Water so blue….so shimmering….…you’ll wonder if it ever ends. Stretches of coastline so powdery white you’ll think you were back in Greece. Welcome to one of Southern Italy’s best kept secrets. Welcome to the Adriatic port city of Otranto.
Originally called Hydrus or Hydruntum – what is now Otranto, Italy used to be THE political, cultural and commercial center of Salento: a perfect example of all that was good in the Magno-Grece culture. A thriving port and a literal bridge between the Orient and the Mediterranean, Otranto was a pit-stop for the Turks, the Crusaders, Byzantines, and the Normans. And each left their mark on the area in one way or another.
But those are factoids for the history-minded. Visitors from abroad will enjoy knowing that Otranto gets only about half as many tourists as its nearby sister-cities of Gallipoli, Port Caesareo and Santa Maria De Leoca. For some reason that has yet to register, Otranto just hasn’t earned the status as “the next bet thing”. And that’s a good “thing” for you. Because that translates into lower prices on rooms and restaurants and everything in between,
As far as things to do – well you do have the beach. A glorious sun-drenched beach that frames the fabulous azure waters of the Salentine Coast. Miles and miles of luscious coastline free from hotels and third-world nationals selling cigarette lighters and beach balls. Not all of the coast is made of sand. Quite a bit is rocks and cliffs and the stuff great photos are made of. But even so, most of the locals manage to squeeze themselves into a nook or cranny and figure out a way to stretch out and get some sun. Many more spend the day diving in the lush, cool waters. One of the most interesting sites along the coast and within close proximity to Otranto is Le Grotte dei Cervi. Discovered only in 1970, this grotto dates back about 20,000 years or so and is probably the first habitat for prehistoric man living along the Salentine coast. The many murals that line the grotto have been compared to the prehistoric designs in Palmira, Sapain and Exil, Ethiopia.
Heading into town, Otranto has a “centro storico” or “old town” that rivals that of Lecce but is certainly smaller. It boasts the Argonese Castle and the Byzantine Cathedral which houses some of the most impressive mosaic works of art in the region. Way back in 1480; the Turkish fleet landed nearby and took the city and its fort and killed 12,000 men in the process. The Pope called for a Holy War, with a massive force built up by King Ferdinand I of Naples. The Neapolitan force met with the Turks in late 1481, thoroughly annihilating them and recapturing Otranto. However, the city was almost completely destroyed and was never able to fully rebound in terms of it’s importance to the region.ï¿½
So much for history. You’ll want to hang your hat somewhere in or around town and you have your choice of several locations: Located in the city, the Hotel Degli Hoethey (V. Francesco Sforza, 33 – 0836/801548-801576) offers decent rooms and low prices even during the summer, the Grand Hotel Daniela (Litoranea S. Cataldo-Otranto – Tel. 0836/806648) is on the beach and has a great reputation, but be prepared to pay for it, Hotel Valle dell’Hidro (V. G. Grasso – Tel. 0836/804427-801224) is mid-range with nice accommodations. All can be checked out on line.ï¿½
For the budget conscious there are a few notable “campeggi” and resort villages: Campeggi e Villaggi Degli Alimini is built for extended stays for those with a camper or tent (tel. 0836/85201-85205) Likewise with Camping Idrusa (Zona Porto – Tel. 0836/801255) Finally Residence Altair Alimini (3 V. Litoranea S. Cataldo, Otranto Alimini – Tel. 0836/85075) is a full blown resort that rents weekly or monthly. But has a nice pool, access to the beach and good entertainment in the evenings. (note: for an explanation of the Italian “campeggio” check out my story on the same!)ï¿½
Like any city or town; Otranto has plenty of smaller pensione’s off the main drag. If you have the time they are worth seeking out.ï¿½
Of course you’re gonna want to eat while you’re in Otranto, don’t think I forgot about that. Acmet (Lungomare degli Eroi – Tel. 0836/801282) is a decent enough evening-spot with a good menu, Bella Otranto (Lungomare) is all about seafood, Terra d’Otranto (Tel. 0836/801697) offers up a lot of local dishes, Due Laghi (Via Podere S. Giovanni – Tel. 0836/802687) and Il Gabbiano (Riviera Degli Haethey – Tel. 0836/801251) are kind of pricey, the Nike Club (Riviera Degli Haethey – Tel. 0836/801196) is good for music and beer and a limited menu of sandwiches, and Vecchia Otranto (Corso Garibaldi, 98 – Tel. 0836/801575) has a great selection of traditional dishes.
The problem with most vacations is that they’re too darn short! These days Otranto may not be the headliner it once was. But with Greece only a 3 hour ferryboat ride away via the straight-of-Otranto and with a countryside that ranges from sand dunes to forest, Otranto is as good a place as any to relax, get some sun and enjoy a peaceful vacation.