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  • Writer's pictureMark Tedesco

Our Italian Adventure: Spotlight on S. Maria Leuca

PART 66: It might be interesting to share how we pulled off living in Italy for part of the year. I am posting some of the steps we are taking and what we are learning.

We live in Puglia in the Summer and then back again in the winter.

Step 1: As we explore towns in Puglia, we discover some fascinating stories behind what we see. Sometimes, it is a building; other times, it is a piece of art. This week, we will travel to Santa Maria Leuca, or De Finibus Terrae, the end of the land, and explore its stories.

Come with us.

Step 2: What?

The cool thing about S. Maria di Leuca is that it is on the extreme tip of the spur of Italy where the Ionian Sea and the Adriatic Sea meet. One can watch the churning currents of the two seas and sometimes note a diversity of colors in the merging of the waters.

Besides the fantastic views and atmosphere, S. Maria di Leuca has an interesting history, legends, and sights.

Step 3: History

The history of S. Maria di Leuca is a swirl of facts and legends dating back to the Neolithic area. But the area enters western literature in the Aeneid, in the words of Virgil:

From the eastern sea,

Curving in an arc,

The thick foaming waves break

Against their opposing rocky masses.

Hidden from sight,

Sheltered behind its double seawalls,

Lies the internal port,

From where the hilly land rises

Towards the far-off temple.

"Leuca" comes from the Greek Leukos, meaning light or luminous, which could refer to the stones of the temple of Minerva that once stood on that spot or the foundations of the current Basilica, consecrated by Pope Julius I on 1st August 343 AD.

The legend holds that St. Peter traveled through this area towards Rome, where he gave up his life. The story continues that the columns of the Minerva temple shook and cracked as he passed through.

The area took on the term De Finibus Terrae, Latin for "at the ends of the earth." To the Romans, and probably many people who came before them, Santa Maria di Leuca represented the land's end: It is the most extreme point of the Italian peninsula where the Ionian and Adriatic Seas meet.

Step 4: Sights

  • Lighthouse

The beautiful lighthouse at the edge of the land dates from 1864 and is 47 meters high and 102 meters above sea level. I've never seen it open to visitors, but I have been told by some who got inside that, from the top, one can see the island of Corfu on a clear day.

  • Church

As stated above, the Basilica of the Madonna of Leuca, or De Finibus Terrae, originates above the temple of Minerva, previously built on that spot. The first Christian church was consecrated in 343 AD, followed by a 6th-century church; the current structure dates from the 1700s.

Older buildings were often filled with rubble in the ancient world, and newer buildings were constructed on top—example, San Clemente in Rome. Hence, the layers of churches at De Finibus.

The yearly religious feast is celebrated in the middle of August and consists of a grand procession from the church to the harbor. The procession continues on the water, with illuminated boats carrying the Madonna statue. It is said to be a spectacular sight.

The Basilica is simple and beautiful, but I have always been intrigued by a painting in a side chapel at the back. It is of a man floating in the water, with stars around his head. This painting is beautiful and tragic, depicting the drowned John of Nepomuk, who refused to tell King Wenceslaus IV of Bohemia what his wife had confessed. It may seem strange, but the painting is so cool.

  • Panorama

"This area is so beautiful, and I bet no Americans know about it!" I blurted out as we gazed over the harbor, the town below, and the intersection of the two seas. "This is AWESOME!" I suddenly heard from behind us. Perfect timing: two American ladies in shorts and t-shirts (just like us) were walking towards the edge. My partner laughed. I made a bee-line towards them and introduced ourselves. "We are here for a wedding, but we didn't want to miss this!" one of the kind ladies said.

Note to self: just because I haven't heard of a place doesn't mean nobody else has.

But the panorama is beautiful:

  • The whitewashed town

  • The beautiful harbor, with its colossal breakwater blocks

  • The seas to the horizon

  • The lighthouse jutting out

Just for the views, it is well worth the drive.

  • Town

The town of Santa Maria Leuca is part tourist, part harbor, and part just beautiful. We walked down the main drag to enjoy the views and the beaches. We had a forgettable lunch at a bar/cafe but then explored the peaceful seaside main boulevard while darting into the smaller streets, where we discovered beautiful homes and a calm vibe that added to its beauty.

Insights: Beautiful vistas, a long history, and fascinating architecture make Santa Maria Leuca a place not to be missed. Walking from the basilica area to the town is like walking from the heavens to the earth, and I can't help but think that it was meant to be that way.

More next time.

My book is "Stories from Puglia: Two Californians in Southern Italy." Amazon US:

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