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Discovering Galatina: A Little Italian Town With a Lot of Tradition

March 31, 2018
Baroque balcony in Galatina

How we discovered Galatina is a bit embarrassing to explain but here we go…

When a friend suggested we stop here on a recent road trip through Puglia, we learned that this town was known as the home of pasticciotti—buttery, custard-filled pastries popular among Italians.

Pasticciotto, a popular Italian pastry born in Galatina

Pasticciotto, a popular Italian pastry born in Galatina

Legend has it that the same bakery in Galatina where the pastry was first created still produces the sweet treat for the Vatican. The pastry (and its reputation) has even made its way across the Atlantic, embraced by many Italian-Americans.

So we didn’t require too much coaxing to decide to make a detour to Galatina for an afternoon snack.

But we lost our appetite

Upon arriving at Piazza S. Pietro—the main square in the town’s historic center—we totally forgot the raison d’être for our visit and got lost in the charm of the city. We wandered through uncrowded streets and marveled at the ornate Baroque architecture, seemingly unscathed by time.

Baroque balcony in Galatina

Baroque balcony in Galatina

Ornate stone doorway in Galatina

Ornate stone doorway in Galatina

We peeked into gated central courtyards of old palazzos (noble palaces) and admired the stonework, intricate doorframes and balconies with ornamental ironwork. The streets and numerous piazzas (squares) seemed woven together by a maze of winding alleys.

A quiet street in Galatina

A quiet street in Galatina

Another inviting street in Galatina

Another inviting street in Galatina

Torre dell'Orologio, the clock tower in Galatina

Torre dell’Orologio, the clock tower in Galatina

The commune (town) of Galatina was delightfully small and walkable. We accidentally found a storefront at the Palazzo Orsini (first built in the 1300s, and now the Town Hall) housing the local pro bono (volunteer) tourist office and stopped in to pick up a map of the city. When we had trouble communicating in Italian, Betty, an enthusiastic, English-speaking local with a blue streak in her hair (and great sense of humor) approached and told us she worked part-time for the office.

Betty Cantaldo, our new-found friend in Galatina

Betty Contaldo, our new-found friend in Galatina

Although our visit was spur-of-the-moment, she apologized for having to pick her son up from school and asked us to meet her in a half hour so she could show us around the place where she was born and lived most of her life—a place that seemed oddly devoid of many tourists. Granted, it was off-season.

Visiting the Mother Church

Galatina is located in the province of Lecce, about 14 miles south of the larger city of Lecce, about 30 minutes away by train.

Before the unification of Italy, Galatina was named San Pietro in recognition of St. Peter’s stop here on his way to Rome. Once an entirely walled city, three portas (gates) remain standing.

While waiting for our appointment with Betty, we entered the imposing Chiesa Madre dei Santi Pietro e Paolo, the mother church of the city. Originally built in 1633, the church underwent several phases of reconstruction and renovation over centuries.

Chiesa Madre dei Santi Pietro e Paolo in Galatina

Chiesa Madre dei Santi Pietro e Paolo in Galatina

Look up at the vaulted ceiling of Chiesa Madre dei Santi Pietro e Paolo in Galatina

Look up at the vaulted ceiling of Chiesa Madre dei Santi Pietro e Paolo in Galatina

Its appealing façade complements the Baroque style of many other buildings around the town. Inside, the church is divided into three naves, separated by beautiful arches sitting upon marble pillars. The paintings and sculptures date back to the 16th and 17th centuries.

Entering the Basilica di Santa Catarina d’Alessandria

Our newfound, very warm, blue-streaked friend implored us to join her for a quick espresso at a nearby bar to meet some of her colleagues and city officials.

Then she told us that she arranged for the museum director of the Basilica di Santa Catarina d’Allessandria—the jewel of Galatina’s crown (declared a national monument in 1870)–to tour us through the basilica. She explained that the art there has been said to rival that of the Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi.

