As we left Polignano a Mare behind, the sun decided to play the game of hide and seek with us. The clouds would roll in with vigor. The sun would give us a wink and then hide away. We would see light in the horizon sometimes and we would smile thinking yes, we have captured you Mr. Sun. Sometimes we would see rain droplets on the cars coming from the opposite direction. We seemed to be chasing the clouds instead of leaving them behind us. We hoped that the sun would get tired of playing the game – that the clouds would reach the Salento region and roll away on to the Ionian Sea while we slowly made our way to the town of Lecce.
The Salento peninsula is south of Bari in what is known as the heel of the boot of Italy. The Salento peninsula is surrounded by the Adriatic Sea on the east and the Ionian Sea on the west. Lecce is in the middle of the peninsula bordered neither by the Ionian or Adriatic Seas.
We realized that Lecce wasn’t like any of the towns we had visited in Puglia. You immediately notice that Lecce is constructed with a golden colored limestone known as Lecce stone. The town is famous for its beautiful Baroque architecture. Unlike the simpler architecture and white limestone of northern Puglia, Lecce’s architecture is grand. We entered the old town of Lecce through Porta Napoli, one of the four gates to the historic city. We picked up a map and started our walk through the city. There are Baroque style churches to admire. One of the most important sites to visit is a second century AD Roman amphitheater. We purchased a common entry ticket to visit the churches. It’s cheaper to buy the common ticket at €9 to see the three most beautiful churches. There are 40 churches and several piazzas in the walled city. Santa Chiara church, San Giovanni Battista, Basilica di Santa Croce, and Piazza del Duomo are definitely worth a visit. The Roman Amphitheater is not open to the public, but it can be seen from the short border wall. It was excavated in 1901. It stayed buried right in the center of the old town for centuries.
Lecce is a city of about 98,000 people and many of its residents live within the walls of the old town. Vehicles are allowed in certain parts within the walled town. The pedestrians share these narrow streets with vehicular traffic. The zooming motor scooters and cars maneuvering the narrow streets was scary and made us jump a few times. Lecce is a university town and home to the University of Salento. As such, there is a big student population here.
By the time we were done wandering the beautiful and intricately carved churches and wide piazzas we were famished. What more to do but sit down at a cafe in front of the Roman Theater and enjoy the famous Puccia or Pucce sandwiches? Puccia bread is a simple bread made out of pizza dough. Each and every cafe in Lecce advertises its Puccia sandwiches. Wherever we went in Italy, charcuterie boards known here as affettati misti are served. They were described as Italian antipasti platters with cured meats, fruits, local cheeses, and bread. The platter of Salumi or cured meats is popular. All the restaurants seemed to offer the salumi boards with the Italian style meats. These meats are salted and cured. It doesn’t matter what time of the day, we have seen people enjoying them at street side restaurants. We are vegetarians so of course we tried the ‘V’ version. This was our last day in Puglia so we had a Puglia style feast. We had Caprese salad with fresh mozzarella and Campania tomatoes with a drizzle of local olive oil, famous Puglia olive focaccia, and of course a Puccia sandwich.
We stuffed ourselves with our vegetarian feast and felt like taking an Italian afternoon repose. But we had more to see and explore. We decided to drop one town from our itinerary. We thought we would take it easy and relish every moment rather than rushing from place to place. Our only goal was to reach the town of Gallipoli at sunset to watch the sunset on the Ionian Sea.
But first was the town of Otranto. Otranto is a coastal town at the tip of the Salento Peninsula about a 50-minute drive from Lecce. In this part of Italy, they plant the bushes of Oleanders on the middle divide of the highways. The vibrant pink flowers of the Oleanders provided the stark contrast to the greens of the olive orchards and vineyards on both sides of the autostrada. The vines were laden with grapes. The vineyard after vineyard were covered on top with plastic covers. I had assumed that they were there to protect the fruits from the birds but that wasn’t true. Puglia region is a big producer of table grapes. It seems covering the vines in plastic hastens the ripening and improves the quality.
The Puglia region has 800 kilometers of coastline. The Strait of Otranto joins the Adriatic Sea with the Ionian Sea and it divides Italy from Albania. The town of Otranto is situated on the Strait of Otranto. Otranto is just 72 nautical miles from the coast of Albania.
We reached Otranto in the late afternoon. Otranto is famous for its Cathedral. The eleventh century Otranto Cathedral is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s famous for the tree of life mosaic floor installed in the 12th century. We made our way to the castle and the Cathedral passing the small harbor. Massive walls surrounding this town have protected this easternmost town in Italy for centuries from foreign invaders. We passed through the castle walls on our way to the Cathedral. The exquisite tree of life mosaic floor is protected from the footfalls of visitors. We walked on the periphery behind the protective tape to admire the lovely work of art on the floor. We came out on the seafront to enjoy the mild sea breeze of early evening. The heavy afternoon meal was still making us feel lethargic and we needed a caffeine kick. We found a table at a cafe overlooking the harbor. The sky had become heavy with dark clouds once again. We hoped the clouds would move away soon and let us enjoy the beautiful sunset in Gallipoli I had read about.
People were coming out on the seafront after the afternoon repose to enjoy mild breeze. We sat there enjoying our coffee while people watching. After a cup of coffee we made our way to Gallipoli some 68 km away on the Ionian Sea. The old city of Gallipoli is built within tall walls and is on a tiny island connected by a sixteenth century bridge to the mainland. By the time we reached there, there was a sprinkle of rain, and the sun was playing hide and seek again amongst the fast-moving dark clouds. Our first sight of Gallipoli was with a rainbow over the beautiful town. As we arrived, a tourist train was leaving for the tour of the town. We decided to ride it. It was just a 20-minute tour around the town. At least it gave our tired legs more time to rest. But that was not enough. I loved what I saw through the moving train. We got off the train and started walking to explore this beautiful town – that’s exactly what the word Gallipoli means in Italian, a beautiful town.
We went to see the fortress Castello Aragonese built by the Byzantines in the thirteenth century. The limestone fortress looked golden in the rays of the sun when the sun broke loose from the clutches of the dark clouds. I had read about the old olive press museum, Hypogeum Oil Mill of Palazzo. We went to see the small museum. It’s underground and has presses from different eras. The museum had a guided tour and we joined it to learn how the olives were pressed to make olive oil.
We were waiting for the famous sunset at Gallipoli. The summer season’s late sunset gave us enough time to explore this small town. So, like with all the other towns, we started wandering amongst the streets, getting charmed by the streets, churches, piazzas, and palaces. At last, it was the time of day we had been waiting for. We made our way to the high walls of the city to admire the sunset. And it didn’t disappoint us. As promised, it turned out to be breathtakingly beautiful. Even with the few clouds that were still around, we were able to capture the brilliant hues of the sky and the sun setting on the Ionian Sea.
With the sun bidding adieu to Gallipoli we bid our own adieu to Gallipoli and Puglia. Like the sun we hoped we would be back soon. But for now, it was time to explore the Amalfi Coast.