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E + 15 : Plate Tectonics, Coral Beaches and a Baroque Beauty

Lecce, the beautiful Baroque Jewel, in the Heart of Apulia

Yesterday the moon set behind the Calabrian mountains. Only 24 hours later, our loyal companions for the last ten days are gone. The moon set over flat land and disappeared into the evening haze. The hot flat Apulian plate acts like an oven which pulls in moist air from the sea before it rises to form a thin cloud cover in the later afternoon.

Limestone Beach in Porto Cesareo which must have been Taranto's Summer Town

The endless miles and miles of sandy beaches are gone as well. There are no mountains which erode, no violent rivers that fill entire valley floors - only a few shallow creeks. The beaches here are made of sharp limestone – mostly old corals which lived at the bottom of the Tethys sea 50 - 100 million years ago. One is well advised to use water shoes for the beach. The limestone edges are sharp and easily cut into one’s foot.

The unique tectonics of Apulia, a plate that was lifted from the sea floor but never folded

The Apulian plate is kind of an anomaly in the Mediterranean. Unlike the Abruzzi or the Dalmatian mountains, the Apulian plate was only lifted above sea level but never folded. There is only one other place in the Mediterranean that is like this – Istria, which we visited in 2019. The Istrian plate though rose higher above sea level and was carved up by a few, deep canyons. The Apulian landscape is thus rather flat, perfect for agriculture and full of wheat fields, olive orchards and vineyards.

The sad sight of dead and grey Olive Trees - it hit the beautiful old trees hardest

The last few years have been harsh for olive farmers. As of today, a strain of Xylella, one of the most dangerous pathogens for plants, has infected 1/3 of Puglia’s 60 million olive trees. It affects primarily the very old, beautiful trees. In the hope to save at least the main trunk, some farmers radically trimmed them. But many did not survive this harsh treatment and died of the cure. Seeing such a grey, dead olive orchard is a sad sight. However, amongst the dead trees, there are a few with fresh young branches. Seems that some trees have a robust immune system that is able to recover from the infection. Maybe some of these branches can be grafted on older olive trees and make them resilient as well. There is some hope.

The Commercial Port of Taranto was quiet when we left on the Sunday Morning

We left Taranto in the morning a few minutes before eight and sailed south for three hours. For the third time we could set sail. The winds have not been in our favor the first two week. We faced mostly headwinds except when sailing through the Straits of Messina. With the sails up, the AFAET gently rode the waves. We were not fast - 3 knots only. Gliding silently over the flat sea was peace and joyful. Were it not for the sound of the waves and the occasional clonking noise from the sails, the silence would have been total.

The Naples Gate in Lecce which gives an idea of the dimensions of the town's defences

After arriving in Porto Cesareo, a low-cost summer resort that has seen better days in the 19th century, we climbed a bus to visit Lecce, the 3rd capital of the Kingdom of Sicily (after Naples and Palermo). Lecce was a key administrative town for the Spanish rulers. It was so important that Charles V, the German Emperor and Spanish King, heavily fortified it in 1548. It was the time of the Franco-Turkish Military Alliance, when the Turkish Fleet harbored in Toulon, and conducted joint military operations against Nice with the French. After their victory at Preveza 1534, the Turkish Fleet had the upper hand in the Mediterranean. It could roam the seas almost unopposed until destroyed at Lepanto in 1571.

Lecce's elegant Piazza del Duomo which was entirely remade in the 16th century

For 1537, the French King Francis I. and Suleyman the Magnificent, the Turkish Sultan, had agreed to jointly attack Italy. France from the north, Suleyman from the south. These plans had not gone unnoticed by the Pope and Charles V and triggered a massive fortification project for all major towns, including Rome.

The Basilica Santa Croce - an unexpected surprise

Lecce was part of this program. Massive gun bastions and gates were added to the town’s city walls. Spain used the occasion to also broaden the streets, enlarge Lecce and create new space. There were large, deserted neighborhoods from where the Jewish and Arab population was expulsed in 1492. The urban footprint was modernized to allow fresh air to breeze through the streets. At the time, people believed that diseases like the bubonic plague spread via bad odors. The opportunity to re-make a town combined with the agricultural wealth of Lecce gave birth to the unique Baroque style in which the town was rebuilt. The local arch bishop and the nobles competed for the most Baroque building. For almost 100 years, Lecce must have been a giant construction site until it looked like it does today. The town has not much changed since then and was extensively renovated after 1990. In 2006 it was accepted in the UNESCO World Heritage List. It is a jewel – with some dark spots in its history.

The Roman Amphitheatre was found in the 1920s and

is now 50% excavated

Baroque Style Palace of a Noble Family

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