Puglia – The Salento
From Otranto to Gallipoli
The Salento, extends from Brindisi, along the coast of the Adriatic Sea, to the tip of the boot of Italy, and along the coast of the Ionian Sea, to Taranto.
From the inland town of Lecce – famous for its iconic Baroque architecture – we headed toward the Adriatic Coast and the old fortified town of Otranto, which overlooks an expansive marina where pleasure boats, yachts, and fishing boats rest in the early morning sunshine.
We wandered along the narrow alleys brimming with colorful ceramics that led us to a generous, raised promenade, which offers spectacular views of the ocean and the sparkling white town. A perfect spot to enjoy a leisurely late breakfast of frothy cappuccini and panini.
Steps from the old town, small coves with transparent, calm, turquoise waters, beckon one to don a bathing suit and treat oneself to a long refreshing swim.
The serpentine coastline slithers around bends past rock formations sculpted by the wind, sun, sea, and rain; sandy beaches; picturesque towns; hidden coves, grottos; and emerald and turquoise waters.
Just beyond Porto Badisco, we spotted a secluded cove snuggled into the jagged rocks like an oversized swimming pool leading out to the sea.
Altimini Cove is a gem. A little slice of paradise, especially on an early October day under glorious blue skies – with only a smattering of other visitors – and a terrific seafood restaurant steps from the beach.
Onwards to Santa Cesarea Terme, where grand spa hotels and swaying spindly palm trees hug the main road and the endless expanse of glittering emerald blue ocean stretches to the horizon. The town has been a popular spa center since the late 19th Century. Visitors come to relax in the thermal baths and the sulfur-springs that bubble and pop in the grottos, where the mud is said to have curative properties. The pungent smell of sulfur that carried on the breeze wafted towards us the moment we stepped out of our car.
Villas, palazzos, hotels, and modest homes perch on the Tufo bluffs and seem to merge, blend, and grow out of the rugged rock.
The Palazzo Stichi – built in the Moorish style popular with the Italian elite in the late 19th Century – is exquisite from every angle, from a distance, and up close. It is the hallmark of Santa Cesarea Terme.
While strolling along the promenade, we came across a building which in its heyday must have been imposing and elegant. What puzzled us was that it had Hebrew writing above the doorways. When the new café owners renovated, cleaned and scrubbed the façade, Hebrew text emerged from under the flaking plaster. An elderly member of the community recalled that it was used as a refuge towards the end of the Second World War to house Eastern European Jews fleeing the Holocaust.
Between Santa Cesarea Terme and the seaside town of Castro, a hidden treasure awaits to be explored: Grotta Zinzulusa is a karst cave where stalagmites grow up from the cave floor, and stalactites hang like chandeliers from the cave ceiling. The Italian word Zinzuli means “old rags”- a creative analogy for the stone formations.
Castro is worth a stop. Indulge in the superb gelato at the outdoor café in the piazza overlooking Porto di Enea, then make your way down to the irresistible calm turquoise waters and treat yourself to a swim.
Santa Maria Leuca sits as at the tip of Italy’s heel, where the Adriatic and Ionian seas converge. Walk the length of the extensive promenade, admire the villas, relax on the beaches, explore the tide pools, then head to a restaurant on the beach and enjoy a meal of fresh seafood and a glass of chilled white wine. If we were to visit again, I would spend a couple of nights relaxing in Santa Maria Leuca before continuing to Gallipoli.
[One can make reservations at the ticket office in Castro to visit Zinzulusa sea cave as well as Grotta Romanelli, Grotta Palombara, and Grotta Azzura. It’s always advisable if you are going in season to check online for available tours. You’ll find a host of travel operators offering a variety of tours.]
**Check my blog: Puglia – Gallipoli – and travel to a town that pulses with life, color, history, stunning beaches, and an array of seafood restaurants.
Disclosure: I did not take the photo of the thermal pool.