About 30 minutes drive from Lecce, you reach the sea - a point where the Adriatic meets the Ionian sea. And it’s beautiful.
A beach resort, with an “Old Town” area. A mix of beaches, sailing harbours, historic buildings and a castle. Lots of restaurants and pavement cafés, shops and typically narrow Italian alleyways.
I don’t recall hearing any language other than Italian being spoken. I think the Italians want to keep this part of the world to themselves! Not a bad idea, really, as there wasn’t a sign of the international “pollution” found in so many places: no burger bars, Starbucks or “kiss-me-quick” souvenirs. There were lots of pizzeria, sea-food takeaways, Italian coffee & wine bars.
If you’re into beach holidays, Otranto is worth the difficulty of travelling - and it isn’t easy with the nearest airports of Brindisi & Bari (+100km) not serving many locations outside Italy other than with low-cost carriers.
We certainly enjoyed our time there.
Driving back, we took the coast road and passed through even more never-before heard of places including holiday villages and camp-sites beside even more beautiful beaches.
Puglia has lots of hidden talents. We’re off to find some more of them tomorrow.
One of our more complicated journeys: Cardiff Airport (Barry) to Amsterdam. Amsterdam to Milan Linate. Milan Linate to Bari.
Pick up a hire car. Drive 100 miles to Lecce.
Locate the hotel (which is tucked away in the middle of the pedestrian only Old Town).
And, much to our surprise, we made it, with just the last 5 miles being a problem.
Avis (note; no good deed goes unpunished) upgraded our car from an Audi A1 to a Peugeot 308. This little beauty (in addition to having more electronic gadgets than the International Space Station) had a SatNav.
I have a TomTom app on my phone, preprogrammed with the Hotel’s location, but decided to use this amazingly talented French Travel Guru. It took us easily to Lecce (not a particularly difficult task) and then, when faced with limited access “residents only” pedestrianised streets started to go in circles trying to find a way in. (Typically French: High on promise, Low on delivery).
We silenced this French maestro and asked my humble phone app to help. It took to the challenge like a ferret offered access to a rabbit hole and took us directly to the hotel.
Lecce is seriously busy. The week around August 15th is a major Italian holiday. But the phone led us through the crowds. We now understand how the Pope feels ploughing through the adoring masses (even if the masses didn’t seem too adoring during our progress!).
Fortunately, the hotel offers valet parking, taking the car to a safe place and returning it, on request, to outside the hotel.
The Hotel, and our room is pretty amazing. More on this and Lecce tomorrow. All we wanted was a pizza, wine and a good night’s sleep. Two from three achieved so far. Sleep comes next.
Why did we choose Lecce as the place to stay on the heel of Italy’s boot? I’d heard that around every turn was a feast of Baroque architecture influenced by all the Greek and North African invaders.
Everywhere you look, even down little side streets where tourists never venture (except us!) the homes are incredible. Most towns, even in Italy, would organise walking tours just to see them.
There are so so many churches and a cathedral. Each one is as beautiful inside as out. Even the “little” ones are a feast of art.
And that’s not to mention the Roman remains and amphitheatres (yes, plural).
So much more exploring to do!
Gallipoli (not the one of war-time infamy) is located to the south of Lecce, on the bay formed between Italy’s heel and toe. Not quite as swish as Otranto, but still a pretty and pretty-interesting place.
Much of the fish and seafood I’ve been eating the last few days is listed as from Gallipoli and walking from the car park to the town, we passed through a small fish market. Not a big one by any means. It seemed to be the place where smaller boats sold whatever they’d caught that morning. Shame you can’t photograph smells (or maybe not!).
The harbour area is charming, with as many, if not more, working boats than pleasure craft. The town has narrow streets with souvenirs (a bit more “kiss-me-quick” junk today) and a vast number of elaborate churches (Well, it is Italy!).
After a thorough exploring, we took a refreshment break in the shadow of the Duomo. When hot, and it’s certainly that, (and I’m driving which means, according to The Boss, no beer shall pass my lips) we go for iced lemon tea. Our waitress suggested instead their Limone della cassa - the House Lemon. Wow! They squeeze these enormous local lemons, add some sweetening and both crushed and cubed ice. And Wow! again.
We then drove on to Leuca, as far as you can go down the Heel; next stop: Africa. The SatNav came in handy as the town's full name is Santa Maria di Leuca. These names seem interchangeable on road signs which also offer a variety of imaginative abbreviations.
The town hasn’t a car park. Well, actually, the entire town was a car park, caused, we think, by a Sunday market which ran the entire length of the 2km or so promenade. To be honest, we felt it spoilt the look and feel of the place; it wasn’t the most attractive array of stalls by a long way. Fortunately they were just packing up, so within 30 minutes or so, it was possible to see the place properly.
