According to popular belief, the Ionian and Adriatic seas meet and merge here. Santa Maria owes its legendary charm to its position in the bay between the Punta Ristola and Punta Meliso peninsulas, and adorns a coastline of cliffs interspersed with sandy coves.
Santa Maria is an important destination both for bathers and fishermen, and owes its name to Saint Peter, who landed here on his way from Palestine to begin his evangelization process and changed the name of the town, dedicating it to the Virgin Mary. “Leuca” on the other hand derives form the Greek “leukos” (meaning white) and is the name that ancient Greek sailors gave it when, arriving from the east, they saw the peninsula illuminated by the sun. Its other name, “de finibus terrae”, comes directly from the ancient Romans.
A delightful legend links the town to the story of a beautiful mermaid Leucasia and two lovers that she divided. Leucasia fell in love with the handsome shepherd Melisso, that she tried to seduce with her enchanting singing, but he – madly in love with the beautiful maiden Aristula – resisted. The mermaid did not accept having been shunned and one day when the two lovers descended the cliffs to the sea- shore, Leucasia unleashed a storm so violent that the lovers were dragged into the sea and drowned. From the cliffs above, the goddess Minerva witnessed the scene and, filled with pity, decided to turn the corpses of Melisso and Aristula into stone so as to preserve them in eternity. From then on, the Punta Meliso and Punta Ristola peninsulas, although not able to touch embrace the bay around which the land ends. Leucasia also turned to stone out of remorse, and became the white town of Leuca.
The origins of Santa Maria di Leuca are probably linked to the Messapians for whom it was a stop-off point for sea traders travelling between East and West. Its caves were inhabited as of the Bronze-age until the Neolithic period, and in medieval times were used as shelter by Basilian monks escaping the iconoclastic controversy. In the year 1500, Andrea Gonzaga of Alessano had a tower built (known as “Torre Vecchia” (ancient tower) and renamed “Torre dell’Omomorto” ”(tower of the dead man) due to some human bones that were discovered in it) to contrast attacks by Turks and pirates. The latter terrorized the local population to the level that the whole peninsula remained uninhabited for a long time. Renovation of the tower began in 1873 along with the building of the light house. Little by little, the population began to increase and industries started to grow, especially in the silk trade. The oil and wine markets also started to flourish, whilst the sea was the cause of another development: the port, that was able to give a livelihood and shelter to numerous fishermen and their boats. The move in the direction of tourism came early, and already in the 19th century, the local nobility wanted to have their summer residences near to the sea in Leuca. This led to the construction of numerous eclectically styled villas (Moorish, Liberty and Pompeian) that beautify the town, that although due to its rocky nature does not attract the mass tourism of beach resorts, is however one of the most visited areas in Salento thanks to the historical value of the “De Finibus Terrae” sanctuary together with the Aqueduct’s monumental waterfall.
The “De Finibus Terrae” Sanctuary lies on the site of an ancient temple dedicated to the goddess Minerva. An old legend refers to it as “the first door to paradise” and tells that it was Saint Peter who consecrated it. In the square outside the Basilica there is a column with Corinthian decorations erected in 1694 to mark the place where Saint Peter began his evangelization of Europe. The sanctuary was destroyed several times by invading Turks and its current 18th century structure has a single nave with Latin cross ground plan with several altars around its edge. There is an inscription on the entrance to the Sanctuary that bears witness to the change from paganism to Christianity. It is here that Templers came to pray before setting sail for the Holy Land and today the faithful come to pray in pilgrimage from all over Europe.
The white thin octagonal light house towers close to the sanctuary and its 47 metre high beacon has been working since 1886. One can reach a viewing terrace via a staircase of 254 steps from which it is possible to admire breathtaking views. To the East, the mountains of Albania; to the West, the mountains of Calabria and to the South, the island of Corfu.
Due to its fortunate geographical position that has put it into contact with different Mediterranean civilizations, Santa Maria has developed a rich culture that is revealed in its full glory through its splendid villas.
