Unspoilt Italy: fall head over heel for Puglia's Salento region

The tables are filling up fast tonight in Gustavo Braceria. Carmela moves between the groups of diners, greeting them like old friends. Her relaxed demeanour conceals a flurry of activity as she passes from one table to another, directing staff to bring forth bags of bread, bottles of wine and a succession of dishes concocted by her husband Gigi, the chef.

Word is spreading about Gustavo Braceria, with its cosy dining rooms and tables in the garden in summer, beneath trees laced with fairy lights. The restaurant opened three years ago on the edge of the small town of Galatone, in the Salento, the southern tip of Italy's Puglia region. The Salento draws its northern border from Taranto in the west to Brindisi in the east, and marks its southernmost point at Santa Maria de Leuca, the Land's End of south-east Italy, at the very bottom of the heel.

Gustavo Braceria has become a firm favourite with a cosmopolitan crowd from northern Italy and beyond, who are arriving in the region in increasing numbers. They've come to snap up palazzi and masserie (farmhouses) for a song in this slowly gentrifying rural outpost.

Salento map PR

But locals like the restaurant, too: Puglia's gay, leftwing president, Nichi Vendola, is a regular. Vendola's victory in 2005 over the rightwinger Raffaele Fitto marked a sea-change in the politics of this traditionally conservative and Catholic region. It also provided a more liberal backdrop for incomers sniffing out salty-aired escapes from the human stew of Milan, Munich, Paris, Brussels and London.


For the Italians, Puglia is like Cornwall: they come here for sun, sea and seriously good food, fished from nearby waters and produced in the fertile pastures that supply much of the fresh contents of the country's larders, and to sup the increasingly admired local wines, negroamaro, primitivo di Manduria and Salice Salentino. But while many international visitors have been lured from the kempt pastures of Tuscany and Umbria to Puglia by its curious conical trulli and the sparkling white towns of the Valle d'Itria at the region's heart, or to walk in the ancient oak and beech forests of the mountainous Gargano peninsula at its northern edge, the southernmost reaches of the Salento flatlands are pioneer country.

The recent push south into Salento was inevitable. With characterful old buildings still available at rock-bottom prices, an eye-pleasing landscape of olive groves, wild beaches and clear seas, and old towns heaving with baroque buildings, Salento proved irresistible, in particular to an affluent European gay crowd who had also heard about the lively local gay scene. Across the peninsula, derelict buildings now echo to the sound of hammers and drills as they are transformed into holiday homes, self-catering apartments, guesthouses and hotels.

Despite the traditional mores of the Salentini, these incomers appear to have been easily accepted. But then they're used to strangers in these parts. Brindisi, the location of Salento's airport, has provided a gateway to the region for more than 2,000 years. The Adriatic port marked the southern end of the Romans' highway to the east, the Appian Way, and was the harbour from which the Crusaders set sail for the Holy Land.

Santa Maria di Leuca sanctuary The sanctuary at Santa Maria di Leuca, southernmost point of the Salento. Photograph: Corbis

This strategically important lump of limestone between the Adriatic and Ionian seas has been variously sacked by Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Normans and Spaniards, all of whom left their mark in the shape of amphitheatres, palaces, castles and churches. In a cluster of villages between Lecce and Maglie, known as the Grecia Salentina, some residents still speak grico, the Italiot Greek dialect.

That said, the urban planners of the late 20th century did their best to deter newcomers to these flatlands, girdling every historic settlement with unsightly modern sprawl. But press on through these and there are rich baroque rewards to goggle at, carved from the buttery local tufa beloved by sculptors across Italy for its malleability.

The historic quarters of the main towns of Gallipoli, Nardò, Galatina, Maglie, Otranto and Tricase are all testimony to the craftsmanship of the local stonemasons. But none is lovelier than the city of Lecce, the Salentine capital, home to the florid Santa Croce basilica, with its menagerie of beasts cavorting around a huge rose window, and the vast Piazza del Duomo bounded by the cathedral, the bishop's palace, a seminary and a five-storey campanile – sunglasses are essential on a sunny day to protect against the dazzle of the white stone. Best of all, there are few tourists sharing these sights – the jostling hordes have yet to arrive from Florence and Rome. It can only be a matter of time.

Source : The Guardian



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