We were driving on our Vespa scooter, wearing not much more than a helmet, shorts and flipflops, when we ran into the police. Big trouble? ‘They don’t stop me here’, my host assured. ‘They eat for free in my restaurant and leave me alone on the streets. That’s the way it works here.’
Welcome to Salento, the most southeastern part of Italy. Think Naples. Go further down, and more towards the Adriatic coast. To Bari, and then all the way down to the stiletto of Italy’s boot.
It is a region almost impossible to reach by public transport. The bus? ‘Finito’, they surprisingly told me when I arrived by night train from Bologna in Lecce. The train then maybe? ‘Not on sundays.’
But hey, that’s the reason Italians flock by the thousands to these surroundings in August, when they have holiday. There is a cliche that there is not one Italy, but two: the north (from Milan to Rome) with its western and fast-paced and fashionable mentality, and the south with relaxed and maffia-influenced Naples as its headquarter.
Don’t mention Naples here though, they consider it to be a different world. Puglia, of which Salento is a part, is more or less the third part of Italy: gentle, extremely relaxed, but also genuinely friendly. This part has always been pretty rural and old-fashioned, nothing much moved here except the sad wiggling of the olive trees against the winds from the sea.
And for ten months a year, that’s exactly how life still runs and flows here. You will not find mass real estate development, they are actually very protective of their natural environment in Puglia. Big parts of it are even a national park.
But the last decade did see an increase in tourism, especially in the busy July and August months, when the buses are really running every day from village to village. There haven’t been huge investments from abroad, but many foreigners have seized the opportunity to buy an old house and renovate it. Or to build a new one. Or the best idea: to buy one of the old trulli (traditional, cone-shaped small houses) and renovate and expand those. Add a swimming pool and your own little paradise is there.
Shouldn’t I keep this secret to myself? Well, people will find out in the end. It was an article in the Guardian that set me on the trail. Besides that, the region doesn’t aspire to become a destination for mass tourism. They cherish their quiet, relaxed life, and are very happy to earn just enough for happy living.
And the region is big. Puglia stretches from Bari in the north and beautiful Ostuni, to Leuca in the southern tip. Salento starts around Lecce, and has great old Roman city centres such as in (relatively busy) Gallipoli and Otranto. With a rental car it is doable, but for a backpacker like me it was a challenge.
A challenge that paid off in the end. The thing that immediately struck me, is that I could hear the sound of the sea instead of the traffic in my first apartment in San Gregorio. Last year, when I walked the Amalfi coast, it was completely different. The views from the cliffs there were jaw-dropping, but it was busy. In San Gregorio, the one little supermarket closed for the winter (until March probably, no one really knows), buses were nowhere to be found and even finding a restaurant proved a challenge.
Oh yes, the food. Fresh sea food. Not only in San Gregorio on the Ionic coast, also in Otranto on the Adriatic side. Where I could still find secluded beaches where you can safely go skinny dipping if you forgot your swimming trunks. Where you can only hear the sea. So if you want peace, and silence, and good food, you know where to go…