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E + 18 : The Aesthetics of Old Fortifications

The East Coast of Apulia is rather barren - but still protected by Saracen Watch Towers

After a day of sailing, swimming and canoeing we pulled into the harbor of Otranto last night. Another beautiful town to explore which is not high up on the global “bucket list”. The visitors are all Italian. We have not heard any other language yet.

Otranto in the evening sun at 19.00 h - from the sound we guessed it was dinner time on many sail boats

After dinner we went for drinks on the old sea walls. Built in the early 16th century, after Otranto was under Turkish control from 1480 - 1481, they offer a splendid view on the small bay that forms the old harbour and the many sail boats anchored here.

People were happily strolling around. Most popular where the terrace lounges and bars on the sea wall. The surroundings, the sound of lounge music and the blue lights made them cool. Drinks in their hand, visitors chatted, took photos and selfies and were enjoying the warm summer evening.

Otranto's strong sea walls built in the 16th century overlooking the harbour

Looking from the high seawalls made me wonder why everybody flocked to the old, fortified town. The more modern part of Otranto was mostly dark. Nobody ventured there to have a drink. What attracts people to fortresses? It can’t be for the love of history – hardly anybody knows why these walls were built, nor for the love of military architecture. Otherwise Mussolini’s World War II bunkers would all have been converted into bars and lounges. They are full of rubble instead

The attraction applies mostly to medieval castles and star-shaped renaissance fortresses. A late French friend of mine from Paris loved the beauty of Vauban fortresses. He liked the long lines of design and the symmetry of these places. We actually met in the Vauban museum in the Dome des Invalides – funny how one meets interesting people.

Naarden in the Netherlands, a typical star-shaped fortress from Vauban's time

None of Vauban’s fortresses were built for beauty – they are sophisticated war machines designed to withstand long sieges. Their blue print strictly followed military tactics to limit the impact of gun fire. In Vauban’s days, siege guns fired in the line of sight. Defensive structures were built accordingly. First, walls were sunk into the ground to protect their base from distant bombardment. Then bastions were added in regular intervals to cover the walls with overlapping counter-fire. No wall could be attacked without exposing an attacker to hidden guns. Every wall was built straight to avoid dead corners where storm troops could hide. The walls were thick and several meters wide. Filled with sand, they were designed to absorb the kinetic energy of cannon balls. Bastions, wide walls and deep trenches produced the star shaped look. In addition, trees were planted on top of the wide walls to have wood ready for repairs during a siege.

Gravure of Otranto from 1486 with Turkish Guns in the

Foreground - the Town Walls have no Gun Platforms yet

Since war is mostly the exception, people appropriated these new spaces during peace time. It was fancy to stroll on the boulevards (bulwark) in the shades of the trees. There were no coffee shops, bars or lounges yet. But the public liked the new open spaces with their fresh air, views and shadows. There are many paintings of people going for a walk on a weekend or during a public holiday - unfortunately I can't remember where I have seen them. Straight lines of sight have something appealing to the human eye. Who does not love the 3 streets radiating straight south from the Piazza del Popolo in Rome or the long views on the Champs Elysée in Paris?

Otranto Gravure from 1761 - it is not very accurate but gives the impression of a strong town

Otranto's strong fortification is the result of a terrifying experience from 1480 which is still remembered today. The Ottomans occupied the town for a year. In 1480, Sultan Mehmet, the conqueror of Constantinople, tried to evict the Knights of St John from Rhodes. But the Knights were tough cookies and repelled his attacks. Tail between his legs, he needed a victory before returning to Istanbul. Mehmet decided to take Otranto instead. Its old walls were no match for his guns. Mehmet’s Army took the town after a short bombardment. He did not have his successors’ wisdom and conducted his wars as Jihad. Men who did not convert to Islam were put to the sword. Nobody converted. Women and children were enslaved. Having a bridgehead in Italy, Mehmet now set his eyes on Rome. If he could take Constantinople, why not Rome? But it was too late in the campaign season. He needed to return to Istanbul where he died. The invasion of Rome was cancelled, the Ottoman garrison was ordered to return to Turkey.

The new Trenches on Otranto's land side are as deep as the St Anastasius Trench in Rhodes

The few survivors of the siege of Otranto would not let this happen again. Engineers were sent to Rhodes to find out how the Knights were able to hold their town against Mehmet. Otranto received modern gun platforms and thick walls which the Spanish later upgraded. The town became impossible to take by force – only a prolonged siege by a huge army could now break the walls. The Turks got the message and never tried again.

The Sea Walls now look over hundred of leisure boats which are anchored in Otranto

Enjoying a stroll on the sea wall thus has a long tradition in Otranto and visitors have done this for centuries. The simplicity of the military design appeals to everybody, there is enough space for walking, the view on the harbor is spectacular. Galleys have long been replaced by peaceful white sail and motor boats who sway gently in the swell. It is almost impossible to imagine why Otranto’s fortifications were built in the first place.

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