If you’re just getting started on researching Puglia, let’s begin with the most obvious question: where is Salento and how does it relate to Puglia? Puglia begins slightly north of the National Park of Gargano (the small outcropping at the top of the map) and it ends where a discarded gum wad would collect on your stiletto boot in Leuca. Apologies to Leuca but I was just sticking with the time honored metaphor of Italy looking like a boot!
Have a look at this map: Salento is the region of Puglia represented as anything south of the red line that stretches from Taranto to Brindisi. I’ve heard this part of Italy referred to as the Cuba of Italy insinuating that time has forgotten the area.
In some ways, that is true. Salento is unmoved by time. It is simple, it moves glacially but it is also compellingly stunning. I am an easy touch if I am overlooking water - any water - as we were at our villa.
After spending 8 days in the small town of Castro, (on the eastern coast overlooking the Adriatic Sea), I realized that if you want a slow and relaxed holiday, your best bet is to stay put at your hotel or villa or the town. Alternatively, if you’re interested in seeing the region, which we extensively did, you must criss-cross Salento. We drove to Alberobello, Lecce, Gallipoli, Santa Maria Leuca, Otranto and all the small towns in between. It was arduous sometimes because of the stress caused by unfamiliar roads and signage and the limited timetable but it was truly worth it. In the following days, I plan to give you a balanced look at Puglia; the great, the good, the bad and the entirely ridiculous.
As you might imagine, every town is vastly unique. Today, I am writing about Gallipoli. The centro storico (ancient center) of Gallipoli sits on an isthmus and is surrounded by an imposing protective wall. It’s truly an old working town where fishing is the leading industry. As such, it has some very good seafood restaurants. As an aside, I urge you to research where you are going to eat because like everywhere else, there is a risk of eating some spectacularly average food. We had lunch at Il Bastione (recommended by a local) and found it very good. Another quick suggestion is to ask if whether what you are eating is “freschi o congelati” - fresh or frozen. You will be surprised to learn that even though many of these small towns trade in seafood products, some of the restaurants still serve frozen seafood. To me, that’s unacceptable and passing it off as fresh is even worse (which happened to us one time).
Gallipoli's ancient center is in the interior - away from the walls - amid a labyrinth of narrow streets and alleys. It's a fascinating stroll but marred somewhat by the deluge of shops selling magnets, tee shirts, and snow globes. I highly recommend using most of your time on the perimeter wall where the view of the Ionian Sea is magnificent and the restaurants are a notch better.
I want to be clear that I loved Gallipoli. It's a stunning ancient town with a prominent position overlooking the sea but I wish that they were less “cheapo” tourist driven and more focused on its legitimate authenticity. My wife did find a women's apparel shop there that she loved. It's called **Tulsi** and owned by Andrea and Deborah. If there were more stores like that, we would have left for the ride back to Castro with a sizable dent in our pocketbook instead of just a full stomach.
In addition to visiting the centro storico, there are many beaches in and around Gallipoli. I'm told that the beaches are insanely crowded in season and in many instances, they double as party central. Stay on the shore roads and drive 18 miles south to Torre San Giovanni for one of the best beaches in the area.
As Puglia continues to become an increasingly popular destination, small towns like Gallipoli will need to up their game. It isn’t enough to be a beautiful town that can be seen in a day in order to tick the box. You want people to stay awhile and sample all that the town has to offer.