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Discover Apulia: A triumph of light

Discover Apulia: A triumph of light

Driving in Salento, south of Apulia (Puglia), Italy, is like driving in the American far west. Yellow fields in summer – green in winter and spring – and olive trees, rocks and little white villages. This was the first time I opted for a self-drive tour. And it’s worth the stress of driving a car.

I arrived to Bari, the ‘capital’ of this southern region, on a direct flight from London. In my head, one dream: discovering the Salento, where the horizon melts into the sea, where there are so many architectural jewels that my mind can not even imagine. And where the food is superb, as I learnt in a ‘pugliese’ restaurant in London.

To organize my trip, I relied on Discovery Puglia, an online travel agency based in Dublin but rooted in this region. The guys who work in it know this area as they know their parents. And I made the right choice.

Before heading to Lecce, the biggest town in Salento, I decided to visit Bari as well. This is a metropolitan area on the Adriatic coast. Its historical center is worth a stroll, with the San Nicola Cathedral, more and more churches, the Bastions on the sea, the lungomare (a promenade along the coast) and with a 18th century area full of shops, both chains and independent ones.

After a long drive towards Salento, I arrived to Lecce, called ‘The Florence of the South’. I was here just for dinner and had a guided tour of the city center organized by Discovery Puglia.

Lecce has got very ancient origins and is almost completely decorated in Baroque style. In Italy they call it ‘Barocco Leccese’, a very particular kind of architecture which flourished in the 16th and 17th century.

Discovery Puglia’s tour guide explained Lecce’s beauty.

He said: ‘Thanks to the local crumbly stone – the so called “Stone of Lecce” (light colour and easily workable) – buildings with very fine decorations of a unique beauty and elegance have been made. They are present all over the historical center, either in the churches and monuments or on balconies and terraces of private residences.’

Here in Lecce I discovered real gems, like Piazza Duomo (a ‘piazza’ is a square), the Episcopal Palace, Piazza Sant’Oronzo, the Amphiteatre and the Basilica of Santa Croce (a wonderful church).

And here in Lecce I tried a stunning local dish, very popular and very easy to cook, but rich in flavor: fave and cicoria, a mixture of broad beans and chicory, with a hint of olive oil and served with local, stone-baked bread.

The following day, I went to Gallipoli, on the Ionian Coast – Puglia is called ‘the region of the two seas’, Adriatic and Ionian.

Gallipoli is well known as the gay capital in Apulia. There are not so many LGBT places as one might expect, but it’s a very popular destination among gays and lesbians, because of the beauty of its sea, the kindness of its people and the artistic flavor of its historical center. Here, I had lunch in a tiny restaurant in front of the city beach. And the fish was wonderful.

But the tour continued and, in the following days, I visited Salento in all its beauty. I think that Otranto is one of the most beautiful Italian villages I have ever seen.

I walked through the beautiful old town where the castle dominates the city and craft shops are open until late night. In the heart of the old town stands the Saint Peter Basilica, the most important example of Byzantine art in Apulia, and Otranto Cathedral, which is the synthesis of different styles, from early Christian to Byzantine and finally the Romanesque, all perfectly mixed together.

Then, I visited Nardò, Porto Selvaggio (a tiny beach), Galatina, Muro Leccese, Castro and Vaste. I had cooking lessons and I visited wineries and farms. I enjoyed the sun (it’s superb in spring as well) and I knew the stories of the locals, who struggle with the tension between traditions and modernity. I also had the opportunity of taking some beautiful photographs.

Here the light is stronger than anywhere else in Italy. And the light filled my heart as well.

PRACTICALITIES

GETTING HERE: direct flight from London and other European cities. 

STAYING: Discovery Puglia can organize almost everything, except the flights. Bed and breakfast and guest houses are the best solutions. You can rent a car at Bari’s airport.

GAY LIFE: Gallipoli is a popular LGBT destination. Bari hosts gay clubs as Hypnotik Gay Disco and Narciso.