Salento, the heel of Italy, is nestled in the clear waters of the Adriatic and Ionian coasts, where tall cliffs sculpted by the sea alternate with sandy beaches, green stretches of maquis and a small "eden" reachable only by boat.
A journey through the Province of Lecce will take visitors from prehistoric civilizations, through Medieval architecture and to the masterpieces of the Baroque architecture of the city of Lecce, via ancient traditions and the skills of master craftsmen.
All this then, is seasoned with the intense and genuine flavors bestowed by the generous terrain.
Two different seas make this part of Apulia a true paradise for those seeking a vacation filled with sun, relaxation and fun. The Adriatic Coast, with its imposing cliffs and lovely bays nestled between the blue sea and green pine forests, offers an unspoiled landscape with a few untamed areas and above all, zones of great natural interest, such as the Natural Reserve of San Cataldo and the Alimini Lakes.
Beyond the city of Otranto, bays, inlets, cliffs, and natural caves draw the coastline, making it a true delight for scuba divers. In Santa Maria di Leuca, the Adriatic gives way to the Ionian Sea that laps the western coast of Salento, with beaches and seabeds of fine sand, where the clarity of water evokes images of the Caribbean.
A harmonious landscape of plains and gentle hills occupies the heart of the province, covered in villages that testify to the presence of man since prehistoric times. Ancient civilizations from across the Mediterranean have strongly influenced the culture here, so much that in the Grecia Salentina (Salentinian Greece) the ancient Griko language is still spoken by the local community.
Plantations of vineyards and olive groves are geometrically-shaped and outlined by low, dry-stone walls built with the characteristic local stone that is also found in the local farmhouses, dolmens and menhirs (the remains of the ancient Messapian civilization).
The province is a living history book, where the chapter devoted to the Middle Ages is recounted by the ancient villages and imposing castles; and that to the Renaissance, by the manor houses that, although to a lesser extent, recall the splendor and elegance of the capital.
The gastronomy is as varied as the landscape: oils, wines, cheeses, vegetables and fresh pasta are reminders of the delicious flavors of the past, achieved thanks to the handcrafted processing of raw materials.
Lying on a plain at the foot of the Salento Plateau is Lecce - the "Florence of the South" - one of the most interesting cities in the region for its architecture, typical of the 17th Century.
Of ancient origins, the city experienced two distinct periods of prosperity in its history: the Roman era and that of the rule of the Kingdom of Naples. Under both, construction of buildings, monuments and mansions increased heavily. These new structures were characterized by a magnificent and rich ornamentation that earned this typical architecture the definition of “Leccese Baroque." The imaginative and meticulous sculpting work was facilitated by the use of local stone, flexible and easy to inlay.
A visit to Lecce can begin with Piazza Duomo, once used as a fortress and today considered the most elegant "salon" in the city. The grandeur of the Duomo, work of Zimbalo, Cino and Penna, the five-story tall bell tower, the Palazzo Vescovile (Bishop's Palace) and the Palazzo del Seminario (Seminary) mark the perimeter of the square, one of the monumental works that best represents the magnificence of Lecce’s style.
Not far away, Piazza Sant'Oronzo narrates the city's entire history. The Roman period is visible in the ruins of the Amphitheatre that becomes the exceptional stage for theatrical performances in summertime, and in part by the high Column - on which stands a bronze of St. Orontius, depicted in the act of blessing - erected in the 17th Century utilizing some of the Roman columns positioned on the Ancient Appian Way. Symbol of the Renaissance is Palazzo del Seggio, known as the "Seat," which today hosts important art exhibitions, and the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, with its interesting frescoes and works sculpted in wood.
Behind the piazza, the Castle of Charles V, a typical defensive structure that counters its austere external design with the style and sophistication of elegant interior architecture. Imposing and majestic is the Porta Rudiae, crowned with statues of Saint Orontius, Saint Irene and Saint Dominic, with two pairs of columns located on either side of the central arch, behind which stands the Chiesa del Rosario (Church of the Rosary), striking the eye with the artistic imagination of its grand façade.
Not to be missed is a visit to the Basilica di Santa Croce, where the inspiration of master masonry is visible in every part of the monumental façade that anticipates the beauty of its interior, a harmonious balance between the sobriety of the classical style and the splendor of Lecce's Baroque.
