When we were kids, our school teachers would go on and on about how Ancient Greek settlers founded many important towns in Southern Italy. All this sounded really exciting. For 15′ or so. However, as grown-ups and avid travellers, we were fascinated by the idea that there are still Greek communities in Italy’s Deep South and genuinely intrigued by the prospect of visiting some of them one day. So, once we decided to visit Puglia, we were determined to explore as many of the region’s Greek towns as possible. This is why we planned a 2-day Grecia Salentina trip as part of our two-week Puglia itinerary.
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It turns out that, although we had set out to find Greece in Italy, we found that and a lot more. We found two civilisations who managed to co-exist in absolute harmony for centuries. But, most importantly, we found new people whom we can now call friends. This is why this article is more about the people we met rather than the places we saw during this emotional trip across Grecia Salentina.
A bit of Magna Graecia history
The Greeks have been establishing settlements in Southern Italy from prehistoric times up to the Byzantine era. There was also a final stage of immigration during the 16th and 17th centuries when Greeks settled in Southern Italy after having fled the Ottoman invasions. Greek towns in the Italian peninsula were so abundant that the area came by the name Magna Graecia, Great Greece. Magna Graecia extended to present-day regions of Basilicata, Calabria, Campania, Puglia and Sicily.
Where is Grecia Salentina
Grecia Salentina literally translates to Greece of Salento. The southern tip of the Puglia region, the actual heel of the Italian boot, is the area known as Salento. A land graced with the brightness of the Mediterranean sun and known for offering genuine hospitality, Salento is one of the last strongholds of off-the-beaten-path Italy. Grecia Salentina comprises eleven Greek towns: Sternatia, Melpignano, Martignano, Calimera, Carpignano Salentino, Corigliano d’Otranto, Castrignano dei Greci, Martano, Soleto, Zollino and Cutrofiano. We managed to visit all but the three last on this list.
The Griko people and their dialect
The Griko people are believed to be the descendants of Greek communities that once thrived in Southern Italy. Alongside them, a unique dialect that combines linguistic elements from both Italian and Greek has survived. The Griko dialect, which is still spoken in Grecia Salentina, is more similar to Modern Greek than Italian. In 1999, the Italian state recognised the Griko communities as a Greek ethnic and linguistic minority. Therefore, the Griko dialect and culture are protected by law. That said, Griko is classified as a severely endangered language as it is only spoken by older generations.
It seems that at some point in their history, the Griko people regarded their dialect as a bond to a past of poverty and shame that they wanted to forget altogether. This is why they stopped teaching their children how to speak the dialect and urged them to learn the official Italian language instead. However, the Griko language somehow managed to survive thanks to the rich oral tradition associated with it. Nowadays, associations as well as individuals make huge efforts to revive and preserve the Griko dialect by means of traditional music and songs.
Our Grecia Salentina trip: Towns and people
Sternatia is a laid-back town which, like any other Italian town, has a compact and charming historical centre. Wandering around Sternatia and gazing at its beautiful architecture is a fantastic pastime in its own right. Yet, the most impressive place of interest in the town is definitely il frantoio ipogeo, Sternatia’s subterranean olive press. In terms of architectural value, olive presses are among Puglia’s most important and fascinating buildings alongside its trulli, masserie and baroque palazzi. Last but not least, the small town of Sternatia is also home to La Porta Antica, one of the best restaurants in Puglia.
Valentina, Andrea and Marialuce
We had the immense pleasure of spending our time in Sternatia in the company of a local family who love their town and know how to properly greet their guests. Valentina, Andrea and their adorable daughter Marialuce opened their arms and their home to us and made sure we enjoyed some of the most authentic and sweet moments of our entire trip.
Valentina and Andrea host their guests at Corte Candelora, a no-frills yet packed with history B&B in the historical centre of Sternatia. Although quite basic in some respects, Corte Candelora offers guests the unique opportunity to stay in a traditional centuries-old building, adorned with amazing frescoes. Corte Candelora is a typical Salentine casa a corte (courtyard house). This means that the B&B’s two rooms and the kitchen are built around a cosy courtyard. The building boasts yet another unique architectural element, the mignano. The latter is a corridor-like balcony which served a very significant purpose in older times. Standing at the mignano was the only way for women to partake in the town’s social life by watching it go by beneath their feet.
Far from simply being the hosts at Corte Candelora though, Valentina and Andrea offer their guests a complete authentic experience by showing them around Sternatia and letting them in on the town’s secrets. They are also the ones to contact for a visit at Sternatia’s frantoio ipogeo. Last but not least, their legendary lunch parties during which they serve delicious homemade Italian food are definitely not to be missed.
Mimmo and Uccio
Regardless of its small size, Sternatia has the largest Griko speaking population in Grecia Salentina. On what was a gloriously sunny morning, we sat at one of the town’s most central cafés to enjoy the sun and a cup of cappuccino d’orzo. We had just started chatting about the places we had seen thus far on our trip. Suddenly, one of the gentlemen sitting at the table next to us asked us if we came from Greece. It took a couple of seconds for us to register that he had actually uttered his question in perfectly spoken Greek!
