ITALY (eTN) – The Salento region, geographically positioned in the remote Southeast of Italy, extends its land to the extreme southern heel of the boot-shaped peninsula, and its eastern lands almost reflect on the shores of Greece.
The sea resort city of Santa Maria di Leuca, the boundary between land and sea, gained the definition of “Finis Terre” (the end of the world) in ancient history. Salento is a land that deepens its roots to the fifth century B.C. – a land that, due to the vicinity to the Orient, was exposed and subdued to the conquest of pirate and ferocious warriors. But it was also enriched by the splendors of the Magna Grecia, and Greek community settlements still exist in the town of Calimera.
The Salento region is rich in historical monuments, and fine architecture like the Baroque style of its capital of the province, Lecce, Nardo, and other minor towns. Blessed by the prosperous nature and agriculture of mainly vineyards and endless extensions of olive trees, pristine coasts lines, emerald green waters of its sea, and its clean environment are also great attractions for tourism.
Besides the richness of the historical territory, the Salento region maintains long-standing traditions connected also with religious events which during Easter celebrations are an extraordinary mix of popular devotion and spectacular journeys of faith through its sanctuaries, cathedrals, and spiritual paths, with its secret treasures, hidden away for most of the year in sacristies, put on display during the Holy Week. Statues of the Passion parade by, with the Mother veiled in black, a representation of the pain of the world, the grief of death. The women of Puglia parade by, still mindful of their humility in the faith, as do the men, proud to lend their backs to the difficult transportation of sacred icons. All around, the deep drums and brass instruments of bands mark the path, transfusing the collective emotions of the ceremony participants.
Life pulsates with Easter preparations, and the women bustle about with preparations of holiday recipes full of fragrances that remind one of the Orient. The desire of the modern people of Salento is to reunite with their history, never repressed, never forgotten.
Different celebrations leading to one faith
Oria is a small medieval city that anticipates all the Easter services. Every Thursday in March and up to Easter day, the statue of Jesus is brought from the Benedictine Church to the Cathedral, where a mass is celebrated. The Confraternita brothers (protectors of the traditions) are dressed in black hoods and lead a procession followed by the inhabitants. Children move the troccola, a wooden instrument that emits a particular sound. Oria is home to a thriving Jewish community.
Francavilla Fontana and The “Pappamusci” (the slow walkers).
Nights of passion fill Holy Week in Francavilla Fontana. On Holy Thursday, the Pappamusci, hooded brethren, two by two at a very slow motion, visit the graves of the many churches in the city. On the evening of Holy Friday, hooded and barefoot, they carry on the shoulders “lu trauma,” a heavy wooden cross, dragging the whole procession and sharing in this way the Passion of Jesus.
The rites at the Salentina Greece
From Martignano, in the heart of Greek Salento, comes the echo of the Songs of Passion, sung in the Grika language: an ancient classical Greek dialect introduced in Salento by the first Greek settlers and further revived by Byzantine monks fleeing East in the eleventh century to the struggles iconoclast. During Holy Week the peasants visit the houses of the villages to sing songs of Passion. The Gospel of Jesus is narrated with emotion. The singing is often rewarded with a gift: a “puccia” (the typical Salento wood oven baked bread and olives), a little cheese, and a few eggs.
At Calimera (a Greek word for morning), funded by early Greek settlers communities, there is a very active school teaching “Griko” to children and adults to preserve the ancient language. The Griko is also used to pray while waiting for Easter. Calimera is also known for the Rite of Rebirth. On Easter Monday, in fact, the people will gather in front of the church of San Vito outside the villag, among olive trees and stone walls. At the center of the small church stands a large stone with a hole in the middle. It is believed that passing thru the holed stone brings good luck and fertility. It is an ancient ritual, certainly linked to the cult of Demeter, the Mother Goddess. By that time the Catholic Church had incorporated and Christianized the pagan ritual. The perforated stone was driven in the ground and around it was built the small church of St. Vitus, the patron saint of animals.
Recent studies testify that perforated stones similar to the one at Calimera are also found in Greece and Turkey, likely considered propitious for fertility. The Salento land was under the domination of Turkish invaders from the year 1480 for well over a century.
The tables of San Giuseppe and the bone fire
Easter is preceded in Salento by “The tables of St. Joseph.” This ceremony reminds that Salento has been a melting pot of peoples and cultures. In fact, the “Tables” were introduced by the people of Albania during the Middle Ages.
On March 18 and 19 of each year the rites of the Tables are held in private homes and in the square of St. Joseph. Each city has different rituals. In Erchie, March 19, the (Tables) of St. Joseph are set up by the local administration and volunteers along the main street. On the tables are aligned 13 dishes closely related to Christian symbolism and the arrival of Spring: fried fish, a symbol of Jesus; the ncartiddhate, sweets deepened in honey presented as small bands of fried dough and wrapped around itself to form a rose, which remind of the bands of the Child Jesus Mattra; homemade pasta, partly boiled and partially fried, topped with chickpeas, evocative of the colors of the narcissus and of the arrival of spring. The “pampasciuni,” with a bitter taste of wild onions, is linked to the arrival of summer, and finally there is a great bread in the shape of a wheel, with an orange in the center.
Not to be missed are the lucky birds bread: it signifies the time away from home and the crops. At midday, the priest blesses the Tables and gives a “go” sign that anyone can have a bite of the food on display. Families also organize the “Tables,” and their homes are open to anyone who wishes to visit and taste their food.
The previous evening, March 18, a giant bonfire is fed with the branches from the olive tree pruning and is organized by the young friends of the Confraternita of the fire. This is the last festival of the fire of Salento, which marks the arrival of Spring. The tradition of the Feasts of the fire begins in mid-winter with Focara in honor of St. Andrew (November 29 and 30), culminating in Focara Novoli (January 16 and 17) and ending with the Focara Erchie. Peasant festivals are deeply tied to the land. In areas where the prevailing culture is olive oil, dry branches of the olive trees are used for bon fires, and as in Erchie, in Novoli the city of wine producing, the pruned branches of the vine are used as well.
Erchie and the shrine of Santa Lucia
The fourth Thursday after Easter, Erchie celebrates Saint Lucia, in whose shrine there is a natural water spring, believed to be miraculous for the healing of the eyes. Erchie is also twinned with the city of Syracuse, (Sicily) linked to the cult of Santa Lucia.
Oria and the Doctor Saints
On the fifth Thursday after Easter day, the city of Oria celebrates the Santi Medici of Oria (originating from the East). A grand procession brings on a parade of the five statues of Saints Cosmas and Damian and their three brothers, Antimo, Leander, Eupremio, and the protector of Oria, San Barsanofio, a holy hermit also from the East like many other saints venerated in the Eastern Salento, where the cultures of East and West meet.