Lecce, Capitol of Everything
From Valle d’Itria we arrive, passing by Brindisi and a quick stop in Lecce. Bustling with life, locals, and usually also tourists, it’s the final outpost before heading south in areas that were, and essentially still are, dedicated to farming. We stop only to christen the new Hotel Patria Palace, first to boast five stars in the entire region, busy today with the opening of its new rooftop bar and gourmet restaurant. In addition to being the capital of local Baroque style, the city is also a hotbed of gastronomic innovation and where, besides pasticciotti (a local dessert), you try to do your research.
We go to dinner at Primo, led by the very young chef, Solaika Marrocco, who shuffles the deck, so to speak, with minimalist plates and a modern take on eggplant parmigiana. “If everyone leaves, Apulia will always remain behind the times” Morocco says, and so she has decided to stay; partly the key to a rebirth that we will find throughout: the return of the experts. In the evening we stroll through the backstreets before going back to our hotel, it’s late and the locals are starting to shut things down. Everything looks different and the usually sunny and sumptuous facades of the palaces turn dark and mysterious at night. We sleep with a view of the Santa Croce church, and in the morning, after a rich breakfast, we head south.
An Olive Desert
We drive through expanses of dried olive trees, devastated by the Xylella bacterium that started in Gallipoli in 2010 and spreading like an oil spill, infected half the region. The bacterium is spread by a type of cicada, that dries up the plants, its transmission bearing an eerie resemblance to the pandemic we are currently experiencing. As was explained to me by Flavio, an 8 year old child from Rome, while having breakfast at Masseria Panareo: “Xylella is like a virus, it’s not evil, it only wants to survive, just like Covid.” For years the crisis was underestimated, if not from malice, certainly from ignorance, with containment plans shelved as if part of a larger conspiracy theory favoring corporations. The end result being that the disease has advanced unchecked with no attempt to eradicate it because it’s now impossible. The northern countryside of the region is green, while here in the south, it’s almost desert-like and there is no point in even questioning what will happen without the olive economy to feed a region…
The houses are almost all new, white, and low, planned during an economic boom by a developer with undoubtable bad taste. These towns all looks the same: central square, baroque church, half empty streets in the historic center, suburbs with new construction. We stop in Uggiano la Chiesa, on the outskirts of Otranto, staying for three nights in a family home in the center of town. In the morning we wake early and head to the beach, deserted until noon, then return home for lunch, indulging the unrelenting sun that renders doing anything before sunset, dangerous and impossible. Before dinner, while I hang my laundry to dry on the roof just like any other housewife in Salento, I hear the noise of tractors returning from the fields and the sounds of televisions turned on. At times I forget how much this is the real Italy, and not my city life in Milan.
Salento is a portion of a peninsula, yet it’s like an island, isolated. The sea is its main attraction and if in August it faces the onslaught of us Northerners, in July it’s still enjoyed by the locals. For three days we toured the public beaches of Alimini and Torre dell’Orso, spits of sand backed by dunes and pine woods, we then check out the narrow bay of Porto Badisco and take a dip at the city beaches of Otranto e Castro. Compared to beaches where the water is so low that bathers sit or walk, but nobody swims, here you lay out on cement, in the middle of the city, and reach the magnificent water from ladders along the city walls, or by jumping in directly. You swim in the sea and soak in the local fauna of families, umbrellas and coolers, which can prove even more interesting than the natural scenery.
The following days, on the Ionian coast, I allow myself an umbrella and lounge chair at Lido Pineta, in the Parco Litorale natural reserve and at Dune Beach Club of Porto Cesareo, to discover that at the beach, public or private, families always do the same things. But here they also do water aerobics, and enjoy beach service from the bar that delivers stuffed pucce (local bread) and drinks by the seaside.
The New Cuisine of Salento
The cuisine of Salento is poor man’s food, not enhanced by the presence of courts and nobility. Typical of the area are friselle (a twice baked bread moistened prior to serving) topped with fresh tomato, fava bean puree with chicory, pasta and beans, and a profusion of greens and ricotta forte (soft cheese made with sheep’s milk). Along the seaside are kiosks selling sea urchins, fried fish, and the ever-present extra large paninis with octopus. I admit to being disenchanted with fine dining compared to the homestyle eateries, where you spend little and eat well (very little for eating so well), but I did notice an increase in attempts at innovation, like the crumble of taralli and octopus in a clay pot, that in established gastronomic outlets has already given way to a new Italian cuisine more solid and enjoyable, not necessarily repeating what’s already been done.
We go to dinner in beautiful Ruffano, a genuine surprise in the interior, to meet chef Valentina Rizzo and partners at Farmacia dei Sani, where they make beautiful and creative Apulian dishes, appetising and generous in size (alas, the future). During lockdown they opened a distillery, la Farmacia dei Contenti, and a studio in collaboration with a local potter. We sip a pre-dinner cocktail, while in the town square a band plays the tango, surrounded by coloured luminaries for the feast of the patron saint. I proceed to film the scene before me because I don’t want to forget this incredibly perfect evening.
