Over the last couple days, we covered all that seemed worthwhile covering south from Lecce.
Otranto was pleasant albeit tiny; the 12th century mosaic floor in the main cathedral was impressive, so were the three glassed niches in a separate chapel filled to the rim with skulls and bones of the Christian martyrs who refused to convert to Islam back in the 15th century, and were beheaded for this crime (not much changed in this department over the last 600 years. Just when you start cautiously believe that the humanity is becoming humane, it reverts back to barbarism…)
From Otranto, we drove along the coast toward the bottom of the heel. To call this area rural would be an understatement. It was a desert, although green enough and carpeted with wild flowers.
The coastal drive zigzags along the mountainside, not unlike the Amalfi coast, if not as dramatically spectacular. Surprisingly, we arrived in a human settlement called Santa Cesaria Terme – a somnambulant coastal town and a thermal spa resort frozen in time somewhere at the turn of the last century.
Since the area around was quite desolate, we decided to turn back to civilization (or almost civilization) at Maglie.
For dinner, at the recommendation of our hosts, we went to the neighboring small town of Botrugno to eat at La Locanda dei Camini.
The owner, chef, and artist-in-residence Giuseppe was greeting diners with handshakes and kisses – most were clearly returning customers. Garrulous, chatty, and exuberant, he fluttered around his restaurant pushing a metal cart, from which he periodically produced various seafood, sprinkled it with something or other from the cart, doused it with olive oil or other liquids also from the cart, and served to his guests. Since the chef spoke no English and the menu was in Italian, we just ordered a tasting menu and were hoping for the best.
And it was.
Amazingly fresh, mostly raw, and a Michelin -star worthy meal was served with a smile and a non-stop chatter. In fact, the dishes kept coming until I finally told him “Finito” and “Basta”, and for the full measure added my operatic vocabulary “Bravissimo!”
The next day we we explored Gallipoli, which unexpectedly turned out to be lovely and rather upscale.
Mind you, all these small towns, (and large ones at that, even Rome itself), are only charming in their Centro’s Storico’s. You make one step outside the center, and find yourself in an ugly cinderblock postwar city.
But centro storico was lovely, and the gelato I had at Martinucci was one of the best ever!!!
Overnight, we stayed in Brindisi, which had exactly one nice street and one nice square, although the pizza at a seaside pizzeria was outstanding.
These three attractions notwithstanding, Brindisi should be skipped on your trip to Puglia.
To sum it all up: Puglia is well worth a visit. If you a beach bum, go later in the season, July or August; if not, limit your trip to 6 days: four days at Leonardo Trulli Resort in Locorotondo (for Matera, Alberobello, Polignano a Mare, and Ostuni) – the countryside around locorotondo is so beautiful – it does not even pale in comparison to Tuscany; and two days in Corte dei Francesi to explore Lecce, Gallipoli, and Ortando. You can also walk around Maglie a little bit, have dinner at La Loconda dei Camini, gorge on gelato in Martinucci, and call it a day.