Exploring Italy’s Salento Region – The New York Times

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“Go to one of the inland cities today,” advises the burly fruit vendor as he fingers me a barattiere, a mix of melon and cucumber that’s indigenous to Puglia, the area that varieties the stiletto heel of Italy’s boot. “The sand will be blowing today on both the coasts, and you won’t be able to see the lovely colors of the sea.”

The wind and the ocean are fixed matters of dialog in Puglia. Whether or not it’s the scirocco, the new present coming from the Sahara, or the tramontana, the chilly draft from the Alps (to not point out the ponente or the levante), the best way the wind blows determines which seashore to go to and the way to plan the day. Bartenders, road distributors and store homeowners are fast to opine about which is in power and the way to finest navigate its currents.

Tonight in Lecce, the tramontana takes middle stage and the impact is sort of a fan blowing at medium velocity on a nonetheless, scorching night. Doorways of streetfront properties away from the extra touristy predominant drag are slowly opening after lengthy afternoon siestas, and nonne in home clothes grasp laundry whereas they chat with neighbors and passers-by.

I be part of the night stroll generally known as the passeggiata, mingling with each Italian and overseas guests and stopping into quite a few town’s many church buildings (there are greater than 40 in whole) alongside the best way. With its abundance of effective structure and artwork, town appears its finest in these closing hours earlier than sundown, seemingly illuminated by a golden gentle from inside. It’s the limestone of the Salento, the southernmost space of this southernmost area, the place the rock is gentle and mild for carvers, that gives the constructing blocks of the structure right here. Carparo, mazzaro, pietra Leccese, tufa — every stone provides a barely totally different patina. Carvings make the facades come to cinematic life — cherubs, lions and griffins vie for the central position, as extra stately spiritual sorts like angels and saints appear to attempt to tame their cavorting, to little impact.

After my church hopping, I discover my strategy to Saloon Keeper 1933, a speakeasy-style bar with artisanal cocktails, bearded mixologists and mismatched furnishings. Vintage carpets lie underneath Nineteen Twenties leather-based membership chairs and framed classic pictures grasp from the partitions. However what units it aside from an identical spot in, say, New York or London, is that it sits smack in entrance of the Chiesa di San Niccolò Dei Greci, a compact and nonetheless intact instance of town’s Byzantine church structure. Finding a brand new era of hospitality and leisure outposts inside a stone’s throw (and typically even inside) a number of the area’s most historic monuments and metropolis facilities is a pattern throughout Puglia, however particularly right here within the Salento.

I first got here to Puglia in 2005 with my ex-. I’ve been again a dozen occasions since, falling in love extra deeply on every expedition. I’m not alone: Folks have gone from me quizzically once I point out Puglia, to now having it excessive on their journey want lists.

Regardless of being linked to the remainder of the nation by land, the realm feels extra like an island, with the Ionian Sea to the west, and the Adriatic to the east. At Santa Maria di Leuca, the Land’s Finish of southeast Italy, the 2 our bodies of water come collectively.

This a part of the nation has been topic to many an invasion, and the castles that dot the shoreline have been the road of protection in opposition to the Saracens, Normans, Turks and Spanish who typically briefly dominated right here. Now it’s a gentler conquest, a brand new era of inns, eating places, bars and seashore golf equipment, opened by foreigners seduced by the realm, Pugliese seeking to put their area on the map, and Italians from different elements of the nation wishing to create a brand new life near the ocean.

Athena McAlpine was one of many first hoteliers to make the leap, transferring right here in 2002 after residing in London for a few years. She and her husband, Alistair, opened the Convento di Santa Maria di Costantinopoli in Marittima di Diso, reworking a former Franciscan monastery’s cloister and monks’ cells right into a one-of-a-kind hideaway with a museum-worthy assortment of artwork and artifacts (doubles from 432 euros or about $440). Rob Potters, from Australia, created Masseria Trapanà after visiting the realm from Tuscany the place he was a resort advisor. He resuscitated a derelict constructing simply north of Lecce that had not been lived in for 200 years right into a light-filled luxurious resort (doubles from 290 euros).

The previous Pepsi chief government Massimo Fasanella d’Amore di Ruffano and his associate, Diana Bianchi, renovated his household’s unused 900-year-old fortress over the course of 4 years, uncovering its Seventeenth-century frescos and including a brand new state-of-the-art cooking college on the Castello di Ugento within the metropolis of the identical title within the southern a part of the peninsula (doubles from 400 euros).

After which there was the arrival of celebrities, too — Helen Mirren has a house in Tiggiano close to Tricase, Meryl Streep has a property on the coast and Gérard Depardieu has a pad in Lecce.

“My partner Steve Riseley read about the Salento and dragged me,” mentioned Harvey Brown, one of many new entrants to the resort sport. “I think there is something in the air here, an energy that makes us want to create.” The duo simply opened Castle Elvira, a 37-acre property exterior Trepuzzi close to Lecce, with a fortress, masseria (a stone farm constructing), cottage, historic tower and a restaurant and bar, that doubles as Mr. Brown’s atelier — he’s additionally an artist (doubles from 299 euros).

What’s it precisely that’s so seductive concerning the Salento, I’m wondering as I crisscross the peninsula in late June shortly after we’re given permission to shed our pandemic masks in Italy. To begin with, there’s the spectacular sea, with a number of the most stunning seashores and ports in all of Italy. On a Saturday morning, I head to the Castro Marina, probably the most atmospheric of the small rocky ports that dot the Adriatic shoreline. I be part of the our bodies of all styles and sizes alongside the dock and rocks that present pure diving boards into the ocean to swim laps within the emerald-turquoise water.