It's a beach resort, with little else on offer, but charming in it’s own way. There was a harbour area and some expensive looking water front properties.
If we come back to Puglia, we probably wouldn’t bother coming back to Leuca, but it’s a good thing to be able to say we travelled as far as you can down the east side of Italy, without falling in the sea!
Today was as hot as it’s been, maybe because we had reached the most southerly point. On returning to the car, the outside temperature was 39ºC; Lord alone knows what it was inside the car!
No plans yet for tomorrow.
We decided to explore some of the smaller towns within 30km of Lecce; a circular route using some of the back roads.
We didn’t find anywhere especially exciting, but all of them were old, seriously old, with massive ornate churches (several per town!) and large piazza.
In Galatina even the local police station was an historic monument!
Exploring the back roads was hardly a problem with a SatNav, except that in these old towns, some of the main roads are what we would think of as lanes or alleyways. Seriously! Some were barely wide enough for the car, one setting off the collision warning tech on both sides at the same time. TomTom did his best, but it’s so easy to miss a turn when you can’t believe you’re actually expected to drive down something narrower than a single lane cycle path.
Today’s excitement (!) all came within 50 metres of the hotel.
First: an unexpected problem with valet parking.
On our way down to breakfast we always ask for the car to be brought around at a specified time. It’s worked well so far, and advance warning is good for the hotel as they have to park the cars outside the “Old Town”. Today they forgot our request. “No problem. We’ll have it here in 5 minutes.”
In Italy that’s a euphomism for 25 minutes. We were handed the keys. On unlocking the car, something seemed wrong. There was a map in the door pocket and my phone holder wasn’t on the windscreen.
So what are the odds that 2 guests at the same hotel would hire black Peugeot 308’s. Never bet against the odds! We were sitting in someone else’s car.
The look on the receptionist’s face was to die for. The look on the Duty Manager’s face was even better. Eventually, just before 11am the car arrived. I wish I spoke Italian, because the string of invective that passed between the Duty Manager and the garage man would have raised my street vocabulary to a whole new level!
Secondly: Street parking in Old Lecce.
Many (perhaps all) Italians believe that road signs (and speed limits) are polite suggestions from the authorities; advice that should be used at your own discretion. To reach the hotel, one drives through pedestrian areas and about 50m from the hotel a wide piazza’s entrance has been narrowed by a line of bollards that cars can park against. The centre parking bay is not a parking bay at all; it’s the route left open for those who need to go into the piazza (which actually includes the tourist “Noddy-train”).
Today, the parking “advice" was partially ignored by an Audi A4 which parked far enough outside its bay to leave enough room for (IMHO) a Fiat 500 to squeeze through (if it breathed in very deeply).
It already had a ticket, so Margaret walked to the Hotel to let them know we’d need the car valet parked from its new location (the middle of the road). Just as she, and the receptionist returned, the Local Police arrived.
As you would expect in Italy, much arm waving ensued. One of the officers spoke some English, and said he was going to have it towed. He radioed in and, apparently, wasn’t happy with the response (too long to wait, I think).
Being an Italian male, all of whom have a symbiotic bond with motor vehicles, he looked at my car, looked at the gap, and decided there wasn’t a problem. “Do as I say,” he said with confidence (which I didn’t share).
I drove through the gap and for the second time the collision warning system lit up like fireworks at midnight on New Year’s Eve. Margaret was watching and estimated about 3 inches clearance on both sides.
It added to life’s rich patchwork of experiences and gave an excuse (were one needed) for a large drink.
And just when we thought it was safe to get back in the car… More on that later!
Set on a hill, one of the few in the area, Ostuni dominates the landscape. Most of the buildings (except the churches - of which, as usual, there are many) are white. On a bright sunny day it must look incredible. The weather god took the morning off (cloudy 😒) but it still looks amazing.
The car park near the bottom of the town was full (11:30am) so we took a tour of the winding streets which (miraculously) led us to on-street parking after about 10 minutes.
The place was crowded; not unreasonable in August. It’s a fine place to stroll and an even finer place to become lost! Here the buildings seem built at random with walkways between them. Most have steps up (or down, obviously!) and turn every few metres. The buildings are tall as the builders tried for sunlight. The usual trick of looking around for a particular church spire for direction doesn’t work.
We saw lots of residential streets! But they were worth seeing.
The parts intended for visitors are often special, but if it had been sunny, sunglasses would be essential - it’s all so white!
