Italy is a country rich in beautiful places, that the whole world envies and for this reason they have become very popular tourist destinations also at international level. Among these there is undoubtedly the Salento, what is identified as the heel of Italy. This is the peninsula located at the southern end of the Puglia region, kissed almost all year round by a mild and typically Mediterranean climate, so much so that it lends itself to be experienced and explored in practically every season. What makes this enchanting land of southern Italy are the landscapes, certainly dominated by beaches that have little or nothing to envy to more distant and exotic shores. Then there are the villages of Salento, custodians of traditions and historical and artistic heritage linked to a very distant past.
The Deer Cave of Porto Badisco is the demonstration of how ancient was the presence of man in Salento: the rock paintings found here are now considered among the most valuable in the world and date back to the Neolithic, approximately between 3000 and 4000 BC. Certainly its geographical position made Salento a coveted land and soon colonized by populations such as the Phoenicians, the Greeks and the Messapians, people of Illyrian origin. The real development coincides with the arrival of the Romans, who built public works and architectural beauties in the area, especially in Lecce with the amphitheater in Piazza Sant'Oronzo.
After the Roman domination, for the Salento begins a dark period, made of fights and devastations at the hands of Saracens, Slavs and Hungarians: after the Byzantine occupation, thanks to which the famous Grecìa Salentina was born, the Normans arrive, thanks to whom cathedrals, basilicas and churches are born.
After the passage of the Angevins and the Aragonese, the Salento passed into the hands of the Spaniards who, in the person of Charles V, in the 16th century ordered the construction of watchtowers along the coast, as part of a defensive system to counteract the Turkish incursions. Thanks to the Spaniards, the famous Baroque style spread, visible especially in the city of Lecce and which represents one of the reasons why tourists from all over the world decide to organize a trip to Salento.
Salento is a territory perfectly set between two seas, the Ionian Sea to the west and the Adriatic Sea to the east: they meet off the lighthouse of Capo Palascia, the easternmost point of the entire Italian territory. Actually, the two seas meet in Santa Maria di Leuca, the place called De Finibus Terrae by the Romans because here it seems that the earth ends and there is only room for the infinite expanse of sea. The territory of Salento, in addition to its spectacular coastline, also consists of the Serre Salentine, the Tavoliere Leccese, the Murge Tarantine and those Brindisine.
A vacation in Salento will prove to be rich and fun for all types of tourists, from families looking for relaxation to younger lovers of leisure and sport. For example, it is possible to organize excursions, on foot, by bicycle or even on horseback, inside the naturalistic areas of the territory such as, for example, the Natural Reserve "Le Cesine" in Vernole, the "Parco Costa Otranto - Santa Maria di Leuca e Bosco di Tricase" between Santa Maria di Leuca and Otranto or the beautiful "Parco Naturale dei Laghi di Alimini". The latter is located between Otranto itself and Torre Sant'Andrea, a coastal resort famous for the stacks that emerge from the emerald waters of the sea: it is a real treasure chest of biodiversity, where reeds, free beaches and a cool pine forest alternate to give the much desired shade in summer. The park takes its name from the two lakes, the Alimini Grande fed by sea water and the Alimini Piccolo which is filled with spring water.
Exploring Salento also means discovering its most beautiful caves, first of all the Grotta della Poesia (Cave of Poetry) in Roca Vecchia: it is considered one of the most beautiful natural pools in the world and in the past it was actually a cave whose vault then collapsed under the effect of erosion. Inside were found rock inscriptions in Greek and Latin, praising the phantom god Taotor. Then there is the Cave of Zinzulusa in Castro, whose name refers to the stalactites and stalagmites inside that look like clothes lying in the sun, called zinzuli in Salento dialect.
Snorkeling lovers, on the other hand, can have incredible experiences diving, for example, in the "Protected Marine Area of Porto Cesareo" colonized by vast prairies of Phanerogams, thanks to which oxygen is provided to many marine organisms, including Caretta-Caretta turtles. Then there is the area off Torre Chianca, where five columns dating back to the second century AD are clearly visible almost at the water's surface, and that of Andrano, where you can swim in the spectacular Green Cave, where the play of light gives the water shades of emerald hues.
When one thinks of Salento, one's mind immediately runs to its most iconic city, Lecce: its historic center is shaped entirely in golden Lecce stone, from its buildings to its churches, starting from the marvelous Basilica of Santa Croce, whose façade is a blaze of Baroque, among friezes and statues of all shapes and sizes. The heart of Lecce is Piazza Sant'Oronzo, where in the shadow of the homonymous column with the patron saint of the city on top, there is the Roman amphitheater dating back to II AD, memory of the ancient Lupiae. Equally scenic is Piazza Duomo, which appears to visitors almost like a theater, with the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta: from the top of the nearby bell tower you can enjoy a unique view that includes, on clear days, even Albania.
Among the unmissable destinations in Salento is Otranto, the city whose historic center, like the fifteenth-century Aragonese Castle, overlooks a sea whose waters reach a magical turquoise hue. Do not miss the Cathedral of Santa Maria Annunziata for two reasons: for the mosaic on the floor of the Romanesque church, depicting the Tree of Life and for the Chapel of the Martyrs, decorated with the bones of Christians slaughtered by the Turks during the sack of 1480. The latter landed in the nearby Bay of Turks, a small corner of paradise made of white sand and crystal clear sea: just beyond are Torre Sant'Andrea and Torre dell'Orso, perhaps the most iconic beach of Salento thanks to the "Two Sisters", the two stacks that emerge a few meters from the shore, recalling the legend of the two sisters who died in this sea.
Moving inland from Otranto we meet the Bauxite Quarry, immersed in an atmosphere reminiscent of the typical landscape of the Grand Canyon: it is a small lake whose waters owe their emerald color because of the surrounding rocks from which the bauxite was extracted.
Among the not-to-be-missed stops on a trip to Salento, you cannot miss Gallipoli, beautiful with its limestone island that hosts its historic center, where the Angevin Castle stands out, facing the Ionian Sea. Also worth seeing are the 17th century Cathedral of Sant'Agata and the Church of San Francesco, where there is the statue of Mallandrone, the thief defined by Gabriele D'Annunzio as "horribly beautiful".
One of the most beautiful aspects of Salento is the cultural heritage of this beautiful land, made of festivals and ancestral traditions: how not to mention the famous Taranta, the frenetic music that to the sound of tambourines is the protagonist of popular festivals and the famous traveling festival that culminates in the Concertone of Melpignano in summer, right in the heart of Grecìa Salentina, where the Griko dialect is still spoken. Tradition has it that this dance originated from the custom for women to dance frantically to prevent the poison of tarantulas from entering the body. Very fascinating and amusing is also the Danza delle Spade (Dance of the Swords) which in August enlivens the village of Torrepaduli: the participants, also in this case to the drumming rhythm of the Taranta, simulate the fight with knives, with movements enacted according to a precise ritual.
One of the prides of Salento is its cuisine, made of poor dishes of great taste: among these stand out, for example, the pasticciotto leccese made of short pastry filled with custard. Then there are pucce, a kind of sandwich which seems to have been eaten even by Roman legionaries, and the scapece typical of Gallipoli, prepared with fried fish marinated in vinegar and saffron. Famous are also pittule, balls of fried dough consumed as street food and frise, biscuit doughnuts usually seasoned with oil, oregano and cherry tomatoes.
If you are looking for an original souvenir to take home as a reminder of a beautiful vacation in Salento, you can discover the local handicrafts, ranging from objects and statuettes in papier-mâché (art dating back to the 17th century) to the ceramics of Grottaglie, called not by chance "City of Ceramics".