Otranto is a fishing centre and resort (population 5000) situated on a pleasant bay. The castle built under Alfonso of Aragon between 1485 and 1498 and reinforced by the Spanish in the late 16C, is irregular in plan with cylindrical towers at the corners and a massive spearhead bastion facing the sea: most of the visible structure (open Tues-Sun 09.00-13.00 and 16.00-19.00; tel. 0832390722) dates from the 16C; nevertheless, the enceinte shows traces of Roman and medieval masonry, as well as 19C restorations. You enter through the archway on the north side. Within, a narrow entrance hall opens onto the central courtyard; an external staircase climbs to the rooms of the upper floor. Above the main arch are the monumental arms of Charles V.
The cathedral of Santa Maria Annunziata, was founded by the Normans in 1080 and reworked in 1481, in the façade are a fine 15C rose window and a Baroque portal of 1764. The basilican interior is divided into a nave and two aisles by 14 marble columns, some antique, from which spring stilted arches. The nave and aisles are occupied from a beautiful mosaic floor (1163-65) representing the Tree of Life, the Months (with the relevant sign of the Zodiac and agricultural or domestic activity), biblical scenes (Expulsion from the Garden, Cain and Abel, Noah's Ark and the Tower of Babel), scenes of chivalry (Alexander the Great and King Arthur) and mythological episodes. In the south arm of the transept is a rather gruesome chapel with the bones of the inhabitants slain by the Turks.
Inside the crypt, with a vaulted ceiling carried by 42 antique, Byzantine and Romanesque columns with sculptured capitals. On the walls are fresco fragments of various ages and relief panels from a dismantled pluteus.
Descend along the north flank of the cathedral to Corso Garibaldi, one block before the sea. To the left lie the two main gates to the old town-the Torre Alfonsina (1481), with cylindrical bastions; and the Napoleonic Porta di Terra. To the right is a house where the door-jambs incorporate inscriptions dedicated to Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus. Further on, Via San Pietro mounts to the little Byzantine church of the same name, built in the form of a Greek cross inscribed in a square. It is said to have been the first cathedral of the city. The interior is covered with frescoes of various epochs, some with Greek inscriptions. It has barrel-vaulted ceilings and a cylindrical cupola supported by four squat columns at the crossing. In the walls are indented arches corresponding to the blind arcades of the exterior.
HISTORY OF OTRANTO
Otranto (Hydruntum), was probably founded by the Tarentines, and it took its name from the stream (the Idro) that runs into the sea here; the townspeople still refer to themselves as Idruntini. Located at the mouth of the Adriatic, and separated from the coast of Albania by less than 60 miles of water (now known as the Strait of Otranto), it was one of Republican Rome's leading ports for trade with Greece and Asia Minor, and it is generally thought that the Via Traiana was extended to Otranto to handle this traffic.
In the Imperial Age, Hydruntum enjoyed renewed activity under the Byzantines, becoming one of the more important centres of the Eastern Empire in Italy and capital of the region still known as the Terra d'Otranto. Together with Taranto and Bari, it was one of the last Byzantine cities to fall to the Normans, finally surrendering in 1070 to Robert Guiscard. At the time of the Crusades it became an embarkation point for the Orient and a leading centre of trade between Venice, Dalmatia and the Levant. In 1480 a Turkish fleet, allied to the Venetians in the latter's struggle against the Kingdom of Naples, ruthlessly attacked the city and slaughtered its inhabitants. The 800 survivors were promised their lives if they renounced their Christian faith, but none did so; they too were killed on the nearby hill of Minerva, together with their executioner, who confessed himself a Christian after witnessing the unwavering faith of his victims.
Alfonso of Aragon recaptured the city in 1481 and provided it with new and more formidable fortifications, including the castle, featured in Horace Walpole's Castle of Otranto. But the town shrank in size and population, its port deserted. The surrounding countryside was abandoned and the marshes, only recently improved, once again bred malaria. Today, Otranto has a modest fishing fleet and is a departure point for the car-ferry to Corfù.