The southern part of the Salento region in Puglia boasts some of the most dramatic and stunning landscape in southern Italy. Here, you can head to an eastern, rocky Adriatic coast beach in the morning, then head west to the mostly sandy Ionian coast for sunset and aperitivi. And this can all be done in an hour's time. The water is the gorgeous turquoise green of the Caribbean, and then gradually deepens to a royal blue found in the most pristine waters of the North Atlantic. From the eastern tip of Puglia, you can look across the Mediterranean on a clear day and see Albania. I know from experience that you can pick up their radio stations as you drive along the coast heading south.
And it's here that you hit the most easterly town in Italy, the beautiful coastal mini-city of Otranto(pronounced OH-tran-to), which abuts the water and boasts a charming harbor, the city having served as Italy's main port to the East for 1,000 years.
The beautiful seaside port belies a brutal history in the sack of Otranto in 1480, when the Turks and Venetians rushed the city with 18,000 troops and basically massacred everyone there, including the 800 survivors who were marched up a hill and beheaded for refusal to renounce their Christian faith. Some of these martyrs' remains are contained in a chapel in the nearby Cathedral. The Aragonese Castle (attributed to the 16th century Spanish) is another landmark in town that towers over the landscape. It's open for touring. Beyond this checkered history, Otranto and the Salento are lovely locales, packed with (mostly Italian) tourists and former residents-come-home in the summertime.
The beaches in this area are gorgeous and bustling, and the coastline is a dramatic and stunning scape. You can see how this was originally a Greek outpost, just from the visuals: the Cerulean waters and arid land covered with ancient, craggy olive trees as far as the eye can see. The drives along the coast to the north and south of Otranto offer some of the best beaches in Puglia -- and arguably in all of Italy. To the north, there is the Baia dei Turchi (Bay of Turks), where translucent turquoise waters from tourist posters comes to life.
Heading south, towns like Santa Cesarea Terme (home of a renowned Moorish resort) and Castro, with a small marina much like Otranto's, are worthy of stops down to the very tip of the Pugliese peninsula.
And, they're not on the typical tourist radar. There are also grottoes to be visited -- including Grotta Zinzulusa, most famously -- offering a subterranean glimpse into the rich cave formations of the region and, where there's water, an otherworldly emerald glow. The very southern tip of Puglia is capped by Capo Santa Maria di Leuca, with its lighthouse at the very end of southeastern Italian land -- and where you're only 44 miles from Albania.
As for lodging around Otranto, like in most of Puglia, the masserie reign supreme. These former working farmhouses for communal living that dot the Puglian landscape have been transformed into the area's signature B&B/hotel, most of which have a central courtyard with a pool, and a functioning restaurant on the property, which usually uses local ingredients often procured on the masseria's land, from its garden, etc.
One such lovely spot is Masseria Montelauro, originally constructed in 1878. Since then it has been a monastery, an herbal pharmacy, a restaurant -- even a discotheque. It now houses 32 rooms and suites refurbished in whitewashed Mediterranean minimalist chic, with wrought-iron beds, arched stone ceilings, flowing white curtains, and bathrooms in stone and marble.
The on-site restaurant serves three meals a day (including poolside and room service), and uses Montelauro's own olive oil, herbs, and vegetables in the cooking. The pool in the middle of it all is the perfect place to while away the morning or afternoon, and then you can take a short drive to one of the coasts for a few hours at the beach, after breakfast or post-lunch. Part of the charm of Puglia is that, though it's an ancient part of the Italian peninsula, it's not jam-packed with must-see tourist sites. There are those, of course, but it's also about getting into the Italian rhythm of life, and vacation, which is decidedly slow. You may very well finish that novel you pack.
