“Go to one of the inland cities today,” advises the burly fruit seller as he hands me a barattiere, a mixture of melon and cucumber that’s indigenous to Puglia, the region that forms the stiletto heel of Italy’s boot. “The sand will be blowing today on both the coasts, and you won’t be able to see the lovely colors of the sea.”
The wind and the sea are constant topics of conversation in Puglia. Whether it’s the scirocco, the hot current coming 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 to go to and how to plan the day. Bartenders, street vendors and shop owners are quick to opine about which is in force and how to best navigate its currents.
Tonight in Lecce, the tramontana takes center stage and the effect is like a fan blowing at medium speed on a still, hot evening. Doors of streetfront homes away from the more touristy main drag are slowly opening after long afternoon siestas, and nonne in house dresses hang laundry while they chat with neighbors and passers-by.
I join the evening stroll known as the passeggiata, mingling with both Italian and foreign visitors and stopping into a number 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 for carvers, that provides the building blocks of the architecture here. Carparo, mazzaro, pietra Leccese, tufa — each stone offers a slightly different patina. Carvings make the facades come to cinematic life — cherubs, lions and griffins vie for the central role, as more stately religious types like angels and saints seem to try to tame their cavorting, to little effect.
After my church hopping, I find my way to Saloon Keeper 1933, a speakeasy-style bar with artisanal cocktails, bearded mixologists and mismatched furniture. Antique carpets lie under 1920s leather club chairs and framed vintage photographs hang from the walls. But what sets it apart from a similar spot in, say, New York or London, is that it sits smack 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 outposts within a stone’s throw (and sometimes even within) some of the region’s most historic monuments and city centers is a trend all over Puglia, but especially here in the Salento.
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I first came to Puglia in 2005 with my ex-. I have been back a dozen times since, falling in love more deeply on each expedition. I’m not alone: People have gone from looking at me quizzically when I mention Puglia, to now having it high on their travel wish lists.
Despite being connected to the rest of the country by land, the area feels more like an island, with the Ionian Sea to the west, and the Adriatic to the east. At Santa Maria di Leuca, the Land’s End of southeast Italy, the two bodies of water come together.
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This part of the country has been subject to many an invasion, and the castles that dot the coastline were the line of defense against the Saracens, Normans, Turks and Spanish who sometimes briefly dominated here. Now it’s a gentler conquest, a new generation of hotels, restaurants, bars and beach clubs, opened by foreigners seduced by the area, Pugliese looking to put their region on the map, and Italians from other parts of the country wishing to create a new life close to the sea.
Athena McAlpine was one of the first hoteliers to take the plunge, moving here in 2002 after living in London for many years. She and her husband, Alistair, opened the Convento di Santa Maria di Costantinopoli in Marittima di Diso, transforming a former Franciscan monastery’s cloister and monks’ cells into a one-of-a-kind hideaway with a museum-worthy collection of art and artifacts (doubles from 432 euros or about $440). Rob Potters, from Australia, created Masseria Trapanà after visiting the area from Tuscany where he was a hotel consultant. He resuscitated a derelict building just north of Lecce that had not been lived in for 200 years into a light-filled luxury resort (doubles from 290 euros).
The former Pepsi chief executive Massimo Fasanella d’Amore di Ruffano and his partner, Diana Bianchi, renovated his family’s unused 900-year-old castle over the course of four years, uncovering its 17th-century frescos and adding a new state-of-the-art cooking school at the Castello di Ugento in the city of the same name in the southern part of the peninsula (doubles from 400 euros).
And then there has been the arrival of celebrities, too — Helen Mirren has a home in Tiggiano near Tricase, Meryl Streep has a property on the coast and Gérard Depardieu has a pad in Lecce.
“My partner Steve Riseley read about the Salento and dragged me,” said Harvey Brown, one of the new entrants to the hotel game. “I think there is something in the air here, an energy that makes us want to create.” The duo just opened Castle Elvira, a 37-acre property outside Trepuzzi near Lecce, with a castle, masseria (a stone farm building), cottage, ancient tower and a restaurant and bar, that doubles as Mr. Brown’s atelier — he’s also an artist (doubles from 299 euros).
What is it exactly that’s so seductive about the Salento, I wonder as I crisscross the peninsula in late June shortly after we are given permission to shed our pandemic masks in Italy. To start with, there is the spectacular sea, with some of the most beautiful beaches and ports in all of Italy. On a Saturday morning, I head to the Castro Marina, one of the most atmospheric of the small rocky ports that dot the Adriatic coastline. 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-turquoise water.
