Beaches. Tick! 12 Century Cathedral covered in mosaics. Tick! Coastal drive taking in the beautiful vistas. Tick!
Here’s how I spent a day exploring Otranto and the East Coast of Salento
We visited Puglia over 10 days and had set aside two full days for the Salento region. To cover as much ground as possible, we split up our two days between the east and west coast. Day one focussed on Otranto the east coast, while on day two we visited Gallipoli and the west coast.
We started in Lecce and drove west to San Cataldo and then south along the coast to Castro. We spent the next two nights in a B&B located a couple kilometres outside Otranto’s town centre.
Here are some of the highlights of our time visiting the east coast of Salento.
Highlights from the east coast of Salento
The highlights in chronological order:
- Torre dell’Orso
- Driving along the coast
- The alfresco breakfast at B&B La Zudrea. Yes breakfast can be a highlight!
The town of Torre Dell’Orso is about 45 minutes by car from Lecce. With its very long, white sandy beach and gentle waves, it’s no surprise this is one of the most popular beaches in the area.
The ruins of the 16th century torre (tower) sit high above on a ridge marking the north end of the beach. To enjoy the beach, you can pick between public and private areas. The ‘public’ areas are free whereas you can pay to use the facilities of the the private beach clubs, including their beach chairs. On the day of our visit only one beach club was open, with a half dozen or so beachgoers using their facilities.
Visiting Torre dell’Orso outside of peak season
Being outside of peak season, most of the holiday homes were closed for winter and the town felt rather deserted. The advantage of visiting in early October was finding a perfect parking spot near the beach. It was also next to one of the only restaurants opened at the time (Pasticceria Dentoni). The pasticceria has a very large outdoor area, with views of the beach and its turquoise water. I highly recommended it for a drink with a view.
Tip – When looking for parking, spots bordered by white lines are free and spots with blue lines require payment. If visiting the area by car during peak season, consider staying at accommodation with parking as parking would be hard to find!
On the two days we visited, there were about a dozen people swimming and about 50 people on the beach. This left us plenty of room to stretch out and take in the beautiful autumn day. Bliss!
Torre dell’Orso take two
We liked the area so much that we stopped by for a swim two days later on our way to Locorotondo. On that day, the weather was even better (about 25 degrees) with not a bit of wind. If you’re wondering if the water is still warm enough to swim in October, it definitely was in 2016!
About five minutes (3km) south of Torre dell’Orso, you’ll see a sign for the road to Sant’Andrea and its famous grotto. The views north were spectacular and we were glad we made the quick stop.
Otranto is one of the major towns in the Salento and has a lot of shops, restaurants and bars still open in October. While not ‘busy’, the town still had plenty of people around in the evening and finding a table at a restaurant was never an issue. I can imagine it would be a different experience during peak season.
The town is split between a newer part, which surrounds the main beach area, and the centro storico (historic centre). Its towering walls, windy streets, mosaic-filled 12th century cathedral are a joy to explore.
As a bit of contrast to the beach at Torre dell’Orso, Otranto‘s beach is more protected. The white sandy beach and the turquoise water was very inviting! While there is plenty of white sand to lay on, there’s also a large area with concrete stairs. I’m probably not selling it, but it made for a lovely spot to have a glass of wine while admiring the ocean in the evening.
Otranto’s Town Centre
Our first stroll around Otranto focussed on the area close to the beach and it wasn’t until we crossed the small bridge that we ‘discovered’ the older part of Otranto. Entering through the walls via a huge ‘gate’, you’re welcomed by white stone buildings, the fortress, cathedral and laneways of small tourist shops and restaurants. Strolling through the old town is a must-do.
One of Otranto’s main tourist attractions is its cathedral and its 12th century mosaics. Its floor is covered in Mosaics and upon seeing them, I could see why they are so famous. I can only imagine the amount of time it would have taken to place all the tiny stones!
Restaurants in Otranto
During our two days in Otranto, we dined at the following restaurants.