Between San Cataldo and Otranto, the Adriatic coast offers landscapes of extraordinary beauty: white cliffs contrast with the blue of the sea and are interrupted occasionally by a sandy shoreline, the green of the maquis or pools of brackish water separated from the sea by narrow strips of land.
Arriving in Otranto, we recommend a visit to the historic city center, surrounded by mighty walls and dominated by the Castle built in the 15th Century by Ferdinand I of Aragon, as well as the Cathedral with a beautiful mosaic floor (12th Century) depicting the history of the period. A dense maze of narrow cobbled alleys and streets is at the heart of Otranto, where the white of the houses is mixed with the colors of the many craft and souvenir shops.
Porto Cesareo, Gallipoli and Torre San Giovanni are some of the province's pearls of the Ionian coast, with Santa Maria di Leuca to mark the boundary between Apulia's two seas. Between Otranto and Gallipoli, the strength of wind and water has carved the limestone cliffs, giving rise to evocative natural caves like Grotta Zinzulusa, full of stalactites and stalagmites, the Grotta Grande del Ciolo and the caves of the Natural Park of Porto Selvaggio.
But the generosity of the territory of Lecce is not limited to the artistic beauties and those natural along the coastline. Even inland areas, with their vast landscapes, natural sites and important prehistoric remains, offer many opportunities that should not be underestimated if one decides to take a vacation Salento, one of the spearheads among Italian tourist destinations.
A land almost completely surrounded by the sea is definitely a favorite destination for lovers of water sports. Sailing, windsurfing and kite surfing are right at home along the Adriatic coast, where the winds will challenge you to try your hand at making some runs amidst the beautiful seascape.
The cliffs are an excellent training ground for those who prefer more extreme activities like rock climbing and free climbing. And if you like exploration, orienteering is right for you: sport, play and fun, all in one activity for the whole family. Trekking amateurs and experts are spoiled for choice between the coastal paths, ancient mule tracks and the numerous caves. If you do not fancy walking, you can choose a mountain biking excursion to discover the hidden corners of Salento. Scuba diving enthusiasts will be delighted by the underwater landscape, with its extensive, colorful meadows of sea fans and other sea grasses, canals, cavities and crevices to explore.
Santa Cesarea Terme, in addition to being one of the best places to practice diving, is an important spa, known for the curative properties of the sulphur waters gushing from the four caves. Sacred or secular, every year numbers of festivals and celebrations take place in every corner of Salento: opportunities to enjoy fun and folklore and the traditional local cuisine.
Those who want to take home souvenirs can purchase handicrafts from Salento, made with papier mâché, the raw material for dolls and Christmas crib figures; terracotta clay, used for making pots and various traditional fancy goods; wrought iron, mainly used to produce utensils and fireplace tools; and Lecce stone, inlaid by the skillful stone cutters with flair and imagination.
Vegetables, oil, bread and pasta, expertly mixed and measured, are the basic ingredients of Leccese gastronomy. Orecchiette, maccheroncini and tagliatelle pastas are the champions among the first courses. Condiments range from simple and fresh tomato sauce flavored with basil and pecorino or cacio ricotta cheese, to turnip greens, tender lamb meat or fresh local fish.
Vegetables are used to make unique delicious dishes like eggplant parmigiana and taieddhra, a triumph of flavors made with potatoes, zucchini, onions, and mussels seasoned with grated cheese. Pizza and focaccia are another characteristic element of the cuisine of Salento. Enriched with vegetables and seasoned with a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil, they are a real treat.
And do not forget the frise, toasted bread softened in water and seasoned with juicy tomatoes from Apulia, rucola and olive oil, a meal that peasants in the past would eat quickly during their short lunch break.
Among the main courses, rolls of tripe and lamb entrails cooked in broth or roasted on the grill, lamb with potatoes and, of course, recipes based on fish roasted or fried, in soup or baked. Urchins, mussels and oysters eaten "raw" are for those who love the strong taste of the sea.
Among the desserts, you can choose between the pasticciotto filled with custard cream, Lecce cotognata, dried figs and taralli. Also try the mostaccioli, coated with chocolate and made with grape juice and jam.
Aleatico, Squinzano, Cupertino, Galatina, Leverano Matino, Nardo and Salento are the wines of Salento. Do not forget the oil produced here as well, under the label Terra d'Otranto DOP.
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