The Salento: A solo guide

“Azure waves, burnished by the sun, gently cascade over in a salty spray.”

Pretentiously quoting a descriptive piece I wrote in school in Australia,  I realise that my two weeks in Salento this July really were simply that: time immersed in the blue hues of the Mediterranean. This trip had been planned in my mind for many years; a seed, if you will, that never had the space to germinate. You see, I lived in Puglia for five years from the age of 18 with my (thankfully) ex boyfriend and …wait for it…..super traditional family (in both the complimentary and pejorative sense of the word). In that time, I had heard of the mosaic-blue waters of the Salento, but ex-boyfriend lacked an adventurous impulse and so we never went.

Last year, when I moved back to the boot, I decided that Salento would be my first summer galavant. After attempting to coerce people to come with me, I decided to proceed alone as most of my Italian friends had their ‘ferie’ vacay in August. Alas, teacher life comes plied with a cheeky dollop of holidays that we must simply take.

I was compelled to find pleasure in the pathless woods, rapture on the lonely shore – really, I do not mind going solo- so I did.

Booking a house.

Hostels are a wonderfully peasant form of accommodation where you meet motley people who will be your friends for life. Despite the allure of hanging out with “young folk”, I opted for an entire apartment in the historical centre of Lecce, heart of the Salento. When you Google it, I know you will frantically decry my choice as it is not on a beach. So no, I did not spend my evenings being gently caressed by the waters of the Mediterranean. Speaking, however, to my housemate E (from Salento), she suggested getting a house in the middle for one simple reason: you are exactly between the Adriatic and Ionian seas and can choose which side of the Salento to travel to based on the…wind. Before you start singing Pocahontas’ tune about the wind and its multitude of colours, this is actually based on science: there are different directions the wind comes with and they have different names. The two that Salentinis know about are ‘Scirocco’ and ‘Tramontana’. When the wind is Tramontana, wind comes from the north to south, while Scirocco are warm winds from the south.

Summary:

Tramontana- Go to the Ionian beaches

Scirocco- Go to the Adriatic beaches

Back to accommodation: After COVID put the world’s travel industry on standby, remember that hotels and AirBnBs are scrounging for your business. When I arrived at Lecce station, my AirBnB host carried my suitcase in 35-degree heat to the apartment, insisted he got the aircon running before I stepped inside, and had prepared several bottles of chilled water and a bowl of fruits from his mother’s vegetable garden (gelsi/mulberries and fichi/figs). He did notice a solo female traveller and oh-so-magnanimously offered to take me around the Salento on the back of his scooter. Um…no… thank you. Instead, I promptly hired a car and went everywhere he recommended on my own thank you very much.

I spent the next 10 days zig-zagging across the countryside. I did plan things to see and do, but I found that a strict itinerary does not work for a frazzled teacher after a chaotic end to a school year. Instead of towing you through a day-by-day, I thought it best to rattle off a few images that have remained imprinted as I write this many months later.

Image one: A private natural pool on the Adriatic.

So I am smugly going to tell you: this is a place near Torre dell’Orso, but find your own spot darlings! I love promoting an area that is dear to my heart, but I am so fond of certain places because they are not on tourists’ Instagrams. On my first full day with the Fiat Panda, I had my heart set on heading to Otranto as a person I am close to said it is his favourite place in Salento. Before that though, I started my day with a tip from E (housemate): Dentoni. I love baked goods. The wafts of the baker’s oven are like a warm embrace that I cannot refuse. I had already, by this stage, slipped into the habit of having the Pasticciotti with a Leccese coffee for breakfast, but nothing compares to gulping them down fresh from the oven. I sat at Dentoni, a bakery overlooking the sea, and decided, at 7.30am, that a cheeky dip in the sea was what I needed. After slinking into the sultry warmth of the waters near the bakery, I decided to go for a sporadic drive towards the Grotta della Poesia, which was nearby.

Well, I took a wrong turn, then missed the carpark and frantically pulled over to find my “must-do” sightseeing on Google Maps. The park was perched near the edge of a town facing the azure waters. A distant flamboyant umbrella flittering in the distance caught my eye. An elderly couple had forgone the likes and hashtags and had perched themselves on a small cliffside that seemed to just drop into the sea. I had my camera with me, so I clicked the car shut and edged closer trying to photograph them like some wannabe anthropologist snapping authentic Italians in the wild. Stealthily approaching my prey, I spotted some steps carved into the rocks that led down to an inlet. Creeping closer, this time to the edge of the rocks, I peered to see waters below. The morning light burnished the sand that blanketed the bottom of a natural pool. The glassy aqua waters were like rippled blown glass. I remember spending and hour there with my humble audience, but felt like I had this special place all to myself. Afterwards, I peeled on some clothes and went to the “Poetry Cave”. It was spectacular, yet as I subconsciously ducked to the humming of multiple drone cameras and listened to drunk Italians singing to music on their portable speaker, I decided that I should have stayed in that magic.

