The ‘Beautiful City’ is located on the west coast of the Salento peninsula. The origins of the city are very confusing. Some claim that it was founded by the Etruscans, others hypothesise that it was first built by Idomeneus, king of Crete, or in 389 BC by Sicilians escaping the persecution of the tyrant Dionysius.
It was a Roman municipality with the Latin name Anxa, later sacked by Vandals in 456 and then spent 517 years under the dominion of the Eastern Roman Empire, as a Greek colony with the name Kale Polis (beautiful city). The Normans conquered the city in 1701, but it was razed to the ground by King Charles of Anjou in 1284. Gallipoli was rebuilt at the behest of Queen Joan I in the 13th century and faced the attacks of the Turks, Venetians and Charles VIII of France. It became a stronghold of the Spaniards until 1860, when it was annexed to the Kingdom of Italy.
The characteristic feature of the town is its division into two well-defined areas, the old and new towns.
The streets of the historic centre are narrow and winding. This pattern dates back to the first half of the 10th century, when the city was conquered by the Saracens. Gallipoli was once linked to the mainland by an isthmus, the only entrance to the city. This passage, called Porta Terra, was created in 1310 by Robert of Anjou, son of Charles II, and destroyed in 1887.
In 1484, Gallipoli was occupied by the Venetians who, in order to better defend the island, planned to create the isthmus. This work was, however, only carried out years later after the Aragonese took possession of the city. Between 1601 and 1608, the bridge was built with a 12-arch structure and even today is the only connecting point between the island and the mainland.
The picturesque old town stands on a limestone island and is rich in frescos and ancient buildings. Everything bears witness, to the many people and civilisations of the past. In fact, in order to face enemy attacks in 1500, walls were built which were then adjusted in height at the end of the 19th century, to allow fantastic panoramic views. The streets of the historic centre are dotted with beautiful buildings in the Baroque style (such as Palazzo Balsamo, Tafuri, Senape, Pirelli and the seminary), and numerous large and small churches especially along the walls.
Immediately after crossing the bridge, you find yourself in front of the last survivor of a distant past, the Greco-Roman fountain, thought to be the oldest in Italy, adorned with friezes and caryatids that tell the story of the transformation of Dirce, Salmacie and Biblide into sources. From here you enter the new town, where the skyscraper dramatically marks the transition to modernity. It is located at the beginning of Corso Roma, a lifeline dividing the new town into two parts popularly known as Scirocco and Tramontana. In recent decades, Gallipoli has experienced a significant expansion in construction. It is now considered a flourishing centre in Salento and a sought-after tourist destination.
Gallipoli and its bridges
Gallipoli has two ports. The first is the Old or Fishing Port, located near the Greek fountain, just behind the Rivellino, and the Merchants’ Port that runs alongside the walls of the old town. The Fishing Port is the older of the two and about 50 m long. The local fishermen leave their boats here and fish almost all year round.
The Merchants’ Port, on the other hand, covers about 80,000 sq m and is located in the old town. The tourist path runs along the seafront next to Gallipoli station. In 1480, Gallipoli’s port was completely renovated by the Venetians and shortly after passed into the hands of the Aragonese. At that time it was the reference point for trade, above all oil and wine. In 1850, after undergoing various renovations, it became the most important port of the Ionian part of Salento.
Among the numerous attractions of Gallipoli is the Angiolino Castle, built on an earlier Byzantine structure during the Anjou period in the eighth century. It is almost completely surrounded by the sea and stands near the bridge connecting the old city with the new city.
The earliest buildings in the castle had a square plan, but on their return the Aragonese decreed that a polygonal fence was to built, with cylindrical watchtowers, because the castle’s function was to protect the city as well as possible. Attacks by invaders were numerous. Now the castle has a square base, with four towers at the corners. The towers are wrapped, in the centre, by a cord that marks the inside floor level. The upper parts are decorated with small arches. In the 16th century, the Rivellino a fifth circular tower was built, lower and wider than the others, detached from the city walls, which played a leading role in defending the city. In 1879, the castle became state property. Inside there are large rooms with vaulted ceilings and cross vaults, as well as many tunnels and walkways.
Another great work of art, located near the bridge connecting the new and old towns, is the Greco-Roman fountain. It is considered the oldest in Italy and scholars have placed its date of construction around the third century BC.
Originally it was located near the ancient baths, today more popularly known as called the ‘little fountains’, but in 1548 it was moved near the church of St Nicholas, which is now gone, and remained there until 1560 before ending up in its current place.
The façade looking onto Sirocco is about 5 m high and divided into three parts by four caryatids supporting the richly decorated architrave. The low reliefs are made from slabs of hard local stone and represent the transformations of the mythological characters Dirce, Salmace and Biblide. The myth of Dirce is represented on the ground between two towers. A little higher up, you can see Dionysus transforming her into a stone fountain. Salmace was a nymph who prayed to the gods to let her form one body with Hermaphroditus, son of Venus and Mercury, with whom she was hopelessly in love. Their bodies are shown chained, while they are transformed into a single source in the presence of Cupid and Venus. Biblide was in love with her brother Cauno. Once rejected and aware of her error, she wept until her tears consumed her, but the gods, merciless, transformed her into a stone fountain.
On the other side are the emblem of Gallipoli, an epigraph in Latin and images of King Charles III of Bourbon. In the lower area you can still see the watering hole used by animals in the past.