Construction of the church that has both Romanesque and Gothic elements started in the late 1300s to guard a sacred relic, the finger of St. Catherine of Alexandria. With a central rose window outside, there’s enough gold and precious art inside to make you feel that you are in a museum rather than a church. We were dazzled by frescoes painted by disciples of Giotto; Betty explained that these representations were a “poor man’s Bible” before the citizenry of Galatina could read.

We visited the adjoining frescoed cloister and the refectory, now a museum with an Arabesque ceiling that houses many other artistic, historical and cultural riches of the church.

Arabesque ceiling in the Basilica di Santa Catarina d’Allessandria in Galatina

Arabesque ceiling in the Basilica di Santa Catarina d’Allessandria in Galatina

Catherine's finger and other relics in the museum in Galatina

Catherine’s finger and other relics in the museum in Galatina

Pasticceria Andrea Ascalone: Home of the Pasticciotto

Before leaving, our last stop, of course, was at our intended destination. Pasticceria Andrea Ascalone has been operating in the same spot since 1785 with antique furnishings, tatted lace curtains and red brocade wallpaper that date its long history.

Modest stop window at Pasticceria Andrea Ascalone in Galatina

Modest shop window at Pasticceria Andrea Ascalone in Galatina belies what waits inside

We ordered some pasticciotto and other cookies, and bit into one of the warm pastries before we made our way to pay for them. With a recipe handed down generation to generation over three centuries, the pasticciotto was delectable, crisply baked on the outside with a luscious cream filling. Later in our trip, we ordered them in other towns but the “me-toos” never reached the standards of the Galatina original.

Pastries at Pasticceria Andrea Ascalone in Galatina

Pastries at Pasticceria Andrea Ascalone in Galatina

Galatina’s curious link to tarantism 

The tarantella is a lively, peasant folk dance that emanated in southern Italy. But it was in Galantina where an unusual ritual called “tarantismo” was practiced. Victims of tarantula bites who were poisoned by the spider would begin convulsing.

1846 picture of Italian women dancing the tarantella (Credit: Wikipedia)

1846 picture of Italian women dancing the tarantella (Credit: Wikipedia)

Many would come to a small chapel in Galatina, Saint Paul Chapel, to drink medicinal waters and ask for grace. Dancing the tarantella (which caused a great deal of perspiration) was purported to cure the delirium. The town still holds a festival in late June each year celebrating the ritual of tarantism with music and joyous dancing.

Under-the-radar Galatina

A frescoed niche on a street in Galatina

A frescoed niche on a street in Galatina

Arriving with few expectations, we learned there’s more than meets the eye in Galatina: A nice mix of art, architecture, history, and tradition. Moreover, restaurants, boutique hotels and B&Bs await discovery along with a friendly populace that welcomes outsiders.

Chiesa Madre dei Santi Pietro e Paolo in Galatina, at night

Chiesa Madre dei Santi Pietro e Paolo in Galatina, at night

Galatina seems to sit in the shadow of another Baroque beauty, Lecce, a larger and better-known city that has a population almost four times that of Galatina. But we preferred the authenticity of a place still without its own website—with fewer tourists, less traffic, and less graffiti—where life moves a bit more slowly.


IF YOU GO

Galatina Tourism, Casa del Turista, Via Umberto I, 36

Email: iat.galatina@gmail.com


Travel Tips

  • Galatina is conveniently located to visit Lecce and some of Puglia’s coastal villages on the Adriatic.
  • As is common in most towns in southern Italy, restaurants and shops (including the bakery) close during the middle of the day so plan your schedule accordingly.
  • In smaller towns in the south, you may have more difficulty finding English-speaking shopkeepers.
  • You’ll find good value in accommodations in Galatina.

All photo credits (unless otherwise noted): Jerome Levine

  • Reply
    alessandro de pascalis
    April 1, 2018 at 6:41 am

    Bellissima presentazione della città di Galatina ma a mio avviso avrebbe dovuto inserire visto che ha menzionato il culto del tarantismo, la chiesetta di San Paolo nonchè il pozzo di San Paolo. Se poi vuole che le indichi un posto dove pranzare e cenare sicuramente Anima & Cuore che si trova nel palazzo Tondi Vignola del 1700 con mosaico e volte decorate.

