Whether you choose to drive through the heel of Italy, from Lecce to Otranto, or from the Ionian to the Adriatic coast, the breathtaking town of Poggiardo - delicately hued, simply yet uniquely elegant – is a pleasant stop for all those interested in culture and nature.
Salento is more than history of places, it is history of people, of their passions, of the ancient rituals that tie a generation to the other. Photo credits: Caterina Cellai
Poggiardo’s millennial history starts in the period between the Bronze and the Iron Age, with the Messapi people, very likely the first tribe to settle in the lands of Puglia, as demonstrated by relevant archaeological findings unearthed in nearby hamlet Vaste. Some of them are part of Poggiardo’s well –structured archaeological system, which includes both museums and sites: the Crypt of Santa Maria degli Angeli, decorated with Byzantine frescoes is, for instance, one of only a handful of structures in the country inaugurated by Aldo Moro, an important political figure of Italy’s contemporary history; the Parco dei Guerrieri is home to a series of Messapi-period statues, and of interest is certainly also the archaeological area of the Santi Stefani church. Museums include the Museo Archeologico di Vaste, known for its large collection of coins, funeral garments and religious objects.
Salento world–renowned for its ancient traditions and the skills of master craftsmen. Photo credits: Caterina Cellai
Discovering the area’s outback gives the opportunity to learn about Salento from within, not only historically, but also naturalistically thanks to a path running through flat lands, olive tree orchards and rural stone works, entirely immersed in a peace that lightens the eye and the mind, where hamlets and epochs silently await.
Castro, for instance, is a sanctuary-town of Greek origins, whose most important landmark is a temple dedicated to Athena, goddess of wisdom. Its remains have been collected within the immense Aragonese castle that faces the sea. Visiting Castro is a worthwhile experience also for the beautiful panorama offered by the bay and to celebrate, surrounded in art and culture, the birth of Athena herself: the statue of the goddess, about three meters high and entirely made of Lecce stone, remains one of the most important archaeological findings in the area.
Embroidery unifies also the two shores of the Adriatic Sea, bringing together countries such as Italy and Albania to study and reproduce antique traditional patterns. Photo credits: Caterina Cellai
In Castro, you can also bathe in crystal: the bridge linking town to Zinzilusa caves is a surprising yet comfortable way to reach the sea and get ready for another descent, that to the caves themselves. Here, stalactites and stalagmites are the background for the development of tales of fantasy and reality, as old as the Earth itself. Castro’s historical center, along with others close by villages like Spongano and Uggiano la Chiesa, are also worth a visit.
Old crafts and professions naturally follow the Earth’s rhythms. Photo credits: Caterina Cellai
The latter hides real treasures within: the castle of Casamassella is the center piece of a typical Italian square, its medieval architecture dotted here and there by several Italian-style cafeterias filled by a heartwarming sense of hospitality. Another treasure, this time hidden, is the underground oil mill in the Mulino a Vento area, located in the middle of a green area within a vast farm. It’s one of the over 1900 oil mills of Salento, witness to the area’s historic relevance for the production of olive oil: not many may know that, in the 1500s, Lecce was its capital, the place dictating oil prices for the whole Mediterranean basin. Oil mills are, truly, a historical and cultural patrimony, even before being important for Italy’s gastronomic heritage.
History is drawn by the landscape, a landscape physically different from everywhere else, with spaces filled with nature’s colors and rural stone works. Photo credits: Caterina Cellai
Spongano has an underground oil mill, too, located at its very heart, underneath its main square, within the historical Palazzo di Bacile di Castiglione, today see of many cultural and artistic events.
If you’re lucky, you may come across Menamenamò, a folk band performing more than 400 tunes of pizzica salentina, the area’s own typical music; these songs were originally sung by farmers heading to their orchards to pick olives. Or maybe you could happen to be part of a fair or religious feast, embellished by the presence of “luminarie,” beautifully intricate light sculptures which found their original fortune in this very area of Italy. You may also see a holy procession: that of the Virgin of Lourdes, in may, is one of the most heartfelt by locals, whose devotion extends also to the Madonna del Buon Consiglio and the Madonna della Grazie. To the latter was dedicated the original main church of Spongano which, still today, is home to the Confraternità della Madonna Immacolata, founded in 1653 and, still today, composed by a large number of women, a fact testimony to the presence and relevance of women in the community, even in times past.
The people of Salento share their history and their passions: some produce special canvas to preserve and protect flour, others make “u canizzu,” that is, a trellis used to dry tomatoes and figs under the sun. Photo credits: Caterina Cellai
Spongano’s historical buildings have maintained their beauty thanks to the locals’ dedication to safeguard them: their floors, for instance, have all maintained the famous “decoro Lecce” typical of the area. This initiative is carried out by the Marti family, who regularly retrieve or create from scratch vintage materials for restoration, including bricks and tiles. One of their works is visible in Assisi’s Basilica di San Francesco.
However, Salento is more than history of places, it is history of people, of their passions, of the ancient rituals that tie a generation to the other, of creations imbued with the power of Nature, of the seasons and the stars.
Old crafts and professions naturally follow the Earth’s rhythms: for instance, the harvesting of Greek horehound, known in Italian as “lumino Greco,” used to take place during June’s full moon. Its leaves were used to make a candle, whose flame was fed with pure olive oil, the “olio lampante.” The same creative, generating power moves the women of the Bacile di Spongano’s kindergarten, run by Saint Vincent de Paul’s Daughters of Charity. Here, they opened an embroidery school called “Filo non più filo,” a school that doesn’t simply teach a beautiful craft, but also shows how to use creativity and its power to learn and manage something, becoming autonomous. This says Anna, one of the embroiderers working in the school. When in university, Anna would keep both books and loom in her bedroom.
Embroidery unifies also the two shores of the Adriatic Sea, bringing together countries such as Italy and Albania to study and reproduce antique traditional patterns.
The people of Salento share their history and their passions: some produce special canvas to preserve and protect flour, others make “u canizzu,” that is, a trellis used to dry tomatoes and figs under the sun; others still are olive wood carvers, just like talented miniaturist Signor Uccio. They also share a strong bond with the nature surrounding them: history is drawn by the landscape, a landscape physically different from everywhere else, with spaces filled with nature’s colors and rural stone works.
If oil mills are underground, “pajare” rise above it, powerless against the passing of time, yet, still standing along with hundreds years old olive trees. These ancient, one room dwellings with dry stone walls are reminiscent of “trulli” and were realized with the same type of stones, those usually chosen to define fields’ borders.
In the end, a stop in Salento’s outback is always worth the trip, even if were only to find out something more about one’s heritage. Or to rewrite history: that of women’s rights and role in society, or of men during Antiquity. The history of all those who, in front of the simplicity of beauty and the darkness of the unknown, discover the most vulnerable and authentic part of themselves.