So, what do you do when you have 4 days out of the office and you need a break from it all, with sea, sunshine, good food and amazing scenery? You head south, of course! And this time I chose to venture to the heel of the country: Salento.
As a newbie traveller in this region, my good friend Daniele, a born and bread Salentine, gave me some precious tips on how to fully enjoy my limited time in this part of Puglia and guys, what a fantastic trip!
I landed in Brindisi late on a Wednesday night and used a super handy shared shuttle bus service to reach Salento’s main city, Lecce, that I chose as the base for exploring the region. Here’s a summary of my itinerary…
Day 1: Lecce
My first day in Salento started with a yummy breakfast of pasticciotti, the baked pastries filled with cream or chocolate typical of this area (try those with cream and black cherries, just trust me..), enjoyed under the warm morning sun.
I then head off to explore Lecce’s historic center. No wonder that the travel guide defines this city as a Baroque jewel – everywhere I looked I saw cream-colored palazzi and churches with elaborately carved facades representing cherubs, gargoyles and other fascinating creatures… I simply couldn’t stop taking pictures!
Highlights include Piazza del Duomo (dominated by the 12th century cathedral and 68m‑high bell tower), Piazza S. Oronzo (the heart of the city, with the amazing Roman amphitheater that remained buried under the city until its discovery in the 20th century), the stunning facade of Basilica di Santa Croce, and the three gates of the city (Napoli, Rudie, San Biagio).
Besides being an artistic jewel, Lecce is also a crafty creative hub with incredibly talented artisans who use cartapesta (papier-mâché), terracotta and the local stone pietra leccese to createunique pieces of art. Needless to say, browsing the many workshops dotting the streets of the historic centre is a must-do!
Dinner turned out to be a hearty aperitivo with local delicacies including fava bean puree with chicory, cheeses, cured meats and taralli, all washed down with an excellent Negroamaro wine, in the lovely deli La Bottega del Corso, followed by an evening passeggiata through Lecce’s beautiful piazzas. This is possibly the most fascinating time of the day, with locals filling the streets and all the beautiful buildings illuminated by a soft golden light, creating a festive and romantic atmosphere.
Day 2: the Adriatic coast
On Friday I rented a car and head to San Cataldo, from where I started my descent into the heart of Salento. This stretch of Adriatic coast towards Otranto has an incredibly beautiful landscape and makes for a great road trip, driving with windows open to breathe in the amazing scent of the sea and the Mediterranean vegetation… simply perfect! Beaches here are mainly rocky, with cliffs overlooking the infinite shades of blue in the sea. My first stop is at Grotta della Poesia (Cave of Poetry), in the small town of Roca, between San Foca and Torre Dell’Orso. This is an enchanting natural pool with crystal-clear waters, caves and grottos. It took me a while to find this place, as it’s not very well signposted, so just ask locals for directions – you have to see it!
After a refreshing swim, I took the car back to the road and reached Otranto, Italy’s easternmost town and certainly one of Puglia’s most charming spots. The old town is perched on a hill overlooking the Adriatic sea, surrounded by the fortified walls erected in the 15th century to protect the town against the Saracens. I started my exploration from the Aragonese castle that sits at the entrance of the old town, but to be honest I wasn’t particularly impressed – nowadays the place is mainly used for events and exhibitions and there’s not much to see – or at least there wasn’t when I was there.
I then spent a good couple of hours strolling around the maze of narrow streets and passages, browsing shops and simply enjoying the spectacular views offered by the scenic waterfront square – on a clear day you can even catch glimpses of the Albanian mountains from here!
Absolute highlights are the 11th-century Cathedral of Santa Maria Annunziata, with its amazing mosaic floor representing the tree of life and the chapel containing the relics of 800 locals beheaded in the 15th century, as well as the lovely little Church of San Pietro with its stunning Byzantine frescos.
On the road from Otranto to Santa Cesarea (my next stop), I managed to find the old bauxite quarry I often heard about. This is a disused mining cave which has become a fascinating natural spot in the area, with its strong color contrast between the bright green water of the pond and the deep red of the rocks surrounding it – quite a change of landscape compared to what I’d been used to until now and definitely a must see.
About 16 km south of Otranto lies the pretty resort town of Santa Cesarea, famous for its thermal springs and the unique moorish architecture of its beautiful villas. I had a stroll along the main street but it felt rather quiet and there weren’t many people around, but then I guess they were all busy enjoying some spa treatments!
