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Unspoilt Italy: fall head over heel for Puglia’s Salento region

Wild beaches, seriously tempting food and wine, affordable prices – and few tourists – await those who venture to Salento, the sun-kissed south of Puglia at the heel of Italy’s boot

For the Italians, Puglia is like Cornwall: they come here for sun, sea and seriously good food, fished from nearby waters and produced in the fertile pastures that supply much of the fresh contents of the country’s larders, and to sup the increasingly admired local wines, negroamaro, primitivo di Manduria and Salice Salentino. But while many international visitors have been lured from the kempt pastures of Tuscany and Umbria to Puglia by its curious conical trulli and the sparkling white towns of the Valle d’Itria at the region’s heart, or to walk in the ancient oak and beech forests of the mountainous Gargano peninsula at its northern edge, the southernmost reaches of the Salento flatlands are pioneer country. The recent push south into Salento was inevitable.

With characterful old buildings still available at rock-bottom prices, an eye-pleasing landscape of olive groves, wild beaches and clear seas, and old towns heaving with baroque buildings, Salento proved irresistible, in particular to an affluent European gay crowd who had also heard about the lively local gay scene. Across the peninsula, derelict buildings now echo to the sound of hammers and drills as they are transformed into holiday homes, self-catering apartments, guesthouses and hotels.

Five Gorgeous Italian Beaches You Probably Don’t Know About But Should

With places like the Bay of Naples and Ligurian Riviera sounding their siren call for thousands of years, Italy’s 7600-kilometer coastline has lured everyone from Julius Caesar to Gianni Agnelli, along with millions of lesser-known mortals, to vacation in some of the world’s most idyllic spots. For those seduced by the country’s gorgeous seascapes, extraordinary food, and cultural treasures, but are looking to have that potent travel combo served up in other settings, one answer is the Salento region of Puglia at the southernmost tip of Italy—the heel of the “boot” as it is often described–fronting both the Adriatic and Ionian Seas. In summers the waters are blissfully warm, a painter’s box of blues and greens; the coastline offering sandy beaches as well as rugged prehistoric coves and romantic grottoes, towns with ancient histories and restaurants with new ways to think about and indulge in Mediterranean cuisine.

While the Salento has luxury rentals and posh masserias and hotels with pampering levels suitable for the Hollywood set (Madonna stayed at Borgo Egnazia, and Peter Sarsgaard and Maggie Gyllenhaal married at the Convento di Santa Maria di Costantinopoli), the region also offers many more modest lodgings, B&Bs and agriturismi where the cost per night can seem, for anyone who has recently vacationed in the Hamptons or Cape Cod, like a room rate from a hotel bill you happened upon from ten years ago.

Le Salento, un Finistère à l’italienne

Longtemps, les côtes du Salento ont été une porte sur l’Orient. De ce “finis terrae” italien des Pouilles, à quelques milles marins de l’Albanie et de la Grèce, sont parties nombre de croisades. À l’inverse, les envahisseurs n’ont pas manqué d’y débarquer au fil du temps. Les colons grecs ont ouvert la voie au VIIIe siècle avant Jésus-Christ suivis, après la chute de Rome, par les troupes de l’empire byzantin, les Normands et les Souabes de la dynastie des Hohenstaufen.

Plus tard, la région fut rattachée au Royaume de Naples, comme d’au – tres régions d’Italie du Sud. Tous ces peuples et ces cultures ont façonné la péninsule salentine qui s’avance entre l’Adriatique et la mer Ionienne. Exposées aux raids et aux attaques, ses villes portuaires ont dû se doter de remparts et de citadelles, de Brindisi à Tarente, en passant par Gallipoli et Otrante. Une défense insuffisante, cependant, face aux assauts des Ottomans qui, en 1480, s’empare d’Otrante lors de la célèbre bataille du même nom. Sous le commandement de Gedik Ahmed Pacha, les Turcs massacrèrent la quasi totalité de la population, décapitant quelque 800 habitants qui refusaient d’abjurer leur foi. Les rares survivants furent réduits en esclavage.

Our columnist, Sebastian Modak, is visiting each destination on our 52 Places to Go in 2019 list. Before Puglia, he was sampling the coastline (and the focaccia di Recco) in Golfo Paradiso.

Puglia, the region of southern Italy in the heel of the boot-shaped country, has been called “the new Tuscany.” Lecce, a Baroque masterpiece of a city built from cream-colored limestone, is often referred to as “the Florence of the South.” It’s not unusual for tourism boards and the travel press to grasp at analogies that bring to mind more familiar destinations as a way to drive traffic to “undiscovered gems.” But comparing Puglia to anywhere else does it a disservice.

Over six days, while making my way up, down and around the heel of Italy, I encountered a place that was far too complex and far too varied — in terms of culture, cuisine, architecture and history — to fit into a catchy tagline.

Idyllic countryside and pristine coast; Baroque majesty and homey hospitality; cuisine that is complex on the taste buds but simple in its preparation. Puglia has a bit of everything, and six days was far too little time to properly digest it all. But it was the ideal opportunity to turn what could have been a sprint into a relaxed amble. Sometimes one’s hazy impressions, disjointed and amorphous, can carry an emotional resonance that will one day draw you back.

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