Known for its excellent beaches, charming towns, wine, seafood, and olive oil, the Salento Peninsula of Puglia is a great destination for a leisurely road trip. Start by exploring the city of Lecce with its fine Baroque architecture. Plan to spend at least half a day in Lecce (although longer is better).
Driving down the east coast, visit the whitewashed town of Otranto, one of the prettiest Salento towns. Be sure to visit the cathedral, walk along the seaside promenade, and stop in a few of the shops. If it’s hot and you want to swim, there’s a beach in walking distance of the historic center.
Continuing down the Adriatic coast, stop in the spa town of Santa Cesarea Terme, known for its thermal waters and turquoise blue sea. During summer you can visit the sea caves of Grotta Zinzulusa, a little farther down the coast, and then the pretty seaside town of Castro.
Continue to the very tip of the peninsula to the town of Santa Maria di Leuca where the Ionian and Adriatic Seas meet. It’s only about 30 miles beyond Otranto, but the drive is slow. Because of its mild climate, the swimming season here is long. During summer there are boat trips to sea caves and lots of nightlife. Marina di Pescoluse, nearby on the Ionian coast, has a white sandy beach, sand dunes, and shallow water, making it popular with families.
Now head up the west coast about 30 miles to Gallipoli, a charming town whose unusual old town is built on a limestone island, now reached by a bridge. You’ll need to park before you get to the bridge and walk across. The town is like an open-air museum making it a great place to spend time wandering through the narrow streets.
Continuing north, around Porto Selvaggio, is a good stretch of beaches in a nature reserve. Further north, Porto Cesareo is another nature reserve on the coast and nearby Torre Lapillo Bay is a white sand beach with an ancient watchtower. These areas also have good hiking paths so it’s an ideal place for walking.
Head northwest on the SS174 to go inland to the town of Manduria. A good place to taste wine and find out more about it is the Museum of Primitivo Wine, a top wine of Puglia. There’s also an archaeological museum and park where you can see ancient megalithic walls and a necropolis. Heading east from Manduria on the SS16 you’ll arrive back in Lecce.
If you have more time, you can see more of the peninsula’s interior where olive groves and vineyards are abundant. South of Lecce, visit a few of the Grecia Salentino towns, an interesting group of towns with Greek heritage. One of my favorites is Corigliano d’Otranto, with its impressive castle.
* Read about Salento in Salento by 5: Friendship, Food, Music and Travel Within the Heel of Italy’s Boot, an unusual and fun travel book written and illustrated by 5 friends – 3 locals and 2 travelers from California.
For customized English-speaking tours of the area, visits to wineries or cooking classes, contact Ylenia of YL Tours.