Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

© Jeff Matthews           Entry Mar 6 2016   

The WWF Oasis of Le Cesine & the Masseria

The World Wildlife Fund Oasis (WWF) of Le Cesine (pictured, left) is a state nature reserve in the Puglia region of Italy (darkened in the map), in the province of Lecce and within the city limits of Venola. It is a 380 hectare/940 acre strip of wetland on the Adriatic coast; the town of Acaya is inland, 5 km away; the city of Lecce is inland, 15 km away, and the city of Otranto is 25 km to the south on the coast. The Oasis is almost at the bottom of the heel of the "boot" of Italy; if you're in good shape, you can wade out and swim to Albania, a mere 80 km to the east. The area of the WWF Oasis is reclaimed land from what once was one of the last areas of uninhabitable and unhealthy coastal swamp between Otranto and Brindisi, also on the coast and, as the crow flies, 65 km/40 miles to the north.   (photo - Biaggio Zanon)

The key words here are reclamation and wetland. Reclaiming the swamp was considered in the early 1800s, but it never happened. The reclamation project started after WWII in the 1950s. The conversion of swamp to wetland was a large undertaking and entailed (1) channeling brackish water out to sea and keeping it out, and (2) digging wells to let fresh water seep up from the acquifier to nourish all the newly planted trees (including stands of Mediterraean pine and Maquis shrub (macchia mediterranea in Italian) and to fill some lake areas. By 1971 the ex-swamp/homeland of the deadly Anopheles mosquito was declared a “wetland of international interest; by 1979, it was a “European Special Protection Zone” because of the vast amount of flora and fauna. (It is a birdwatchers' paradise, with at least two dozen species at last count, including the common pochard, a diving duck, the symbol of the Oasis. There are turtles and lizards and frogs [Oh my!] and foxes, badgers and hedgehogs. It was made an Italian State Nature Reserve and is now run by the WWF There are nature trails for you to follow, guided tours, and visitors are welcome all year round. It's a big success story.

On the premises of the Oasis stands the "Masseria". (A fortification. There is an entry on these and other kinds of fortifications at this link. From that entry, here is the relevant passage:

...The Aragonese and then the Spanish broke feudalism in the south in the late 1400s through the 1600s by forcing the barons and lords of the castles in the outback to move in closer to the city (Naples). There then arose the need for a new kind of fortification for those left behind, those who cultivated the land and who were now left without feudal protection against...banditry. If you unprotected piece of land...roving bands of outlaws could simply take your money and your life... In Italian, there are two terms: casale and masseria. They both mean small groups of houses protected by a tower on a large tract of farmland. Casale is the older term; masseria is more recent and, in technical usage, means more rural...[these structures] were “castles” in the technical sense: you could withdraw within and defend; they were forts as well as living quarters for the defenders —not soldiers, mind you, but well-armed citizens...

The masseria of Cesine (pictured, right) goes back to the 1500s. It is probably somewhat of a misnomer to call it a masseria because it did not start out as a protected farmhouse as the above description implies. Indeed, it was originally a military fortification to guard that part of the coast from pirate raiders, the Saracens. The fort was in communication with similar installations along the coast. It was however largely self-sufficient, thus additional buildings and personnel were required, so maybe "walled town" will do as a description. It was expanded upon and kept up during the period when southern Italy was a Spanish vice-realm, i.e. the 1500s and 1600s and then gradually became obsolete in the 1700s when the Bourbons took the throne of an independent kingdom of Naples and when pirate raids had largely ceased. The masseria was abandoned and left to rot out in the middle of the swamp. It is now back up and functioning as an integral part of the administration of the WWW Oasis. You can go in, get information, sign up for tours and even take part in "environmental games" (flora and fauna identification, etc.). Clearly, a success story.

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