The Borgo of Oria

Once upon a time in misty Oria…” The story of Oria could begin like this, with knights and noble ladies and a city of ancient splendor. Oria is a place of enchantment, wrapped in a fine mist, like a magical fairytale in a children’s book. There are 3,000 years of stories in this jewel of a city and Oria wears the signs of its long history with pride.

The streets of Oria are full of myths and legends. The “Porta degli Ebrei”, the Jewish Gate, takes you back on a journey through time: as soon as you enter the Jewish quarter, a tangle of stone lanes and ancient streets lead you into a world of Medieval magic. Continue on, and you will reach the Castle, where you can imagine the luxurious life at court, the pageantry of the balls, dinners, and romantic intrigues.

Religious mysticism and ancient historic adventures are the luminous needlework of Oria’s past, making it a city to discover and explore, following your curiosity into the most hidden and secret corners of the borgo, where you will find the ancient Church of San Crisante and Santa Daria, the subterranean passageways under the Castle and the crypt with mummies, as chilling as a film noir, with  Gregorian chants as background music.

Oria is full of incredible stories and legends: a city that never ceases to amaze, off the usual tourism route in Salento because it is little known, but that surely merits being visited, to lift its veil of captivating splendor.

Oria Basilica Cattedrale
Oria Panorama
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Oria Basilica Cattedrale
Oria Panorama
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Oria is one of the northernmost cities of Salento and boasts mythological origins. Legend has it that in 1200 B.C., a group of sailors from Crete were caught up in a storm and were washed up on the Ionian coast, where, once secure on dry land, they founded the city of Hyria. The exact meaning of this word is not known, but it has undergone innumerable changes over the centuries.

Oria was an integral part of the Roman Empire, and after the fall of Rome, it passed into the hands of the Byzantines, and then endured the Barbarian invasions. Like the rest of the south, Oria was ruled by the same succession of feudal dynasties: it was under Norman domination, then Swabian, and finally, was subject to Angevin rule (of which England’s Plantagenet dynasty is a branch).

Emperor Federico II of Swabia constructed one of his castles in the borgo, and it attracts numerous visitors.

A slow decline began in 1500, due to Oria’s support of Swabian King Francesco I against the invading King Carlo V of the Angevins, who came to power nevertheless. The new king expressed his displeasure by cutting off resources and abandoning the city to its destiny, which had an adverse affect on its most important monuments.

Centuries later, Oria was animated by the fervor of the Italian Risorgimento movement as well as by contrasting political positions which never were able to reach common ground. On September 21, 1897, the city was devastated by a cyclone which permanently damaged many of its most symbolic constructions. The Castle was finally brought back to its original glory in 1933, when it was purchased and restored by the Counts of Martini-Carissimo.

During both World Wars, the city registered a high number of victims, due to the multitude of Oria’s young men enlisting in the Italian armed forces.

Il Castello di Oria, the Castle of Oria

The Castle of Oria was constructed by the decree of  Federico II of Swabia. It stands proud on the hill of Vallio, the highest point in the city, and is surrounded by thick woods and brush which protect it on one side and exalt its majestic form on the other. The castle was built between 1225 and 1233, with the walls of the inner court forming the unique shape of an isosceles triangle, the points of the triangle represented by three towers: the “Quadrata”(square)Tower, built under Federico II’s rule, and the “del Cavaliere”(of the Knight) Tower, and the “del Salto”(the Jump)Tower, both dating back to the later Angevin period.

The entry gate of the castle is reached by taking an uphill street from the Jewish quarter, and was once protected by a drawbridge. Located on the western wall of the castle, the gate coincides with another tower, the “Torre dello Sperone” (the Tower of the Spur), which slices through the air like the bow of a ship. The clearing surrounding the circumference of outer walls of the Castle is called the “Piazza d’Armi” (Armaments Square), which in the past hosted more than five thousand soldiers. Inside the walls, at the foot of the “Torre del Salto” there is an entrance to a small, hidden church, constructed in around 880 A.D. by the bishop Teodosio. The church was once visible on the exterior, but later it was built over to make space for the first cathedral of Oria, of which today remain only three closed arches. This ancient church is dedicated to the patron saints of Oria, St. Crisante and St. Daria. Time has eroded the many of the  frescos in the church but some still remain visible and are quite beautiful.

