The Adriatic Coast: From Otranto to Leuca

Part of what I loved so much about the Salento region of Puglia is just how easy it is to travel it by car. Unlike much of the rest of Italy, Salento is fairly flat, the mountains and hills of the rest of the country absent. Instead, the land is covered in olive groves in the interior, with well maintained highways that lead to the coast. Regardless of where you stay, either the Adriatic or the Ionian sea is rarely more than 30 minutes by car. The Ionian coast has some of the best white sand beaches in the country, but the Adriatic coast has dramatic cliffs, winding coastal roads, and gorgeous views.

A view from the old town looking toward the modern city of Otranto.

We started our exploration of the Adriatic coast of Salento in Otranto. Otranto lies on the most eastern point of mainland Italy, across from Albania. Originally a Greek city, it fought against Roman rule for many years. In the 1480 the city was invaded by the Ottomans, and fell to their rule two weeks later. A group of 800 citizens fought back and refused to convert to Islam, and were martyred as a result. The cathedral of Otranto dedicated a chapel to these martyrs, and their bones are displayed as a way to remember their sacrifice.

The Chapel of Skulls

Similar to many Italian cities, it contains the historic center that is surrounded by the more modern city. Parking is readily available outside the historic city's walls, and it is a short walk to the center. I found Otranto to be quite touristy, with a waterfront promenade lined on one side with restaurants and tourist shops, and a small sandy beach surrounded by rocky outcrops. The colour of the sea is almost too blue to be believable, and the coastal breeze helps keep the air feeling cool even on scorching hot days. We started our visit with ice cream, of course, at a shop located right in the main square. They had gluten free cones, so my eldest son was happy from the get-go.

From there we made our way to the oddly shaped castle, the five-sided Castello Aragonese. The kids were fascinated by the stories of the moat and drawbridge, and my husband and I enjoyed the views from the top. The area around the castle is a mix of pedestrian streets and small shops, and we even found one that sold artisanal gluten free pastas, cookies, and more. There are several shops that sell handmade items, but we spent most of our shopping money in the bookstore, picking up some cookbooks from the region.

The real showstopper in Otranto isn't the castle, though- it's the cathedral. It doesn't look like much from the outside, but the inside is spectacular. Consecrated in 1088, it is built on 42 monolithic marble and granite columns. It contains the chapel of bones I mentioned earlier, which kids seem to find fascinating, but the real showstopper is the mosaic floor that covers the entire main floor of the cathedral. While the frescoes were destroyed during the siege in 1480, the floor survived. Covering over 700 square feet of space, the mosaic depicts the Tree of Life, illustrated through the use of thousands of tiny, hand cut tiles.

What makes this mosaic so interesting is that it does not only depict biblical scenes, but includes the signs of the zodiac, mythical beasts, and famous people such as Alexander the Great and King Arthur. Supervised by the monk Pantaleone, the mosaic took around four years to complete. It was difficult to get good photos of it since the area is roped off, but the following website has some great images that are much better than the ones I've included. Click here to see more.

Otranto is a pretty city to wander around on foot, with the town slowly winding upwards to provide some fantastic views. There are a few beach clubs if you want to swim, and plenty of cafes and restaurants that back onto squares, where you can see and be seen. We spent several hours in Otranto before continuing along down the coast.

Heading south from Otranto, the road winds along the coast, overlooking seaside towns from above. Signs indicate the turn-offs to individual towns, and then the road winds down toward the sea. Most of the sandy beaches of the Adriatic are found further north, while rocky coves dominate the southern portion. That's not to say there aren't any sandy beaches along the way, just that they tend to be smaller and more spread out. Tourism along this stretch is geared more to local Italian travelers, although we noticed some French, Spanish, and to a lesser extent, British tourists as well. There is a definite lack of large hotel chains, which I found refreshing. We stopped for a few moments in the seaside town of Castro, which was quite busy even on a weekday afternoon. We noticed quite a few bars and clubs, and the vibe was definitely more of a party town than a quiet family spot, but it looked like a fun place to spend some time.

Castro, as seen from above, and the coast that winds its way to the southernmost tip of the boot of Italy.

Continuing south, we passed the Port of Tricase, where several ships were docked and there was ample parking for those who wanted to go for a swim. My interest lay a bit inland though, in the town of Tricase, where Helen Mirren has invested in a restaurant called Farmacia Balboa. Tricase itself is a quaint little town dominated by a large castle, and the restaurant is located in a prime spot, with the patio overlooking the castle and a large church. It was closed when we stopped by, but the town itself is worth an hour or two of your time. They take their afternoon siesta seriously in Tricase, and is pretty much a ghost town in the middle of the afternoon, so plan your arrival accordingly!

The last stop we made along the coast was all the way down at the tip of the heel in Santa Maria di Leuca. It's the southernmost tip of the heel of Italy, and is where the Adriatic and the Ionian seas meet. Driving into the town is a treat because it is one of the white cities, where the buildings are painted white in what is most commonly associated with Greek style. The road down to the town is fairly steep and winding, but the view is spectacular. In terms of ambiance, it was probably the most touristy of all the towns we visited (with the exception of Alberobello), and in many ways it had that generic feel of overly tourist-oriented beach towns in locations around the world. 

We parked along the boardwalk and admired the view from the beach, which is a mix of sand and pebbles. There are several beach clubs lining the beach, and we ate a nice but overpriced meal at one of them. We justified the price by the fact that we were seated almost right on the water and had a lovely view of the sea and a great ocean breeze to add to the ambiance For me, the real draw of the town are the views from up high, and so I recommend taking the small tourist train that takes guests up the hills of the town and provides interesting commentary on the history of Santa Maria di Leuca. My kids loved the ride, I loved the views, and my husband loved the history, so it was a win-win-win situation. It also beats hiking up the winding roads in the heat of the day.

One of the views from the tourist train in Santa Maria di Leuca.

There are grottos in the rocky cliffs around the city, and it is possible to take boat excursions to explore them, as well as fishing excursions that last anywhere from a few hours to a full day. We kept our feet on land, but the cave excursions are something to keep in mind when our kids are a bit older. After a few hours here we had seen enough, and were ready to head back to our little cottage on the farm. Our two weeks in Salento were two of the best vacation weeks we have spent as a family. The pace is relaxed, the people are friendly, it's easy to get around by car, and there is a lot to see and do without feeling overwhelming or as though you are going to miss something if you're not keeping busy every second of every day. I think the entire region is one of Italy's best kept secrets, and I recommend it to anyone who wants to take an Italian holiday without the crowds or exorbitant prices of some of the better known regions of the country.