This summer I took a long road trip to Southern Italy mainly to explore a land where I’ve never been before: Salento. I don’t even know where to start describing what I’ve seen. From ancient architecture to wild natural masterpieces, from culinary specialities to endless white beaches, no wonder Salento is worldwide known as one of the most beautiful areas on earth.
Where is Salento?: situated at the southern end of Apulia region, is figuratively described as the “heel of the Italian boot”.
I was hosted by my sister boyfriend’s family which really introduced me to the magical Salentine tradition. Thank you Chris, Aua, Stefano, Cristoforo and Marcella for sharing with adventure with me and showing me SO MUCH!
Ready to get lost though the olive trees’ fields with us? I’m gonna give you a little introduction about food and drinks, then I’ll move on describing some towns and places that are a total must-see. Let’s go!
FIRST STEP: EAT LIKE A LOCAL!
Here is what you cannot miss if you’re visiting Salento. I tried everything personally and I promise you it’s BOMB!
Pasticiotto leccese topped with yummy Nutella Fresh homemade pasta Spaghetti with clams
FOOD: PASTICCIOTTO LECCESE; RUSTICO: puff pastry with besciamella and tomato.; PANZEROTTO: small fried calzone; PIZZA RUSTICA: actually this is more a focaccia than a pizza; PUCCIA (with or without OLIVES): bread baked in a wood oven; RICCI DI MARE: sea urchins; FRIED FISH; SAGNE ‘NCANNULATE: a particular twisted type of pasta; FRISELLE AL POMODORO: a kind of durum wheat bread accompanied with fresh tomatoes; CONSERVA PICCANTE: spicy sauce.
WINE: Primitivo del Salento; Negramaro del Salento
COFFEE: Iced coffee with almond milk.
The white town.
San Giorgio Square, Melpignano
Melpignano is best known for hosting “Notte della Taranta” every August. The quiet town is completely invaded by people coming from all over the world to enjoy a night rich of “pizzica”, the typical music from Salento. Precisely, the concert is staged at the “Convento degli Agostiniani”.
Caffè del Parco, Melpignano
I didn’t happen to be there when the festival occured, so the atmosphere looked very calm to me. I was very impressed by all the ancient white architecture. The whole town looked like stuck in time. After having our happy hour at the super cute Caffé del Parco, we had a short walk to Piazza San Giorgio, then headed to eat some more sagne (hehehe).
Interesting fact: Melpignano is part of the “Grecia Salentina” (Salentine Greece), which is still hellenophone, so locals speak “Griko”, an Italiot Greek dialect.
Totally left my heart there. Like.. Seriously.
All times I’ve heard “Otranto” in my life I’ve always thought about “The Castle of Otranto” by Horace Walpole, first gothic book that was ever written.
Needless to say the city actually felt more like a fairy tale than a horror to me. After enjoying a stunning view from the port and watching the sun going down in the bay, we wandered through the city center’ narrow streets, which were vibrating history.
It’s difficult to talk about the city of Otranto’s atmosphere. I truly believe you gotta see it, experience it and feel it. I’m sure you’ll fall in love
The 813 martyrs of Otranto
But actually there is one “gothic” particular about this town!
The Cathedral hosts the relics of the 813 martyrs of Otranto, which refused to convert to Islam when Turks invaded the Salentine city.
Most people find this church kinda creepy but I was honestly so fascinated by it.
Puglia’s baroque masterpiece.
Also known as “The Florence of the South”, Lecce is one of the most important historical cities in Southern Italy, founded during the Roman Empire more than 2.000 years ago.
We explored the city during the afternoon, so it was CRAZY HOT. Despite the heat, I was really impressed by Lecce’s Baroque architecture: churches, palaces, houses.. Everything looked rich and so well curated. Even though I’m Italian, I’ve really admired this type of architecture anywhere else in my country.
One of the main points of interests of Lecce is the Roman amphitheater at his centre, but there are plenty of beautiful things to see. I could also find a church dedicated to Santa Irene 🙂
Travel Tip: I really suggest visiting during the evening, since the white monuments get amusingly illuminated at night.
A paradise for naturalists.
This marine protected area is part of the “Riserva Naturale Regionale della Palude del Conte e Duna Costiera”, which includes Porto Cesareo as well.
I’m not really a beach type of person, but if you are.. This is your place! White sand, uncontaminated wild nature, long long beaches, pure crystalline water.. No wonder this place has been declared “protected area”.
