It was always on the plan to spend some time in Puglia, the ‘heel’ of Italy. Once one of the poorest regions it now does a roaring trade in tourism as it has some lovely towns, fabulous beaches and a definite and endearing charm of its own.
We set off from Metaponta into Puglia, intending to visit Lecce. The satnav told us to go via Brindisi which looked like a long way round when there was a perfectly adequate road leading straight there from Taranto. So we decided we knew better than the satnav (which is usually the case) and followed the direct route. Which took us through endless small towns, few of which had a bypass, all of which involved narrow streets and one-way systems, and which turned out to be a lot slower. Nellie (the satnav) you were right for once.
Lecce is another glorious Baroque town with Roman bits here and there. We found some town centre parking, realised we had about 30 minutes until all the churches and museums would close for the usual 3 1/2 hour lunch break, and charged off to get a look at a couple before this happened. They were lovely but I think Sicily spoilt us, as they weren’t a patch on some of the ones we’ve already seen. Had a leisurely lunch sitting outside a cafe on a quaint little street.
And then we headed back to the coast – a small town called Gallipoli. Found a very nice campsite, probably one of the best yet, and decided to stay for a couple of days and catch up on washing etc.
After a relaxing morning mooching around the campsite we cycled the short distance into Gallipoli. The old part of town is on an island, joined by a bridge. We cycled around the edge then through the middle, checking out the cathedral and castle but generally taking it easy.
Decided to stay a third night. Well why not? After another lazy morning we cycled the other way up the coast a little way, as far as Santa Maria al Bagno. Took a little walk up to a view point, and checked out a couple of old watchtowers that we passed – these seem to be all along the coast here, a bit like Martello towers in the UK.
Time to move on. We drove the delightful coast road from Gallipoli south, around the tip of Puglia, and then up the Adriatic coast, taking lots of stops along the way. At the very tip is Santa Maria di Leuca, a lighthouse and a large church. This is the ‘Land’s End’ of Italy – the place where the Ionian and Adriatic seas meet.
North from there the coast is rockier but the road was good and wide, there was no traffic and it was a lovely drive. We stopped again at Otranto, a medieval town and port, and managed to catch it with churches open. One had a stunning Arabic mosaic floor, depicting the tree of life. Also in this church was a chapel containing the skulls of hundreds of people, martyred by the Turks after some long-ago siege.
Camped at another pleasant campsite near Torre dell’Orsa, which we found by accident after not liking either of the ones in our books in this area. So pleasant we debated doing two nights again, and having another day of pootling around locally on the bikes and in the sea etc, but then we realised May is slipping away from us, and our high-level plan suggested we should be out of Italy and heading to Slovenia and Croatia by the end of May. And there’s a lot of Italy to go!
So this morning we packed up and headed up the coast, stopped for a coffee then stopped a little further up the road to have a dip in the sea. Then around the Lecce ring-road and on to the main road heading north past Brindisi, all the way to Ostuni, where we arrived in time for the churches to be closed. Ostuni old town is a hill-top town, full of tiny winding streets and white-washed buildings. It looks more Greek than Italian. We found perfect parking (thank you, Google satellite imagery which I am using to spot car parks in towns!) and spent a pleasant couple of hours wandering around and having a leisurely lunch. Then discovered the cathedral was open anyway (at 3pm!! Wow!!) so we had a look inside. It was a very hot day, and we then felt the need to get back on the road with the windows open.
The onward drive took us through the middle of Puglia, past many olive groves, vineyards and trulli, the funny little conical houses that are unique to this area. Puglia produces more olives than the rest of Italy put together, and more white wine than the whole of Germany.
We reached Castellana Grotte where you can park campervans overnight in the car park for the caves, for five euro. We’ll visit the caves tomorrow.