Exploring the Italian region of Salento – The New York Times

“Go to an inner city today,” advises the burly fruit seller as he hands me Baratere, A mixture of watermelon and cucumber native to Puglia, the region that forms the stiletto heel of the Italian shoe. “Sand will blow today on the coasts, and you will not be able to see the beautiful colors of the sea.”

Wind and sea are constant topics of discussion in Puglia. Whether it’s the Scirocco, the hot stream from the desert, or the TramontanaAnd the Cool alpine clouds (not to mention Poniente or Levante), the way the wind is blowing determines which beach you’ll go to and how to plan for the day. Bartenders, street vendors, and shop owners are quick to think about which is in effect and the best way to navigate its streams.

Tonight in Lecce, the Tramontana takes center stage and the effect is like a fan blowing at medium speed on a still, hot evening. The doors of the street-facing houses away from the more attractive main drag slowly open after a long afternoon nap, and the unfamiliar in the house hangs their clothes while chatting with neighbors and passersby.

I joined the evening stroll known as the passeggiata, mingling with both Italian and foreign visitors and stopping at a number of the city’s many churches (there are over 40 in total) along the way. With architecture and fine arts galore, the city looks its best in these last hours before sunset, seemingly illuminated by a golden light from within. It’s the limestone of Salento, the southernmost region of this southernmost region, where the rocks are soft and gentle to the sculptors, providing the building blocks for the architecture here. Carparo, mazzaro, pietra Leccese, tufa – each stone presents a slightly different appearance. Sculptures bring facades to cinematic life – cherubs, lions, and griffins vie for the central role, as more lavish religious genres such as angels and saints seem to attempt to tame their submission, to little effect.

After hopping into my church, I make my way to Saloon Keeper 1933, a chic style bar with craft cocktails, bearded mixed connoisseurs, and mismatched furniture. Antique rugs lie under 1920s leather club chairs and framed old photographs hang from the walls. But what sets it apart from a similar place in New York or London for example, is that it is located in front of Chiesa di San Niccolò Dei Greci, a compact and still intact example of Byzantine church architecture in the city. Locating a new generation of hospitality and leisure centers within a stone’s throw of (and sometimes within) some of the region’s historic monuments and city centers is a trend throughout Puglia, but especially here in Salento.

I first came to Puglia in 2005 with my ex-boyfriend. I’ve been back a dozen times since then, falling in love more deeply with each expedition. I’m Not Alone: ​​People have gone from looking at me suspiciously when I mention Apulia, to now making it high on their travel wish lists.

Although connected to the rest of the country by land, the area looks like an island, with the Ionian Sea to the west and the Adriatic Sea to the east. In Santa Maria di Luca, the end of the Earth in southeastern Italy, the two bodies of water come together.

This part of the country was subjected to many invasions, and the castles scattered along the coast were the line of defense against the Muslims, Normans, Turks and Spaniards who dominated here for a brief period at times. Now it’s a gentle conquest, a new generation of hotels, restaurants, bars and beach clubs, opened by foreigners who are tempted by the area, Pugliese looking to put their region on the map, and Italians from other parts of the country wishing to create a new one. Life near the sea.

One of the first hoteliers to take the initiative was Athena McAlpine, and they moved here in 2002 after living in London for many years. She and her husband, Alistair, opened the Convento di Santa Maria di Costantinopoli in Marittima di Diso, transforming a former Franciscan convent and friar cells into a one-of-a-kind sanctuary with a collection of art and antiques well worth the visit (doubles from €432 or about $440). Rob Potters, from Australia, created Masseria Trapanà after visiting the area from Tuscany where he was a hotel consultant. He revived an abandoned building just north of Lecce that had not been inhabited for 200 years into a light-filled luxury resort (doubles from €290).

Former PepsiCo CEO Massimo Fasanella D’Amore di Ruvano and partner Diana Bianchi renovated his family’s disused 900-year-old castle over four years, unveiling 17th-century frescoes and adding a new case of the Culinary School in Castello di Ugento in the city of the same name in the southern part of the peninsula (doubles from 400 euros).

Then there was the arrival of celebrities, too — Helen Mirren owns a home in Tegiano near Tricas, Meryl Streep owns a property on the coast and Gerard Depardieu has a towel in Lecce.

“My partner Steve Risley read about Salento and he dragged me,” said Harvey Brown, a newcomer to the hotel game. “I think there’s something in the air here, an energy that makes us want to get creative.” The duo have just opened Castle Elvira, a 37-acre estate outside Trepuzzi near Lecce, with a castle, masseria (a stone farm building), a cottage, an old tower, a restaurant and a bar, which is also Mr. Brown’s atelier – he’s also an artist (my husband is €299).