Across the region, on the western (Ionian) coast, there is the area around Punta della Suina ("Pig's Point"), a beach in an area of nature reserve where you walk through a small pine forest to get to the waterline itself. (That's a view of Gallipoli in the distance, by the way -- we'll get there in a minute). Here at Punta della Suina, there are stabilimenti (beachside establishments that include bathrooms, bars, and often restaurants or sandwich and pizza bars, from completely informal shacks to sprawling, mod-design aperitivo magnets with full-on DJs). Here, you can rent lounge chairs and umbrellas, indulge in a salad or a panino and a glass of vino or a cocktail, if you like. It's one of the charms of the area.
There are also plenty of seaside trattorie where they serve local seafood dished up in various preparations. And this being Puglia, there is always a wealth of vegetable sides alongside the seafood stars. In short: you will not go hungry at the beach if you don't bring a picnic lunch.
Drive just north up the Ionian coast and you hit the famed town on the Golf of Taranto, Gallipoli -- which, fittingly, means "beautiful town" in Greek. The ancient city center ia an island joined by a bridge from the more modern (and much less interesting) part of town. The historic quarter is relentlessly charming, extremely photogenic, and definitely a must-see on any trip to the southern Salento.
The perimeter of the old city is lined with sea walls, on top of which are perched pastel and whitewashed stucco houses, hotels, restaurants, and shops. The cobblestones streets of the old city offer much of the same: charming vicoli and back alleys from which echo the patter of sandal-clad feet, reminiscent of those historic towns of the Greek islands of Mykonos or Paros. You can linger for a serious gelato or granita, particularly at the entrance to the old city, by the port, or at
There are some very lovely and stylish retail stores, including a personal favorite, Blanc, which sells everything from furniture and home design to women's accessories -- basically what you'd want your ideal Puglian trullo to look like, with you in it. The large space also contains a super-chic cafe' and lounge within its fabulous stone walls, perfect for a coffee or cocktail post-beach. Another amazing shop is Salamastra, a store specializing in fun shoes, leather and suede wraps and skirts trimmed in what's made to look like Pugliese eyelet lace, and jewelry made from lizards skins and leather. They also feature home goods made out of local shells, nautical rope and the like, inspired by the Salentino beachy style. The three co-owners also have a store in South Beach Florida. They divide their time between the two places, which is certainly a best-of-all-worlds scenario!
As for the food, Gallipoli's port is its pride, and it's all about fresh seafood here. Fresh catches arrive in the morning and again in the late afternoon, and opposite the port on the other side of the bridge, a fish market is set up twice a day until they sell out of goods. As to be expected in these parts, there are booths set up for the sole purpose of selling ricci di mare, or sea urchin. Some are meant to be scooped out and eaten on the spot, but many sellers clean the ricci at their booth and plop the little orange sacks into seawater-filled jars to preserve them.
These are sold cheaply for about 8-10 euros per small jar. We bought a jar and I added the sea urchin at the last minute to that evening's pasta, spaghetti con le vongele (with clams) -- it was a particularly rich and delicious Pugliese version! But the fish market in general is a gorgeous spot. You can bargain for great prices on the famous local red shrimp, beautiful scampi, swordfish...on all kinds of whole fish like branzino, and for octopus, calamari, and every kind of sweet shellfish you could hope for. So much of this delicious seafood is edible without cooking -- and here in Puglia, it's often best simply sprinkled with a little sea salt and some buttery-green unfiltered Pugliese olive oil, possibly a spritz of lemon. And that's it. Simple enough to do without lighting a stove, casually sitting there on your patio or terrazza or poolside at the masseria (or ask the chef where you're staying to prep it for you!). Add a little local rose' wine, and you're set. Southern Salento style.
photo credit: M. Sweeney
For more information on locations, lodging, and activities around the region, check out:
Uggiano Localita Montelauro
Strada Provinciale 358, 73028 Otranto
+39 0836 806 203
Via XXIV Maggio, 19
Gallipoli LE, Italy
+39 0833 26349
Via Antonietta De Pace 90
73014 Gallipoli (LE)
+39 0833 261577