Exploring Italy’s Salento Region – The New York Times

“Go to one of the inland towns today,” advises the pressed fruit seller as he hands me a baratir. A blend of watermelon and cucumber native to Puglia, the region that forms the heel of Italy’s boot. “Today the sand will be flying on both the beaches and you will not be able to see the beautiful colors of the sea.”

Air and sea are constant topics of conversation in Puglia. Whether it’s the Scirocco, the warm current from the Sahara or the Tramontana, A cold draft from the Alps (not to mention Ponente or Levante), the direction of the wind dictates which coast to visit and how to plan the day. Bartenders, street vendors and shop owners give instant feedback on what’s in force and how best to channel it.

Tonight in Lecce, Tramontana takes center stage and has the effect of a fan blowing at medium speed on a still, warm evening. Homes facing the street away from the more touristy main drag are slowly opening their doors after long afternoon siestas, and anyone dressed in home clothes is hanging out the laundry as they chat with neighbors and passers-by. .

I join an evening stroll known as a passeggiata, mingling with both Italian and foreign visitors and stopping at the city’s many churches along the way (there are over 40 in total). With an abundance of fine architecture and art, the city is at its best in those last hours before sunset, seemingly illuminated by the golden light from within. It is the limestone of Salento, the southernmost region of the region, where the rock is soft and gentle to carvers, that provides the building blocks of the architecture here. Carparro, mazzaro, petra lacus, tufa – each stone offers a slightly different patina. Carvings spring to cinematic life – cherubs, lions and griffins compete for the main role, as more dignified religious types such as angels and saints try to minimize their curating.

After hopping my church, I found my way. Ceylon Keeper 1933, a speakeasy-style bar with artisan cocktails, bearded mixologists and mismatched furniture. Antique rugs lie beneath 1920s leather club chairs and framed vintage photos hang from the walls. But what sets it apart from similar sites in New York or London is that it sits opposite the Chiesa di San Niccolò Dei Greci, a compact and still-intact example of the city’s Byzantine church architecture. Finding a new generation of hospitality and entertainment hotspots within a stone’s throw (and sometimes even inside) of the region’s most historic monuments and city centers is a trend throughout Puglia, but especially here in Salento. I.

I first came to Puglia in 2005 with my ex. I’ve returned a dozen times since then, 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 the top of their travel wish list.

Despite being connected to the rest of the country by land, the region feels like an island, with the Ionian Sea to the west, and the Adriatic to the east. At Santa Maria di Leuca, at the mainland end of southeastern Italy, two bodies of water come together.

This part of the country has been subject to many invasions, and the castles that dot the coastline were a line of defense against the Saracens, Normans, Turks and Spanish who sometimes briefly dominated here. Now it’s a mild victory, a new breed of hotels, restaurants, bars and beach clubs opened by expats drawn to the area, Pugliese looking to put their region on the map, and attract visitors from other parts of the country. The Italians want to create a new one. Life near the sea.

Athena McAlpine was one of the first hotels to embark on this journey, moving here in 2002 after many years in London. She and her husband Alistair opened it. Convento di Santa Maria di Costantinopoli in Marittima di Diso, converting a former Franciscan monastery cloister and monks’ cells into a one-of-a-kind retreat with a collection of museum-worthy art and artifacts (doubles from 432 euros or about $440). Created by Rob Potters from Australia. Masseria Trapana After visiting the region from Tuscany where he was a hotel consultant. He resurrected a derelict building just north of Lacy that had not been inhabited for 200 years into a light-filled luxury resort (doubles from €290).

Former Pepsi chief executive Massimo Fasnella d’Amore di Ruffano and his partner, Diana Bianchi, renovated their family’s disused 900-year-old castle over the course of four years, uncovering its 17th-century frescoes and a Added new state. I The Art Cooking School Castillo de Ugento In the town of the same name in the southern part of the peninsula (double from 400 euros).

And then there’s the influx of celebrities — Helen Mirren has a house in Tigiano near Trikes, Meryl Streep has a property on the beach and Gerard Depardieu has a pad in Lacy.

“My partner Steve Riseley read about the Salento and dragged me along,” said Harvey Brown, one of the new entrants to the hotel game. “I think there’s something in the air here, an energy that wants us to create.” The pair just opened. Castle Elvira, The 37-acre property outside Trepuzzi, near Lecce, includes a castle, masseria (a stone farmhouse), cottages, ancient tower and a restaurant and bar, which doubles as Mr Brown’s atelier — he is an artist. There is also (double from 299 euros) .

