20140102-183723.jpgA few days ago we took a brief visit to the old city of Gallipoli on the southwest coast of the Salento, perched on an island just offshore in the Ionian Sea, like so many of the places settled by Iron-Age Greek colonists.

Mobbed in the summer with beach goers, in the New Year we were one of just a few scattered families visiting its multicolored narrow streets. It’s original Greek name means ‘lovely city,’ and it certainly fits the bill.

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The Duomo, dedicated to Sant’ Agata, was a fine example of Lecce baroque.

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We then visited the Antica Farmacia Provenzano that has operated for 200 years; the old dispensary jars for herbs and ointments sit neatly in glass cabinets flanking the counter, below a double Latin inscription: pharmaca dant vitam — tollitur arte malum (“Medicine gives life — Illness is lifted by skill”). They don’t allow photographs in the shop (or their customers would get crowded out), but they did give us a color pamphlet about the pharmacy, from which we took this image. Go to an interactive panoramic photo here, and it’s like you are in the shop.

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After that was the Frantoio Palazzo Garanfei, an olive-oil processing facility in the basement of a grand building that pressed olive oil for European lamps from the 17th-19th centuries. At the height of production, 35 ships laden with oil left the docks at Gallipoli every day from the 35 processing facilities in Gallipoli, destined for ports across Europe. Young boys (and a pair of hard-working donkeys, who had a stall down there too) worked in continuous shifts 24/7 to process the oil, living for months at a time underground. The wealth from that labor built the wonders of the town. Production shifted to table oil when petroleum-gas lamps were developed, and eventually the facilities were obsolete.

The countryside in the Salento is everywhere covered with olive trees today, however. People were busy pruning the trees after the winter harvest while we were there. Olive trees are amazing — five liters of oil can be produced by a single large tree, which needs very little water and prefers rocky, limestone soils and hot weather. They don’t thrive in rich ground. They can live for thousands of years (I’ve seen examples on Crete), though the ones in the Salento are only hundreds of years old.

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The local civic museum is a kind of Cabinet of Curiosities, a mix of sea-dredged amphorae, ancient pottery and inscription fragments, dolphin and whale skeletons, and mounted animals and sea- and shore-birds. Good territory for ‘What’s This?’ quizzes.

FIshing boats

FIshing boats

We then passed by the castello (which was closed), to visit the fish market. Fresh mussels, writhing octopus, red and scarlet prawns, sea-urchins, and swordfish, to name a few. The boys noted the massively thick, knotted hands of the fishermen.

Entrance to the library

Entrance to the library

The communal library, closed when we walked past, has a stunning stone staircase wrapped around two old trees.

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But it is the streets, balconies, and courtyards that steal the show. Every alley seems to have a different predominant color, from white and blue to yellow, green, or pink, shifting from corner to cul-de-sac.

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MIcah and the sea

The boy and the sea

Micah loved running through the streets, but he probably loved the sea more.