Located in southern Puglia, the Salento Peninsula seduces with Baroque architecture, natural beauty, and life’s simple pleasures
Endless travel fantasy fulfillment has long been an Italian specialty. Think of the early-Renaissance glory of Siena, Palermo’s exotic Moorish roots, and the aqueous fever dream that is Venice. Increasingly among these iconic destinations is Puglia’s Salento peninsula—far down in the stiletto tip of Italy’s boot, a region of wind-buffeted plains, olive groves, and secret rocky beaches.
“Puglia has always been a beautiful place, but it had somehow been neglected,” notes photographer Massimo Vitali, who has scoured Salento, snapping dreamy images of its jagged coastline. “Miraculously, over the past decade, any dark aspects have disappeared and the region has regained its order. Witnessing this transition has been inspiring.”
With natural splendor, captivating buildings, and great food abounding, it’s no surprise that Salento’s habitués include a coterie of tastemakers—from actress Helen Mirren and her husband, filmmaker Taylor Hackford, who have a home near the town of Tricase, to Martine Guerrand Hermès (of the French fashion family), who produces artisanal olive oil at her farm in the countryside. Guerrand Hermès was introduced to Salento several years ago when a friend, entrepreneur Fouad Filali, took her to Lecce—the area’s best known city—on a holiday. “I was immediately intrigued by its astonishing architecture,” she recalls, referring to the many Baroque palazzi, civic buildings, and churches—most notably the Basilica di Santa Croce. (It’s these structures that earned the city the nickname Florence of the South.) Clad in local limestone, their façades capture the light magnificently. At noon in summer, they blaze creamy white; by late evening, they glow mellow pink.
The recent arrival of two boutique hotels has only added to Lecce’s appeal. Last year Filali opened La Fiermontina, a 16-room resort set in a 17th-century building whose vaulted ceilings and pietra di Trani stone floors provide a sophisticated backdrop to choice works of art and design, including originals by Fernand Léger and Charlotte Perriand. On the outskirts of town, meanwhile, is Masseria Trapanà, a 1500s farmhouse turned hotel. There, a vast contemporary kitchen hosts cooking classes and acts as a general gathering spot, as do the walled gardens and chaise-lined pool.
Lecce’s modest dimensions (you can stroll across the centro storico, or old city, in about half an hour) make it blissfully easy to explore. At the café Doppiozero, in the shadow of the town’s duomo, the genial staff makes a faultless caffè in ghiaccio—their local variation features iced espresso with sweet almond milk. Pasticceria Natale, a wonderland of cakes and pastries, serves what might be the best pistachio gelato south of Rome. An alfresco table at Corte dei Pandolfi, though, is the place to be on Saturday afternoons; the salads and Puglian dishes are a perfect light lunch. Right around the corner is Society, a minimalist shop offering bed and table linens in saturated jewel tones. And, just outside the old city, you won’t want to miss the restaurant Trattoria Cucina Casereccia, known as Le Zie. Here you’ll find no Michelin stars, no rigorous decor—only worn wood tables, aged tile floors, and supremely delicious cucina povera standards like ciceri e tria, a vibrant pasta dish with chickpeas.
South of Lecce lies the true heart of Salento. Some 2,500 years ago the area was a stronghold of Magna Graecia, and despite the occasional stretch of breeze- block apartments, its landscape remains ancient and timeless—the olive trees more monumental than their Tuscan counterparts, the sea an otherworldly mix of blues. It seduced, among many others, the late author, antiquarian, and politician Alistair McAlpine, who, along with his wife, Athena, transformed the 14th- century Il Convento di Santa Maria di Costantinopoli in Marittima di Diso into a bed-and-breakfast filled with a stellar collection of aboriginal art. At Tulsi Shop, in the same town, designer Deborah Nolan sells resortwear in exuberant colors and floaty shapes inspired by her travels.
Some five miles south, in Tricase, esteemed winemaker Francesco Winspeare—the son of a Salentine nobleman and an Austrian princess—mixes respect for local vintages with a healthy dose of cool at the wine bar Farmacia Balboa (co-owned by Taylor Hackford). For supper, try the nearby Ristorante Lemì, where chef Ippazio Turco gives traditional seafood recipes an adventurous twist. Or head up the coast to Otranto, where sublime fresh fish and produce get contemporary treatment in the airy restaurant LaltroBaffo. Says Guerrand Hermès, “In Otranto I can lose myself in the white buildings and blue Adriatic—plus the Cattedrale di Otranto, with its gorgeous 12th-century mosaic floors.”
Beach-going is a Puglian’s birthright and a visitor’s rite of passage. And there’s no shortage of small waterfront clubs at which to do it in style. Lo Scalo, in Marina di Novaglie, has stuck to the same formula for four decades: blue and white tablecloths, caught-this- morning seafood, and chilled local wines. (A stone staircase leads straight down into the water for postprandial dips.) At Mora Mora, in San Foca, grab a seat at the tall communal table in the glass-walled bistro, which is fronted by a ribbon of fine sand. And at Otranto’s Lido La Castellana, owned by Lecce- born Costume National cofounder Ennio Capasa and his sister, Rita, fish is grilled and served at tables scattered around a small lawn overlooking a cove dotted with umbrellas and chaise longues. There’s simplicity to the proceedings—nature, culture, and style in a union that’s unpretentious, easy, and eminently Salentino.
A market-lined street in Gallipoli, a town on Salento’s west coast.
The grounds at La Fiermontina resort, in the city of Lecce.
The sun-dappled terrace at Otranto’s LaltroBaffo restaurant.
Pugliese pasta at the Lo Scalo beach club in Marina di Novaglie.
A swimming hole at the Roca Vecchia archaeological site, outside Lecce.
A guest room at Il Convento di Santa Maria di Costantinopoli, a bed-and-breakfast in Marittima di Diso.
Lecce’s San Giovanni Battista church.