What is it really that is so attractive about Salento, I wondered when I crossed the peninsula in late June, shortly after we were allowed to shed our pandemic masks in Italy? To begin with, there is a magnificent sea, with some of the most beautiful beaches and harbors in all of Italy. On Saturday morning, I head to Castro Marina, one of the most atmospheric of the small rocky harbors that line the Adriatic coast. I join bodies of all shapes and sizes along the docks and rocks that provide natural diving boards in the ocean for a lap swim in the emerald-turquoise water.

After cooling off, I have a cafe laissez-faire (espresso on ice and almond milk) at Alois, a small fishing boat bar, and later dine on street food-style Frito Mesto. il Friggitoria Puerto Vecchio. Another day I meet friends. low, A family-owned beach club near Laghi Alimini, a nature reserve north of Otranto, where a pair of lagoons surrounded by pine forests and native plants are just a few steps from the sea. The club offers beach chairs and umbrellas as well as freshly caught grilled fish and crisp local wines.

Another sunny day, this time on the west coast near Gallipoli, I’m popping bottles of Franciacorta (Italy’s answer to Champagne) while showing off my swimsuits from Gucci and Missoni in Punta Suena. G Beach Club. Throughout the week, I check out swimming spots, 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 tall golden grass and wild flowers, the heat seemingly rising through a foggy lens. I keep my window open to breathe in the scent of figs ripening in the sun all around me. You could spend a week driving on an itinerary devoted solely to churches and cathedrals.

In Galatina, about 10 miles southeast of Lecce, the suburbs look unassuming, but once I park and head into the center, I’m greeted by the extraordinary 14th-century Basilica di Santa Caterina d’Alessandria and its A beautiful golden-hued town with magnificent frescoes. (The town is also home to pistacchioto, a pastry filled with custard cream, and their bakeries with beautiful Art Deco signs look straight out of a movie set). I peeked into some of the dilapidated but magnificent palazzi before heading to the nearby town of Nardò, where baroque palaces are backed by churches.

I have visited Otranto on almost every trip to Puglia. One of my favorites is in Salento, a UNESCO-protected city about half an hour south of Lecce, with its magnificent 12th-century cathedral and mosaic floor representing the “Tree of Life.” I could spend hours looking at his illustrations with mythical creatures and biblical scenes. It’s also a very cool place to sit on a baking hot day. It takes a moment for my eyes to adjust to the bright sun outside. I scrub the washed cream walls of the town with salt and watch a pickup soccer game along a small beach. Both boys celebrate each goal by jumping into the sea, jumping off cliffs with the heroics of former Roma soccer star Francesco Totti. It is a moment of unbridled joy.

On my last night I met hotel owner Athena McAlpine for dinner at Traques Porto, the port outside the main city. Our first stop is Bar Minami Where the locals are sipping Aperol spritzes as the DJ’s boss almost moves the chairs under us. From there we move to the nearby Caffè d’Oltremare, a new arrival at the port. Here, Greece meets Salento, and ouzo and local wine are added in equal measure.

Looking around the harbor and people-watching, she says it’s the perfect place to see the new Salento emerging from the old and the tourists mingling with the locals.

“One way to think about it is as new kids on the block with established, traditional bases,” she says. “You have a new restaurant in Porto. Taverna del Porto A fresh and modern interpretation of classic dishes, but you also have decades-old institutions Bolina and Enemi Sante. There is room for everyone.”

We then proceed to Traicas, the town itself the loveliest of Cilento, and a center of other houses in the region. We stop. G & Co which has won the Triconi Award for Best Gelateria in the Country by the Gambro Rosso Food Guide for three years in a row. Even though it’s midnight, people are flooding into the main square, Piazza Pacinelli. On Pharmacia Balboa 20-some mostly foreign tourists sipping artisanal cocktails while abandoned children run around the square. And maybe change is the main ingredient of this Salento, happiness in its many forms.

And who doesn’t need that right now?

A rental car is essential for exploring Salento. You can pick up from one of Puglia’s airports such as Karol Wojtyla Airport, in Bari, or Papola Cassel Airport in Brindisi. There is also a high-speed rail service between Rome and Lacy which takes about three hours. 

You can either set up shop in Lecce and take day trips from there or stay in another town in Salento. in Lecce, Fiermontina A cluster of thoughtfully reimagined historic buildings transformed into a boutique hotel (doubles from €320). In addition to the aforementioned hotels, Lecce’s outdoor selection includes 19th-century Palazzo Daniel Gagliano del Capo is full of contemporary art and close to some of Salento’s most stunning beaches (doubles from €423) while Palazzo Presta Gallipoli has 10 rooms (double the 200) in the historic center of the city.

Recently opened. Castello de Totino The area is a good example of the restoration of former monuments: this 15th-century castle on the outskirts of Tricase now hosts drinks and dinner, as well as musical concerts from traditional local pizzica music to jazz.

Ondine Cohane is a regular contributor to Times Travel and co-author of National Geographic’s “Always Italy” with Frances May.