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Exploring Italy’s Salento Region – The Latest York Times

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“Go to one in all the inland cities today,” advises the burly fruit seller as he hands me a barattiere, a mix of melon and cucumber that’s indigenous to Puglia, the region that forms the stiletto heel of Italy’s boot. “The sand might be blowing today on each the coasts, and also you won’t have the opportunity to see the stunning colours of the ocean.”

The wind and the ocean are constant topics of conversation in Puglia. Whether it’s the scirocco, the recent current coming from the Sahara, or the tramontana, the cold draft from the Alps (not to say the ponente or the levante), the best way the wind blows determines which beach to go to and the way to plan the day. Bartenders, street vendors and shop owners are quick to opine about which is in force and the way to best navigate its currents.

Tonight in Lecce, the tramontana takes center stage and the effect is sort of a fan blowing at medium speed on a still, hot evening. Doors of streetfront homes away from the more touristy essential drag are slowly opening after long afternoon siestas, and nonne in house dresses hang laundry while they chat with neighbors and passers-by.

I join the evening stroll generally known as the passeggiata, mingling with each Italian and foreign visitors and stopping into numerous the town’s many churches (there are greater than 40 in total) along the best way. With its abundance of effective architecture and art, the town looks its best in these final hours before sunset, seemingly illuminated by a golden light from inside. It’s the limestone of the Salento, the southernmost area of this southernmost region, where the rock is soft and mild for carvers, that gives the constructing blocks of the architecture here. Carparo, mazzaro, pietra Leccese, tufa — each stone offers a rather different patina. Carvings make the facades come to cinematic life — cherubs, lions and griffins vie for the central role, as more stately religious types like angels and saints appear to attempt to tame their cavorting, to little effect.

After my church hopping, I find my solution to Saloon Keeper 1933, a speakeasy-style bar with artisanal cocktails, bearded mixologists and mismatched furniture. Antique carpets lie under Twenties leather club chairs and framed vintage photographs hang from the partitions. But what sets it aside from an identical spot in, say, Latest York or London, is that it sits smack in front of the Chiesa di San Niccolò Dei Greci, a compact and still intact example of the town’s Byzantine church architecture. Locating a latest generation of hospitality and entertainment outposts inside a stone’s throw (and sometimes even inside) among the region’s most historic monuments and city centers is a trend throughout Puglia, but especially here within the Salento.

I first got here to Puglia in 2005 with my ex-. I even have been back a dozen times since, falling in love more deeply on each expedition. I’m not alone: People have gone from me quizzically after I mention Puglia, to now having it high on their travel wish lists.

Despite being connected to the remainder of the country by land, the realm feels more like an island, with the Ionian Sea to the west, and the Adriatic to the east. At Santa Maria di Leuca, the Land’s End of southeast Italy, the 2 bodies of water come together.

The glories of the U.S. national park system draw lots of of tens of millions of tourists annually.

This a part of the country has been subject to many an invasion, and the castles that dot the coastline were the road of defense against the Saracens, Normans, Turks and Spanish who sometimes briefly dominated here. Now it’s a gentler conquest, a latest generation of hotels, restaurants, bars and beach clubs, opened by foreigners seduced by the realm, Pugliese seeking to put their region on the map, and Italians from other parts of the country wishing to create a latest life near the ocean.

Athena McAlpine was one in all the primary hoteliers to make the leap, moving here in 2002 after living in London for a few years. She and her husband, Alistair, opened the Convento di Santa Maria di Costantinopoli in Marittima di Diso, transforming a former Franciscan monastery’s cloister and monks’ cells right into a one-of-a-kind hideaway with a museum-worthy collection of art and artifacts (doubles from 432 euros or about $440). Rob Potters, from Australia, created Masseria Trapanà after visiting the realm from Tuscany where he was a hotel consultant. He resuscitated a derelict constructing just north of Lecce that had not been lived in for 200 years right into a light-filled luxury resort (doubles from 290 euros).

The previous Pepsi chief executive Massimo Fasanella d’Amore di Ruffano and his partner, Diana Bianchi, renovated his family’s unused 900-year-old castle over the course of 4 years, uncovering its Seventeenth-century frescos and adding a latest state-of-the-art cooking school on the Castello di Ugento in the town of the identical name 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 near Tricase, Meryl Streep has a property on the coast and Gérard Depardieu has a pad in Lecce.

“My partner Steve Riseley read concerning the Salento and dragged me,” said Harvey Brown, one in all the brand new entrants to the hotel game. “I feel there’s something within the air here, an energy that makes us wish to create.” The duo just opened Castle Elvira, a 37-acre property outside Trepuzzi near Lecce, with a castle, masseria (a stone farm constructing), cottage, ancient tower and a restaurant and bar, that doubles as Mr. Brown’s atelier — he’s also an artist (doubles from 299 euros).

What’s it exactly 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 start out with, there’s the spectacular sea, with among the most beautiful beaches and ports in all of Italy. On a Saturday morning, I head to the Castro Marina, one of the vital atmospheric of the small rocky ports that dot the Adriatic coastline. I join the bodies of all sizes and styles along the dock and rocks that provide natural diving boards into the ocean to swim laps within the emerald-turquoise water.