In 1897, a cyclone caused serious damage to the western tower and the crenellated battlements of the castle walls, which were only rebuilt in 1933, when the castle was purchased by the Counts Marini-Carissimo. Since 2007, the castle has belonged to the Romanin-Caliandro family, who financed a complete restoration of the entire castle, and after three long years, have given this majestic jewel back to the city.

Cattedrale di Oria, The Cathedral of Oria

On the 20th of February, 1743, a powerful earthquake struck Oria, causing such destruction that its  cathedral was damaged beyond repair. The bishop at the time, Castrese Scaja, decided to demolish the structure, which dated back to the XIII century, and build a new cathedral, which was opened for worship in 1756.

The façade of the Basilica Cathedral of Oria is constructed of local carparo stone with Baroque themes and decorations. The Clock Tower rises to its left, and behind it, the Bell Tower. The cathedral is crowned by a magnificent dome adorned with majolica mosaics, creating a luminous and refined play of colors.

The cathedral is extremely similar to the Basilica of St. Peter in the Vatican, and because of this it is known as “La San Pietro in piccolo” (the Little St. Peter).

The interior is in the Latin cross layout, and is full of important works of art, including an alter depicting the ”Assunzione al Cielo della Beata Vergine Maria” (the Ascension of the Blessed Virgin Mary), created in 2005 in honor of the Episcopal Ministry of Monsignor Castoro. The sinuous forms of the central alter are sculpted in multicolored marble, rendering it luminous and supple. Ornate decorative and sculptural elements grace the interior, with magnificent statues, such as the statues of the “Santi Medici”, crafted in the Venetian style. There is an ancient crypt located under the cathedral, where eleven secular mummies are on display.

“Il Quartiere Ebraico”, The Jewish Quarter

The “Porta degli Ebrei”, the Jewish Gate, is the entrance to the ancient Jewish quarter of Oria. Between the VII and XVI centuries, the borgo boasted one of the most prestigious Jewish communities in Europe, home to philosophers, physicians and poets, and also illustrious scholars of the Torah and forerunners in the study of the Kabbalah. The “Porta degli Ebrei” faces “Piazza Shabbetai Donnolo”. This little square was once the thriving center of Jewish commerce, which in its day, made an important contribution to Oria’s economic success. The quarter is infused with the spirit of Medieval times, an intricate maze of narrow lanes and cobbled streets where you can still find remnants and reminders of Jewish life. Ornate little balconies, hidden entrances, ancient houses and workshops all give this ancient corner of Oria an evocative charm.

In the X century, the Jewish community was decimated during the Muslim Saracen invasions, but later, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the community was reborn and continued to exist until the XVI century.

“Oria Fumosa”

They were always crumbling: the walls of the Swabian Castle of Oria just kept falling down. The population did everything they could to rebuild them, but those walls, unruly and disrespectful, just fell down again, and yet again, and nothing could be done to keep them standing. One night, an oracle dreamed of blood and a little girl crying, and the next morning, as soon as he awoke, took to the streets to spread the news of his vision: “the sacrifice of a little girl will keep the walls standing!” Some good folk muttered “No, you can’t do that, never mind that those darn walls just won’t stop falling down”. But the people wouldn’t listen to anyone. Perhaps it was because they were so worn out, more likely it was pure malice, but they found a little girl and they sacrificed her, and then covered the walls with her young blood, while her mother, poor woman, wailed in desperation. Nothing could calm her… deprived of what was most precious to her in all the world, she cursed at that evil town, “ May you, Oria, go up in smoke like the smoke from my burning, desperate heart!”

It is said that because of this curse, Oria is constantly wrapped in a light mist, and still today there is a common saying in dialect : “A Oria fumosa ccitera nna carosa, pi quantu era picciridda se la mintira mposcia”- ‘In smoky Oria a little girl was killed, so small she could be put in a pocket’.

Disquieting ancient legends aside, as you approach the city, it is quite common to see the borgo immersed in a thick, foggy mist, much like smoke, which is due to Oria’s geographical position on  elevated land, surrounded by a territory of marshlands.

The Secular mummies

The Crypt of Oria contains the only known secular mummies in the world. Their story is a saga of history and religion which has remained relatively unknown.

