The fishmonger looks at me, looks at the heap of huge, pink langoustines on the scales in front of him and shrugs. I don’t speak Italian, he doesn’t speak English, and no one else in the growing queue of ageing Italian gents – now snaking out through the PVC drapes that serve as a door – can shed any light on what the fishmonger has spent the last five minutes trying to communicate to me.
Finally, he grabs one of the langoustines from the gleaming counter in front of him, skilfully cracks it open with his hands, pops the wobbling raw flesh into his mouth and makes two internationally recognised gestures – and then, at last, to the visible relief of his customers, I get it. First, he puts thumb and forefinger together and kisses them, theatrically – “buonissimo!” – then he rubs the same two fingers together and frowns – “caro!”.
The point he’d been trying to make was that, yes, I was about to pay a fortune for the langoustines but, yes, they were going to be worth every euro. And that, in the extreme tip of Salento – the heel of Italy’s kicking boot, in the region of Puglia – is a message that needs to be delivered. I ate them (barbecued that evening, under the long shadows of fig trees), and I know exactly why no one I’d kept waiting in the shop had complained one bit.
To understand this part of Puglia (or Apulia – no one seems able to decide which), it helps to appreciate the importance its natives place on the food they produce; like those langoustines – pulled fresh from the Adriatic that morning – like the figs, and like everything else this southern Italian agricultural powerhouse gives its country (40% of its olive oil comes from Puglia). If Kent is the garden of England, this is Italy’s garden, allotment, farm and vineyard all rolled into one – with blockbuster beaches.
It wasn’t always like this. Or rather, Salento has long been exactly like this, but only relatively recently has anybody bothered to take any notice. Northern Italians looked down on Puglians as unsophisticated farmhands, while the rest of the world – well, they had Tuscany, the Amalfi Coast and Renaissance cities, so what did they care about a distant spit of land at the bottom?
In Italy, it’s just another place to add to an outrageously photogenic list
But today, thanks in no small part to budget flights and the growth of food tourism, Puglia is well and truly on the smart traveller’s radar – and the smartest of all (including us, in case you were wondering) head to Salento. The ‘heel’ is flanked by the Adriatic sea on its east coast and the Ionian on its west, and in between lies a mass of flattish, dry, but verdant land that would be notably beautiful were it in any country. In Italy, it’s just another place to add to an outrageously photogenic list.
The villa my wife and I have holed up in is sat on top of a cliff at the very southernmost tip; a short coastal drive from the town of Santa Maria di Leuca, not far from the very point where Adriatic meets Ionian. On a clear day (of which there are lots) you can see the southern Albanian coast and the Greek island of Corfu in the distant east. This view, it’s fair to say, would be remarkable anywhere on earth – fig and olive trees cascade down the cliff until you can’t see them anymore, and the sea stretches as far as the horizon, blue and seemingly close enough that you could reach out and grab a handful of water.
To orientate our way around this stretch of coast, we follow the advice of a local and charter a small boat for the morning from the harbour in Leuca. Our driver – a local who, it turns out, learned to speak English in Bournemouth, and who claims to much prefer the British weather – heads east straight away, where the very same soaring cliffs overlooked by our villa turn out to be peppered with spectacular caves, and we moor up outside one of them. In peak summer, he tells us, we’d be jostling for space with other boats, but out of season – as it is when we visit – we’re on our own. He leaves us to dive into the cold, clear Adriatic and swim into the cave. With the tide at its highest, we duck down into what he tells us is the entrance, then emerge into the cave to a spectacular light show – as bright sunlight illuminates the water at the mouth of the cave, it glows a dazzling, artificial-looking neon blue.
Back in the boat, we plod slowly along below the cliffs, and I continue to snap manically away with my camera (“are you sure we need any more pictures of caves?” asks my wife, who’s clearly not feeling the way I do about karstic cliff formations) as we turn back, crossing through the point where the Adriatic becomes the Ionian. We pass our starting point in Leuca and begin to make our way west, where the soaring cliffs becoming immediately shallower and the odd sandy beach emerges.
