About Salentina (Puglia) – the ‘Toe’
Salentina, part of Puglia, is the flat, tapering extremity of Italy’s heel. It expires at Cape Santa Maria di Leuca, which to the ancients was Finibus Terrae. This section is a pilgrimage to this ‘Land’s End’ and to the shrine where those who built the Apulian Aqueduct (see Capo Santa Maria, below) are remembered. That extraordinary piece of civil engineering (1919-1939) brought tap water to dwellings across all of Puglia Sitibonda (‘Thirsty Puglia’). Do not look for a procession of arches over the countryside: everything is underground until you come to the final outfall on the very tip of ‘Land’s End’.
Salentina’s roads are fast, straight and quiet, growing quieter as you descend ever gently on the Cape. No through traffic. Except for Lecce the provincial capital, towns tend to be small. The coast of Salentina is a beautiful riviera, just as you would expect of a limestone littoral with glossy foliage and white grottoes.
Inland Salentina is agricultural, sunny and waterless. If village fountains run they run only on festive occasions – with wine, not water. You may meet a housewife in her Fiat, the weekly wash piled on the roof, heading for laundering facilities in some neighbouring village.
You could drive the roads marked on the map comfortably in one day but we suggest you allow two if you wish to take in the best places to visit. A limestone-and-citrus landscape, rainbow-streaked waters where the sea caves are hung with chains of coloured lichen, gullies of astonishing depth but hardly any width – these are the special sights. Salentina’s villages sustain a rich folklore, with a blaze of festivals at Easter. Lecce and Gallipoli hold spring carnivals, there are truffle festivals in May-June and a wine festival in September.
The low backbone subsides, the low cliffs draw together and you know you are coming to the end of something. The Apulian Aqueduct monument is the end: a stony paean to neo-Roman grandeur, a fitting climax for a peninsula whose limestone ribs give it the character of one large classical site, remote in time, haunted by the glories of a distant past, untouched by archaeological interference.
The only commercial airport is Brindisi (Casale) and the only sea services are the car ferries from Brindisi and Otranto to Greece.
Main railways connect Brindisi, Lecce and Manduria. The subsidiary Sud-Est line runs from Lecce almost to Cape Santa Maria di Leuca, makes a U-turn and comes back via Gallipoli, Nardò and Copertino to a mainline junction at Novoli, near Lecce. There is a branch line from Maglie to Otranto. This is the slow way to travel. The small pink-and-cream diesel cars stop everywhere.
There are two bus companies. The auto services of Sud-Est Railways, Viale Quarta 38, Lecce, cover coastal resorts and main road towns. The Società Trasporti Pubblici di Terra d’Otranto, www.stplecce.it, looks after coastal places and most inland towns and villages.
Self-drive hire is available in Lecce; elsewhere it will be difficult.