At “The End of the Earth”
If I’m late with my blog post, I have good reason; as varied and off the wall as these excuses are, they are the “honest-to-god” truth! I wish, in fact, I had had such solid justification for my late assignments and sundry essays when I was in university. I couldn’t have made this up even if my life depended on it. And so, here goes: this past month I’ve had a whole new titanium hip put in place of my old worn arthritic one; we lost our beloved Pippo, a little poodle that became an integral part of our family unit and whose absence causes me more pain than I would have believed; and finally, as if God knew that I needed a distraction from my woes, not one but two bundles of joy were delivered by the stork on my daughter’s doorstep. Yes, I have become, much to my befuddlement and bemusement, a NONNA!
There you have it, reader, my life in one month! The thought of sitting down to write crossed my mind at one point while fumbling for my cane and wondering if one leg was now shorter than the other one. For some reason that very thought soon dissipated along with the vanishing energy and the increasing pain.
I am happy to report that the keyboard beckoned, and the desire to recount the wonderful journeys through our magnificent Italy has returned.
I am eager to continue my journey down the Salento peninsula to the farthest point in the Italian boot.
Here, at land’s end, it is another earth and sky: the fragrances that emanate from the earth speak of myrtle, rosemary and juniper; the light, almost blinding and a pure white,—Leukos, as the Greek sailors called it when approaching from the east—- illuminates this magical spot in such a way that it is cast like a luminescent jewel against the background blue of sea and sky. The Romans called it Finibus Terrae, where the land ends and where the Adriatic Sea, it is said, meets the Ionian. St Peter, according to tradition, renamed it Santa Maria di Leuca after landing here from Palestine, on his journey to evangelize, as he made his way to Rome.
This pearl, at the farthest tip of Italy, lies in a stretch of coastline of alternating cliffs and small sandy coves. It is a beach town with great spans of shoreline and mysterious ancient grottoes to explore; it is a fishing village and a lovely holiday resort town.
Approaching the town, I am surprised by the numerous elegant villas perched along the seafront. Moorish elements are recognizable in the turrets, balustrades and railings of these handsome and sometimes even opulent 19th century villas that are so prominent here.
These are interspersed with villas of another very notable design, namely that of the turn of the century “Liberty” or Art Nouveau style. A little research reveals that because of its fortunate geographical position many aristocratic families came here in the 1800s to build themselves holiday homes. The nobles were followed by the “who’s who” of chic bourgeoisie society, all vying to build the most spectacular of homes.
By the late 1880s forty-three villas graced Santa Maria di Leuca, the hot spot of the European elite. The main architects of these villas were G. Ruggeri, Carlo Arditi and Achille Rossi.
The villas all had 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 bagnarole were often of the same style and colours of the villa they belonged to.” http://www.portodileuca.it
At the heart of Santa Maria di Leuca, on a promontory, is the original sanctuary that was once a pagan temple dedicated to the goddess Minerva; today it is the Basilica of Santa Maria De finibus terrae (at the ends of the earth).
Church tradition holds that St. Peter consecrated this temple turning it into a church and to which the Knight Templars came to pray on their journey to the crusades. Also standing on this promontory with the Basilica of Santa Maria di Leuca is the famous lighthouse,157 ft tall and 335 ft above sea level, and possibly, the tallest lighthouse in Italy.
Santa Maria di Leuca left me with a most memorable impression: its silence. There are cafes crowded with tourists; beaches dotted with umbrellas; visitors lingering in great number along its seaboard promenade…and yet, there is a great silence that imbues this town. Perhaps it’s the infinite expanse of sea that envelops it, or perhaps it is simply that it is Finibus Terrae, the end of the earth.