To the bottom of Italy’s heel

One of the sandier beaches of Santa Maria di Leuca

We drove down to Santa Maria di Leuca, the town at the southern tip of Puglia and Italy, at the bottom of the heel that goes by the name of the Salento peninsula.

It was a peninsula of solar farms, polytunnels, olive groves and vineyards, orchards and fields of vegetables, derelict farm buildings and scattered villages. The wind whipped across the flat landscape, battering the car.

We spotted the occasional circular pajare in the fields. Similar to the trulli of Alberobello and built with dry stone walls, they too were designed to provide shelter but look more elaborate and lack the pointy roofs. They reminded me of Mayan architecture.

The town at the end of the peninsula proved to be an unexpected treat. A long prom looked out over the lively sea and a wealth of grand villas looked out over the prom.

Now that is a grand villa...
Now that is a grand villa…

The villas were a real surprise because part of me expected Leuca to be a half-forgotten place, locked in a time-warp and genteel poverty. I certainly didn’t expect such a remote town to be a destination for the rich and famous. But in the 19th century the town became a fashionable resort.

The wealthy built a string of grand residences in a variety of styles, from the art nouveau to the Arabic, the Gothic to the Chinese. Colourful, individual and standing in attractive and shaded grounds, they still give Leuca character and class.

It was morning and the town was quiet, just a few people sunbathing in the heat on the rocky shore. The beach boasted the occasional stone changing room from the days when the Victorian upper classes would patronise the resort and needed somewhere posh to don their swimming gear.

The (dry) cascade with views to the town and its marina
The (dry) cascade with views to the town and its marina

We drove round to the bottom of Leuca’s famous cascade, which marks the end of the Puglian Aqueduct. It tumbles down the hill from the shrine that gives the town its name. This dramatic piece of fantasy was principally the work of Mussolini, although you won’t see his name mentioned much on the information boards, and it’s also dry on most days of the year. Typically, we visited on one of them.

Still, the jumble of rocks, a grand column at its base and two flights of stairs alongside the falls give it grandeur and we climbed up in the sweaty heat, drinking in the views of the town, its beaches and the marina.

It was worth the climb too because at the top stood a handsome lighthouse and a vast square in front of the shrine to the Madonna di Leuca. Beyond was the point where the Adriatic met the Ionian sea.

The shrine
The shrine

The shrine – visited in recent years by the pope – was built on the site of an old Pagan temple dedicated to Minerva but is now all religious doom and gloom, so we opted for a cold drink in the cafe next-door.

We drove north along the coast, avoiding the motorway, past some of the simple towers that the great and good had erected in centuries past to protect their domains from raiders. The little seaside towns and villages were a mixed bunch, many of them lacking the wealth of Leuca and a bit down at heel.

We stopped for lunch at Pescoluse, settled into a nice beach-side restaurant, and listened to a loud American and her other half discussing their art gallery traumas and various health problems (polyps in the digestive tract apparently). Veal milanese made a nice change from seafood.

Afterwards we walked along the beach while the vigorous wind blasted sand at us.

The beach at Punta del Pizzo
The beach at Punta del Pizzo

We stopped again amid glorious countryside at Punta del Pizzo at the other end of the Baia Verde, driving down a dusty track into the pine woods. On the other side of them, a beautiful and sheltered sandy beach welcomed us with views all the way back to our base at Gallipoli. The sea was so still it was like glass and even Graham immersed himself in it.

It was a beautiful if popular spot to chill out but when we returned next day to claim a sun bed or two, we discovered that they were hired out for the season and unavailable.

Their loss…