Continuing south, I visited Castro, another pretty coastal town washed by turquoise waters, and then I stopped at Maglie, the birthplace of Aldo Moro (the Italian politician murdered by the Red Brigade terrorists in 1978) for a stroll around its elegant historic center before returning to Lecce.
Day 3: the Ionian coast
On Saturday I continued my exploration of Salento focusing on the Ionian coast. I first drove to Porto Cesareo, a tiny seaside resort with beautiful sandy beaches and pristine waters, which was declared a protected marine area in 1997. There’s a small harbor overlooking a series of islets, the biggest being Rabbit Island (so called because rabbits used to be bred there in the past), which can easily be reached by swimming or with a short boat ride. I took a stroll around the town centre and grabbed a gelato at the bar “Il Principe” on the seafront, near the statue of the Italian actress Manuela Arcuri, erected in 2002 as a symbol of beauty and prosperity. I then continued driving southbound towards Gallipoli.
The coast on this side of Salento is dotted with watchtowers built in ancient times to defend the territory against the Saracens and Turkish assaults, and makes for another great road trip. My next stop was Torre Uluzzo and more specifically Fico d’India, a pub literally in the middle of nowhere where you can enjoy a cold beer surrounded by a spectacular natural landscape. Don’t expect fancy tables and sophisticated food here, but do expect some of the most fascinating views of Salento, especially at sunset. From Torre Uluzzo it is possible to walk through an enchanted forest of pine and eucalyptus till Porto Selvaggio bay, a protected area with crystal blue waters and a rocky seabed perfect for divers.
About 17 km further south there’s the beautiful town of Gallipoli. I parked the car at the port and walked to the old town which sits on an islet connected to the mainland through a bridge and, like Otranto, is surrounded by old fortified walls. I visited the Castle, with an interesting itinerary that retraces the town’s history, the 17th-century Cathedral of Sant’Agata, and the Church of San Francesco d’Assisi, with the wooden statue of the ‘Malladrone’ the bad thief crucified next to Jesus, that the Italian poet D’Annunzio described as a masterpiece of “hideous beauty” in one of his poems. While browsing the many little streets of the historic centre, I also stumbled upon the Frantoio Ipogeo, an old underground olive oil mill where you can see and learn how oil was produced in the past.
After a delicious meal of orecchiette al sugo (handmade pasta in the shape of ‘little ears’ cooked with fresh tomatoes sauce) in one of the pretty trattorias lining the seafront, I spent the rest of the afternoon at Spiaggia della Purità, a long stretch of crescent-shaped beach along the old town, where I didn’t do anything but lying on the soft sand and soaking up the warm sun…moments of sheer pleasure!
The drive back to Lecce is pretty quick and I arrived just in time for a drink at the lovely La Bambola di Kafka, an amazing second-hand bookshop on via Palmieri that serves also wines…my idea of paradise!
Day 4: time to go home
My flight is in the afternoon so I decided to spend the last few hours here simply strolling around Lecce’s historic centre one last time. It’s Sunday morning, not many tourists are around yet and I have the town all to myself.
It’s been a packed few days but I feel so refreshed and relaxed. Salento is good for the soul and on the way to the airport I cant’t stop smiling at the thought of all the beautiful places I managed to see – an enchanted piece of Italy that has nothing to envy to the more exotic locations we often prefer to travel to.
Useful tips for Salento
If you arrive late at night like I did, you can use this shared shuttle bus service that takes you right in front of your hotel in Lecce. Alternatively, here you can find the timetable of the standard bus service. Renting a car is the best way to explore the region but if you don’t feel comfortable driving then take a look at the train lines and bus routes to get an idea of where you can go using public transports.
I stayed at La Bella Lecce Apartments, which proved to be the perfect base for this trip – only 100 mt from Porta Napoli, super clean and comfortable rooms, free parking space around the area and a 5-star staff. They also have a lovely B&B inside Lecce’s historic centre.
I found some beautiful cartapesta jewelry at Tonda Design, and I also bought handmade terracotta bowls at Artego. Both shops are in Lecce’s historic centre, on via Palmieri, the street in front of the Dome.
Salento is pretty much an all-year-around destination but I strongly recommend avoiding the summer months, when every single town and village fill up with crowds of holidaymakers. Late spring and early autumn are perhaps the best time to fully enjoy Salento and as I said, don’t worry about the weather – people here swim in the sea even in November!