The Salento, Italy’s undiscovered heel

There is little inspiring scenery or architecture on the drive south through the Salento from Bari to Savelletri and at first sight ...

the landscape seems rather flat and boring compared with more popular parts of the country such as the dramatic Amalfi Coast, the Ligurian coastline close to Portofino or the wooded promontory of Tuscany’s Argentario around Porto Ercole.

Head further south, however, and let Puglia unfold, especially the extreme tip of the heel known as the Salento, where the coastline is more indented, the ocean more turquoise, the small towns hardly touched by tourism.

This region, a parched land of ancient olive groves, cacti, palms and masserie (farm-houses) is peppered with small towns and harbours, squares and churches and small stores that still close for the afternoon.

Puglia has evident Greek and Spanish influences (it was occupied by the Spanish from 1734 until 1806). This is particularly noticeable in the food, which is quite different in many respects from that of, say, Campania, the Amalfi Coast province.

Away from the sea the people of Puglia favour meat, fava bean purée, vegetables such as cicoria, which resembles spinach (not chicory), and a more robust mix of antipasti and cheeses. By the coast you will find good seafood with lots of crudo (raw fish), carpaccios, frittura, grilled, freshly caught spigola (sea bass), orata (sea bream) and plenty of tuna. Fishing is a big industry in the region and the products fill the markets and grace restaurant tables in season.

There are few hotels that meet Nota Bene criteria, but there is one we like in the delight-ful, intimate city of Lecce, which is unmissable for its Baroque churches, the magnificent Piazza del Duomo and the Roman amphitheatre.

Close to the ocean at Marittima, in the deep south, an absolute favourite is a converted convent where you will really want to stay when the charismatic owner, Athena, is in residence. Athena McAlpine is a lady of great style and education and it is delightful to spend time with her at this very special property. With its small guest accommodations and classic bathrooms, not all of which are en-suite, it won’t be for everyone. However, for those like us who believe that luxury should not be afraid of simplicity, this is a very distinctive place, full of beautiful artefacts, rare books, wonderful art and tapestries collected from many years of exotic travels. And being served lunch or dinner poolside or in a shady courtyard, especially when you are the only guests in residence, is pure magic.

Put the Salento down as part of your travel schedule for the early fall or for late spring and summer 2019 and let us plan an unforgettable southern Italian experience.