After cooling off, I’ve a caffè leccese (espresso and almond milk on ice) at Ilios, a tiny bar by the fishing boats, and later munch on road food-style fritto misto at il Friggitoria Porto Vecchio. One other day I meet up with buddies at Kum, a family-owned seashore membership close to Laghi Alimini, a nature reserve north of Otranto, the place a pair of lakes surrounded by pine woods and native vegetation are simply steps from the ocean. The membership provides seashore chairs and umbrellas in addition to just-caught grilled fish and crisp native wines.

On one more sunny day, this time on the west coast close to Gallipoli, I watch well-heeled {couples} pop bottles of Franciacorta (Italy’s reply to champagne) whereas exhibiting off their swimsuits from Gucci and Missoni at Punta Suina’s G Beach Club. All by the week, I verify off locations to swim, every extra pristine than the subsequent: Punta Prosciutto, Torre San Giovanni, Porto Selvaggio.

Away from the coast I drive by countryside with stone partitions and twisted olive bushes previous fields of lengthy golden grass and wildflowers, the warmth rising seemingly by a smudged lens. I hold my window open to inhale the odor of the figs ripening within the solar throughout me. You would spend every week driving round on an itinerary devoted simply to church buildings and cathedrals.

In Galatina, about 10 miles southeast of Lecce, the outskirts look unpromising, however as soon as I park and head into the middle, I uncover an exquisite gold-hued city with the extraordinary 14th century Basilica di Santa Caterina d’Alessandria and its gobsmacking frescoes. (The city can be dwelling to the pasticciotto, a pastry filled with custard cream, and the bakeries with their pretty Artwork Deco indicators look straight out of a movie set). I peek into a number of of the dilapidated however stately palazzi up on the market, earlier than heading to the close by city of Nardò the place church buildings multiply in all instructions, backed by Baroque palaces.

I’ve visited Otranto on nearly each journey to Puglia. The Unesco-protected metropolis, about half an hour drive south from Lecce, is considered one of my favorites within the Salento, with its magnificent twelfth century cathedral and mosaic ground representing the “Tree of Life.” I might spend hours wanting on the imagery with its mythological creatures and biblical scenes. It’s additionally a really cool spot to take a seat on a baking scorching day. Exterior it takes a second for my eyes to regulate to the intense solar. I observe the city’s washed-cream partitions bleached by salt and watch a pickup soccer sport on a small seashore alongside the ramparts; the tween boys rejoice every purpose with a plunge into the ocean, leaping off the rocks with the bravado of Francesco Totti, the previous Roma soccer star. It’s a second of unbridled pleasure.

On my final evening I meet Athena McAlpine, the hotelier, for dinner in Tricase Porto, the port exterior the principle city. Our first cease is Bar Menamè the place the locals are sipping Aperol spritzes because the D.J.’s bass nearly strikes the chairs underneath us. From there we transfer to the close by Caffè d’Oltremare, a brand new arrival to the port. Right here, Greece meets the Salento, and ouzu and native wine are poured in equal measure.

Trying across the port and on the folks, she posits that that is the proper spot to see the brand new Salento rising from the outdated, and observe the vacationers mixing with the locals.

“One way to think of it is the arrival of new kids on the block alongside the established, traditional haunts,” she says. “In the Porto you have the new restaurant Taverna del Porto reinterpreting classic dishes in a fresh and modern way, but you also have Bolina and Anime Sante, decades-old institutions. There is room for all.”

Afterward we head into Tricase, the city itself, arguably the loveliest within the Salento, and one of many epicenters for second properties within the area. We cease at G & Co which has received the Tre Coni award given to the nation’s finest gelaterias by the Gambero Rosso meals information three years in a row. Although it’s midnight, individuals are flooding into Piazza Pisanelli, the principle sq.. At Farmacia Balboa 20-something principally overseas vacationers are consuming artisanal cocktails as children run across the sq. with abandon. And perhaps that’s the chief ingredient of this Salento in transition, pleasure in lots of varieties.

And who doesn’t want that proper now?

A rental automotive is crucial to discover the Salento. You possibly can choose one up at considered one of Puglia’s airports like Karol Wojtyla Airport, in Bari, or Papola Casale Airport in Brindisi. There’s additionally a high-speed rail service between Rome and Lecce which takes about three hours. 

You possibly can both arrange store in Lecce and take day journeys from there or take up residence in one other of the Salento’s cities. In Lecce, the Fiermontina is a cluster of thoughtfully reimagined historic buildings become a boutique resort (doubles from 320 euros). Along with the inns talked about above, exterior of Lecce the alternatives embody the nineteenth century Palazzo Daniele in Gagliano del Capo full of up to date artwork and near a few of Salento’s most spectacular seashores (doubles from 423 euros), whereas Palazzo Presta in Gallipoli has 10 rooms within the historic middle of city (doubles from 200).

The just lately opened Castello di Tutino is an efficient instance of the realm’s resuscitation of former monuments: This fifteenth century fortress on the outskirts of Tricase now serves drinks and dinner in addition to internet hosting musical concert events from conventional native pizzica music to jazz.

Ondine Cohane is an everyday contributor to Occasions Journey and the co-author of Nationwide Geographic’s “Always Italy” with Frances Mayes.

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