In 1868 there were only ten villas in a simple Tuscan style in the marina. By 1876 there were already twenty and barely five years later their number had increased to forty-three in what had become a kind of competition for the most beautiful villa in ever-increasingly daring styles ranging from Ionian through Gothic, French, Pompeian, Moorish and Arabic to Chinese. The main architects of these villas were G. Ruggeri, Carlo Arditi and Achille Rossi.
In order to be considered respectable, a villa had to have a private chapel, a well and a large garden as well as a small kind of beach hut in stone or wood known as a “bagnarola” that served to hide the noble ladies from the eyes of the local inhabitants when bathing. These bagnarola were often of the same style and colours of the villa they belonged to.
THE AREA AROUND LEUCA
The name of this watchtower “Vado” is the same as the locality in which it is situated and could derive from “vadum” , meaning ford, due to its accessibility from the sea, or from the Spanish “ovado” , that is to say a place where fish lay their eggs. This tower was strongly desired by Carlo V in the 16th century to defend the Salento area from Saracen invasions and is one of numerous watchtowers that line the coast. Since Torre Vado is near to the town of Salve, it was also an outpost for a horseman who had the task of warning the inland towns of imminent danger. In 1884, with the disarmament of these coastal towers ordered by Ferdinando II King of the Two Sicilies, the tower became a customs control post. In 1930 it was bought by private individuals and was restored five years later.
MORCIANO DI LEUCA
As well as the interesting main Church known as the “Chiesa Madre” with its 13th and 14th century necropolis, the “Chiesa del Carmine” Church and the “Cappella della Madonna di Costantinopoli” chapel, one must absolutely see the underground olive presses ( Frantoi Ipogei ), of which there are 18 in the town centre that serve as proof of the economic importance of oil in the past, and the Castromediano-Valentin castle that dates to the first half of the 14th century, and is thus named due to the last families to have lived there.
MACURANO CAVE DWELLINGS
Basilian monks who had escaped from the Middle-East settled here and devoted themselves to agriculture. This village of cave dwellings has two olive presses still in use today and became part of a large fortified farm complex dominated by the 16th century tower called “Macurano” that was made up of the Masseria Santa Lucia fortified farm and the chapel of Santo Stefano.
THE “CENTOPIETRE” (ONE HUNDRED STONES) IN PATÙ.
Dating back to the 9th century, this monument was built as a mausoleum to General Geminiano, a peace messenger massacred by the Saracens immediately before the final battle between Christians and Infidels of Campo Re in 877 at the foot of the Vereto hills.
The monument is a unique rectangular structure made of 100 limestone blocks taken from the nearby Messapian town of Vereto. Inside, there are various layers of frescoes of a sacred nature that date to the 14th century. In particular there are frescoes of thirteen Saints from the Middle-East, all standing and face-on according to a Basilian-inspired scheme, that provide evidence of the monument’s transformation into a Early-Christian church in the Middle-Ages.
LECCE AND SURROUNDING AREA
As capital of the “barocco leccese” architectural style, saying that Lecce is wonderful is decidedly an understatement. Thanks to the local stone “pietra leccese”, the town centre takes on different hues according to the time of day. We suggest two visits: one during the day time so as to admire the architectural highlights, and one at night, when the artistic lighting of the buildings reveals their magic and the streets during the summer buzz with life. From the Chiesa di Santa Croce, to the Duomo cathedral, passing through Piazza S. Oronzo with its Palazzo del Sedile that once housed the town council, it is possible to rediscover the roman city of Lupiae in the Roman theatre and Amphitheatre. To the north of Lecce, not far from Squinzano, the ancient 12th century abbey S. Maria di Cerrate is well worth a visit and immediately captures ones attention due to its architecturally-rich cloisters. The abbey structure was turned into a “masseria” (a local-style fortified farmhouse) in the 16th century and is now home to the “Museo della Civiltà Contadina” farming museum.
The panorama from the Seno del Canneto over the ancient town centre situated on an island and surrounded by a high bastion wall dominated by the Rivellino castle that rises out of the sea is spectacular. From here, one can see the Santa Maria del Canneto church, the Greek fountain, the small chapel dedicated to Saint Cristina and the ancient port in which the picturesque and animated return of small fishing vessels takes place at sunset. And how about going to the fish market that takes place in the commercial port? The town’s cathedral dedicated to Saint Agatha is a real art gallery housing large paintings by famous artists. The nearby ancient underground olive press in the Palazzo Granafei town house is particularly striking. And to round off the visit in style, how about a relaxing walk along the town centre’s sea wall.
