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.
For those of us heading to southern Italy that’s a good thing, 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 an interesting area of Italy.
And, surprisingly, it’s really not that far from Rome either. Bari, the provincial capital in the middle of the province on the Adiratic, is only about 1¼ hours from Rome by air, 4 hours by train, and 5 hours by car.
The “Heel of the Boot” Surprisingly Close
When I was in southern Italy I decided to drive down to the “heel of the boot.” It was so enticingly close, 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 an hour and a half, even though the first part of the drive was on a good four-lane highway. After the road had narrowed down to a rural two-lane highway we soon found that the delay was being caused by a single traffic light in one small town, set to allow only one of the four converged lanes to move forward at a time.
The landscape along the road outside of Lecce was arid, as well as a bit scuzzy and trashy in some areas, so when neared the actual tip of the heel we were shocked at how picturesque everything became. A quarter mile before we reached the coast a tall lighthouse loomed up 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. Along with the traffic light earlier, it wasn’t something that surprised me in this part of the country, so I went back to the car and did likewise, and found plenty of parking along the way down by the lighthouse.
Basilica Sanctuary of Santa Maria de Finibus Terrae
The lighthouse, we found, was surrounded by 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 was August and Santa Maria’s small hotels and restaurants, as was its beach, were filled with vacationers. Its beautiful aquamarine harbor was filled with small pleasure boats and a few yachts or two, which I surmised 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 that there were so few tourists in Italy, in the heel of the boot. We did, however, hear a lot of German being spoken in Puglia since it’s 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.
Still, though, if you’re in southern Puglia you’ll find the city of Lecce to be a Baroque gem, and well worth stopping in for a day or two. You may also want to visit 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, a bit further to the north, is a UNESCO World heritage and 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:
Department Mediterranean – Culture – Tourism