“Go to one of the inland towns today,” advises the burly fruit seller as he hands me a barattiere, a mixture of melon and cucumber that is native to Puglia, the region that forms the stiletto heel of the Italian boot. “The sand is blowing on both coasts today and you won’t be able to see the beautiful colors of the sea.”
The wind and the sea are constant topics of conversation in Puglia. Be it the scirocco, the hot stream from the Sahara or the tramontana, the cold draft from the Alps (not to mention the ponente or the levante), the way the wind blows determines which beach you go to and how you plan the day. Bartenders, street vendors and shop owners are quick to make up their minds on what’s in force and how best to navigate the currents.
Tonight in Lecce the tramontana takes center stage and the effect is like a fan blowing at medium speed on a quiet, hot evening. Doors of houses on the street, away from the more touristy main road, open slowly after long afternoon siestas, and none in house dresses hang up the laundry while chatting with neighbors and passers-by.
I join the evening walk known as the passeggiata, mixing with both Italian and foreign visitors, stopping at some of the city’s many churches (there are more than 40 in total) along the way. With its abundance of fine architecture and art, the city looks its best in these final hours before sunset, seemingly illuminated by a golden light from within. It is the limestone of the Salento, the southernmost area of this southernmost region, where the rock is soft and gentle to sculptors, which forms the building blocks of the architecture here. Carparo, mazzaro, pietra Leccese, tuff – each stone has a slightly different patina. Carvings give the facades a cinematic life – cherubs, lions and griffins vie for the central role, while more stately religious types such as angels and saints seem to tame their game, to no effect.
After my church hopping, I find my way to Saloon Keeper 1933, a speakeasy-style bar with craft cocktails, bearded mixologists, and mismatched furnishings. Antique rugs lie under 1920s leather armchairs and framed vintage photographs hang on the walls. But what sets it apart from a comparable spot in, say, New York or London, is that it’s right in front of the Chiesa di San Niccolò Dei Greci, a compact and still intact example of the city’s Byzantine church architecture. Locating a new generation of hospitality and entertainment outlets within a stone’s throw (and sometimes even within) some of the region’s most historic monuments and city centers is a trend throughout Puglia, but especially here in the Salento.
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I first came to Puglia in 2005 with my ex. I’ve been back a dozen times since then and fell more deeply in love with each expedition. I’m not the only one: people no longer look at me questioningly when I mention Puglia, but now have it high on their travel wish list.
Despite being connected to the rest of the country by land, it feels more like an island, with the Ionian Sea to the west and the Adriatic Sea to the east. At Santa Maria di Leuca, the Land’s End of southeastern Italy, the two waters meet.
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This part of the country has been subject to many invasions, and the castles along the coastline formed the line of defense against the Saracens, Normans, Turks and Spaniards who sometimes briefly dominated here. Now it is a softer conquest, a new generation of hotels, restaurants, bars and beach clubs opened by foreigners seduced by the area, Pugliese who want to put their region on the map, and Italians from other parts of the country seeking a new life close to the sea.
Athena McAlpine was one of the first hoteliers to take the plunge, moving here in 2002 after years of living in London. She and her husband, Alistair, opened the Monastery of Santa Maria di Costantinopoli in Marittima di Diso, transforming a former Franciscan monastery and the cells of monks into a unique hideaway with a museum-worthy collection of art and artifacts (doubles from 432 euros or about $440). Rob Potters, from Australia, made Masseria Trapana after visiting the area from Tuscany where he was a hotel consultant. He revived a dilapidated building just north of Lecce that had been uninhabited for 200 years into a bright luxury resort (doubles from 290 euros).
Former Pepsi chief executive Massimo Fasanella d’Amore di Ruffano and his partner, Diana Bianchi, renovated his family’s disused 900-year-old castle over the course of four years, exposing its 17th-century frescoes and adding a new state. the-art cooking school at the Castle of Ugento in the town of the same name in the southern part of the peninsula (doubles from 400 euros).
And then there’s the arrival of celebrities: Helen Mirren has a house in Tiggiano near Tricase, Meryl Streep has a property on the coast and Gérard Depardieu has a trail in Lecce.
“My partner Steve Riseley read about the Salento and dragged me along,” said Harvey Brown, one of the newcomers to the hotel game. “I think there’s something in the air here, an energy that makes us want to create.” The duo just opened Castle Elvira, a 37-hectare estate outside Trepuzzi near Lecce, with a castle, masseria (a stone farmhouse), cottage, ancient tower and a restaurant and bar, which also serves as Mr. Brown – he is also an artist (doubles from 299 euros).
What exactly is so tempting about the Salento, I wonder as I cross the peninsula at the end of June, shortly after getting permission to shed our pandemic masks in Italy. For starters, there’s the spectacular sea, with some of the most beautiful beaches and harbors in all of Italy. On a Saturday morning I go to the marina of Castro, one of the most atmospheric of the small rocky harbors along the Adriatic coast. I join the bodies of all shapes and sizes along the dock and rocks that provide natural diving boards into the sea to swim laps in the emerald water.