In the heart of the old town is one of the most important churches, both from an artistic and religious point of view. This is the Cathedral of St Agatha. Its construction began in 1629, in the Baroque period, on the site of an earlier medieval church destroyed in the 12th century, passing on to us the devotion to the saint from as far back as 1126.
The façade of the church was built in Lecce stone and presents the decorative richness typical of the 17th and 18th centuries, when the work of the great architect and sculptor Giuseppe Zimbalo dominated the Salento area. The church has a Latin cross with three naves, with two rows of columns in Doric order made of carparo, while the main altar has magnificent polychrome marbles that represent the lavish style of the period. The relics of some saints, including St Faustus, and numerous paintings of great value are kept in the cathedral.
Not far from the solemn cathedral is the Church of St Theresa, built towards the end of the 17th century. You can admire the rich altar, 18th-century organ enriched with gold decorations and interesting canvas depicting St Augustine and St Ignatius of Loyola. Also in the old town, you can visit the Church of St Francis, built in the first half of the 17th century, which preserves inside the arch of the gold-decorated presbyter, Baroque altars in Lecce stone and carved wood and the 17th-century depiction of the passing of St Joseph, behind the main altar. The Church of the Purity, built in 1644 by the brotherhood of the dockers. The interior has a single nave and houses the main altar in Romanesque marble, with the painting of the Madonna of the Purity behind it and at the side, the organ with the choristers’s stage, entirely in masonry. In the arches below one can admire the painting of the four Evangelists and various wooden and papier-mâché statues.
The city of Gallipoli, like any self-respecting place in Salento, is full of festivals, popular beliefs, traditions, folklore and processions, where tourists can’t help but socialise and feel like an integral part of these ancient celebrations.
There are many patron saint festivals. Every town has its own patron saint to celebrate and for Gallipoli it’s St Sebastian, whose festival occurs on 20 January, and St Agatha, on 4 and 5 February. In the evening, in the streets of the old city, a solemn procession takes place in honour of the saints. All the brotherhoods of the city take part in the procession. Their members parade with their traditional clothes, in an order respecting seniority. The same is true of St Agatha, and it is said that a fantastic ship carrying St Agatha arrives, driven by the sirocco wind, on the beaches of Gallipoli. After a brief stay at the cathedral, the ship leaves for the shores of Sicily, driven by the north wind. In these two days dedicated to the saint, besides the procession, a solemn service is held by priests in the cathedral, during which the Gospel is read in Latin and Ancient Greek.
The carnival tradition in Gallipoli is very ancient, with documented testimonies dating back to the early 18th century. Such was the popular spirit that from medieval times to the present day, these deep folk roots have been handed down with an almost perfect adherence to the original ones. This tradition has never failed to arouse curiosity and interest on the part of Italian and foreign scholars who, in their past and recent investigations, wanted to highlight above all how it survives in terms of popular expression despite the centuries-old history of the city. The event is celebrated with an ostentatious and exuberant theatricality, and is a continuous interweaving of Christian beliefs and pagan rituals. Carnival in Gallipoli follows a well-defined process. It begins with lighting fires on 17 January. Huge stacks of olive branches are burnt outdoors, in the various squares of the city. It is the rite of the focareddhe, lit on the many crossroads of the city, dedicated to St Anthony the Great, patron of fire. As soon as the focareddhe are lit, the sound of the Saracen tambourine opens the dances and so begins a wild euphoria that lasts until the advent of Lent. Thus, carnival has always represented a moment of unbridled euphoria for the Gallipoli people. From the ancient village the catwalk of hundreds of masks started, made with the poor clothes that people had at their disposal, but also with precious silks and accessories. This is traditionally the moment when people from all walks of life forget their normal lives and take part in this great party that goes on until dawn’s first light in the town.
On the evening of 17 January, then, Gallipoli is lit by bonfires, marking the official start of the carnival. The focareddhe are for the people of Gallipoli a fixed appointment that cannot be missed. Olive branches are stacked like a straw for this purpose. In ancient times, the ash was considered beneficial and was spread from the top of walls, to calm the wrath of the sea and allow the fishermen a quiet return. The rite was formerly also dedicated to St Anthony the Great, known as St Anthony of the Fire, and each family offered up to the bonfire a bundle of branches. This was a great sacrifice, given the financial constraints. The people of Gallipoli respect and celebrate many patron saint festivals with assiduity and popular tradition. After Lent and Advent, as early as 15 October, the day of St Theresa, the streets are filled with the scent of pittule (pancakes with vegetables or fish) and cakes with cinnamon and cloves. It is our way to prepare for Christmas, in addition to religious rituals, papier-mâché cribs and live nativity scenes. Above all we prepare the tables with these delicacies. After the day of St Theresa, there are still four other stages: St Cecilia (22 November), St Andrew (30 November) the Eve of Our Lady Immaculate (7 December) and St Lucy (13 December).
A party to admire, but above all to experience. In Easter, hundreds of tourists come to Gallipoli to see the celebration of this rite. It all begins with the Good Friday procession, when in the evening, the statues of Our Lady of Sorrows and Christ are carried in a very long procession that lasts until the early hours of Holy Saturday. The procession starts from the old city and continues through all the streets of the new town, where, at the first light of dawn on Holy Saturday, the two statues meet near the reed bed. It is a truly impressive show.
When summer arrives, Gallipoli becomes the scene of large and important musical events, fairs and fireworks shows. On 24 and 25 July, there is the festival of St Christine, on 10 and 15 August the notorious nights of St Laurence and Ferragosto, and many others. All our events attract thousands of tourists thanks to the numerous concerts organised in the port area of Gallipoli.