The first week of December 2011 saw the sixth anniversary of our arrival in Puglia. Definitely a cause for celebration. It was a bright, sunny and warm December day as we set off for Mesagne. Why Mesagne? It does not feature very heavily in Puglia guides and is completely missing from the Lonely Planet’s “Puglia & Basilicata.” We had been to Mesagne once before to meet a group of fellow ex-pats. We remembered being on the edge of what appeared to be a nice historic centre and visiting a bar in which we walked across glass floors looking down onto the remains of Messapian tombs. On a more practical note, there is a metano gas station near Mesagne and the car needed a top-up!
Mesagne is the fifth largest town in the province of Brindisi and, as with many other towns here, it’s main activities are tourism and the growing of olives and grapes. Mesagne has a long history, the first settlers having arrived in the 8th-7th century BC making their home on the raised ground that eventually became Mesagne. It was an important town during the Messapian period, located between Oria and Brindisi and easing movement between the two. After the Roman conquest, Mesagne’s location on the Appian Way ensured its continuing importance. However, it was not until the period of Norman dominance that Mesagne began to build walls and towers to protect the city’s boundaries. Oria and Mesagne were responsible for protecting the section of the Via Appia between Taranto and Brindisi.
Arriving in Mesagne Est after leaving the superstrada that runs from Brindisi to Taranto we headed into the town. We could see the castle in the near distance ahead of us. The Norman-Swabian castle is an impressive landmark, built in the 11th century by Robert Guiscard and gifted to the Teutonic knights in 1195. It was destroyed by Manfred of Swabia in the 13th century and then rebuilt in the XV century by Antonio Del-Bazio Orsini. There is no entry fee to view the castle.
With lots of free parking on the side of the road, we decided to park up and walk into the town and the “Centro Storico.” The “Centro Storico,” historic centre, of Mesagne, and of many other Puglian towns, are in fact what were the original old walled towns, around which new districts developed. A stroll along Via Brindisi, where there are some interesting shops, soon led us to Piazza V. Emmanuele II and the Porta Grande, the main entrance into the “Centro Storico.” The Porta Grande, or Main Gate, was built in the 15th century and rebuilt in 1784. There are two other entrances to the centre, Porta Piccola and Porta Nuova which was added later. The Porta Nuova, or New Gate, was built early in the 1600s to connect the original old town with the new districts that were developing to the east of the old town.
As always entering the old walled towns, which now form the historic centres, of the sometimes unappealing external areas is like walking into another world. Mesagne shines, it’s Centro Storico, elegant and simple at the same time, is immaculately clean, well maintained and full of restaurants and bars for refreshment.
We visited the Tourist Information office situated inside the castle walls. The man in charge somewhat reluctantly parted with two maps (one for each villa!) and we collected up some useful leaflets and brochures. Just inside the castle arches, you will find the Museo Archeologico (3 euro admission, closed on Mondays) where you can see remains from tombs dating from 6th to 2nd century BC, examples of pottery, coins, silver and other metal objects. There is also an underground tomb which has been rebuilt in the museum exactly as it was found when it was discovered. It was such a beautiful day that we skipped the museum in favour of a stroll through the cobbled streets of Mesagne’s historic centre, some of them so narrow you could literally touch the walls of houses on either side at the same time.
Coffee first and a review of the maps and tourist information. We had spotted La Locanda dei Messapi, mentioned in the Slow Food guide, and considered it as our lunchtime destination. However, a simple request for a recommendation for a “ristorante tipico” from our waitress pointed us in the direction of Osteria del Vicoletto. Still a little early for lunch we resumed our leisurely stroll through the centre. Mesagne was favoured by the Post-Unitarian Brigands who found shelter in many large farms. In Piazza Criscuolo you can see the icon, a fist holding a cross from which the brigands’ heads were hung after they had been caught and sentenced to death.
Like many of the towns in Puglia, Mesagne is home to many churches, making it known as the “town of the 50 churches.” On Piazza IV Novembre you will find the stunning “Chiesa Madre,” an authentic baroque jewel, inspired by the architecture of Lecce and built sometime between 1650 and 1776. “La Chiesa Saint Anna” will undoubtedly catch your eye too. Designed by a local architect, Francesco Capodiece, completed in 1699, it sits on the equally impressive baroque square, Piazza Orsini del Balzo. The Museum of Sacred Art is also located on Piazza Orsini del Balzo. Opposite the Porta Piccola is the “Chiesa di Santa Maria in Bethlehem,” another superb example of the baroque. In the 17th century, it was extended to include a monastery which is now Mesagne’s Town Hall. As you stroll the streets you will spot many of the other, smaller churches. Outside the historic centre, there are many more, the most important of which is the “Chiesa di Materdomini,” whose impressive dome rises over the town.
And so, onto lunch. We traced our steps back to the Porta Grande. Just inside the gate, a little off to one side, on Vico Quercia we found our recommended restaurant, Osteria del Vicoletto. We were the first customers that day and the waiter made us very welcome. A small restaurant with beautiful vaulted ceilings, flagged floors and a bar made from what appear to be Leccese stone blocks, it definitely fits the bill. Welcomed with a complimentary glass of prosecco and bruschetta we were relaxed from the beginning.Antipasti della Casa (one for two was more than enough), a plate of layered rice, potatoes and mussels for me, orecchiette with a good ragu for Bob, fish for the main course. All were excellent and I even managed a dessert. Total cost, including wine, 52 euros. Definitely impressive, welcoming, good food, good service, great ambience all at a reasonable price.
Over the years since then, we have been back to the Osteria del Vicoletto on many occasions, It never disappoints and is highly recommended.