The Salento: between two historic seas

Monday, 27 July. IMG_20150728_101635After some wandering across the promontory south of Taranto, we found the coast road for Porto Cesareo (pronounced Porto Cesáreo locally). The cloudless blue skies continued, but a cool steady breeze off the Ionian softened the heat as we rolled past beaches and resorts.

The Salento

The Salento

At Torre Lapillo, we picked up the itinerary of the Puglia Grand Tour where it reaches the coast before wrapping around the Salento. The Italy Cycling Guide (http://italy-cycling-guide.info/) offers a half-dozen fully developed itineraries for self-supported tours in Italy, with more coming as the author expands her wanderings. There is also some information on getting around and about food and lodging. The site can give you a great armchair read with beautiful pictures. The descriptions are about the ride; you still need your guidebooks for the places along the way.

Porto Cesareo bustles in the summer. We initially had trouble finding a room, but a patient intern at the Tourist Office worked through the lodgings list, until he gave up and called his aunt. We had a reservation at a four-star hotel – at two-star prices, because it was not right on the waterfront. After an excellent seafood dinner by the port, we walked the passeggiata, which in this town included more street vendors and brightly lit stalls than a city flea market. With the amusement rides at the end of the promenade, the whole waterfront looked like the midway at a State Fair.

IMG_20150728_120050Tuesday’s balmy sun (getting a little hotter now) found us rolling smoothly toward Gallipoli. Half-way there, the road climbed into the Porto Selvaggio Natural Regional Park. The many parked cars and gaily decorated shuttle trains from the parking lot hinted at a beach, so we locked our bikes to the No-Parking sign at the entrance and hiked over an ankle-wrenching gully to a cove a half-kilometer away. The Puglia Region had outfitted the cove with bathrooms and many recycling and trash cans, but otherwise left it unspoiled. The pines went to the water’s edge, providing opportunities for shade as well as sun. We had our customary dip in the crystal waters, ate lunch, then hiked back to the road.

IMG_20150728_135500Gallipoli sits on an island, a formidable town sticking out into the Ionian Sea. The mix of interesting sights in the old city attests to the wild ups and down in the fortunes of this ancient city of Magna Graecia. For example, it sided with Phyrrus against Rome (bad mistake), got sacked by the Goths and Vandals, besieged by Charles I of Anjou, and turned into a modern military fortress (one of the first to have sloping sides to deflect cannon balls) after being evacuated and repopulated in the 14th Century. Under the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, it enjoyed tax-exempt status as an island, which led to the construction of olive mills under the city. In the 17th Century it was the largest olive oil market in the Mediterranean, with commercial representatives and embassies from every kingdom in Europe. We toured the museum beneath one of the palazzi, and learned many fascinating things about olive oil in history. The Angevin-Aragonese castle, completely rebuilt in the 16th Century and in pristine condition, seemed a little scary in its size and shape inside. I appreciated the signage: one could get lost forever in there.

Well-rested from our stay in the old city, we rolled out of town early the next day, intending to round the heel in one day. A shining beach led south to the Punta Pizzo Regional Park. After Pizzo, the coast began to bend to the east, and we picked up a gentle tailwind (I always like those!). IMG_20150729_133239Cheryl set a brisk pace, rarely stopping for pictures until we reached the next place on my bucket list: Santa Maria di Leuca. The lighthouse at the end of the farthest tip of the peninsula reached for the sky as if to spread a welcome hand to every ship between Italy and Greece. I remembered a violent four-day storm in the Ionian on a 95-ft ketch making from Syracuse to Corfu. We looked hard for the last two days for that light in the swirling darkness. We never saw it, but the whole idea was to stay away from its rocks, so making the southern edge of Corfu instead of the northern tip suited us just fine. Fifty-three years later, I could finally see the lighthouse of Leuca from the relative safety of my bicycle: much better, I thought.

We had the coast road to Leuca pretty much to ourselves, because the main road ran inland. IMG_20150729_164809I expected more company on the road from Leuca to Otranto, but to my pleasant surprise, the road was closed to motor traffic for road work. We never saw the road work, but the new road surface put me in as happy a mood as the stunning scenery along the cliffs on the Adriatic Sea. Cheryl took more pictures now, but we still checked into the hotel in Otranto well before dark, 104 km from Gallipoli.

OtrantoOtranto is a curious town, all different levels, as if the city fathers could not figure out where to put it. It had a medieval town with a promenade, but even that spilled down the hill to the water. Its proximity to Greece explains its prominence as a seaport throughout its history. Our hotel sat some distance outside town, but we still walked in to check out the place.

IMG_20150730_153914I would like to come back to Otranto, I thought, as we left on Thursday morning, but that was before I saw Lecce, only 50 km. away. Lecce completely earns its sobriquet “the Florence of the South.” More than 2,000 years old, Lecce offers excellent examples of almost every era of history. As the official and often unofficial capital of the Salento, it has prospered more often than not. A riot of construction in the 17th Century left it with an unfair number of beautiful Baroque and late-Renaissance buildings, churches, and art. IMG_20150730_145802If I had known that the city would have so much, I would not have planned to pass through so quickly. Cheryl bought me a cute book at a newsstand, a story spanning forty years, about the city through the “eyes” of a bicycle. I have relived my appreciation of Lecce in its pages ever since.

IMG_20150731_191357All along, we had known that we would have to leave the Schengen Area for a while, because Cheryl’s flights in and out of Rome were more than 90 days apart. On Friday morning, we rode to Bari, and made straight for the ferry to Dubrovnik. A new adventure in the Balkans awaited us.

Until next week,

Smooth roads and tailwinds,

Jonathan

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