concentrated instead on Italian gastronomy and delicious Puglian red wine.
During the following days, we explored the old town. I had researched beforehand and knew that the cathedral would be an unusual experience. The Ottomans ravaged Otranto in 1480 and killed half of its citizens – most of the men. Eight hundred people, called the Martyrs of Otranto, were beheaded for refusing to convert to Islam. Their skulls and bones line the walls of the ossuary chapel. I didn’t catch the grim sight on my memory card.
Click the thumbnails to see bigger pictures!
An incredible mosaic pavement covers the whole interior of the cathedral. It was composed by a group of artists led by the monk Pantaleone in 1163-1165. It features the Tree of Life, stretching the length of the central nave, and is filled with biblical, historical and legendary characters – such as king Arthur and Alexander the Great – and exotic and imaginary creatures. This link takes you on a virtual tour of the cathedral – including the ossuary.
Since the early middle ages, there has been a castle in the place where Castello Aragonese now sits. After the sack of Otranto and the subsequent year-long Ottoman occupation, it was rebuilt by Alfonso of Aragon in the late 15th century. More towers, walls and bastions were added later on. There’s a moat around the castle, and the surrounding town is protected by thick stone walls. Otranto’s old town is a Unesco World Heritage Site *.
The first couple of nights in the anchorage were peaceful and still. Then, the wind shifted and brought in a relentless swell. We quickly grew tired of the rocking of our boat and decided to head further north. The next stop would be Brindisi.
* Among the Unesco sites we’ve visited along our sailing journey: the Malbork Castle in Poland, le Mont-Saint-Michel in France, Santiago de Compostela in Spain, beautiful Porto in Portugal and Corfu, Delphi and Delos in Greece.
- Ambracian Gulf and Vonitsa – Towns, Castles and Nature’s Wonders September 9, 2020
- Castle Tour Continues – Corfu October 23, 2020
- Brindisi – Ancient Port of the Adriatic January 15, 2023