I recently rode my bicycle to Santa Cesarea Terme, a stunningly beautiful village on the Adriatic coast, about 50 kilometres south-east of my home in Lecce. Unpacking my bags from the bike in order to check into a small family-run pensione, I called out across the street to a man setting up a few outdoor tables, ‘One for dinner, chill me your favourite local white. A fiano if you have it’. Not an hour later I was checked in, unpacked, showered and half way into a plate of the cavatelli and clams, the fiano going down far, far easier than it should have. Next was a grilled sea bass longer than my forearm, served with toasty little nuggets of roasted potatoes, so crunchy as to drown out the voice of Mina coming through the crackling speakers. I was in bed before 10 p.m., having limped up the hotel stairs a lot like John Wayne.
These are the pictures I took the next morning, over the course of about 20 minutes, just after the hour of six am. My legs were still stiff but I never recall a more beautiful morning, the entire town smelling of fresh baked cornetti, rich, foaming milk and the way we roast espresso down here, when the flavours leave coffee and start to head towards that of bitter chocolate.
If you let your mind drift over the Italian peninsula, down the right side, you’ll pass Pescara, then Bari, then the city of Brindisi and her overloaded ferries to Greece. Continue on and you’ll eventually arrive in our stunning city of Lecce, a blonde city that seems to almost shimmer at night. But keep on still and you’ll find Santa Cesarea Terme, a town virtually unknown to non-Italians, and even then, only for very, very brief periods during of the height of summer.
The ‘For Rent’ signs everywhere here in the south reveal two local, driving fixations: the desire for more disposable income, and the absolute rejection of selling off the family’s historical home, no matter how many generations have passed since any family actually lived there.
Palazzo Sticchi betrays the often oriental leanings of this part of Italy, when Moorish, Turkish and even Persian elements no longer bother to stand out as foreign or even non-Italian.
And it’s interesting to see how an outsider takes this in, this foreign influence. Here in Italy, ‘Italy’ is often seen as stew created by foreign influences, while foreigners see buildings like this as a fleck of something foreign that doesn’t really belong here.
In nearby Otranto, local guides routinely recount the horror stories of Turkish invasions, when Turks came into town and decimated the populace, one that has never really recovered even today, six hundred years later.
It’s a form of irony, this telling of the story, told while standing in Christian churches filled with line after line of columns and capitals, all taken from the Islamic parts of the Mediterranean, rarely without a fight.
The craggy shore is always a sober reminder of the ongoing dangers of fishing for a living, something you’ll never actually hear discussed by fisherman themselves. Simple, spartan chapels dedicated to local fishermen dot the coasts here, the air of the sadness of loss every bit as constant as the pounding waves.
Wet cement often captures a moment, a simple gesture, a distinct and unrepeatable act that otherwise would have been forgotten as insignificant.
A flock of starlings flew together in formation, in low, gutsy patterns, every bit as impressive as an air show put on by muscle-y fighter jets.
When I couldn’t stand it anymore I stopped into a bar and bought a bag of steaming cornetti, the Italian version of the croissant. ‘Sei minuti fa’, said il barista, beaming. It’d been a while since I’d had a cornetto only six minutes old. He loaded them into the bag with the same amount of pleasure as though he himself were the person about to eat them.
I stepped down to the shore and watched the fisherman for an hour: I ripped and ate from the white paper bag, which was rendered shiny and translucent in spots by the fresh, buttery pastry.
I’m often asked what is that I like so much about Southern Italy, when other parts of Italy are more famous and tourist-ready. As I rolled around the torn pieces of cornetto in my mouth and smelled the nubby little cigars of the nearby fisherman, the smell of the briny sea, the sounds of a puttering Ape, remembering the dinner I had the night before, I thought this: If you have to ask, you’ve probably never been here.