After cooling off, I even have a caffè leccese (espresso and almond milk on ice) at Ilios, a tiny bar by the fishing boats, and later munch on street food-style fritto misto at il Friggitoria Porto Vecchio. One other day I meet up with friends at Kum, a family-owned beach club near Laghi Alimini, a nature reserve north of Otranto, where a pair of lakes surrounded by pine woods and native vegetation are only steps from the ocean. The club offers beach chairs and umbrellas in addition to just-caught grilled fish and crisp local wines.

On yet one more sunny day, this time on the west coast near Gallipoli, I watch well-heeled couples pop bottles of Franciacorta (Italy’s answer to champagne) while showing off their swimsuits from Gucci and Missoni at Punta Suina’s G Beach Club. All through the week, I check off places to swim, each more pristine than the following: Punta Prosciutto, Torre San Giovanni, Porto Selvaggio.

Away from the coast I drive through countryside with stone partitions and twisted olive trees past fields of long golden grass and wildflowers, the warmth rising seemingly through a smudged lens. I keep my window open to inhale the smell of the figs ripening within the sun throughout me. You may spend per week driving around on an itinerary devoted simply to churches and cathedrals.

In Galatina, about 10 miles southeast of Lecce, the outskirts look unpromising, but once I park and head into the middle, I discover a wonderful gold-hued town with the extraordinary 14th century Basilica di Santa Caterina d’Alessandria and its gobsmacking frescoes. (The town can also be home to the pasticciotto, a pastry filled with custard cream, and the bakeries with their lovely Art Deco signs look straight out of a movie set). I peek into a couple of of the dilapidated but stately palazzi up on the market, before heading to the nearby town of Nardò where churches multiply in all directions, backed by Baroque palaces.

I even have visited Otranto on almost every trip to Puglia. The Unesco-protected city, about half an hour drive south from Lecce, is one in all my favorites within the Salento, with its magnificent twelfth century cathedral and mosaic floor representing the “Tree of Life.” I could spend hours the imagery with its mythological creatures and biblical scenes. It’s also a really cool spot to take a seat on a baking hot day. Outside it takes a moment for my eyes to regulate to the brilliant sun. I follow the town’s washed-cream partitions bleached by salt and watch a pickup soccer game on a small beach alongside the ramparts; the tween boys have fun each goal with a plunge into the ocean, leaping off the rocks with the bravado of Francesco Totti, the previous Roma football star. It’s a moment of unbridled joy.

On my last night I meet Ms. McAlpine, the hotelier, for dinner in Tricase Porto, the port outside the essential town. Our first stop is Bar Menamè where the locals are sipping Aperol spritzes because the D.J.’s bass almost moves the chairs under us. From there we move to the nearby Caffè d’Oltremare, a latest arrival to the port. Here, Greece meets the Salento, and ouzu and native wine are poured in equal measure.

Looking across the port and on the people, Ms. McAlpine posits that that is the right spot to see the brand new Salento emerging from the old, and observe the tourists mixing with the locals.

“One solution to consider it’s the arrival of recent kids on the block alongside the established, traditional haunts,” she says. “Within the Porto you could have the brand new restaurant Taverna del Porto reinterpreting classic dishes in a fresh and modern way, but you furthermore mght have Bolina and Anime Sante, decades-old institutions. There may be room for all.”

Afterward we head into Tricase, the town itself, arguably the loveliest within the Salento, and one in all the epicenters for second homes within the region. We stop at G & Co which has won the Tre Coni award given to the country’s best gelaterias by the Gambero Rosso food guide three years in a row. Though it’s midnight, individuals are flooding into Piazza Pisanelli, the essential square. At Farmacia Balboa 20-something mostly foreign tourists are drinking artisanal cocktails as kids run across the square with abandon. And perhaps that’s the chief ingredient of this Salento in transition, joy in lots of forms.

And who doesn’t need that right away?

A rental automobile is crucial to explore the Salento. You possibly can pick one up at one in all Puglia’s airports like Karol Wojtyla Airport, in Bari, or Papola Casale Airport in Brindisi. There may be also a high-speed rail service between Rome and Lecce which takes about three hours. 

You possibly can either arrange shop in Lecce and take day trips from there or take up residence in one other of the Salento’s towns. In Lecce, the Fiermontina is a cluster of thoughtfully reimagined historic buildings became a boutique hotel (doubles from 320 euros). Along with the hotels mentioned above, outside of Lecce the alternatives include the nineteenth century Palazzo Daniele in Gagliano del Capo crammed with contemporary art and shut to a few of Salento’s most spectacular beaches (doubles from 423 euros), while Palazzo Presta in Gallipoli has 10 rooms within the historic center of town (doubles from 200).

The recently opened Castello di Tutino is an excellent example of the realm’s resuscitation of former monuments: This fifteenth century castle on the outskirts of Tricase now serves drinks and dinner in addition to hosting musical concert events from traditional local pizzica music to jazz.

Ondine Cohane is an everyday contributor to Times Travel and the co-author of National Geographic’s “At all times Italy” with Frances Mayes.

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