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. Based in Otranto on the east coast, we started our day by driving west along the SS16 to Gallipoli.
The highlights of our short time in the west coast of Salento included:
- the old town centre of Gallipoli
- The white sand beaches of Torre San Giovanni and the Maldive del Salento (near Pescoluse)
- 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
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, it’s a bit chaotic when arriving at midday when road rules don’t seem to apply! 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, and turquoise ocean, which combined make for a very pleasant stroll.
We first stopped at the 13th century fortress, which you can tour for a small fee,. It also houses a cafe and tourist shops if you want to have a quick (and free) peek.
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
There are many beaches along the Ionian coast, including multiple lidos a few minutes away from Gallipoli.
Our first beach stop was Torre San Giovanni, located halfway between Gallipoli and Santa Maria di Leuca. While it would be packed full of tourists during peak season, we visited during the very quiet first week of October. This meant that most shops were closed, the holiday homes were boarded up for winter and there were few people around. Some of the towns we drove through felt like ghost towns.
On the day we visited it was very windy on the beach, so the beach goers were outnumbered by kite surfers. Despite the wind, the water was crystal clear and looked inviting, though chilly!
The Maldive del Salento
We made several stops along the coast in an attempt to 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 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. This meant 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’d 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 at the very bottom of the ‘heel’ of Italy. It’s a small, picturesque town at sea level. For the real views, walk up to the top of the hill to look down to the town below. Ok maybe not the actual walk up and its 300 steps, but the sunset views from the top!
The staircase borders the end of the Puglian aqueduct on both sides. A few times a year it flows like a waterfall, but not on the day we visited. Besides the amazing views and the engineering feats, this is where you’ll find a functioning 47m tall lighthouse, standing guard on the bottom of Italy.
The scenic drive along the coast
The drive along the west coast was exceptionally easy. It helped that there were hardly any other cars and the roads we needed were clearly marked. 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 slightly difficult part of the drive was the main street through Gallipoli during ‘rush hour’. But only 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 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, it made for stressful driving. I was very happy to finally park the car at the end of the drive!
The East coast or the West coast of Salento?
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 🙂