Almost purely by accident, my husband and I ended up in a wild, raw landscape of olive groves, crumbling white-stone walls and vast blue sea views at every bend in the road. We were in Apulia — or Puglia, as the Southern Italian region is known locally — in search of that perfect Italian beach vacation: a little culture, a dose of history, but mostly gorgeous scenery and golden sand.
The accidental part stemmed from our unpropitious arrival in Sorrento, on the Amalfi Coast. We landed on that celebrated resort straight from a discount flight into Rome. Years before, I had fallen in love with the stunning coastal scenery and lemon-perfumed sea breezes, and thought it would be a nice starting point for a foray into the less-traveled coastline to the south — where we hoped to find cheaper lodging and a more relaxed feel.
But a decade later, Sorrento’s traffic jams felt about as relaxing to my husband as a commute on the BQE, and the English-speaking crowds in Positano reminded me more of Epcot Center than the Italy of romantic memory.
So we switched strategy. We drove south along the coast from the workaday city of Salerno, and discovered why no towns were marked on the map; the beaches were hidden behind private hedges, the road littered with abandoned pizzerias and the occasional prostitute. In Castellabate, the mountain scenery was indeed beautiful, the beaches nice enough and the lodgings cheap. But the towns felt rather dead — hardly the joyous slice of Italian life I was looking for.
And that’s how we ended up driving straight across the ankle of Italy’s boot: through the empty mountain landscapes of backwater Basilicata, past the disappointingly run-down city of Matera and down the west coast of the country’s heel.
Accustomed as I was to the pebbly beaches of Italy’s better-known Riviera, I was blown away by the otherworldly gorgeousness of the Ionian Sea. The coastal road from Taranto — itself a surprisingly nice city, which I’ll cover in another column — is one long stretch of dramatic volcanic-rock coastline punctuated by beaches of the finest, softest white sand. The water is a shade of pale green so clear it looks unreal, the temperature perfect for swimming.
Apulia is just beginning to enter the American traveler’s radar. Most tourism remains local — so by mid-September small towns board up, parking rules evaporate and beaches are virtually empty. Yet even into October, afternoon temperatures are in the 80s, and the bigger coastal towns — Gallipoli, Castro, Porto Cesareo — remain surprisingly lively.
Also surprising, at least for me (and I suspect many other Americans) is that this remote, traditionally poor region is not particularly cheap. The stereotype of Southern Italy is of a persistent poverty, a painful contrast to the wealthy, sophisticated north. While plenty of Southern Italians are statistically poor, nearly everywhere I went in Apulia — coastal villages and provincial cities alike — felt genteel and solidly middle class. Country roads are dotted with newly built villas; seaside promenades and public squares are well kept and appear recently renovated. A restaurant meal in the old town of Otranto or Lecce costs about the same as you’d pay in Barcelona or Rome.
It’s true that lodgings are overall a bit cheaper and you generally get more for your money in Apulia than in Tuscany or Venice. But what sets the region apart — still, though likely not for long — is its remoteness. Apulia is spread out over two seas and what seem like endless, traffic-free rural landscapes, with rocky cliff-side coasts giving way to olive groves and pine forests. Even the cities have a languid pace.
On the Ionian coast, the ideal base is Gallipoli. You’ll find well-equipped hotels all along the beaches from Taranto south, but few real towns except for Porto Cesareo, which is vibrant but distinctly provincial and lacking in historic charm.
Gallipoli, a fishing port and harbor that dates to ancient times, is the happy medium between Positano’s pressured preciousness and the sleepiness of nearby villages. It makes the perfect spot for an Italian beach vacation — a short drive from dozens of lovely swimming spots and an enjoyable town in itself.
Situated on a picturesque peninsula, its whitewashed buildings encircled by a waterfront promenade, the historic core hums with year-round urban energy. As you stroll the polished, white-marble cobblestones, you can take in an impromptu soccer game on the piazza; watch the fishermen haul out their nets in the morning, then sail back, laden, at dusk; contemplate the moon rising over Gallipoli’s slim white lighthouse; or slip down for a swim on the wide, sandy beach, which lies just below the fortified city wall.
Tourism here is still low-key, with hotels and bed-and-breakfasts discreetly tucked within centuries-old villas and shady courtyards. There aren’t any major museums or cultural sights. Rather, it’s a region that’s suffused with the layered history of ancient civilizations, from Sephardic settlements to Roman towers and Baroque palazzos.
This vivid history reveals itself in the subtle details observed by attentive travelers — in half-obscured frescoes under a portico, religious iconography etched into corner walls, architectural details that bear the traces of empire. There are plenty of worldly pleasures as well: you can shop for ceramics or pastries in a relaxed fashion that’s no longer possible in Italy’s more-discovered corners, and join local families in the evening passeggiatta (stroll) or a glass of primitivo at a beachside café.
On the Ionian coast, Oggi and I had found our own slice of Italian seaside paradise. But Apulia is vast, and other cities beckoned: Otranto, Lecce, the cliffs of the Adriatic. With a twinge of regret, we bade goodbye to our 70-euro-a-night palazzo suite and took to the road once again.