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History of Otranto
The coastal town of Otranto, on the easternmost point of Italy, has an incredibly rich history. The town lies on the heel of Italy’s boot on the Strait of Otranto which connects the Adriatic Sea with the Ionian Sea and separates Italy from Albania. The original city was founded around the monastery of San Nicola di Casole, which remains to this day.
The origin name of its name is disputed. Some sources remain convinced it stems from Hydruntum, a stream that crossed Otranto and flowed into the crystal-clear waters. Others are clear it comes from Odronto which back in Roman days indicated a hill near the port.
Otranto has a Roman origin and occupies the site of the ancient Greek city Hydrus. Its coastal location overlooking the Balkan countries and Greece has always been a vital part of its history. In Roman times it was a bustling commercial port with a population of Jewish traders. It also served as a departure point to the East for Roman military operations.
The Longobards then took over in the mid-6th century. In the 8th century, the Byzantines ruled the region and then gave way to the Normans in the 12th century. Then 28th July 1480 saw the biggest event so far in its history. The Ottomans invaded the vulnerable east-facing Otranto shores. Sent by Sultan Mehmed II, a Turkish fleet of around 150 ships carrying 18,000 soldiers dropped anchor. The event thereby became known as the ‘sack of Otranto’.
After two weeks of brutal fighting, 813 locals barricaded themselves in the castle and refused Turkish demands to convert to Islam. The bishop’s head was cut off and paraded around the town on a pike. The rebels were then led to the Hill of Minerva and tragically beheaded. The locals forever became known as the ‘Martyrs of Otranto’ and were canonised by Pope Francis in 2013. Their skulls now form a monument within the cathedral.
The Turkish lasted for thirteen months before the Sultan died on the way to capture the rest of Italy. His successor then withdrew the occupiers from Otranto. There began a period of slow decline. Around the time to Turks first stepped foot on the shores, Otranto enjoyed a population of 20,000, of which 12,000 were slain. The town never really recovered and has a modest population of 5,000 in the present day.
In 1860, Puglia became part of the Italian Kingdom, which sparked a steady revival for the town.
Nowadays, Otranto remains a busy port. Tourists and locals pass fishing fleets on the regular ferry service to Greece. While the majority of the town’s small population resides in the new centre, the old town remains a busy tourist attraction. Visitors enjoy the pretty Baia dei Turchi and Spiaggia Alimini beaches located north of the town, as well as the two saltwater lakes. When not taking pictures of the white-chalked houses, they are visiting arts and crafts shops and dining in the many fine seafood restaurants.