Sticking with the Puglia theme of late…The Salentine Peninsula in Puglia (Apulia) forms the heel of Italy’s boot. Known as Salento, it is touched by two seas, the Adriatic and Ionian. There are three main towns that make practical bases for exploring the region: Lecce, Otranto, and Gallipoli. All are bustling in the summers, hosting popular and religious festivals. Of these, only Lecce really remains open year-round, the others grinding to a halt by November.
The best way to see Salento, regardless of the season, is to follow the litoranea (coastal road) clockwise, beginning near Lecce on the Adriatic coast and ending at Gallipoli on the Ionian coast for sunset. Just 10 km southeast of Lecce and situated right on the sea, San Cataldo swells in the summertime. Its sidewalk cafes are a popular destination in the evenings, but be sure to make it there during the day, ideally around breakfast time when Pasticceria Nobili serves hot pasticciotti (individual custard pies) to clamoring locals. Further south along the Coast is Roca Vecchia were ruins of a Roman port are currently under excavation. Just beside this is the Grotta della Poesia, a small grotto where bathers gather in the crystal waters. After a swim, pastries at Dentoni in Torre dell’Orso are in order. The mustaccioli, honey, almond, and spice cookies, are beyond compare.
Back on the road heading south, there is Sant’Andrea, a tiny fishing settlement with a series of eroded limestone outcroppings in the sea. Next is Otranto with its beautiful mixture of medieval, Renaissance and Baroque architecture. If you can find it (signage is a bit sketchy), Orte is a beautiful place to stop for a dip. The beaches aren’t accessible by car, necessitating a long walk through a pine forrest to reach the rocky shores.
Further south, the Grotta della Zinzalusa, just beyond Santa Cesarea Terme, is a fascinating natural wonder. The caverns are filled with stalactites and stalagmites and a variety of rare flora and fauna. Stop for lunch at one of the dozens of fish restaurants on the road between Castro, Tricase and Novaglia. Keep a look out for kiosks advertising “ricci”, fresh sea urchin roe served on the half-shell.
The last town on the Adriatic coast is Capo Santa Maria di Leuca, which claims to be the “end of the world”, or at least the southernmost part of Puglia. That title actually goes to nearby Punta Ristola but Leucans are insistent. The sanctuary of Santa Maria di Leuca, or Finibus Terrae, is more interesting outside than it is within where there are views over the town’s port and the sea where the Adriatic and Ionian run together.
The waters of Salento’s Ionian coast feature a spectrum of greens and blues. The coastline is punctuated with defensive towers, a reminder of how frequently the peninsula was the object of conquest. Time permitting, head to the sandy beaches at Torre San Giovanni, Torre Mossa, Torre Pali or Torre Vado before reaching Gallipoli for sunset.