Postcards from Italy
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Il Salento: Italy's Southern Surprise

When travelers picture Puglia, they really only conjure up two relatively small areas in this vast region at the southeastern corner of Italy: la Valle d'Itria, dotted with the conical-roofed, whitewashed houses which would look more at home in Middle-earth than they do in the Mediterranean, and, directly to its south, il Salento, the narrow peninsula that makes up the “heel” of Italy's “boot”.

salento-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Though il Salento - and Puglia in general - can certainly not be considered “undiscovered", this narrow tongue of land lapped by the Adriatic Sea to the east and the Ionian Sea to the west is nowhere near as invaded by international tourists as more famous areas like Chianti and the Amalfi Coast, so a visit here still retains a bit of an adventurous feel. You will not find many menus printed in English, and the small towns and provincial cities have an authentic, lived-in atmosphere that many hilltowns in central Italy have lost.

salento-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

That said, il Salento is no longer as far under the radar as it once was. Puglia is showing up on more and more travel itineraries, which is no surprise to anyone who has visited here and delighted in the excellent cuisine, lovely cities, gorgeous coastline, and warm and welcoming locals. Here are a few reasons you should consider a visit on your next trip to Italy:

Baroque Splendor


Il Salento's main city of Lecce is often called “the Florence of the south”, which is a bit of an exaggeration. But to say that Lecce is a Baroque jewel is not stretching the truth, and the ornate sophistication and elegance of this town's historic center almost entirely constructed of a warm, cream-colored local stone is as memorable as that of Florence.

lecce-night-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Though the city has Roman roots (indeed, the remains of an amphitheater dating from the 2nd century BC and rediscovered in the 20th century fill much of the central Piazza Sant'Oronzo), it was the Baroque makeover in the 17th century that earned the city its place in the annals of art and architecture. The facades of the stately Duomo, the stunning Basilica di Santa Croce, and the Norman Church of Saints Niccolo’ and Cataldo are considered some of the finest examples of Italianate Baroque still standing.

Though visitors stop in Lecce for the culture, they stay for the atmosphere. A quintessentially southern Italian town with a historic center full of bustling piazzas and palazzi-lined streets perfect for a passeggiata and a stop for a leisurely caffè at a sidewalk table, Lecce seems to offer the perfect pace of life.

Small Town Authenticity


Lecce may be il Salento's crown jewel, but it is surrounded by a number of smaller gems just as lovely, with a less sophisticated feel. Almost as beautiful as the towns themselves are the drives through the countryside to get there, past endless groves of towering, gnarled olive trees and austerely beautiful *masserie* country estates.

salento-masseria-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Inland, Ostuni shines bright white on its hilltop, and its unique Duomo and steep, twisting lanes make it particularly picturesque. Further north, Grottaglie has been making pottery for at least a millenium, and its streets and piazzas are still lined with small, artisan majolica workshops.

otranto-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Along the coast, a number of fishing ports-cum-resort towns have retained their rustic charm and friendly vibe: Gallipoli, on the Ionian side, occupies a tiny island connected to the mainland by a 17th century bridge, and has an old town center almost completely surrounded by 14th century defensive walls; on the Adriatic, Otranto has a festive air along its seaside promenades which belies a gruesome history of Turkish sieges and massacres.

Beach R&R


Though il Salento has become known among international travelers of late for its history and culture, for Italian tourists it has long been a desired destination for its gorgeous coast. From long stretches of sandy beaches to dramatic, rocky coves and bays, the shoreline of this peninsula is perfect for a few days of blissful relaxation at the water's edge.

leuca-salento-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

There are both free, public beaches and private beach clubs where lounges and umbrellas can be rented for the day along most of the penisula's coast. Many of the latter also have seaside restaurants or refreshment kiosks where you can have a seafood lunch without having to change out of your beachwear.

salento-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

One of the biggest advantages of a beach break in il Salento is the choice of coast: if the wind has whipped up the waves on the Adriatic side, it's just a short drive across the peninsula to the Ionian for calm seas...or vice versa!

Food, Glorious Food


Yes, yes...we know. Every region in Italy has unforgettable food, it seems...but meals in il Salento are particularly memorable (and long!). With the area's excellent seafood, fresh produce, heirloom legumes, local olive oil and wines, and indulgent pastries, it's hard to be disappointed.

Spaghetti with mussels and cherry tomatoes.  Lo Scalo - Marina di Novaglie, Puglia(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

The more adventurous can sample horse (a local specialty), especially in ragù or meatballs, while those who are a bit more conservative at the table can enjoy the traditional orecchiette con le cime di rapa (pasta tossed with turnip greens) or cicoria con la purea di fave (sauteed chicory with fava bean pure). Lusciously soft burrata, served with crusty pane pugliese, and pungent pecorino sheep cheese paired with briny local olives are also not to be missed.

Lunch in Marina di Novaglie, Puglia  www.ciuitaly.com(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Everyone will love the addictive taralli (breadsticks, but baked in a ring shape) before their meal and pasticciotti (a custard-filled tartlett) to finish it off, and Puglia's hearty wines pack the punch that only the strongest Mediterranean sun can produce.

Related posts:
Surprise Sunshine and Serendipity
Puglia’s Castel del Monte
Matera: Italy's Cinderella Story



Contributor: Rebecca Winke

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