I Travel Alone To the End of the Earth
On Sunday with a wake up call at dawn, I take Luca to the airport: he has a “real” job and can’t remote work like I can wherever there is Wi-Fi. After 10 days he’s tired and tanned, and I say goodbye, continuing my trip toward the Ionian coast, in (almost) complete solitude (I have at least three or four social engagements awaiting me). I drive straight towards Santa Maria di Leuca, de finibus terrae, because as the southernmost point of the region, it’s also the end of the road, a literal dead end. I listen to the Sunday mass outside in the courtyard of the sanctuary, and do a quick tour of the staircase that floods once a year, and then I take a stroll along the seaside inundated with souvenir stalls. I want to see the eclectic villas built starting in the 1800s in what was a fisherman village, elected as a vacation spot by the wealthy families of Salento. They used their might by engaging the most creative architects of the times, giving life to the most unique promenade in the world. Here the Adriatic and Ionian meet, where legend tells a tale of mermaids, but in reality here is where the Ionian coast begins, and it’s something else entirely.
Salento, the sun, the sea, the wind
If the Adriatic coast shows a family friendly aspect of Salento where nature still dominates parts of the coast and sand alternates with the rocks, the Ionian coast shows a different side. Marina di Pescoluse has been renamed the Maldives of Salento and Gallipoli is known as the Ibiza of Italy. Stunning waters, beaches with resort after resort all the way to the outskirts of Taranto. Young people crowd in Gallipoli, attracted by the nightlife and clubs (at least before Covid), while there are famous all-inclusive destinations like Porto Cesareo. In reality, if you stay in the interior of the region, the difference is established by the wind. If there is a northern or easterly wind you go to the Ionian side from Otranto to Luca, but if there is sirocco (a hot dry wind from North Africa) or westerly wind it’s best to go to the Adriatic coast north of Otranto. If you don’t understand any of it like me, there are websites and apps that tell you where to go.
Castles and B&Bs
Work dictates visiting places other than churches and historic towns, therefore I head to a newly conceived lux B&B, the Le Sei Conche Relais & Spa, invisible and tucked in the center of Ugento, in a cluster of connected houses with centuries of history. Bed and breakfasts are not like they used to be, they now offer exquisite hospitality, but with the level of intimacy of fewer rooms (and a pool, restaurant and spa…) In town I stayed at Castello di Ugento, a work of monumental restoration by the heirs of the D’Amore dynasty. They made use of the family castle: 1,500 square meters of frescoes, 4,500 of space, an interior courtyard, a gourmet restaurant and bar, a cooking school, and two Norman towers enclosed in the basement that will soon house a wine cellar. After six years of renovations, the future of the castle is yet to be decided, and the family is already planning exhibition spaces and bringing the castle back to the center of the city’s cultural life. An impressive project, conceived by sophisticated minds, beloved by many international guests, I hope it will lead by example, just like it did in Fasano and surrounding areas.
Gallipoli e Porto Cesareo
I wake up like a princess in one of the castle’s rooms, curious about visiting the famous Gallipoli. I go in the morning, which is a terrible time to go. The streets in the new part of the city are busy like any regular Monday morning, while on the island in the touristy historic center everything is still and silent. Souvenir shops and some restaurants are open along the main drag, with meals for 10 euro (like the rented cots in the 2017 scandal). I’m struck by the noise, because after days of deafening cicadas, here the bother is from the trolleys rattling on the cobblestones. I decide that I need to get here after 7 in the evening, and I move along to Porto Cesareo, a renowned coastal area.
I’m a guest of the Dune Hotel and its director, who for some years has been a spokesman for the FoodExp event, to “create a reversed influx of migration” and to invert the flow of tourism that for decades watched the greatest hospitality minds go elsewhere. I believe it’s working because within two days I’m having lunch with colleagues and friends from the industry before a platter of raw fish and whole fried redfish. Here they’ve introduced the lesson: to do their things well, source better local ingredients, use creativity in their techniques and not the final product. Tubetti pasta with mussels are divine and even beat out the urchin risotto and coffee (a combination repeated from Lecce to the south, which I eat a total of three times in five days): it’s now a new local classic. Stuffed, I head to the beach with my computer to work until sunset, and I’m stunned by how crowded it is until evening, teeming with families who won’t relinquish any of the lounge chairs: here going to the beach is a serious thing, people camp out until there’s no light left in the sky. The next day I work at the beach again, meanwhile, for an hour there’s dancing to water aerobics set to blasting music, along with a club MC: this is the real Italian summer.
Sunset in Taranto
Last stop, Taranto. Before going out to the centennial celebration at Varvaglione winery, I take a quick spin through the tiny streets of the old town. Sadly known for its steel mill, cancer deaths, and a declining heavy industry, Taranto is also the world leader in mussels production, boasting waters teeming with fish where dolphins swim, and in the early stages of a redevelopment project that will alter its appearance. The run-down historic center is crowded on a tiny island, but I see posters announcing properties for sale for one euro, and those for renovations announcing big improvements. The rest of the city extends to the mainland, towards the south, while over a bridge there’s a second Taranto, a huge harbor made up of shipyards, warehouses and cranes. The only things ever mentioned on the news, unfortunately.
That’s where the past is, but the future says different, because this city barely missed the role of Capital of Culture of 2022, but is already looking ahead to the Mediterranean Games which it will host in 2026. In a few years I bet it will be the new Marseilles.
Kids swim in the waters near the pier with views of fishing boats, restaurants set tables outdoors, and the giant sun, fiery red, sets into the sea. Finally. I stop and stare enraptured, suspended over water on the bridge that divides the Mar Grande (Big Sea) and the Ionian Sea. It’s time to leave and go home, but here, I want to come back as soon as possible.
P.S. At the end of the trip my odometer will mark 3,176 kilometers.
KEEP THE ROAD TRIP GOING