La Bella Idrusa – A popular pizzeria with huge pizzas just outside the old town walls. A great option for an inexpensive and quick meal.
Martinucci – located across from the beach, it was one of the few restaurants open in the mid-afternoon. We had the Orecchiette al Ragu and a platter of proscuitto with buffalo mozzerella and both were delicious.
L’Ora di Mezzo – Located in the old part of town with a large alfresco area and friendly service, we had a lovely three course meal and enjoyed everything that came to our table. This included the swordfish as the plate of the day. They didn’t serve wine by the carafe, which meant we had to order an entire bottle (oh darn!).
Driving between Lecce and Otranto
For our time in the Salento Pennisula, we opted for a rental car from the Hertz location in Lecce. Leaving the car rental agency and getting onto the ring road that circles Lecce was straighforward. It was so easy, the directions were to ‘turn right after two set of lights’. Driving on the ring road itself wasn’t (too) overwhelming. I like to keep to the right and let other drivers fly past me!
We missed the turnoff to San Cataldo (7B), and exited the highway at the next exit, thinking we could back track through the side roads. But the exit took us to a very deserted and empty area so we thought it would be safer to get back on the highway and take the correct exit!
Once we had our first glimpse of the ocean, we continued driving south following the signs to Torre dell’Orso and then Otranto. With the road to Torre dell’Orso mostly along the water, it made for a very pretty drive. When we didn’t have ocean views, we found ourselves driving past fields of olive trees.
Driving south of Otranto on the east coast of Salento
The drive south of Otranto was a bit more scary! If it wasn’t cars driving onto our side of the road, it was motorcyclists or groups of cyclists taking over the road. At one point, I was overtaking a group of cyclists, but the car behind me decided to overtake us and the cyclists at the same time and then honked at me when we almost collided!
Being attentive was especially important when the road passed through small towns where there was hardly enough room for two cars to pass by. Or when tourists were walking down the middle of the road or crossing the street without looking. Road signs seem optional, as was indicating when turning!
In the end, it was worth it for views like these …
The accidental beach
While passing through a very (and I mean very) small town called Porto Badisco, we accidentally drove to a large grotto called Grotta Funeraria. It’s a protected swimming area and seems to be popular with families.
Another highlight was the views looking back towards Santa Cesarea Terme, another very popular and busy tourist town.
Returning to Otranto
By the time we arrived in Castro, I couldn’t handle the stress of doing the same drive in reverse. Instead we took the non-coastal road that looked to be a main road on Google Maps. Following the signs for Otranto, we ended up in a bunch of ‘towns’ with very dodgy and/or missing pavement, signs that seemed to direct us into parking lots instead of roads and areas where I definitely didn’t want the car to break down.
By the time we arrived in Otranto, got lost in the multiple one way streets, and went the wrong way down a one way road, I was ready to park the car. While a car is definitely needed for exploring the smaller towns and beaches, it comes with a level of stress you may or may not be prepared for! I paid for full insurance covered just in case, but luckily didn’t end up having any accidents during the four days of driving.
Breakfast at B&B La Zudrea
While touring the area, we stayed two nights at B&B La Zudrea, located about three kilometres north of Otranto. The owners serve a daily buffet breakfast on the front lawn of the property. It was an such a relaxing and delicious way to start our day, I had to include it in the list of highlights.
Besides the breakfast, the hosts were excellent and while only speaking a little English, he indulged me in my attempts at Italian. While it looks like it’s within walking distance of the town centre, realistically you need to drive to and from town.
Next stop, Gallipoli and the West Coast of Salento
To follow the rest of our two days in Salento and the full 10 day trip of Pulgia click on the following links: Gallipoli and the west coast of Salento.
We visited Puglia in early October 2016 spending nine days in the region. Starting in Lecce, we visited Otranto and Gallipoli and both costs of the Salento, the Trulli region including Alberobello and Locorotondo, the seaside Polignano al Mare ending in Matera.
Have you visited the area? Let me know what you think in the comments below.