Since the sea’ level is nicely low, the area is ideal for families with children. The spaces are very wide so even in high season it won’t get extremely crowded. When we visited in July we were pretty much 20 people in the entire beach. Not bad!
Wanna eat fresh fish while admiring the view? Try “L’Ancora” Restaurant, right in front of the beach.
The landing of Aeneas in Italy.
Driving on the Litoranea road you’ll get to one of locals’ favorite places in the coastline: the fjord of Porto Badisco, a calm, natural harbor where inhabitants love to spend their days by the sea. Enjoy music and hand-made sandwiches at “Bar da Carlo”, tan, fish or rent a boat. Here you’ll also be able to taste some of the best sea urchins in the whole Salento.
Myth meets Reality: according to Virgil’s Aeneid, Aeneas, ancestor of Rome’s kings, was said to land here after fleeing from Troy.
The smallest district in the Lecce’s province
Giuggianello is my sister’s boyfriend hometown, so we spent quite a long time there (mostly eating yummy pasta and fresh fish…).
The olive trees’ fields Ancient Dolmen
It’s quite an ancient and mystical area, full of mysteries. The most interesting place is definitely “La collina delle ninfe e dei fanciulli”. You can get to this place driving from Giuggianello to Quattromacine.
Myth meets Reality: The legend tells that the young people of Messapia were so impudent to challenge the Nymphs, who they found dancing in the fields, claiming they danced much better than them. Furious and livid, the Nymphs transformed them in olive trees.
Here, hidden in the centuries-old olive trees’ fields, you can find the famous “Massi della Vecchia- The Old Woman’s Stones” (the national monuments “Lu Lettu te la Vecchia”,”Lu Furticiddhu te la Vecchia” and “Il piede d’Ercole”), the legendary enormous rocks.
But how did these giant megaliths get here? The rocks’ dimensions and their position made locals create myths around them which involve giants, witches and Greek Gods.
Since they are so heavy no human could drag them there, Aristotle’ myth says Hercules effortlessly tossed them there after defeating the Giants. Another legend tells that a witch (“Striara”) used to transform people in stone if they couldn’t answer her questions.
This area is also rich of Dolmen, Menhirs and Specchie, prehistoric megalithic monuments which are generally considered places of worship, even though they still maintain a very mysterious halo.
La Cutura Botanical Garden
I highly recommend visiting “La Cutura” botanical garden, one of the richest collection of mediterranean and tropical plants of Europe. The countryside estate also hosts rare examples of succulent plants, which are one of the most famous features of the garden. Enjoy walking around the holm oaks’ wood, the roses’ avenues, the aromatic plants’ gardens and much much more! My favorite spot was definitely the succulent plants’ one.
THE BAUXITE CAVE
Red dust magic
The contrast between the red ground and the green emerald water makes this place a must-see. You’ll find this little gem driving south, on the road from Otranto to Santa Cesarea.
Unfortunately this little lake is actually artificial. The cave was created in the ’90 for extracting bauxite, a mineral used to create aluminium. When the extraction operations’ ended, nature took over creating this masterpiece.
The red cave at dusk
Italy’s most east point
Punta Palascia at dawn Can you spot Albania? 🙂
Also known as “Capo D’Otranto”. Park your car at the military base and take a stroll to the lighthouse. If you look straight certain days you’ll be able to see Albania’s mountains.
The lighthouse is a great location for taking landscape pictures. Its dawn is the very “first Italian dawn” since Punta Palascia is Italy’s most east point and I very recommend getting here early in the morning to get the best shots (my pictures were taken at dawn, unfortunately).
TORRE DELL’ORSO – GROTTA DELLA POESIA
The most beautiful natural swimming pool in the world.
Nature never ceases to amaze me! This place truly is unique. Rocks naturally created a bridge which allows the water to pass under it and create a turquoise swimming pool.
I must say this cave was a little too crowded, but most of the people were actually locals. Getting down to the water is also very dangerous, since the passageway is slippery and narrow. Not the ideal location if you wanna have a relaxing afternoon, but so worth stopping by.
Didn’t get enough of Southern Italy?
Then check out these stunning 4 places I visited on my way there and back.
On our way to Salento we stopped a few days in the Gargano Promontory, better known as “Italy’s spur” which projects into the Adriatic Sea. Part of Foggia’s province, Gargano is famous for its crystalline water, its genuine people and its ancient oaks’ forest “Foresta Umbra”.
