What’s spookier than Count Dracula’s castle? While there is no official Halloween holiday in Italy, at one place in Puglia – the so-called Skull Cathedral of Otranto – things are pretty scary 365 days a year.
Now, let there be any doubt, Otranto is a supremely beautiful seaside Southern Italian town, situated on the eastern edge of the Salento peninsula. Like many things in this part of Italy, the town traces its origins to the ancient Greeks. In summer, you can actually walk down from Otranto’s ramparts right to the sea and have a swim in the crystal clear waters. It’s sunny, fabulous Italian fun.
But things were not so fabulous back in 1480: that’s the year the Ottoman Turks arrived and sacked the city, remaining in control for 13 months. Otranto is the easternmost town in Italy and that made it vulnerable to the predatory Turks, who didn’t show up to have a tea party: for a while in 1480, any Christian who would not renounce their faith for Islam was summarily beheaded. When the massacre was complete, 800 locals had been slain, and today their bones – all of them – are on prominent display behind immense glass panels inside Otranto’s cathedral. It is a bone-chilling sight in the most literal sense and not for the faint of heart or small children, but it is a part of Italy’s very, very long and often dramatic history all the same.
The cathedral itself is actually even older, dating back to 1088. And there’s more scary stuff inside, too, namely the Tree of Life mosaic which has decorated the floor since 1163, and survived the Turkish onslaught. In addition to scenes from the Old Testament, there are images of the zodiac, the Arthurian Cycle, heaven, hell and the monsters of the Apocalypse (at least these are monsters you can step on!)
From now through June, the cathedral is open daily from 7AM to noon and again from 3PM to 5PM. If you happen to be Otranto in the middle of the day when the cathedral is closed, this is a sight that is definitely worth waiting for, so grab a slice of pizza or scoop of gelato, drink in the views and then wait for the big wooden door of history to open up. There’s nothing else like it anywhere in the world.