After cooling down, I drink a caffè leccese (espresso and almond milk on ice) at Ilios, a tiny bar near the fishing boats, and later eat street food-like fritto misto at the friggiotoria Porto Vecchio. Another day I meet friends on cum, a family-owned beach club near Laghi Alimini, a nature reserve north of Otranto, where a few lakes surrounded by pine forests and native vegetation are just a few steps from the sea. The club offers beach chairs and umbrellas, as well as freshly caught grilled fish and fresh local wines.
On another sunny day, this time on the west coast near Gallipoli, I watch affluent couples pop bottles of Franciacorta (Italy’s answer to champagne) as they show off their Gucci and Missoni swimsuits at Punta Suina’s G Beach Club. Throughout the week, I tick off spots for swimming, one more pristine than the next: Punta Prosciutto, Torre San Giovanni, Porto Selvaggio.
Away from the coast I ride through a landscape of stone walls and twisted olive trees past fields of long golden grass and wildflowers, the heat seems to rise through a blotchy lens. I open my window to take in the scent of the figs ripening in the sun all around me. You could drive around for a week on a route dedicated only to churches and cathedrals.
In Galatina, about 10 miles southeast of Lecce, the suburb looks unpromising, but as soon as I park and head downtown, I discover a beautiful gold-colored city with the extraordinary 14th-century Basilica di Santa Caterina d’Alessandria and its breathtaking frescoes. (The town is also home to the pasticciotto, a pastry filled with custard cream, and the bakeries with their pretty Art Deco plates look like they came straight out of a movie set). I peek at some of the dilapidated but stately palazzi for sale, before heading to the nearby town of Nardò, where churches proliferate in all directions, supported by Baroque palaces.
I have visited Otranto on almost every trip to Puglia. The UNESCO-protected town, about half an hour’s drive south of Lecce, is one of my favorites in the Salento, with its beautiful 12th-century cathedral and mosaic floor representing the “Tree of Life”. I could spend hours looking at the statues with its mythological creatures and biblical scenes. It’s also a very cool place to sit on a scorching hot day. Outside it takes a while for my eyes to adjust to the bright sun. I follow the cream-colored walls of the city, bleached by salt, and watch a football match on a small beach next to the ramparts; the tween boys celebrate every goal with a dip in the sea and jump off the rocks with the bravado of Francesco Totti, the former Roma football star. It is a moment of unbridled joy.
On my last evening, I meet Mrs. McAlpine, the hotelier, for dinner in Tricase Porto, the port outside the capital. Our first stop is Bar Mename where locals sip Aperol sprits as the DJ’s bass almost moves the seats below us. From there we move to the nearby Caffè d’Oltremare, a new arrival at the port. Here Greece meets the Salento and ouzu and local wine are served in equal measure.
Looking around the harbor and the people, Ms. McAlpine states that this is the perfect place to watch the new Salento emerge from the old and observe the tourists mingling with the locals.
“One way to think about it is the arrival of new children in the neighborhood in addition to the established, traditional haunts,” she says. “In the Porto you have the new restaurant Harbor Tavern reinterpreting classic dishes in a fresh and modern way, but you also have Bolina and Anime Sante, decades old settings. There is room for everyone.”
Then we go to Tricase, the town itself, perhaps the most beautiful in the Salento, and one of the epicenters for second homes in the region. We stop at G & Co which has won the Tre Coni award three years in a row, awarded by the Gambero Rosso food guide to the best gelaterias in the country. Even though it is midnight, people pour into Piazza Pisanelli, the main square. Bee Pharmacy Balboa 20-something, mostly foreign tourists, sipping craft cocktails as kids run wildly across the square. And perhaps that is the most important ingredient of this Salento in transition, joy in many forms.
And who doesn’t need that now?
if you go
A rental car is essential to explore the Salento. You can pick one up at any of Puglia’s airports, such as Karol Wojtyla Airport, in Bari, or Papola Casale Airport in Brindisi. There is also a high-speed train between Rome and Lecce, which takes about three hours.
You can settle in Lecce and take day trips from there, or you can live in one of the other towns of Salento. in Lecce, the Fiermontina is a cluster of carefully redesigned historic buildings converted into a boutique hotel (doubles from 320 euros). Besides the hotels mentioned above, the choices outside Lecce are the 19th century Daniele Palace in Gagliano del Capo full of contemporary art and close to some of the most spectacular beaches of Salento (doubles from 423 euros), while Presta Palace in Gallipoli has 10 rooms in the historic center of the city (doubles from 200).
The recently opened Tutino Castle is a good example of the revival of former monuments in the area: this 15th-century castle on the outskirts of Tricase now serves drinks and dinner and hosts music concerts from traditional local pizzica music to jazz.
Ondine Cohane is a regular contributor to Times Travel and co-author of National Geographic’s “Always Italy” with Frances Mayes.