Porto Selvaggio, Puglia, Italy: hidden seaside destination
Extract of the article written by Lee Marshall.
The Salento peninsula in southern Puglia is the Cornwall or the Galicia of Italy: a seagirt place of ancient and insular cultural traditions, not all of them diluted into tourist attractions. In some Salento villages they still speak Griko, a Greek dialect that may be the only living remnant of Magna Grecia, that swathe of southern Italy colonised by Ancient Greece back when the Romans were still living in huts.
Although the Salento is not the undiscovered territory it was 30 years ago, it still seems apt, in this land’s end, with its flat inland plain covered in ancient, gnarled olives, that there should be a secret bay with the evocative name of Porto Selvaggio, or “Wild Harbour”. A few miles west of the town of the pleasant market town of Nardò, this pristine coastal enclave has enjoyed protected-area status since 1980.
Easiest point of access is the inland park entrance at Villa Tafuro, on the main Gallipoli to Porto Cesareo road, but parking here can be tricky (most locals chance a space on the hard shoulder). The other option is to continue for half a mile or so to the Torre Uluzzo entrance, where there’s a car park. From Villa Tafuro, allow 15 minutes for the walk down to the beach and at least 20 for the climb back up; from Torre Uluzzo, it’s around 35 minutes there and 45 back.
From Villa Tafuro, a well-trodden path leads down past facing stands of Macedonian oak into a cool forest of umbrella pines. Though the sea is always in sight, shimmering beyond the trees, it’s only when you leave the last pino marittimo behind and step out onto the pebbly beach that you take in the full measure and majesty of the bay. Dominating a rocky spur to the left is a 16th-century defensive tower, the Torre Dell’Alto, while to the right the rock ledges that frame the blue-green water owe their regular shape to the fact that the pre-Roman Messapian tribes of Puglia used to quarry the rock here by driving wooden wedges into cracks, soaking them with seawater and waiting for them to expand and shear off great chunks of limestone.
But although this is an area rich in traces of history and prehistory (a site near Torre Uluzzo has given its name to a late Neanderthal cultural epoch, the Uluzzian), the focus of most of those who venture down to Porto Selvaggio today is the sea – gently shelving, and protected from all but strong south-westerly winds. It’s a place that seems made for sunbathers – the smooth rock ledges make for great tanning slabs, while during the hottest part of the day the pinewoods provide a shady picnic spot. There’s a drinking water fountain, lavatory facilities, and recycling bins for litter but, blissfully, nothing else to disturb the peace. The energetic can explore the paths that wind along the coast, through fragrant bushes of lentisk, myrtle, cistus and rosemary.
North of here, the sandy beaches of Porto Cesareo have all the gelato, beach tennis and hormonal teen tension that you could possibly desire, while to the south, the ancient, walled seaport of Gallipoli has become quite the radical chic hang-out. For me, though, neither hold a candle to the spectacle of sunset at Porto Selvaggio, when the rocks and the garrigue flare up copper-red against a deep blue sky.