The following day (nursing sunburn that’s 100% the karmic product of my comment that I’d take Salento’s baking hot weather over Bournemouth’s, any day of the week), we jump in the car and trace the same stretch of coast west towards the pretty port town of Gallipoli. And it’s beaches we’ve gone in search of. The route is dotted with small beach towns, each stuffed with the usual shops selling cheap inflatables and ice cream, along with casinos, bars and the sort of garish seaside attractions so embedded in European coastal culture you imagine they predate the human race.
We ignore them in favour of one of Salento’s many lidos – popular beach clubs where a handful of coins gets you a lounger and parasol for the day. We head for the Lido Coco Loco near the town of Torre San Giovanni – apparently signposted from the road but still (for us at least) almost impossible to locate. Here, a bleached-white, Hamptons-esque bar, manned by a DJ day and night, sits at the foot of a busy stretch of sand that seems to go on for miles.
Salento's towns have both beauty and charm in spades, none more so than Ostuni
I’d happily have stayed there forever (or at least until they threw me off my rented sun lounger), but Salento has far more to offer than just great beaches – its towns, too, have both beauty and charm in spades, none more so than Ostuni. This small city is at the north-east tip of the heel, where it meets the, er, ankle, and its blazing white hilltop old town rises out of the flat land like a mythical castle.The narrow streets are lined with rickety white buildings, many with bright blue doors, while old lamps sway overhead and small, bustling bars and restaurants spill out onto the cobbles – if dropped there and told to guess where they were, most people would probably say Greece.
The food, though, is a dead giveaway that you’re in Italy. The ear-shaped pasta the area’s famed for (orecchiette) is everywhere, often, if you go in season – served simply and deliciously with cime di rape (turnip tops), garlic, chilli and lashings of local olive oil. In the tiny (and impossibly photogenic) nearby town of Cisternino, BBQs and the butchers manning them are king, and the plentiful charred pork that comes draped on top of rocket and shavings of gran padano cheese – eaten at a table on a street so narrow people practically have to clamber over it – is a dish I’d fly back tomorrow to eat. For breakfast, lunch and dinner. The wine, too, is a revelation – robust reds, products of the blazing sun, often made with local negroamaro and primitivo grapes.
The white town rises from the land like a mythical castle
But we save the best for last. On our final day, we take the road north from Leuca up the spine of the Salentine peninsula to Lecce, the largest and most important city in the region. Though its outskirts are as unspectacular as those of most cities, the very centre has that most Italian trait of being utterly jaw-dropping at every turn. You could walk for days through quiet winding streets, flanked by Baroque architecture built from creamy Lecce limestone – each turn revealing yet another 500-year-old church or palazzo, like it’s the most ordinary and unremarkable thing in the world.
Lecce is a perfect microcosm of the region itself, with an understated beauty and charm that’s not so much ‘look at me!’ as ‘look at me if you like – I’m not going anywhere’. Like the fishmonger taught me – some things are worth taking the time and effort to understand, and Salento’s definitely one of them. It just took the world a while to figure that out.
Where to stay
The Thinking Traveller
Our base, at the very southern tip of Salento, was Tenuta ai Fichi – a spacious modern villa set among immaculate gardens and perched on the edge of a cliff, looking out over dazzling blue seas. Perhaps the best way to take in the view is from the large infinity pool, which offers a welcome chance to escape the searing Mediterranean heat.
Tenuta ai Fichi is available exclusively through villa specialists the Thinking Traveller, whose local knowledge and on-the-ground support is something you’ll come to appreciate before, during and even after your stay. They can organise cooking lessons, excursions and help with anything you need – from finding a local fishmonger to booking and recommending restaurants.
Tenuta ai Fichi costs from €3,150 (£2,325) per week based on 4 sharing 2 rooms to €6,250 (£4,615) based on 14 sharing 7 rooms. To book, visit the website, or call 020 7377 8518.