THE AREA AROUND GALLIPOLI
On the Salento hills known as the “Serra Salentina”, near to Lido Conchiglie looking towards the Ionian Sea, there is the ancient abbey of San Mauro, with its byzantine frescoes from the 13th century. The panorama is marvellous and even more spectacular at sunset. In August, during the Locomotive Jazz Festival, Paolo Fresu and other musicians meet here at night and play together until sunrise; emotions at times are made of music. The coast at this point becomes rocky and one reaches the “Quattro Colonne” (four remaining corner columns of a defensive tower) in Santa Maria, famous for having provided shelter to Jews during World War II. Continuing along the coast one arrives at Santa Caterina: with its splendid seafront that continues until the “Torre dell’Alto” tower, the landscape is unique. The Cenate locality is not to be missed – its striking 18th century villas are captivating.
As the eastern-most city in Italy, Otranto is a natural meeting point between east and west, the occidental and oriental worlds. On a clear day, the Albanian coast is clearly visible from the splendid promenade. For this reason, its thousands of years of history have been marked by Oriental influence. Its beautiful ancient centre, enclosed within town walls that back onto the natural harbour, maintains its charm in spite of being destroyed in various incursions. The cathedral dating to the end of the 11th century is of particular interest: its 12th-century mosaic floor is amongst the largest in Europe and is full of esoteric messages. The church is also famous for its chapel dedicated to the 800 “ Martiri di Otranto”, martyrs who were massacred in 1480 by invading Turks. The sight of their exposed skulls is of strong impact and makes this chapter of history all the more tangible and moving.
“Grecìa Salentina” is an area made up of 11 municipalities where griko, a form of ancient Greek, is still spoken. The main municipality of the area is Martano whose historic town centre is known as “borgo terra”, emphasising its strong agricultural past : a walk around the labyrinth of small streets, entangled around each other dominated by the castle that still has its round towers, is like stepping back in time. And how can one resist stopping of at the Cistercian monastery to buy some of the typical home-made herbal liquors? At Corigliano one is amazed by the rich facade of the “Castello De Monti” castle, and at Melpignano, the splendid square of the Augustinian convent – where every year the Notte della Taranta (a festival of local folk music) is held – takes ones breath away. A few kilometres away is Soleto, an area famous for its “macare” (witches) and alchemists who it is believed built the church’s impressive bell tower. The byzantine frescoes in the Santo Stefano chapel are not to be missed either. Getting curious?
TRICASE AND SURROUNDING AREA
If you want to see something less touristic but still beautiful, how about Tricase and the surrounding towns. Tricase is famous for its spectacular “living” nativity scene at Christmas, with real animals and people, and also for a monument of a natural kind: two “Quercus valonea” oak trees whose branches span up to 20 metres and date back to the 12th century. Definitely worth a visit! Near to Tricase, on a hill full of olive trees there is Specchia dei Preti. Voted one of the most beautiful towns in Italy, the historic town centre is characterized by its small streets and stairways. Across the Serra Salentina hills from Specchia, you arrive at Presicce: a town famous for its numerous underground olive presses, with a touch of elegance provided by its rooftop gardens. A few kilometres away, Arnesano is a treasure trove with its renaissance town houses.
Although the social frame work has undergone significant changes, local crafts have succeeded in combining old and new whilst keeping traditions alive. Arts that have always characterized the local culture have been valorised and become precious. The discovery and rediscovery of handicrafts that are created by the able and knowledgeable hands of local craftsmen and women can now be found in specialised boutiques. From household objects to toys in terracotta (Cutrofinao), to items made of “ pietra leccese” local stone (Maglie and Cursi), to papier-mâché statues (Lecce), to embroidery and lace produced using the traditional “tombolo” or “chiacchierino” tools (Martano), to baskets made of reeds (Acquarica del Capo), to candelabras made of wrought iron and copper jugs, the uniqueness of so many arts is bound to surprise.