In recent years Puglia, the heel of Italy, has been attracting more and more attention from foreign visitors and I was already well aware of its many charms, as I spent many happy summers there. Therefore I was over the moon, when I discovered that my second tour in Italy would be spent exploring many of its hidden treasures that even I wasn’t aware of.
A friend of mine who lives in Lecce, also renamed the Florence of the South, had told me of the findings of some scientists revealing that even a short stay of 3 days or more in Salento, the lower province of Puglia, had amazing benefits for your mental and physical wellbeing and this time I can truly say that I experienced this!
Watching the sun go down from my balcony in Trani, a picturesque fishing port 40 minutes away from Bari, I felt blessed to be part of this experience and as I watched the sun dance on the water, I also felt strangely calm and alive. Could this be the Salento already weaving its magic spell on me even though we had not quite reached it yet?
Every day seemed to present itself with new adventures and reveal new hidden gems that told a story of a tumultuous but rich past. Who would have thought that in the middle of the countryside we would find a beautiful Cathedral, the Basilica di Santa Maria di Siponto dating back to the 12th century?
Even more remarkable was the fact that it had been built over a pre-existing 6th century Paleo-Christian church and that apparently for years both churches had been neglected and nearly left to go to ruin!
Santa Maria di Siponto
Another jewel definitely worth exploring and making a detour for is the amazingly photogenic Martina Franca, a town built on the green Valle d’Itria (the trulli area of Puglia). Its lovely historic centre is a memorable maze of winding alleys, where whitewashed simplicity sits side by side with baroque extravagance. Wandering the lanes and alleys you come across 18th century palaces, some with ornate balconies and archways and some looking shabby with age.
The narrow lanes that are so hard to photograph well in other Italian cities are here illuminated by whitewashed walls, pale stone and tiny open spaces. The quality of light is such that the buildings appear to be lit from within and gives them a picturesque charm that needs to be experienced in person.
Once we got to Lecce, I was already spell-bound by the simple and all in one majestic beauty that we found at every turn in this region. Feeling by now a bit worn down by all the travel, myself and my group took a well-earned break at Caffe’ Alvino in the main square of Lecce and in the most impressive setting as we could gaze from our seats the remains of a roman amphitheatre.
We certainly couldn’t have hoped for a better view from our hotel in Lecce, as right opposite us was the Baroque Basilica of Santa Croce with its intricately carved facade. This beautiful city certainly lives up to its name of Florence of the South and it’s most definitely the best place to get lost in, as every corner and street seems to hit you with unexpected grandeur and awe-inspiring beauty.
Basilica of Santa Croce, Lecce
Our week-long visit wouldn’t have been complete without experiencing the dazzling Salento coastline, where unbelievably ports like the one in Gallipoli have crystal clear waters and the intense blue of the sea almost merges into the one of the sky.
It was in Gallipoli, on the western coast of Puglia and in the Ionian Sea, that I revived my senses and dived into its waters. It was then that I felt at peace with myself and the world, my mind clear and my body energized and finally I understood the meaning of ‘Salento therapy’!
When I first started this tour of Puglia and Salento, I never imagined that it would make such an impression on me and aside from special memories, I have been left with an overwhelming desire to return and explore some more.
From fascinating architecture, mostly Norman and Baroque to captivating streetscapes and coastal cities, as well as unpretentious but wonderful cuisine, Puglia is no doubt a region that makes for an unforgettable travel experience and I can’t wait to help more people discover its many hidden pleasures!