What’s so tempting in Salento, I wonder when I walk around the peninsula in late June, shortly after we were given permission to drop our epidemic masks in Italy. First of all, there is the wonderful sea, with some of the most beautiful beaches and ports in all of Italy. On a Saturday morning, I headed to Castro Marina, one of the most atmospheric little rocky harbors that dot the Adriatic coast. I joined bodies of all shapes and sizes along the pier and boulders that provide natural sea diving boards for a dip in the turquoise emerald pools.

After cooling off, I have a leccese (espresso and almond milk on ice) at Ilios, a little bar next to the fishing boats, then a street food-style snack at il Friggitoria Porto Vecchio. Another day I met my friends at Kom, 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 vegetation are just steps from the sea. The club offers beach chairs and umbrellas as well as freshly caught grilled fish and crisp local wine.

On another sunny day, this time on the West Coast near Gallipoli, I’m watching couples in high heels sort out bottles of francacorta (Italy’s answer to champagne) as they display their Gucci and Missoni swimwear at Punta Suina’s G Beach Club. All week I check swimming spots, each more original than the next: Punta Prosciutto, Torre San Giovanni, Porto Selvaggio.

Away from the coast, I drive through the stone-walled countryside and crooked olive trees through fields of tall golden grass and wildflowers, heat seemingly rising through a smeared lens. I keep my window open to inhale the scent of figs ripe in the sun all around me. You can spend a week wandering a path dedicated only to churches and cathedrals.

In Galatina, about 10 miles southeast of Lecce, the suburbs look unpromising, but as soon as I park and head to the center, I discover a beautiful, golden-hued town with the unusual 14th-century Santa Caterina de Lysandria church and stunning frescoes. (The town is also home to pasticciotto, a pastry stuffed with custard cream, and bakeries with pretty Art Deco signs look straight out of a movie set.) I peek at a few dilapidated but stately mansion for sale, before heading to the nearby town of Nardò where churches proliferate in all directions, backed by Baroque mansions.

I have visited Otranto on almost every trip to Puglia. The UNESCO-protected city, about a half-hour drive south from Lecce, is one of my favorite places in Salento, where the splendid 12th-century cathedral and its mosaic floors represent the “Tree of Life”. I could spend hours looking at pictures with their mythical creatures and biblical scenes. It’s also a great place to sit on a hot day baking. Outside, it takes a moment for my eyes to adjust to the bright sun. I follow the salt-washed town walls and watch a little football game on a small beach by the ramparts; Teen boys celebrate every goal by immersing themselves in the sea, jumping off the rocks with the bravery of Francesco Totti, the former football star of Rome. It is a moment of unbridled joy.

Last night I met Mrs. McAlpine, the owner of the hotel, for dinner at Tricas Porto, the port outside the main city. Our first stop is Bar Menamè where locals sip Aperol spritzes while a bass DJ moves the chairs almost below us. From there we proceed to the nearby Caffè d’Oltremare, a new arrival at the port. Here, Greece meets Salento, and ouzo and local wines are poured in equal measure.

Looking around the port and the people, Mrs. McAlpine supposes this is the perfect place to see the new Salento come out of the old, and notice the tourists mingling with the locals.

“One way to think about it is having new kids come into the building along with the traditional, well-established spaces,” she says. “In Porto there is the new Taverna del Porto that reinterprets classic dishes in a new and modern way, but you also have Bolina and Anime Sante, which are decades old establishments. There is room for everyone.”

Next, we headed to Tricase, the town itself, arguably the most beautiful in Salento, and one of the main centers of second homes in the area. We stopped at G&Co which has won the Tre Coni award given to the best glatirias in the country by food guide Gambero Rosso for three years in a row. Despite the middle of the night, people flock to Pisanelli, the main square. In Farmacia Balboa, 20 people mostly foreign tourists drink handcrafted cocktails while children run around the square with abandon. And this is perhaps the main component of Salento’s transformation, joy in many forms.

And who doesn’t need that now?

Renting a car is essential to exploring Salento. You can choose one at one of the Apulia airports such as Karol Wojtyla Airport, in Bari, or Babola Casale Airport in Brindisi. There is also a high-speed rail service between Rome and Lecce which takes about three hours. 

You can either set up shop in Lecce and take day trips from there or stay in other towns in Salento. In Lecce, Fiermontina is a group of carefully reimagined historic buildings turned boutique hotel (doubles from €320). In addition to the above hotels, outside of Lecce, options include the 19th-century Palazzo Daniele in Gagliano del Capo that’s full of contemporary art and near some of Salento’s most gorgeous beaches (doubles from €423), while Palazzo Presta in Gallipoli 10 rooms in the historical center of the city (doubles of 200).

The recently opened Castello di Tutino is a good example of the area’s revival of former ruins: this 15th-century castle on the outskirts of Tricase now serves drinks and dinner as well as hosting concerts from traditional local pizza to jazz.

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

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