Salento: offers the best of many worlds

October 25, 2020
Salento, at the very heel of the Italian ''boot," offers the best of many worlds

Whoever coined the expression "down on the heels" clearly never had the pleasure of visiting Salento, the southeast tip of Italy's boot-shaped mainland.

Celebrities in recent years have been flocking to Salento for weddings or summer vacation retreats. Thankfully, the many charms of Salento have stayed low-key and faithful to its "contadini" (farm folk) roots even as it grows ever more popular.

One after the other, "masserie'' (manor houses on farms) are being converted into countryside lodgings with every comfort _ olive press rooms have become spas, swimming pools have been added -- but what's so lovely about Salento is that many of the owners have kept their properties as working farms alongside the lodgings. Diners are served just-picked fruits and vegetables or homemade cheeses, like the salty, milky white ricotta cheese, called cacioricotta, grated over handmade pasta. While the pasta water boils, guests can nibble on taralli, simple ring-shaped snacks made with flour, oil, salt and simple seasoning, like fennel seeds.

Salento is part of Puglia, a region which offers fascinating studies in contrast in topography and culture.

Puglia encompasses the ''spur" of the "boot," called Gargano, that geologically has more in common with the Balkan Peninsula across the Adriatic Sea than with the Italian mainland. Plains are rare in Italy, since most of the nation is mountainous. Just think of its Appenine backbone and its massive Alps crowning the north. Gargano has thick forest, part of a national park, and rugged seacoast dotted by picturesque fishing village, But most of the rest of Puglia is made up mostly of fertile plain, making it one of the world's leading producers of olive oil, vegetables and fruit.

Farmland is dotted with olive trees, many of them more than a century-old, vineyards produce signature Primativo wines, and farmers tend fields of durum wheat, the mainstay ingredient of Italian pasta.

Crisscrossing the plain, you'll drive by orchards of almond trees, with their pink or white blossoms, that provide the nuts for many of Puglia's sweet desserts. In the distance, you may spot a town on a hill with buildings so bleached-white you think that a Greek village has been magically transported to Italy. Instead it's beautiful Ostuni, with its hilly streets running under arches.

Alberobello resembles a storybook place, with stone structures with conical roofs, topped with curious architectural symbols pointing skyward. These are Puglia's "trulli,'' constructed in centuries past to shelter animals and store farm tools and as practical homes for "contadini." Their whitewashed, super-thick walls keep the interior warm in winter and cool in summer. Alberobello's extensive grouping of "trulli" are a tourist attraction. But "trulli" also dot much of Puglia's countryside. Many have been modernized and renovated to serve as vacation homes that can be rented. Those cone-shaped roofs, erected with stones and no mortar, are the perfect architectural feature for canopied guests beds!

Puglia is a crossroads of history. Paintings in some grottoes date back some 12,000 years. In the millennia and centuries that followed, many cultures left their mark here, including ancient Greeks and Romans. The Appian Way, which starts in Rome, ends at the Salento port city of Brindisi, the gateway to the East. Influence of Greek Orthodox, Arabs and many others are visible in art and architecture.

Salento, the southern end of this bountiful plain, is perfect for discovering this rich layering of history. Up until a few decades ago, some locals in one town still spoke a dialect rooted in ancient Greek. Jutting into the Mediterranean, Salento is both eastward and westward looking, and its traditions reflect that. Ruins of ancient towers stand guard above many ports and coves. Byzantines, Normans, Angevins, Ottomans and Bourbons are only some of the peoples or rulers who settled or swept through Salento throughout its history.

After dipping into so much history, for a well-deserved break, take a dip into some of Salento's spectacular seas. As anyone who has experienced the Atlantic and the Pacific can attest, seas have different characters. In Salento, visitors can change seascapes by the day or practically by the hour if they desire variety. Salento is edged by the Adriatic Sea on its east coast and by the Ionian Sea on the west. Holiday-goers have myriad possibilities: easily accessible sand beaches, stone reefs to scamper down or stretch out to sunbathe on, uncrowded coves reachable only by boat. Depending on which sea and what time of day, the crystalline waters can appear deep emerald, or maybe turquoise or perhaps sapphire blue.

After tooling around or swimming, visitors can satisfy their hunger with some of Italy's most wonderful meals. Even in a country where humble vegetables like spinach can be made delectable with a few quick turns in a saute pan with nothing but extra virgin olive oil, garlic and hot pepper seeds, Salento's dinner greens stand out for being super-fresh and simply prepared.

A perennial favorite for locals is a first course of ''orecchiette con cime di rape" -- ear-shaped pasta, made one by one by hand, and topped with cooked turnip greens. More rustic than that is hard to do, but top it with some of that grated cacioricotta and wash it down with a Salento wine, perhaps a bottle of Negroamaro, and that's a recipe for happiness over dinner.

Other Salento vegetables that are special favorites include carrots a deep violet color and golden potatoes, the latter often served with mussels fished from the sea that same day.

If after satisfying one's stomach, one hungers for more cultural substance, take a stroll to savor the varied architectural styles in Salento's towns.

One jewel of a town is Lecce, which has been dubbed the "Florence of the South." Walking through its squares is akin to visiting a museum with no roof. Its local stone lends a pleasing golden tone to buildings when the sun strikes it.The Baroque facade on Lecce's palazzi and churches are every much as impressive as those in a collection of Baroque towns in Sicily's southeast corner. The building stone is also very soft, so it's easy to carve, and bizarre, fantastical animal and human figures decorate church facades with rococo touches. There is also has a Roman amphitheater, testimony to some of Salento's rich past.

Before or after dinner, one of Lecce's main piazze, Sant'Oronzo is buzzing with life. Couples of all ages, families, tourists take a leisurely walk, perhaps sampling street feed or stopping at one of the cafes or winebars that line the square and nearby street.

Lining some of the streets are shops selling one of Lecce's traditional handicrafts made of papier mache -- "cartapesta" as it is known in Salento. Painted in a riot of colors and fashioned into a variety of figures or shaped like plates, these lightweight creations are displayed on the doors and walls of shops, giving them the air of an art gallery. This craft art dates back to the 17th and 18th century in Lecce, and its origins are said to be linked to church demand for realistic-looking and captivating religious figurines. Thrifty artisans made their creations from scraps of rags and straw, then painted them in vivid colors. These days, cartapesta objects are as likely to be a work of abstract art as a representation of some personage, and, brought home from Lecce, as a souvenir, add splashes of color to homes when hung on a wall.