Last Updated on October 8, 2023
In Italy, in the heel of the boot, you won’t find the crowds of travelers as you do in the big cities and famous provinces of the north. That’s a good thing…
Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
By Jim Ferri
Unlike the big-name northern provinces of Italy such as Tuscany, Veneto, and Emilia Romagna, the southern province of Puglia – the heel of Italy’s boot – doesn’t attract crowds of travelers. Nevertheless, it’s one of the top places to visit in Italy, especially if you’re looking for a different Italian experience. And it’s quite an experiences since in Puglia you still feel you’re visiting Italy as it was 50 years ago.
That doesn’t mean there’s a dearth of good hotels and other requisite tourist facilities in Puglia. There are plenty of good hotels scattered about the province, in all starred categories. Ditto for restaurants. All in all, it’s quite an interesting area of the country.
And, surprisingly, it’s really not that far from Rome either. Bari, the provincial capital in the middle of this Adriatic province, is only about 1¼ hours from Rome by air. Also only 4 hours by train and 5 hours by car to get to the heel of Italy. Rent a car and you can have a great road trip through the region.
The “Heel of Italy” Surprisingly Close
I was in Lecce, a beautiful city in southern Italy, when I decided to drive south in Puglia. I wanted to see the “heel of Italy.” It was so enticingly close, and I knew I would kick myself in the future if I didn’t.
My wife and I expected the 40 mile-or-so drive from our hotel in Lecce to take us about 30-40 minutes. It instead took us more than 1 1/2 hours, even though at first we were on a good 4-lane highway.
After the road had narrowed down to a rural two-lane highway we soon found that the delay. It was being caused by a single traffic light in one small town. It had been set to allow only one lane to move forward at a time.
The landscape along the road outside of Lecce is arid, as well as a bit scuzzy and trashy in some areas. So when we neared the actual tip of the heel we were shocked. Everything quickly became very picturesque.
A quarter mile before we reached the coast e could see a tall lighthouse looming in the distance, backlit by an azure sea and sky. It was the Lighthouse of Santa Maria di Leuca, named for the town on the other side of the headland.
But not far beyond we came to a small barricade that blocked the entrance to the road to the lighthouse to all vehicles. I found a place to park nearby and when I got out to take some photos, I saw that all of the Italians were ignoring the barricade and simply driving around it. I jumped back in the car and followed.
Basilica Sanctuary of Santa Maria de Finibus Terrae
The lighthouse is on a piazza that is actually part of a monastery, the Basilica Sanctuary of Santa Maria de Finibus Terrae.
It included a church, a small museum and, of course, the requisite little tourist shops selling trinkets of every kind. A little cafe on its edge provided shade for those who want to sip a caffè or Coke.
While wandering about we noticed a sign that said this was the spot that divided the Adriatic and Ionian Seas, which probably had much to do with the sculpting of the ruggedly beautiful coastline. The monastery and lighthouse were on the Adriatic side, the left side of the road as you traveled south.
Across the road at the bottom of the headland was the Ionian Sea and the idyllic little town of Santa Maria di Leuca. It’s August and Santa Maria’s small hotels and restaurants, as is its beach, are at capacity.
Its beautiful aquamarine harbor is full with small pleasure boats and a few yachts. I surmise the yachts have dropped anchor here since this is the last stop before one sails off to Greece, Turkey or across the Mediterranean to Africa.
Beyond the Heel, Lots to See in Puglia
We were surprised we encountered so few tourists in the heel of the boot. We did, however, hear a lot of German being spoken in Puglia, a favorite summer destination for Germans since it’s only an 11-hour drive on good roads down from Munich.
Most Americans just don’t think of coming down to the heel of the boot since this is beach and sea territory and, more often than not, while in Italy most of us don’t like to sit still very long unless we’re in one of the big cities or tucked away somewhere in Tuscany.
Lecce is well worth stopping to relax for a day or two, and you may find these no-cancellation-fee tours of Lecce interesting. You may also like to take a tour in Otranto, an important city for the Romans, Normans and Turks, and Galatina, a Greek outpost in the Middle Ages and now the center of the region’s wine industry. Alberobello also has popular tours. These are all popular tours with no cancellation fees.
Alberobello, a UNESCO World heritage site a bit further to the north, is the home of trulli, small round buildings with conical stone roofs, whose origins are unknown but which certainly date from ancient times.
A drive there from Brindisi should take about one-and-a-half hours depending upon local traffic lights.
If You Go:
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