Despite a passionate love of good red wine and a fondness for seafood, I have to admit that I didn’t choose this year’s summer destination based on my taste buds. Quite shamefully (and I’m sure my judgement will now be thrown into question) I recently developed a guilty pleasure involving popular music from the 1980s and a whole lot of cheese. The 2014 film Walking on Sunshine is set in the Salento region of Puglia, known for its beautiful Baroque architecture, wines and, in my mind, Giulio Berruti walking topless along the coast. Although I sadly did not encounter Berruti as I traversed the area’s much-famed beaches, I did discover that there is much to be said for this rustic alternative to Italy’s tourist hot-spots.
I was overwhelmed by choice for places to stay, from Lecce – Salento’s unofficial capital – to Otranto in the west and Santa Maria di Leuca in the south, known for its beautiful caves and cliffs. Hoping for a bit of hustle and bustle along with our daily dose of Italian culture, we opted for Gallipoli’s old town, an area which marks the beginning of a stretch known as Salento’s Maldives. The small, and very compact, town sits next to Gallipoli’s longest beach, Baia Verde, which is characterised by all the clichés used to describe a holiday in the Caribbean. Transparent waters, in every hue of blue and shallow several metres out to sea (making the waters safe for young families) are beaten only by the softest of sand. Dotted along the waterfront are a variety of beach bars (with costly loungers rivalling prices you would find in exclusive locations such as St Tropez or Nice) which pump out house music and summer beats, something which I appreciate appeals to a 21 year old, but not every holiday-maker. The sheer length of the beach, however, makes it possible for families and partiers alike to enjoy the area, provided you pitch your parasol in the right place. For those hoping to show off their tan and take the perfectly enviable Instagram shot, Samsara beach club hosts DJs touting the rich kids lifestyle, as they blast foghorns and send shoots of smoke into the air. Further along the coast, our host Giorgio recommended a beach called Punta della Suina as a calmer alternative to Baia Verde. With the crowds descending upon Puglia in high season, however, della Suina appeared to be just as busy as its neighbouring beach and when we left nearing 6 in the evening the small beach hut, dishing out cocktails in watermelon shells, had cranked up the volume on its sound system. To escape all sounds but the sea, we found that the little bay within the old town – Spiaggia della Purita – was the perfect option. Despite a slightly more hazardous entry to the water, with sharp stones and seaweed at the water’s edge, this small beach, nestled away from the crowds, was great for a final dip before evening.
With the old town being so compact, our accommodation was only a very short walk from della Purita. B&B Punta Cutieri is locally owned by Giorgio, who has been highly praised on sites such as Trip Advisor for his kind, warm manner and his desire to help all visitors. During our time in Puglia, Giorgio helped us on a number of occasions, whether this be in understanding bus timetables, organising our bike hire or recommending different restaurants in the area. On our penultimate day, he even bought my sister flowers for her birthday. His accommodation is also of a very high standard, with original frescos preserved on some of the walls and even an underground passageway beneath glass adding quirky touches to the room. The views during breakfast are perhaps the most idyllic part of this seaside retreat, as Giorgio’s rooftop terrace looks out across the bay, providing the perfect spot to watch the sun rise or set.
A few days in we braced ourselves for a boat trip that took us around Isola S. Andrea, just off the coast of Gallipoli. On more than one occasion on the way there I considered throwing myself overboard, believing I would find more relief going solo in the rough waters than I would on the boat which was persistently on the verge of capsizing. Once we anchored in the middle of the sea and were allowed to jump off the boat into the icy waters, conditions immediately improved. A wholesome lunch of seafood linguine in tomato sauce was served and the journey back was comparatively gentle, the sun beating down on the deck immediately drying our skin.
Gallipoli is known for its seafood, a fact which is drummed into all of its visitors by the constant smell of recently caught fish and the sight of fisherman sat on their boats, freeing a rogue crab from their nets as they collect mussels for evening service. With most restaurants competing for customers using very similar menus, recommendations will take you far in the old town. L’Angolo Blu seems to be the best for purely seafood and is the most obvious example of fine dining, with a clean cut white interior, softened by atmospheric blue lighting reminiscent of the sea. Their seafood risotto for two, with clams, mussels and squid, was the most flavoursome and moist I tried during my stay. One of the only restaurants we returned to twice, Osteria Briganti, is known all over Trip Advisor, and indeed in Gallipoli, as the town’s best. This was clear in the difficulty to make a reservation, although on one occasion, the waiter organised a whole new outside table for us. Tucked away in one of the town’s narrow streets, this was quite an experience as scooters and tut tuts raced passed us and, on more than one occasion, just missed knocking our table. Their sea bass in a potato crust was tenderly cooked and accompanied with a delicious balsamic glaze and caramelised onion relish. I even tried my first white oyster in the restaurant – after holding it in my mouth for nearing 15 minutes however, I decided that it would probably be my first and last. Special mention must be given to the wine bar La Spingula, situated right next to Giorgio’s B&B. Old wine barrels line the street, overlooking the curve of Baia Verde, and at night low lighting and a carefully selected playlist help to create a very romantic atmosphere. Azzuro is the experienced front of house and practises the art of sabrage almost every five minutes, deftly slicing off the tops of prosecco bottles. His characteristic expression, “It’s for the fish”, rings out just as frequently as he airs the wine glasses before filling them for customers. Dining here is a theatrical experience but be warned, the waiters certainly have their favourites. Just down the street is shisha and cocktail bar Santavè Lounge, which hosts traditional Salento dancing on Wednesday evenings and Salsa on Fridays, both of which feel a million miles away from the throbbing music of Samsara beach club. On the Wednesday, you could not have a clearer sense of being in the heart of Italy as couples and friends artfully negotiate dance steps together, totally unknown to the English traveller. It is advisable to stick to the wine, as Puglia clearly still has a thing or two to learn about cocktails.
We decided on a day trip to Lecce, having heard a great deal about the incomparable displays of Baroque architecture. We experimented with the local transport system and took the bus which is approximately an hour long journey. Journeying like the Italians meant that we had to adapt to their sense of time and we were left waiting an hour longer than anticipated because one bus failed ever to arrive. Despite the wasted morning, when we arrived the Duomo did not disappoint and drew in packs of tourists wielding their selfie sticks high above their heads. This became a bit of a problem in the tightly packed streets as we moved as one impenetrable mass, desperately scanning the area for the next open space. Seeking sanctuary in a restaurant called Re Mida, we hoped that we might have a brief reprieve from the sense of being part of a faceless crowd. However, after eventually communicating that we wanted a seat to the waiter, he then left us unattended for the next hour. Frustrated and losing all patience, we went up to the self-service counter for a pucce (a kind of Italian sandwich), ate and left, never to return. Although Lecce has some beautiful sites, it’s a shame we were unable to see many of them through the throng of tourists.
Puglia may still be waiting to attain the popularity of Lake Garda and the Amalfi coast, yet my little holiday in the sun has proved that this is a destination with potential. With headline acts such as Sean Paul and David Guetta performing at Parco Gondar this summer, Puglia is making a name for itself on the international stage. For a holiday which invites you to try delicious cuisines, watch beautiful sunsets and relax with strolls along the promenade, beach breaks don’t get much better than Gallipoli.