“Go to one of the inland cities today,” advises the burly fruit seller as he hands me a barattiere, a mixture of melon and cucumber that’s indigenous to Puglia, the region that forms 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 sea are constant topics of conversation in Puglia. Whether it’s the scirocco, the hot current coming from the Sahara, or the tramontana, the cold draft from the Alps (not to mention the ponente or the levante), the way the wind blows determines which beach to go to and how to plan the day. Bartenders, street vendors and shop owners are quick to opine about which is in force and how to best navigate its currents.
Tonight in Lecce, the tramontana takes center stage and the effect is like a fan blowing at medium speed on a still, hot evening. Doors of streetfront homes away from the more touristy main drag are slowly opening after long afternoon siestas, and nonne in house dresses hang laundry while they chat with neighbors and passersby.
I join the evening stroll known as the passeggiata, mingling with both Italian and foreign visitors and stopping into a number of the city’s many churches (there are more than 40 in total) along the way. With its abundance of fine architecture and art, the city looks its best in these final hours before sunset, seemingly illuminated by a golden light from within. It is the limestone of the Salento, the southernmost area of this southernmost region, where the rock is soft and gentle for carvers, that provides the building blocks of the architecture here. Carparo, mazzaro, pietra Leccese, tufa — each stone offers a slightly 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 seem to try to tame their cavorting, to little effect.
After my church hopping, I find my way to Saloon Keeper 1933, a speakeasy-style bar with artisanal cocktails, bearded mixologists and mismatched furniture. Antique carpets lie under 1920s leather club chairs and framed vintage photographs hang from the walls. But what sets it apart from a similar spot in, say, New 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 city’s Byzantine church architecture. Locating a new generation of hospitality and entertainment outposts within a stone’s throw (and sometimes even within) some of the region’s most historic monuments and city centers is a trend all over Puglia, but especially here in the Salento.
Exploring the stiletto
I first came to Puglia in 2005 with my ex. I have been back a dozen times since, falling in love more deeply on each expedition. I’m not alone: People have gone from looking at me quizzically when I mention Puglia, to now having it high on their travel wish lists.
Despite being connected to the rest of the country by land, the area 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 two bodies of water come together.
You can either set up shop in Lecce and take day trips from there or take up residence in another of the Salento’s towns. In Lecce, the Fiermontina is a cluster of thoughtfully re-imagined historic buildings turned into a boutique hotel (doubles from 320 euros). In addition to the hotels mentioned above, outside of Lecce the choices include the 19th-century Palazzo Daniele in Gagliano del Capo filled with contemporary art and close to some of Salento’s most spectacular beaches (doubles from 423 euros), while Palazzo Presta in Gallipoli has 10 rooms in the historic center of town (doubles from 200).
The recently opened Castello di Tutino is a good example of the area’s resuscitation of former monuments: This 15th-century castle on the outskirts of Tricase now serves drinks and dinner as well as hosting musical concerts from traditional local pizzica music to jazz.
This part of the country has been subject to many an invasion, and the castles that dot the coastline were the line of defense against the Saracens, Normans, Turks and Spanish who sometimes briefly dominated here. Now it’s a gentler conquest, a new generation of hotels, restaurants, bars and beach clubs, opened by foreigners seduced by the area, Pugliese looking to put their region on the map, and Italians from other parts of the country wishing to create a new life close to the sea.--nyt