After cooling off, I have a caffè leccese (espresso and almond milk on ice) at Ilios, a tiny bar by the fishing boats, and later munch on street food-style fritto misto at il Friggitoria Porto Vecchio. Another day I meet up with friends at Kum, a family-owned beach club near Laghi Alimini, a nature reserve north of Otranto, where a pair of lakes surrounded by pine woods and native vegetation are just steps from the sea. The club offers beach chairs and umbrellas as well as just-caught grilled fish and crisp local wines.
On yet another sunny day, this time on the west coast near Gallipoli, I watch well-heeled couples pop bottles of Franciacorta (Italy’s answer to champagne) while showing off their swimsuits from Gucci and Missoni at Punta Suina’s G Beach Club. All through the week, I check off places to swim, each more pristine than the next: Punta Prosciutto, Torre San Giovanni, Porto Selvaggio.
Away from the coast I drive through countryside with stone walls and twisted olive trees past fields of long golden grass and wildflowers, the heat rising seemingly through a smudged lens. I keep my window open to inhale the smell of the figs ripening in the sun all around me. You could spend a week driving around on an itinerary devoted just to churches and cathedrals.
In Galatina, about 10 miles southeast of Lecce, the outskirts look unpromising, but once I park and head into the center, I discover a beautiful gold-hued town with the extraordinary 14th century Basilica di Santa Caterina d’Alessandria and its gobsmacking frescoes. (The town is also home to the pasticciotto, a pastry stuffed with custard cream, and the bakeries with their lovely Art Deco signs look straight out of a film set). I peek into a few of the dilapidated but stately palazzi up for sale, before heading to the nearby town of Nardò where churches multiply in all directions, backed by Baroque palaces.
I have visited Otranto on almost every trip to Puglia. The Unesco-protected city, about half an hour drive south from Lecce, is one of my favorites in the Salento, with its magnificent 12th century cathedral and mosaic floor representing the “Tree of Life.” I could spend hours looking at the imagery with its mythological creatures and biblical scenes. It’s also a very cool spot to sit on a baking hot day. Outside it takes a moment for my eyes to adjust to the bright sun. I follow the town’s washed-cream walls bleached by salt and watch a pickup soccer game on a small beach alongside the ramparts; the tween boys celebrate each goal with a plunge into the sea, leaping off the rocks with the bravado of Francesco Totti, the former Roma football star. It’s a moment of unbridled joy.
On my last night I meet Athena McAlpine, the hotelier, for dinner in Tricase Porto, the port outside the main town. Our first stop is Bar Menamè where the locals are sipping Aperol spritzes as the D.J.’s bass almost moves the chairs under us. From there we move to the nearby Caffè d’Oltremare, a new arrival to the port. Here, Greece meets the Salento, and ouzo and local wine are poured in equal measure.
Looking around the port and at the people, she posits that this is the perfect spot to see the new Salento emerging from the old, and observe the tourists mixing with the locals.
“One way to think of it is the arrival of new kids on the block alongside the established, traditional haunts,” she says. “In the Porto you have the new restaurant Taverna del Porto reinterpreting classic dishes in a fresh and modern way, but you also have Bolina and Anime Sante, decades-old institutions. There is room for all.”
Afterward we head into Tricase, the town itself, arguably the loveliest 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 given to the country’s best gelaterias by the Gambero Rosso food guide three years in a row. Even though it is midnight, people are flooding into Piazza Pisanelli, the main square. At Farmacia Balboa 20-something mostly foreign tourists are drinking artisanal cocktails as kids run around the square with abandon. And maybe that’s the chief ingredient of this Salento in transition, joy in many forms.
And who doesn’t need that right now?
If you go
A rental car is essential to explore the Salento. You can pick one up at one of Puglia’s airports like Karol Wojtyla Airport, in Bari, or Papola Casale Airport in Brindisi. There is also a high-speed rail service between Rome and Lecce which takes about three hours.
You can either set up shop in Lecce and take day trips from there or take up residence in another of the Salento’s towns. In Lecce, the Fiermontina is a cluster of thoughtfully reimagined historic buildings turned into a boutique hotel (doubles from 320 euros). In addition to the hotels mentioned above, outside of Lecce the choices include the 19th century Palazzo Daniele in Gagliano del Capo filled with contemporary art and close to some of Salento’s most spectacular beaches (doubles from 423 euros), while Palazzo Presta in Gallipoli has 10 rooms in the historic center of town (doubles from 200).
The recently opened Castello di Tutino is a good example of the area’s resuscitation of former monuments: This 15th century castle on the outskirts of Tricase now serves drinks and dinner as well as hosting musical concerts from traditional local pizzica music to jazz.
Ondine Cohane is a regular contributor to Times Travel and the co-author of National Geographic’s “Always Italy” with Frances Mayes.