    Translation: Beautiful presentation of the city of Galatina but in my opinion it should have included since he mentioned the cult of tarantismo, the church of San Paolo as well as the well of San Paolo. Then if you want me to show you a place to have lunch and dinner surely Anima & Heart located in the Tondi Vignola palace of 1700 with mosaic and decorated vaults.

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      April 1, 2018 at 9:29 am

      Hi Alessandro
      Thanks for your excellent comment and suggestions. I hope to return to Galatina and spend more time learning about and exploring the beauties of your city, including a meal at Anima & Cuore!
      Grazie, Irene

      • Reply
        alessandro de pascalis
        April 2, 2018 at 6:36 am

        Grazie a te Irene, sarà un piacere per me se mi comunicherai il tuo ritorno a Galatina via email a info@animaecuore.it farti visitare il palazzo tondi vignola, il museo della taranta e la chiesetta della taranta di San Paolo con il pozzo dei miracoli. Nonché portarti a visitare Corte vinella con la leggenda del cavaliere senza testa.
        A presto

        In English: Thanks to you Irene, it will be a pleasure for me if you tell me your return to Galatina by email to info@animaecuore.it to visit the tondi vignola palace, the museum of taranta and the church of taranta of San Paolo with the well of miracles . As well as take you to visit Corte vinella with the legend of the headless knight.
        See you soon

        • Irene S. Levine
          Reply
          Irene S. Levine
          April 2, 2018 at 9:07 am

          Thanks for your kind invitation! I hope to return again soon~

  • Reply
    Lauren M
    April 2, 2018 at 2:36 am

    Enchanting place! Wonderful description and great photos!

  • Reply
    Cindy
    April 2, 2018 at 2:34 pm

    Galatina sounds absolutely wonderful! And what could be better evidence of that then the fact that you forgot all about your reason for going there once you arrived. Now that’s a great distraction! (Or, at least, it would be for me, as it would take a lot to distract me from delicious treats!)

  • Reply
    Karen Warren
    April 4, 2018 at 7:48 am

    I always love to read about a place in Italy that I didn’t already know about! Puglia is relatively neglected by tourists but even small places like Galantina are full of amazing buildings and art treasures that would be envied by lots of bigger cities elsewhere.

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      April 4, 2018 at 8:08 am

      Once you’ve ht the big ones, my preference in Italy is always for digging deeper into the smaller towns and cities.

  • Reply
    Carol
    April 4, 2018 at 10:13 am

    Engaging piece about a town that does not even have a website. I would love to taste that pasticiotto and witness tarantismo. Thanks.

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      April 4, 2018 at 3:16 pm

      It’s always exciting to stumble on a little place that isn’t typically on the tourist’s radar!

  • Reply
    Kemkem
    April 4, 2018 at 1:22 pm

    This is so interesting. I asked my husband if he’d every had any pasticciotti and he’d never heard of it. I guess it’s not Roman. Now, l tell him next time we visit his family, we need to make a side trip Puglia way as l’d be curious to taste it :-). Thanks for sharing.

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      April 4, 2018 at 3:16 pm

      Definitely worth a taste but caution: It may be addictive:-)

  • Reply
    Debbra Dunning Brouillette
    April 4, 2018 at 2:54 pm

    I’ll take a pasticciotto…but hold the tarantula! Now I have more reasons to have a desire to visit Italy after reading your post and drooling over the photos!

  • Reply
    Patti Morrow
    April 4, 2018 at 8:20 pm

    I love the narrow, cobblestone alleys in Galatina. And I’d love to try a pasticciotto. Or maybe two.

  • Reply
    michele h peterson
    April 5, 2018 at 7:11 am

    What a serendipitous discovery! Galantina sounds like a wonderful town with much to offer. The Arabesque ceiling is quite spectacular.

