OTRANTO, a kasbah-like town nestling around a harbour, is only an hour by train from Lecce, set in an arid, rocky and windblown landscape, with translucent seas to swim in. The port overflows with tourists in August, when Otranto’s nightlife is at its peak and the town is most entertaining, but the picturesque location and slow pace will reward visitors year-round, even if the number of gaudy souvenir shops detracts a little from the charm of its winding whitewashed lanes. A variety of musical and theatrical events are held in Otranto throughout the summer, usually centred around the castle, among them a lively jazz festival in late July (wotrantojazzfestival.it) and the annual commemoration of the “800 Martyrs” on August 13–15.
Otranto’s history is decidedly grim. One of the last Byzantine towns to fall to the Normans in 1070, it remained a thriving port for Crusaders, pilgrims and traders. But in 1480 a Turkish fleet laid siege to the town, which held out for fifteen days before capitulating. It’s said that as a punishment the archbishop, on capture, suffered the indignity of being sawn in half, a popular Turkish spectacle at that time. Nearly twelve thousand people lost their lives and the eight hundred survivors, refusing to convert, were taken up a nearby hill and beheaded. Otranto never really recovered, though the town does feature one glorious survivor of the Turkish attack inside its cathedral: an extraordinary mosaic floor.