In the late 1400’s, the Muslim Saracens (from the Turkish Ottoman Empire) were on a brutal rampage throughout Salento. Every city they passed through was decimated and forced to submit to the cruelty of the invaders, helpless against the unspeakable atrocities committed as they sacked one place after another. In 1480, the Turks attacked Otranto, employing such violence that the city was almost totally destroyed, installing themselves as the military headquarters of the Muslim forces in Puglia. In response, soldiers headed for Otranto from all over the territory to storm the Saracen stronghold and restore it to Christendom.

Oria, too, sent soldiers to eradicate the Ottoman scourge. In 1481, before departing to liberate Otranto, Bishop Arenis gathered his soldiers in the “Piazza d’Armi” at the Swabian Castle and incited them to swear under oath, “Fede o morte”, ‘Faith or death!’ From this oath, the “Confraternita della Morte”, the Fraternity of Death, was founded, continuing to exist over the centuries.  In 1484, to honor the combatants who returned victorious from Otranto, a crypt was dug under the Cathedral. Along the perimeter of this subterranean enclosure, 22 niches were carved in the stone walls to host those in the Fraternity who requested burial there.

The process of mummification was extremely long and complex. Once a member of the Fraternity died, the cadaver was disemboweled, and sacks containing salt and limestone powder were inserted into the empty cavities to dehydrate and disinfect the body. To facilitate this process, the deceased was then lowered into a tub containing more salt and limestone powder and left there to “cure” for two years. After the prescribed period had passed, in the presence of at least two family members, the body was taken out, washed, anointed with perfumed unguents, dressed in his personal garments and placed in his burial niche.

This procedure was not always successful, because the incorrect dosage of limestone could cause excessive corrosion to the body.

Today, in the crypt you can still see the apertures leading to the “Torre Palomba” which was used as an ossuary, as well as the tubs and instruments that were used for the process of mummification. In one of the apertures there are still the remains of one of the leaders of the Fraternity, together with his wife, which will soon be made visible through a glass panel.

The most ancient of the remaining mummies of Oria dates back to 1781, while the most recent is from 1856. Even though an edict was passed in 1804 prohibiting the process of mummification (the edict of St. Cloud), the people of Oria continued to practice this rite for another fifty years, in violation of Napoleonic law.

The “Corteo”, Historical Parade of Federico II

Every year, in the second week of August, the entire borgo of Oria is adorned with festive decorations and the streets are filled knights on horseback and noble ladies in Medieval costumes, accompanying Federico II of Swabia on his procession. The procession parades through all the streets of the historical center, until it reaches “Piazza Lorch”, where the Swabian Emperor reads the invitation to the contest to be held the following day. The next day, the square is decorated with the banners and flags in the colors of  Oria’s various “contrade” (feudal areas of the town) and the marvelous flag-wavers display their whirling acrobatics, culminating in an authentic Medieval tournament between the four quarters of the city: Castello, Giudeca, Lama and Santo Basilio.

This nationally famous historical representation has been held annually for over fifty years and commemorates an event which actually took place.

In 1225, the Emperor Federico II was engaged to Yolanda (Isabella) de Brienne, the daughter of the King of Jerusalem, and while he was waiting for his bride to arrive from across the seas, he and his court set up operations in Oria. When Princess Isabella and King Giovanni de Brienne arrived, in honor of his regal guests, the Emperor organized lavish festivities and a tournament, all with great pomp and circumstance, to thank them for the prestigious gift of the Crown of Jerusalem which they brought him as dowry .

Shabbataj Ben Abraham Donnolo.

Shabbataj Donnolo was the most illustrious citizen in the Jewish community of Oria, which was a thriving presence in the city during the Medieval period. The “piazza”, or square, in the heart of the Jewish quarter is dedicated to him. Born in Oria in 913 A.D., Shabbataj Donnolo was an acclaimed scholar, and an expert in pharmaceutical and medical sciences, as well as astrology, theology and philosophy. He produced numerous volumes of research, two of which on his studies of the Kabbalah.

“La scarpetta”

“La scarpetta” is a pastry typical to Oria. It is said that it was invented in the late 1800’s, inside the walls of the convent of the Benedictine nuns. In fact, this pastry is also called “le cosce della monaca”, ‘the thighs of the nun’ because of its white color, as white as the legs of a nun, which are always covered by her tunic.

Today, the recipe is secret and is known by only one pastry shop in Oria, who jealously guards the correct dosage of the three principle ingredients: flour, eggs and sugar.

“La scarpetta” is essentially a disc with a circumference of 15cm, made with a simple pastry dough and glazed with a syrup of sugar and water.



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