by Kathryn Hone
THE first time I visited Puglia was by car, travelling the length of Italy in one exhausting July day. After miles of parasols on the bland beaches that flank the Autostrada Adriatica, the road turns inland across a vast plain, the landscape unfurling like a giant map dotted with towns and villages as far as you can see.
On the left, a distant hump denotes the mountainous Gargano peninsula; to the right is a far-off line of hills like a giant’s backbone. The red earth between is cultivated with olive groves and wheatfields.
We were bound for Gallipoli, on the Ionian Sea, inside the heel of the Italian boot. In the long, narrow strip of land that makes up Puglia, the southernmost Salento peninsula is the harshest, rockiest area in the whole impoverished region. It is also the least discovered by the outside world, and has the best swimming, in warm, clear water, that I have found anywhere in Italy.
The Ancient Greeks who created outposts of their empire in ports such as Gallipoli (“beautiful city” in Greek) must have felt at home. The arid limestone landscape of cacti and wild herbs feels like parts of Greece.
Today the old city still has a centre of whitewashed houses dominated by a medieval castle on the harbour. At the foot of the castle walls is a daily fish market, a pungent Aladdin’s cave of stalls selling tuna, swordfish, squid and shellfish. But to reach the old town, especially in the height of the tourist season, you have to negotiate the traffic of the modern town, with its sprawling street market. Half of northern Italy seems to have come south in search of sunshine and seafood.
The debilitating heat means that our children greet ideas of cultural sightseeing with wails of protest, but we manage to coax them to Lecce, 40km (25 miles) away. The walled city is a golden yellow marvel of Baroque architecture and decoration, its sandstone carvings of beasts and angels on churches and palazzi seeming new-minted. We wandered into the main piazza, a gracious setting for the 17th-century cathedral, its Bishop’s Palace and seminary.
It is still a lively university town, with many restaurants offering traditional cucina del Salento. The dishes were the result of poverty – not much meat, some fish, pasta, beans and many vegetables, both wild and cultivated. Orichietti, or little ears, is the distinctive shaped pasta, with cime di rapa, a kind of bitter broccoli; or ciceri e tria, chickpeas with home-made pasta.
Seaside trips were a more popular choice with the family.
Along the coast going north from Gallipoli we paused at the former fishing village of Santa Maria al Bagno, at the entrance to which are four large columns surrounded by palm trees, the remnants of a 17th-century fortress built to keep out Saracen marauders. Along the winding road around the next headland is the magnificent nature reserve of Porto Selvaggio.
We carried our picnic a mile through steep pinewoods throbbing with cicadas down to a rocky inlet. Here the coast is undeveloped, though it is a popular spot packed with visitors in July. The swimming is delicious because ice-cold freshwater springs run into the sea at this point, creating freezing patches of clear water.
An advantage of being on the Ionian coast is that it faces west: in the evening we sat on the rocks with a glass of wine and watched the red sun sink into the sea. Gallipoli’s Ancient Greeks probably did the same.