Image 2: A coastline, a lighthouse, more coastline.

After spending a day swanning, sizzling and sauntering at a Lido (private beach) and treating myself to a seafood lunch, I decided that I wanted to head, finally to Otranto, to a restaurant that A (more on him later) recommended to me. As usual though, I was early and decided to veer off along the Litoranea (coastline) road from Otranto that heads towards the bottom of Puglia in Leuca. My way-too-keen AirBnB host had told me that we could ride up and down it one day and enjoy a sunset together (cue either cheesy romantic music or gagging depending on how cliched you are), but it was almost sunset and here I was doing it on my own. It was wonderful to stop sporadically to see the inky blue depths that clung to the craggy cliffs. Worth stopping at was the Punta Palascia lighthouse. Nautical info suggests that this spot, which marks the Capo d’Otranto, is where the Ionian and Adriatic Seas meet. As you approach the lighthouse, you are overcome with this immensity of how small we all are.

Image 3: The Art of Chasing Sunsets

There were three occasions on this trip in which seeing a sunset caused some seriously haphazard driving as I frantically chased a burning orange dot gliding across the sky. The first of these came from the desire to see the Cava di Bauxite (Bauxite Cave) at sunset. After a day chasing carparks (yes, book a private beach on a Sunday and lounge there. NEVER do what I did and wing it) that continued to elude me, having a conniption and deciding to retreat to the Otranto port (also photo and dip-worthy), my housemate E consoled me by telling me that the Bauxite caves were “una meraviglia” at sunset. After a frantic drive less than ten minutes from Otranto, I evaded paying the carpark fee by running with my camera and leapt through the sharp vermillion sand to the caves. Dusty pink light stretched towards the caves as I darted around fellow sunset lovers to reach the most advantageous viewpoint.

Image 4: Finding beautiful places because I am a cashless Gen Y.

Fun fact: Italians still pay for a lot of things in cash.

Fun fact: I don’t

Fun fact: Some smaller towns do not have an ATM.

TIP: Please remember last fact before driving to said smaller towns.

Sometimes the original destination leads to an unexpected detour. After consulting the weather forecast, I had originally decided to go to Punta della Suina for my beach day. I Googled dutifully the rapid route to reach the private beaches and planned to unceremoniously flop on a beach bed for the afternoon. When I arrived, however, I realised I had no cash to pay for the parcheggio. The gruff, leathery parcheggiatore (parking guy) said there was an ATM in a nearby village. No apologies. I was the cashless peasant.

Rummaging for my pride, I headed towards the town but then I got sidetracked by a sign “Punta Pizzo” (Lace Point). Before long I was rolling into another car park and faced yet another parcheggiatore standing gruffly between me and a sandy beach. This time, I learned my lesson: I suppressed my inner feminist and played my favourite card: The Damsel in Distress. A wink of my  woe-is-me eye (all the while screaming on the inside) and I was waved through with a parking pass I had paid for with my sweet smile and feminist dignity.

Punta Pizzo, as it turned out, had crystalline waters and was framed by a coastal national park. Worth the wink! That said, always have cash in Puglia. You may have an eye infection and you won’t have my luck.

Image 5: LECCE: The Florence of the South

The subheading above irks me. Each Italian city has its own architecture to admire and I feel like it is a marketing ploy to lure tourists who know nothing about Puglia. Lecce is known for its Baroque buildings made from limestone unique to the area. If you are as lost as me when it comes to architectural styles, here is what to look for:

  • Contrast in lighting
  • Rich surfaces
  • Twisting shapes
  • Richly painted ceilings
  • Gilded statues
  • General grandeur!

The final image that I have is the Basilica of Santa Croce, with its golden limestone lit up by the strategically placed lights as I wandered around the city at night. You turn a corner and find it directly in front of you, a bold baroque jewel. Drawing closer, the level of intricate detail is overwhelming. Once you take a mandatory photo, it is worth combing over the finer points of its design.

Lecce is a “chicca” (pronounced kik-kah) or gem. Wandering though the golden limestone streets,  you are greeting by marvel at every corner and small details that only directionless walking will reveal.

Un bacio x

Skye

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