The view from the battlements goes all the way to the Adriatic; spectacular. They also give a perspective on the number of olives grown in Italy. In Puglia, it seems, if you have a field, plant olive trees (or if you’re really posh, grape vines for wine making).
We drove back on what must have been once a Roman road. Straight as a die for mile after mile, with many delightful (and a few not so delightful) little towns along the way, to arrive safely back in Lecce.
Then the gates of Hell opened and we drove in.
Lecce has a patron Saint and as a good Catholic community, holds a festival to commemorate him. It starts tomorrow. There will be parades and various other “partying” for 3 days.
However, to start this off with a bang, today the main road around the Old Town is closed to traffic and a lively street market is underway. No one at the Hotel thought to mention that this morning.
The entire traffic system is in chaos, and Italian Chaos deserves a capital letter. Dozens of polizia locale guard the barriers waving sticks with red discs at all cars approaching them directing in what appeared to be purely random directions.
So how do we drive to the Hotel. Following a brief discussion with a female officer (descended from Mussolini based on her fascist approach to our problem) we phoned the Hotel. “Where are you, so we can come to you?” How the Hell should we know. It’s the roundabout entrance to that big wide street we drive around each day. “Don’t know,” I reply. A little annoyed at the failure to warn us, I tell them we’ll sort it out and (ominous tone used) “Speak to you in more detail, when we arrive back”.
Margaret notices one or two vehicles being allowed in, so leaves the car to do her best “befuddled British old-person” routine on a nearby officer (who she’s been told speaks English).
He returns to the car, tells me that the roads are crowded with people, “So drive very carefully” and lets us through.
Crowded with people. The man was a master of understatement. They were solid with people. Men, women, children, push-chairs, dogs, street vendors - all human life was there! And never forget, right of way, vehicle or pedestrian is a matter of will power, not regulation, in Italy.
At a speed which rarely exceeded 1mph, and often didn’t even register on the digital speedometer, we made it back to the hotel. Around 20 minutes of mayhem to cover maybe 2km.
Boy-o-boy was that fun? NO!
Last day today, mostly for travelling home. Bari Airport is about 100 miles from Lecce so we set off around 9am knowing this would leave plenty of time in hand for our first flight at 15:30.
We arrived in Bari a little after 11am, so took some time to briefly explore the town.
Bari is one of those places most people bypass. It’s a port for ferries across the Adriatic to Montenegro and Albania. The guide books don’t rate it at all. Never believe everything you read!
The drive into town from the Autostrada is along a wide road that literally borders the sea. Crystal clear water, with waves gently crashing against the low sea wall. No beaches, just a rocky shore line, so lovely that if we’d had the time we’d have parked up and simply chilled for an hour or so with a book.
The modern town does, perhaps, leave a bit to be desired. Not a total mess, but it does reflect the fact that Southern Italy is the country’s poorest region.
The old town: a totally different matter!
Wide piazze, churches (naturally), narrow winding streets and a castle; in fact everything you’d want in “Old Town” Italy. We didn’t have anywhere near enough time to do it justice.
The wide promenade runs all around the town with benches to sit and look out to sea. Apart from the port there is also a harbour area with fishing boats and pleasure craft.
You could spend a few days here quite easily.
The trip from Bari to Palese airport was only 30 minutes and gave us one final new Italian driving experience.
The road isn’t an Autostrada, but being a busy route it's a fast dual-carriageway. We needed to return the hire-car full so pulled into a petrol station. No problem. And then you try to leave it to rejoin the road.
The petrol station is built as if on a normal two lane out of town road (perhaps this was, once upon a time); there are no slipways. The traffic is moving as if on a fully fledged Autostrada. It means trying to enter a busy traffic steam moving at about 100kph from a standing start. Only in Italy!
Three flights to home. The flight from Bari to Rome (Alitalia) followed normal Italian rules. Ready to go on-time; leave gate 20 minutes late. Our connection time is 45 minutes. We’re told by the flight attendant that the plane’s arrival gate is on the same “finger” as our departing KLM, so it’s not a problem.
Technically, he was right. The bus from the aircraft on its remote stand (when the driver finally realised that, maybe, passengers might like to visit the terminal) took us to the same “finger”; with 5 minutes and 13 gate numbers between us and the gate closing.
We made it (panting for air, at risk of cardiac arrest). We gave our baggage a “no chance” rating.
However, to our complete surprise, 2 uneventful KLM flights later, our bags appeared on the carousel.
The greatest thing about Cardiff airport is its speed of processing incoming flights. Electronic passport control entry, ultra fast baggage handling. Just 7 minutes from the doors opening to leaving the airport.
Being met by our son, so no messing with taxis, saw us at home in under 25 minutes.
A very enjoyable few days in the sun.