Exploring Salento in Puglia, Italy
Wander through the streets of Tuscany, you’ll hear a foreign twang every few seconds.
“Oh my gawd… that building is so awld.”
“Bloody herll, that’s pretty cool.”
“Oh my dear, it’s turribly hot here, usn’t it?”
It’s something you expect in Florence or Siena. It’s Italy’s most famous region and a magnet for tens of thousands of tourists every day. You lose a bit of the Italian charm when you visit Tuscany – it’s a beautiful place but the pizza is not quite as Italian as you might hope for and the traffic is a little better than you expect.
It’s when you get to Puglia that you see more of that true Italy… well, a pizza slice of Italy, that is.
“I am sorry, I don’t mean to be rude, but what the hell are you doing here?”
I’m in a takeaway pizzeria in the town of Zollino, population 2194. I’ve just ordered from the menu by pointing and am trying to choose a beer from the fridge when the man asks me the question. His English is good and he’s being friendly but not many foreigners come through these parts and he’s also being curious.
I explain that I’m staying in the area for the annual La Notte della Taranta festival and am hoping to have a look around some parts of Puglia while I’m here. The man gives me a few tips and then I ask more generally about the region.
“Everything is slower here than the north… and cheaper,” he tells me.
“That pizza you’ve ordered is only 5 euros here – it would be at least 8 euros in Tuscany.”
There are more differences than just the prices, though. Let’s take the coast for starters.
I’m spending my days in Salento – the peninsular extension at the very south of Puglia. Water stretches along both sides of Salento – the Ionian Sea on the west and the Adriatic Sea on the east. A drive of about 50 kilometres across the land separates one from the other.
It’s hot now in August – 40 degree days that remind me how close we are to North Africa down here. With these kinds of temperatures, the seaside is the priority.
Salento and its coastlines are not just the summer holiday escape for those in Puglia – people swarm here from all across Italy for the hot weeks when businesses shut and even less work gets done in the country. But you hardly see any foreigners. For some reason, Puglia has escaped the swarms of international tourists that are omnipresent in other regions.
Just visit the popular beachside town of Otranto and you can see the popularity of the region for locals. It is full of tanned Italians wearing swimsuits smaller than their sunglasses. They come as families or as friends for some relief from the heat.
They wade in from the sandy beach, slide in from the rocky outcrops, or just watch from a terrace. The historic part of Otranto rises up a hill from the water but it might as well be invisible for most people in summer – their focus is in just one direction and that’s towards the soothing water and cooler breeze that wafts from it occasionally.
Otranto is on the eastern Adriatic coast. Go directly west to the Ionian coastline and you’ll find Gallipoli. It’s another popular town for the Italian summer visitors but there is much less of the beach culture. Gallipoli is a harbour town so the focus is on the boats. People do use the rocks along the coastline as a launching point for themselves but the launching points for their vessels is more important. Fishermen bring in their catches and sell them from the seaside and charming restaurants along the bars provide vistas across the region.
In between these two towns, inland from both, is the old city of Lecce. It has a population of almost 100,000 people and is sometimes referred to as ‘the Florence of the south’ because of the collection of mainly Baroque architecture. The churches are the highlight – and there are a lot of them – but you can’t miss the old Roman amphitheatre in the centre of the city. In the heat of summer, many people refer to avoid Lecce and head straight to the coast but it’s worth a visit here for at least a morning or afternoon, wandering in and out of the churches with their intricate displays of artwork and classic design.
Puglia – and Salento more specifically – is slowly starting to appear on the itineraries of foreign visitors but, for now, it’s a refreshing change from the busier areas further north. It has its own challenges for foreign tourists – the transport infrastructure isn’t as good, English isn’t spoken as commonly, and it does get crowded during the Italian holiday season – but that’s part of the reason it feels a bit more authentic.
It will get more popular over time, I’m sure. For now it might just be ‘the heel of the boot’ for many foreigners, but soon enough they’ll be voting with their feet.
Time Travel Turtle was supported by Puglia Events but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.