With only two days to explore the Salento region, we spent one day exploring the east coast and the other driving along the west cost. Exploring the east coast the previous day, we started our day in Otranto, driving west along the SS16 to Gallipoli.
With only a short amount of time to take it all in, the highlights of our time in the west coast of Salento were:
- The white sand beaches of Torre San Giovanni and near Pescoluse, the Maldive del Salento
- Santa Maria di Leuca, the town at the bottom of the ‘heel’
- The scenic and stress free driving along the coast
Gallipoli’s old town is located on a small ‘island’ in the Ionian sea, reached from the mainland by a small bridge. Before reaching the bridge, you must navigate through the busy ‘new town’. Though fairly simple (arriving into town on the SP361, there’s a main street through town heading straight to the bridge), it’s a bit chaotic when arriving at midday! We found a parking spot on the main street and walked 10 or so minutes into the old town.
Gallipoli is almost completely surrounded by its 14th century walls, which makes for a pleasant stroll, with views of the turquoise waters below. Walking into the old town, our first stop was the 13th century fortress, which you can tour for a fee, but also houses a cafe and tourist shops if you want to have a quick (and free) peek. While we didn’t stop at the cafe, it has very lovely views to the harbour below if you’re in need of a caffeine fix.
We spent the majority of our short stop in Gallipoli strolling along the town’s walls and through the small old town centre. While we didn’t have a meal while we were in town, there were many restaurants with sea views that looked very appealing. Maybe next time!
Torre San Giovanni
While there are many beaches stretching along the Ionian coast, including multiple lidos within viewing distance of Gallipoli, our first beach stop was Torre San Giovanni, located halfway between Gallipoli and Santa Maria di Leuca. While packed full of tourists during peak season, we visited during the first week of October, so most of the shops were closed, the holiday homes were boarded up for the winter and there were very few people around. Some of the towns were drove through were so deserted after summer that they had the feeling of a ghost town.
On the day we visited it was very windy on the beach, so with the exception of a few sun bathers using the protection of a building to stop the wind, the only other people on the beach were kite surfing. Despite the wind, the water was crystal clear and looked inviting, though chilly!
The Maldive del Salento
Making several stops along the coast to see if we could find a non-windy beach, our luck finally changed when we reached the ‘Maldive del Salento‘ located near the town of Pescoluse. While driving along the SP91, there is a large sign (though blending in with the multitude of other signs and we almost missed it) indicating the entrance to the beach. There’s a ticket booth to pay for parking at the entrance to the carpark, though it was unmanned during our early October visit, so no fee was required and the parking lot was close to empty. While the beach is set up to host beach clubs along most of the beach in summer, there were only a few family groups on the day we arrived and only one bar was open. There were showers and changing rooms available for a small fee.
Compared to the very windy beach at Torre San Giovanni, this beach was blissfuly calm and made for relaxing and easy swimming in crystal clear waters. The weather was a lovely 25 degrees during our visit.
While I’ve read mixed reviews of the beach during peak season, I found this to be the best beach of the trip. The sand was very soft, the water crystal clear, the beach clean and the lack of waves made floating in the sea a dream.
Santa Maria di Leuca
Our last stop for the day was the town located at the very bottom of the heel. Though a picturesque town at sea level, the highlight was the walk up to the top of the hill for the views looking dow to the town below. Ok maybe not the actual walk up and its 300 steps, but the sunset views from the top!
The staircase runs along both sides of a waterfall that flows a few times a year in between the steps, marking the end of the Puglian aqueduct. Besides the amazing views and the engineering feats, this is where you’ll find the still functioning 47m tall lighthouse, watching over the town and the sea beyond.
The scenic drive along the coast
The drive along the west coast was exceptionally easy, given the lack of other cars and the easy to follow signage. Most of the towns we drove through were empty, or close to it, with the large majority of accommodation closed for winter. Navigating was easy as well, as we followed the signs south to Santa Maria di Leuca. The only mildly difficult part of the drive was the main street through Gallipoli during ‘rush hour’, especially where two roads merged and there seemed to be no logic to which car had the right of way!
While the driving south during the day was easy, we decided to drive back to Otranto through the ‘main’ road that runs from Santa Maria di Leuca to Lecce. Although on the map the road (SS275) appears to be a major road, it passed through countless towns which made for a more stressful and (very) slow drive. Leaving Santa Maria di Leuca at sunset meant that part of the drive to Maglie and onward to Otranto was in the dark, with the lack of lighting along the road and the traffic getting heavier as we ventured north, making for some stressful driving. I was very happy to finally park the car at the end of the drive!
The East coast or the West coast?
After spending an afternoon soaking up the white sandy beaches of the Ionian sea, I’m torn between which ‘coast’ I enjoyed more. The west coast’s long strips of white beaches, holiday towns and gorgeous scenery while driving down large stretches of the coast serves up some stiff competition for the rocky, and pretty spectacular views along the east coast. If you’re trying to decide between the two, have a look at both of my blog posts and see which one you would prefer.
Have you been to the Salento region? What were your favourite sites? Leave me a comment below 🙂