By Francesca Marciano, author of The Other Language
Technically speaking–although opinions still diverge–the Salento region (the “boot heel” of Italy) begins south of Brindisi, and locals claim their traditions and culture are completely different from the rest of the region.
It’s true: The landscape is wilder than in northern Puglia, with centuries-old olive trees dotting the red earth like twisted giants, framed by muretti a secco, stone walls similar to Irish cairns. The churches and baronial palazzi of the small towns (all worth visiting, especially old Gallipoli, Nardò, Presicce, Specchia) are the color of pale eggnog, with impressive, gloriously carved facades.
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Here’s a short list of fun things you can do once you have rented a car and are ready for an adventure.
Begin with a stay in Lecce for a day or two; there is plenty to do and see, and you’ll understand why I say the churches look like meringues. Check out the spectacular Basilica di Santa Croce, a baroque church completed after over a century of work in 1695, and then visit the exquisite square of the Duomo. Grab lunch at Le Zie-Trattoria Cucina Casereccia (my favorite place), just a few blocks from the Giardini Pubblici.
On your way down from Lecce, spend a night or two near Scorrano at Masseria le Pezzate, an old farmhouse beautifully restored by Benedetta and Mario Parma, a lovely and extremely knowledgeable couple.
Alternatively, try Locanda Fiore di Zagara, an old palazzo in the heart of the quaint village of Diso. The hotel is located a few miles from Castro Marina and a wonderful swimming spot, Acquaviva (literally “live water,” named for the cold springs that flow into this tiny bay). The sea in Salento is crystal-clear and pristine.
Where to Shop
If you’re interested in local artifacts, head to Acquarica del Capo and look for Antonio Siciliano in Via Puglia 12. Siciliano and his family are the last of a disappearing breed of weavers and still craft wonderful hand-woven baskets that are both functional and beautiful.
For pottery, check out Terrecotte in the town of Ruffano (Tel. +39 3492930060). You can order custom-designed plates and cups, and ship them home from the shop. More potters can be found in Lucugnano on the state road 275. Ask anybody for Massimo Ferrari; everyone knows where his workshop is and they might even walk you there.
To continue your shopping jaunt through the area, make your way to the village of Surano and find Francesca Chiriatti at Via Santa Lucia 2 (Tel. +39 0836939042). With the help of a few older women, Chiriatti weaves carpets and textiles on handlooms using an ancient technique. Chiriatti also creates custom-made carpets using your selection of beautifully hand-dyed patterns and colors. The process takes a few months, but it’s worth the wait. You’ll never have another carpet like it.
For stylish beachwear, stop by Tulsi at Via A. Diaz 47 in Marittima (Tel. +39 0836920692), a quirky boutique that sells clothes and various items from around the world.
What to Eat
Of course, eating is important when driving and shopping all day. Pick up lunch at Le Anime Sante, “the Holy Souls,” a tiny restaurant perched on top of the Tricase harbor on Lungomare Cristoforo Colombo 147 (Tel. +39 3397984291). Run by a fisherman and his family, the restaurant is only open if they haven’t gone fishing that day, so be sure to call in advance.
Have dinner at La Piazza on Piazza Umberto (Tel. +39 3397984291) in Poggiardo. The chef, Stefano Nuzzo, only uses fresh produce from the area and never fails to craft an amazing meal. If you want to try some hearty local food in a simple trattoria, stop for orecchiette con cime di rapa—ear-shaped, hand-made pasta served with rapini, black olives, and anchovies—at Jolanda at Via Montanara 2 (Tel. +39 0833784164).
For those with a sweet tooth, dolci in Salento use primarily fresh marzipan and the best are made by Gnoni in Nociglia (Via Risorgimento 46; tel. +39 3494158243). A small, signless shop, you have to be look colsely to find it. The owners make fresh almond sweets (the almonds from Puglia are renowned for their sweet taste) and their pasticcini (small pastries, similar to petit fours) are unrivaled. Try their freshly baked pasticciotto, an addictive Salentino breakfast sweet dating back to the 1700s. A fragrant, sweet crust filled with cream, this treat is best enjoyed fresh from the oven.
A Parting Word of Advice: Don’t get frustrated if you get lost driving around Salento. You will, again and again. You will lose your bearings, your patience, and your sense of hope. But cheer up; we all get lost, no matter how long we’ve been living or visiting. It took me to years just to figure out how to get out of the village where I live.
Francesca Marciano is an acclaimed Italian novelist and short-story writer who writes her fiction in English, and an Oscar-nominated screenwriter, who writes her scripts in Italian. Her newest book is the story collection, The Other Language (2014), which Jhumpa Lahiri called “an astonishing collection…. a vision of geography as it grounds us, as it shatters us, as it transforms the soul.” Marciano’s novels include Rules of the Wild (1998), The End of Manners (2008), and Casa Rossa (2002). Her recent films as screenwriter include A Five Star Life (2013), Bernardo Bertolucci’s Me and You (2012), and the Oscar-nominated Don’t Tell (2005).