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      April 5, 2018 at 11:07 am

      And I’m kicking myself for not taking a video in the Cathedral but perhaps it wouldn’t have been allowed:-(

  • Reply
    Doreen Pendgracs
    April 5, 2018 at 3:11 pm

    The ceiling of Chiesa Madre dei Santi Pietro e Paolo loos amazing! Thx so much for giving us this tour of Galatina, Irene. I’d not heard of this destination before.

  • Reply
    Marilyn Jones
    April 6, 2018 at 11:30 am

    Galatina was a treasure for you to discover. I so enjoy finding off-the-tourist-radar locations. And wow what a find! I really enjoyed reading about your experiences and your photos excellently illustrate what your experienced!! I want to go back to Italy!!!

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      April 6, 2018 at 11:37 am

      Italy is one of my favorite places ever!:-) Every time I leave, I want to go back.

  • Reply
    Lisa Chavis
    April 7, 2018 at 10:51 am

    Having a guide like Betty is absolutely priceless! I love her enthusiasm! I’ll have to admit, I hadn’t heard much about Galantina before this post, but your gorgeous photos now make me want to visit. Thanks so much for sharing the delicious goodies – and the fun!

  • Irene S. Levine
    Reply
    Irene S. Levine
    April 7, 2018 at 3:17 pm

    Yes, having a guide can make a visit so much richer, especially one like Betty!

  • Reply
    Jackie Smith
    April 9, 2018 at 1:07 am

    Well, if I had brought my travel journals to Greece, I’d be thumbing through them as I think we’ve stayed here! Whatever the case, you made us think a return to Italy is in the near future!!

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      April 9, 2018 at 10:16 pm

      One of the virtues of blogging is being to keep an “online diary” of many of your travels! Like you, however, it seems like there isn’t always time to document every experience, even very good ones!

  • Reply
    Jim Cullingford
    October 17, 2018 at 9:08 am

    Irene, a lovely write up of beautiful Galatina. I fell in love with Galatina on the UK TV show, A Place in the Sun, 12 years ago when we bought our gorgeous 16th century apartment in the old town. There are too many wonderful cafes and places to mention but you’ve definitely captured the magic and authenticity of this little known gem of a place! Anima e Cuore mentioned above is a favourite. The Gelato at Eros is the best I’ve ever tasted. And then there’s the other regional speciality … Rustico! Heaven Heaven Heaven. I’m in two minds … should I embarrass myself ….. aaaah, what the heck, the TV show can be found here (if you’re interested): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Fa1Py_JPbs

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      October 18, 2018 at 8:49 am

      Thanks for your comment and the YouTube link (in which you star!), which I enjoyed watching. How lovely that you found an apartment to enjoy in Galatina! Did your getaway live up to all your expectations?

      • Reply
        Jim Cullingford
        October 18, 2018 at 9:54 am

        Ssooooooo much. I’m thinking of visiting for New Year (I’ve never seen Galatina at Christmas or New Year, but then I’d never been to the fabulous feste della taranta in June before last year either). The apartment is perfect … steeped in history, located perfectly and incredibly romantic … I probably sound biased but I wouldn’t change a thing about it!

        • Reply
          Jim Cullingford
          October 18, 2018 at 9:58 am

          If anyone is interested in seeing how it finished up looking (when we were on the show it was in need of renovation) …. https://www.homeaway.co.uk/p89993 or http://www.escapetoitaly.co.uk. <3

        • Irene S. Levine
          Reply
          Irene S. Levine
          October 18, 2018 at 9:58 am

          And I’m curious. How did the financial partnership work out?

          • Jim Cullingford
            October 18, 2018 at 4:51 pm

            Perfect. With trust, we just split everything. Paul actually moved out there for a couple of years, helped maange the place and made contacts. It was life changing for him …. I’ve not yet worked out how to escape the rat race … but at least I have my perfect little get-away for when it all gets a bit much! 🙂

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