VIESTE AND PESCHICI
Situated on the Gargano Coast, Vieste and Peschici are two cities built on rocks which offer a breathtaking panorama. I could only had a glance at Peschici but I wish I could go back to stop my car in the middle of the street and take a picture (it would have been worth it).
View of Vieste Local Market in Vieste Gargano Coast, driving to Porto Selvaggio
During our stay we were hosted by a local B&B in Vieste, which was calm and welcoming. If you pass by don’t forget to eat “Orecchiette con le cime di rapa”, a typical type of pasta cooked with broccoli rabe, and to stop by the colorful local market, where locals will try to pamper and feed you with all kinds of goodies.
Beaches. Beautiful, natural, one-of-a-kind beaches. That’s why you need to visit this place. Pick one and go spend a day in paradise. I highly recommend Baia di Campi in particular!
What to see when visiting TREMITI ISLANDS
A timeless classic.
- the word “Tremiti” actually means Three Islands (San Domino, San Nicola, Capraia).
- the islands were used by Benito Mussolini during the fascist regime to intern political enemies.
- 2.000 years ago the first emperor of Rome, Augustus, exiled here his granddaughter Julia.
- They used to be called Insulae Diomedae, in honor of the greek hero Diomedes.
After a short ferry ride from Vieste, we got on an organized tour of the Islands so we could admire all the natural rocky masterpieces. I cannot tell if I was more impressed by the coves and grottoes, indescribably stunning, or the rocks themselves, which in this island assume the most unique forms. The famous “Scoglio dell’Elefante” (Elephant’s Rock) totally resembles the animal’s shape.
Pretty cliché but… I jumped in the sea during the tour to see Padre Pio’s underwater statue as all the other tourists 😀 I was just too curious.
I suggest bringing an underwater camera to explore the marine reserve if you can: the sea bottom is full of beautiful protected species.
View from San Nicola Island
After the tour we went roaming through the crumbling island of San Nicola’s streets, from where we could admire a beautiful view of San Domino (main island of the archipelago).
On a negative note the only sand beach the Islands have was ridiculously crowded. No fun. I had to sit and read my Harry Potter IN THE WATER cause I couldn’t find a spot on the sand. I had sea stars all around me though.. so that made it easier 🙂
POLIGNANO A MARE
So one of my American friends hit me up when he found out I was on a road trip in Puglia writing “You are obviously going to Polignano a Mare.. right?”. So I googled “Polignano”, and after seeing some pictures I immediately headed down there. Here is what I found:
I’ve never seen anything like this in my entire life. I’m obsessed with Cinque Terre (my favorite place in the world), but this was so close to get the #1 place in my heart. I mean.. Look at this!
Polignano has the unsual (and pretty) characteristic to be all full of writings. The poet Guido “il flâuner” is at fault. Driven by the desire of sharing with new generations the ancient’ novels and poetries beauty, he started writing and painting the whole city with quotes, which became one of the most famous features of Polignano.
By the sea you’ll also find a statue of the singer Domenico Modugno (“Voooo-laaaa-reee.. Oooh Oooh”.. #TypicalItalianClichè): Polignano was his hometown.
THE SASSI OF MATERA (BASILICATA)
The Subterrean City
To end my trip with a bang (per chiudere in bellezza) I stopped by the city of Matera.
Built in the Paleolithic and massively developed throughout the whole Roman Empire era, Matera was considered a very poor area (high infant mortality, illnesses, people living without electricity or running water), a real shame for Italy.
Over time the living conditions got much better, tourism got bigger and Matera was declared UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993 and European Capital for Culture for 2019.
Since Matera lies on a canyon carved out by the river Gravina, it has become a popular destination for archeo-trekking as well.
After having breakfast with this very impressive view, we roamed through the labyrinth of stoned staircases and narrow streets in the Old Town’s heart. The caves have been transformed in restaurants, bars, hotels. I wish I could stay here much longer.
Curious fact: for its particular characteristics the city has been chosen for countless movie sets, especially with a religious theme, as Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ.
THAT’S ALL FOLKS (actually.. that was a lot, so thanks for reading)!
Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to visit Leuca, Gallipoli (which I heard it’s great for ya’ll party people), Ostuni, Alberobello and many other places.. It was my first time visiting Puglia and I’m sure I’ll go back soon.
I hope the guide was exhaustive and useful! If you liked it, don’t forget to like and share 🙂 Thanks to my beautiful sister for helping me get some of the shots!