With two days to explore Salento, we split our time between the east and west coasts. Day one started in Lecce, driving west to San Cataldo and then south along the coast to Castro, spending the night at a B&B a couple kilometres outside Otranto. We visited the area during the first week of October 2016.
The highlights of our time in the east coast of Salento (in chronological order):
- Torre dell’Orso
- Driving along the coast
- The alfresco breakfast at B&B La Zudrea
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) sitting high above on a ridge, marks the north end of the kilometre long beach. The beach has ‘public’ (free) areas and a strip of beach clubs where you pay for a lounge chair and access to the beach club’s facilities. On the day of our visit only one beach club was open, with a half dozen or so beachgoers using their facilities.
Being outside of peak season, most of the holiday homes were closed for winter and the town felt rather deserted. The advantage of visiting outside of peak season was finding a perfect parking spot near the beach and next to one of the only restaurants or cafes opened at the time (Pasticceria Dentoni). The pasticceria has a very large outdoor area, with views of the white sand beach with turquoise water. Highly recommended 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 the area would be inundated with tourists!
On the two days we visited, there were about a dozen people swimming and about 40 or so people on the beach, so plenty of room to find a patch of sand and take in the beautiful autumn day.
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) and 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 along the coast were spectacular, and we were glad we made the quick stop.
After parking, walk north from the carpark across the rocks and once you get to the edge, look right and you can find a staircase leading down to the rocks below for a different view. This was a popular spot for photographs.
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 much 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), with its towering walls and windy streets and its mosaic filled 12th century cathedral and castello (castle).
As a bit of contrast to the beach at Torre dell’Orso, Otranto‘s beach is more protected and has little to no waves. 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, which made for a lovely spot to have a glass or two of wine while admiring the ocean.
Our first stroll around Otranto focussed on the area close to the beach and it wasn’t until we crossed the small bridge to a small park area (following the beach to the right) that we ‘discovered’ the older part of Otranto. Entering through the defensive walls via a huge ‘gate’, you’re welcomed by white stoned buildings, the fortress, cathedral and lane ways of small tourist shops and restaurants. Strolling through the old town is a must-do.
One of Otranto’s main tourist sites is its cathedral with its 12th century mosaics. Prior to my arrival I wasn’t sure what all the fuss was about, however once I saw (and stepped) on 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!
Besides spending time leisurely walking along the beach and through the old town, we tried a few of Otranto’s restaurants.
La Bella Idrusa – A popular pizzeria with huge pizzas just outside the old town walls. Great option for an inexpensive 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 (especially 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 Salento’s East Coast
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 (as in ‘turn right after two set of lights’ easy). Driving on the ring road itself wasn’t (too) overwhelming, as I like to keep to the right and let the drivers going much faster than me overtake on the left to their heart’s content! 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!
The driving in this area was stress free, as there seemed to be one main road to San Cataldo and there was little traffic being the offseason. Once we had our first glimpse of the ocean, we continued driving south first 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 the ocean wasn’t in view, we found ourselves driving past field after field of olive trees.
The drive south of Otranto on the other hand was a bit more scary! If it wasn’t cars driving onto our side of the road, it was motorcyclists or groups of cyclists on road bikes! 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! After having a few stressful situations, I decided that the best way to drive was to continue going the speed limit, look in all directions (more than once!) before overtaking and concentrate on the road and not all the crazy going on around me!
Being overly attentive was especially important when the road passed through small towns where there was hardly enough room for two cars to pass by, or had tourists 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 …
While passing through a very (and I mean very) small town called Porto Badisco, we accidentally drove to a rather large grotto called Grotta Funeraria, a very protected swimming area that seems to be a popular spot for families. Another highlight was the views looking back towards Santa Cesarea Terme, another very popular and busy tourist town.
By the time we arrived in Castro, I couldn’t handle the stress of doing the same drive in reverse, so we took the non-coastal road that looked to be a main road. Following the signs for Otranto, we ended up in a bunch of some ‘towns’ with very dodgy / 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 town with its multiple one way streets, went the wrong way down a one way road (which was wide enough for at least three cars, and it’s one way!?), I was very over driving! 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 yup having any accidents during the four days of sometimes very hectic driving.
Breakfast at our B&B
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 area 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. For my review of B&B La Zudrea, click here. *Review to come*.
Next stop – 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.