Mimmo and Uccio, our two brand new friends, spoke to each other in Griko. However, it turns out that Mimmo was utterly in love with Greece. This is why he decided to learn how to speak Modern Greek too. You can imagine how happy he was to have stumbled upon two Greeks with whom he could finally practise the language he liked so much. Sitting under the Salentine sun in a tiny town right in the heart of Italy’s Deep South and listening for hours on end to Mimmo and Uccio narrating stories of their past, Italy’s past, is definitely one of the most precious memories we have from our travels to date.
Melpignano is probably our favourite Greek town in Salento. We fell in love with its main square, Piazza San Giorgio. The square is particularly enchanting in the evening when it is dimly lit under a perfect Italian sky. The square is home to the church of San Giorgio. Moreover, the square is dominated by a beautiful colonnade which is quite unique in terms of Apulian architecture since there are only a handful of constructions built for commercial purposes in the entire region. The shopping arcade was built in the 16th century to house the weekly market that took place there every Saturday. Nowadays, visitors can still marvel at the market’s stone stalls.
Another attraction not to be missed in Melpignano is the magnificent Palazzo Marchesale. The castle, as locals call it, was built in 1636 and it has recently been renovated. It re-opened its gates to the public in April 2019. The most fascinating part of Palazzo Marchesale is its stunning garden. Apart from the various plants and trees that adorn it, the garden is also an architectural wonder with its windows and porticoes made of the famous pietra leccese. The latter is a kind of limestone which is very common in the extended area of Lecce. It is so soft and workable that it is ideal for sculptures.
Who would have thought that a tiny town in Italy’s Deep South would attract 100.000 visitors on a single night? Yet this is what happens in Melpignano every August during the famous Notte della Taranta. The latter is a huge music festival which focuses on the preservation of la pizzica, a popular Italian folk dance. The world famous festival takes place in an enchanting setting: right in front of the gorgeous Convent of Agostiniani.
Salvatore, Mariella and Letizia
Perhaps it was not only Melpignano’s charms that made us like it more than any other of the Greek towns we visited in Salento. The fact that it was there that we met some of our favourite Italian people must have had something to do with it as well. Salvatore and Mariella are an Italian couple who have dedicated their lives to the preservation and promotion of Salento’s folk tradition. They run the CCP Centro di Cultura Popolare di Melpignano (Melpignano Centre of Popular Culture) where they offer a wide range of unique activities and experiences.
Salvatore and Mariella’s focus is on folk music and how the latter can help preserve the traditions, dialects and unique character of Salento. The CCP Centro di Cultura Popolare is home to a large collection of tambourines and other instruments not only from Italy but from all over the world. The cultural centre offers both free and paid activities. These include pizzica lessons, cooking classes, guided tours of Melpignano and trips around Grecia Salentina. We were very lucky to see Melpignano through the eyes of Salvatore and Mariella themselves. They both are utterly knowledgeable guides and they are passionate about their hometown. We also had the honour to watch them perform traditional dances and songs accompanied by their lovely daughter Letizia, who carries on her family’s musical tradition in the best possible way.
When we started planning our Grecia Salentina trip, we had talks with various people living in Salento. One of them was Lorena, a young archaeologist and tour guide who does everything in her power to promote Salento’s culture. Lorena gave us invaluable tips about what not to miss in the area. She was also the one to introduce us to both Valentina and Salvatore. To our minds, Lorena is, to a great extent, responsible for the success of our Grecia Salentina trip. We were looking forward to tell her that but, sadly, we never had the chance to meet her in the end as our own programme was very tight and Lorena herself was also super busy when we visited Melpignano. But we do hope that we’ll have the chance to meet her and thank her one day. That’s a valid reason to go back to Melpignano soon, isn’t it?
Martignano may be the smallest of all Greek towns in Salento but it has no shortage of interesting things to see. Undoubtedly, the most impressive building in tiny Martignano is the imposing Palazzo Palmieri, a historical palace which is a typical example of 18th century architecture of the Salentine nobility. The palace is now home to Il Parco Turistico Culturale Palmieri, the area’s main tourist office. The latter, far from being just an information point which offers free maps and itineraries, is a very active cultural centre famous for its brilliant initiatives, its excellent modern library and the guided tours it organises. At the palace’s basement, one can visit the restored frantoio semi-ipogeo, a semi-underground olive mill where various cultural events are often held. A stone’s throw from Palazzo Palmieri, one can admire superb frescoes inside Saint John the Baptist Chapel.
Another fascinating thing to see in Martignano are the pozzelle. Pozzella literally translates to small water well. The pozzelle were dug into the rock and covered with limestone so that rainwater could be filtered. What is remarkable about the pozzelle is their position. Also called pozzi di San Pantaleo (San Pantaleo wells) in honour of Martignano’s patron saint, the pozzelle are situated at the lower part of the town, where, thanks to the composition of the soil, rainwater was preserved for a longer time before finally disappearing into the water table.
