In our new monthly column Where Next?, Brett Atkinson showcases up-and-coming places around the world so you can get there before the crowds do.
Southern Italy's Salento Region
Why here & why now?
Journey beyond the distinctive trulli houses of Puglia's Alberobello and the quirky sassi cave architecture of nearby Matera in Basilicata to explore the far southern tip of Italy's heel. Recent visitors to Salento include actor Hugh Jackman, and Meryl Streep and Godfather director Francis Ford Coppola who both own farmhouses in the area. Dame Helen Mirren is another resident, and co-owns the hip Farmacia Balboa cafe in the sleepy hill town of Tricase.
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Rural backroads and sinuous coastal highways prescribe a relaxed route around Puglia's southernmost region, making Salento ideal for a self-drive holiday. Pick up a good-value Lancia or Fiat at Brindisi airport and base yourself at one of the restored masseria (traditional farmhouses) in the area. Masseria Trapana (trapana.com) near Lecce is a contemporary rejuvenation of a 500-year-old walled property, and lemons and mulberries from Trapana's sheltered grounds are harnessed for their own aperitivo liqueurs.
Trapana's centuries-old honey-coloured walls are echoed in nearby Lecce, where more than 100 churches and mansions reflect the flamboyant local architectural style of barocco leccese (Lecce baroque). Shadows lengthen amid southern Italian twilight in Lecce's old town, with relaxed locals enjoying flinty Salento wines from the region's arid soils in hip laneway bars like Enoteca Mamma Elvira. Framed by a leafy courtyard, the associated La Cucina di Mamma Elvira serves more sophisticated versions of Puglia's hearty cucina povera.
Quiet roads hug the coast to the Basilica Santuario di Santa Maria at Leuca on the southernmost tip of Italy's stiletto. To the east, it's a relatively short distance across the Adriatic to Albania and Corfu, while the Ionian and Mediterranean seas stretch south all the way to Libya. En route, Otranto's 11th-century Norman cathedral is reached by negotiating sleepy laneways through the coastal city's old town. Past rulers include the Greeks, Romans, Turks and Napoleon, and the labyrinthine journey is made worthwhile once the cathedral's stunning 12th-century Tree of Life floor mosaic is sighted. Noah's Ark and the Tower of Babel combine with elephants and African scenes in a synthesis of the Biblical and the exotic.
From Leuca, some of Italy's sleepiest coastal roads eventually link to Gallipoli on the western edge of the country's heel. Sharing a name with Turkey's Anzac landing place — Gallipoli translates to Beautiful City from ancient Greek — the fortified 14th-century town sits on a narrow coastal promontory. Visit outside the busy months of July and August, and good-value seafood restaurants serving swordfish, tuna and Gallipoli's renowned red prawns are supremely relaxed. It's a laid-back world away from busier Italian destinations like Rome, Florence and Venice.
Go swimming at the Grotto Della Poesia (Cave of Poetry), a spectacular natural pool 25km south of Lecce.
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When to go
Avoid the influx of Italian tourists in July and August by visiting in May, June or September.
British Airways and Ryan Air both offer direct flights from London to Brindisi, 40km north of Lecce. Brindisi is also linked to Rome by direct air and rail services.