There’s a certain level of comfort that comes from vacationing at the same place numerous times.  Lecce in the Puglia region of southern  Italy or, to a lesser extent,  Rome come to mind when I think of that.  How familiar they’ve become, so many parts of the city we already know and yet there are so many places  yet unexplored for one reason or another. Our familiarity with Lecce brings a sense of ease  wrought  only by being in a place where we have developed a certain history of our own and have locals to guide us.     

At the end of our trip through the Battlefields of World War I this summer, our son, daughter in law and grandkids  traveled on to England while my husband and I left for Lecce in Italy where my mother in law was visiting her family.   Our short  trip to Italy this year was a last minute add-on so that we could escort my mother in law back to Chicago. 

        Lecce is the principal city in Salento.  Salento, a designation that I’ve only heard being used for about the past ten years or so, comprises numerous towns, villages and cities. Salento  is a geographic region at the southern end of the province of Puglia, or the “heel of the boot,” a sub-peninsula of the Italian Peninsula. In Salento, arrid land is covered in wild flowers and thousand-year-old olive groves, unique architecture, surrounded by picture postcard beaches and the turquoise waters of the  Adriatic and Ionian Seas.   

       Since 1980, we’ve been to Lecce at least eight times.   It’s my mother in law’s home town, the place she met her husband during World War II, the place where she got married and the place she left while still in her teens.  Her large family – her two sisters and  nieces and nephews and cousins and their families –  still live in the area.    When we go there, we have the benefit of being with these relatives who are all native Leccese.  From them we know about the best places to shop, to eat (when not eating at their homes), what concert is being held in the ancient amphitheater in the center of town.  But there’s no mistake about it, the primary reason we are in Lecce has always been to be with the family so any deep exploration of  the region has been sporadic and only done when it was something we could fit in.  

Lecce’s ancient amphitheater in its large piazza

       This year we found pockets of time  in our ten-day stay to  get a taste of what we have yet to see throughout Salento.  My husband and I took the opportunity to venture around a bit.  Our time was so limited or maybe our planning so poor that we sometimes felt like the Clark Griswold family at the rim of the Grand Canyon:  taking in the site for about 5 seconds, our heads bobbing appreciatively  (“Uh-huh, Uh-huh”) and then leaving! So I can only characterize the nature of our travels during this trip as providing the basis for research for our next stay in the area.  

      Such was the case with our trip to Alberobello to see the Trulli houses that we’d read and heard so much about.   The 1500 or so Trulli beehive-shaped homes made of local limestone can date back as far as the 14th Century.  One story I heard as to why they are built the way they are is so that the homes  could be easily dismantled  centuries ago when the local financial police would canvass the area, searching for people who had not paid their taxes.   I have no idea whether  that story is true but it survives to this day.  As we drove the hour or so distance from Lecce, I thought we would have a pleasant day meandering through the hills, have lunch, some wine, take in the scenery.  That was not to be, unfortunately, because we went on a major holiday called Ferragosto, in the middle of August, the major tourist month,  when everyone is off of work and families are enjoying beachtime. We started out at 9 a.m. – too late to get a parking space anywhere in the town.   So we drove around as best we could through the narrow streets to see what we could see.   I got the impression that the town was lovely but a bit overcommercialized.  Still,  it would have been interesting to see what the inside of a trullo looks like – and maybe find out the true story behind the legend.  Next time.

A Trulli home

       The beach we normally go to near Lecce is  San Cataldo on the Adriatic Sea coast.   It’s characterized by some as not the most beautiful beach in Salento but I think it’s pretty enough and it’s ideal for our grandkids when they are with us because the sea depth increases gradually making it perfect for the kids to be in the water safely.

Water’s edge at San Cataldo

One amazing discovery this year is that the sea of San Cataldo hides the remains of Port Hadrian.   The original structure dates back to the second century B.C. and is now almost completely underwater.   The emperor Hadrian apparently ordered the reconstruction of the small port already existing in previous times where Octavian had landed a few decades before, following the death of Julius Caesar.  I’m always astonished when I write things like that  – the antiquities here are incredible. The port had apparently been neglected and was recovered during the Fascist era.      You can see remnants like this throughout Salento.  

A broad view of the beach at San Cataldo. Just behind the white lighthouse is the remnant of Port Hadrian

      The downside of San Cataldo is that it can be very windy.   But on this trip I learned a little something about how to read the wind and then determine which beaches might be best to enjoy on any given day.    For example,  with a southerly or south-easterly wind the sea in San Cataldo will be calm.   With a northerly wind, the sea will become extremely rough and lying on the beach becomes a virtual sand blast.  If the winds are coming from the north in San Cataldo, a better choice for beach time that day might be on the beaches of Gallipoli where the sea is likely be calmer.

        The peninsula of Salento has  over 50 beaches to enjoy.  In other trips we went to the towns of Otranto and Gallipoli,  where we walked the streets and back alleys but never swam their beautiful shores. 

The beach at Gallipoli, an old island town in the south-west corner of Puglia

I had also been told about the beaches and vistas at Santa Cesarea Terme, on Salento’s eastern coast,  about an hour and a half drive south of  Lecce.   This year we had the time to go.   The beauty of the drive down was spectacular.  It was August but, like our trip to Alberobello, it was the middle of the week so we thought we might be able to beat the crowds.    What we found in this case was that it was still bit crowded but manageable.   The deep blue sea jutted out from rocky  coves.  Unlike San Cataldo, the water was deep even close to the shore.   But it  was literally a picture perfect location.  My one problem was navigating the rocks down to the sea, frankly because I had on the wrong shoes.  Again, poor planning or just not knowing what to expect. I should have had my water shoes, instead I had on flip flops, the soles of which were too slippery to climb rocks.  

The rocky beach at Santa Cesarea Terme

On other days during our stay, we took a guided tour, along with some cousins, of the ancient walls of the city of Lecce. We considered ourselves pretty familiar with the old churches and cathedrals in town, but on another day, we decided to have a knowledgeable guide take us on a walking tour around town and inside some of the major baroque churches. Time well spent.

A baroque altar in the heart of Lecce

We have always said that you don’t get to Lecce by chance. It’s far enough from the major tourist areas of Italy that it takes deliberate effort to get there. We knew that certain celebrities from Spain, Germany and Britain have long known about southern Italy, including Lecce. But significant on this trip were the number of English speaking people we met all around Lecce – Canadians, Americans, English-speaking Europeans. Lecce had generally been undiscovered for most of the 40 years we’ve been going there. Now Lecce, and Puglia and Salento in general, are being written up in magazines, newspapers and apparently on ads on European TV as a new kind of paradise. The owners of the guest house in which we stayed told us that normally Lecce has about 100,000 residents, but during summer months, especially July and August, that figure increases to about 400,000. In many ways wonderful for the local economy but, selfishly, our well-kept secret is a secret no more! Seriously, southern Italy is worth going – it’s still a pretty untapped jewel!



One thought on “Salento

  1. It is a very interesting region of Italy down there – and without the huge amount of tourist you find in other parts of the country. I would have liked to spend more time when we were down there last year.


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