As soon as we reached Martignano, we stepped inside the tourist office at Palazzo Palmieri, totally unaware of the fact that we were about to experience an amazing guided tour that we hadn’t even planned. It all started when a man with a radiant smile met us at the door. For the following couple of hours or so, this man would teach us everything there is to know about Grecia Salentina, the Griko people, their dialect and their traditions. This was Pantaleo, the very soul of Palmieri Cultural Centre, who, without us asking him to do so, left everything he was doing when he saw us and happily showed us around the palace and the entire village. Driven by no other motive than his love for his hometown, Pantaleo carried us away with his passion and enthusiasm until we felt that we’d known him and Martignano since forever.
To us Greeks, Calimera is probably the most famous town in Grecia Salentina because of its name. Calimera means Good morning in Greek. Calimera and Sternatia are the strongholds of the Griko language and tradition. The Casa Museo della Civilta Contadina e della Cultura Grika is a fantastic folk museum in the heart of Calimera. It displays objects, tools and furniture associated with the way of life in the Griko community of the past. What we loved most about this museum was that during our entire visit, we could listen to Griko traditional music and songs.
Apart from a visit to the museum, a walk along Via Costantini is essential while in Calimera. This quaint street in the historical centre of Calimera is in essence an open air museum. It is impressive how architecture can play the role of the narrator of an entire culture’s history. Make sure to visit the museum before taking a stroll along Via Costantini though. Upon entering the museum, you will be handed out a super informative brochure which is also a map of the various points of interest along Costantini Street.
Just a couple of minutes after opening time, we stepped inside the museum. Strangely, we felt as though we were completely alone there. We were having a look at the small bookshop at the reception area when we suddenly heard a deep voice talking to us in Griko. That was Vito, a man whose face was history itself. A man who moved around the museum as if it were his home rather than his workplace.
We will never forget this moment for as long as we live. Not only because someone was talking to us in a language which is considered long lost and forgotten but because we actually understood what Vito was saying to us. And that was when all barriers of time and space came crashing down in the most triumphant way conceivable. For a fleeting moment, we were neither in Italy nor in Greece, neither in 2019 nor in 320BC. For a fleeting moment, the whole world had become one. If only it could stay that way.
Probably we wouldn’t have visited Carpignano Salentino had it not been for a superb historical treasure that is located there. The Crypt of Santa Cristina is a site of immense historical significance thanks to the invaluable frescoes on its ancient walls. A visit is possible by appointment only. The guided tour is conducted by one of the volunteers at the Nea Carpiniana Association.
When we visited Carpignano Salentino, we had no idea that we should have made an appointment in advance in order to see the crypt. Pantaleo from Martignano told us to contact the Association but we didn’t keep our hopes up. We wouldn’t blame them if they didn’t want to accommodate us at such short notice. However, we made the call. Less than 30′ later, Francesco, one of the volunteers, was waiting for us outside the crypt’s gate. That said, if you wish to visit the crypt, please contact the Association as early as possible. This way you can ensure that you will indeed see the crypt and help volunteers schedule visits without problems. Francesco gave us a thorough and highly informative tour of the crypt, which was more of a high-quality lecture than just a quick historical overview. We can’t recommend or thank him enough.
Corigliano d’ Otranto
Corigliano d’Otranto is one of the most gorgeous towns not only in Salento but in the entire region. Starting from the imposing Castle, a stroll around the town’s splendid historical centre is a travel back in time. Courts, churches and narrow alleys compose a scenery of utter charm. At night, this is even more striking as Corigliano d’ Otranto is dimly lit to perfection.
Castrignano de’ Greci
Yet another charming destination in Grecia Salentina is Castrignano de’ Greci. This small town with its tiny historical centre is ideal for a nice stroll under the Salentine afternoon sun.
Martano is the most populated town in Grecia Salentina. Its historical centre is abundant in picturesque narrow alleys, baroque churches and magnificent palaces.
Our Grecia Salentina trip lasted for just two days. However, we could have spent more time there, just going from one town to the other, taking in the magic of their nostalgic ambience. We literally loved the Greek towns of Salento. We loved how the sun kissed old rooftops and shone on hot pavements. We loved the information signs all across the area for being written in Griko, Greek and Italian. Nothing could have made us feel more like home than this. But most of all we loved the people of Salento. Our friends. The ones we’ll keep going back to. After all, there is an inscription in Calimera that reads:
Zeni sù en ise ettù sti Kalimera
You are not a stranger here in Calimera
We will never forget that. We’ll be back home soon.
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Disclosure: Valentina and Salvatore offered us complimentary experiences. However, they felt like good lifelong friends rather than our hosts from the very first moment we met them. Our opinions are 100% our own, as always.