Along The Apulia Promenade

Tuesday, October 18, 2011
Travel Writer

Lungomare is the Italian word for a seafront promenade. Every coastal town worth its dot on the Italian map has one: a stretch of travertine where lovers snuggle on benches, locals walk their dogs and everyone comes to contemplate the sea.

The stretch of coastline from Leuca, at the lonely tip of Italy’s Apulian heel, to Otranto — its most tourist-minded city on the Adriatic coast — is like one supersized lungomare. If the promenade is all about panoramic views, then there are few better seats from which to take them in than those of a rented Fiat along this empty, curving highway as my husband, Oggi, and I know from recent experience. (The first part of our Apulia trek was chronicled in the Oct. 7 issue.)

From a historical point of view, Apulia’s Adriatic is also its more Jewish coast. There is actually a working synagogue in Trani, a postcard-perfect medieval city on Apulia’s northeast coast. In Otranto, traces of Jewish inscriptions have been found on the walls of the beautifully preserved Roman-era old town.

On the whole, though, Jews fared pretty badly at the hands of the Roman, Neapolitan and other empires, which alternately oppressed, converted and expelled what was in ancient times a sizable Jewish community. What remains now is just a handful of families. (Italy’s loss was Greece’s gain: many of those expelled during the Middle Ages ended up in Thessaloniki, Corfu and similar Ottoman havens.)

Be warned: this is not the place to look for a beach. “There are no beaches along this coast,” the tourist information lady told me flatly in Santa Maria de Leuca, Apulia’s tip. “Only rocks.”

That was an understatement. From the gentle, lapping waves against a craggy shoreline in Leuca, we soon found ourselves climbing hundreds of feet above the sparkling blue sea along white volcanic cliffs.

In Castro, Italians jump into the sea off an asphalt platform by the protected little harbor at the base of these cliffs; the actual town rises a good half-mile hike above. It’s a nice stop for a gelato or a photo, but even more photogenic is Santa Cesaria Terme, with its posh seafront villa and palm-tree promenade.

Otranto is the most logical place to settle in and enjoy Apulia’s languid charm. Intimate and upscale in feel, lively even in the off-season, Otranto may have Apulia’s most impressive lungomare — an advantage of its effortlessly panoramic setting on a wide, curving bay. On one side are the imposing fortress walls and grand, moat-ringed castle that enclose Otranto’s historic center, dotted with jewelry stores and fish restaurants (be warned: they are shellfish-heavy and not cheap). A dramatic, sprawling piazza atop the castle cliff held a strategic view for bygone emperors; today it boasts a few monuments and some low-key boat traffic below.

A surprisingly nice beach invites swimmers and sunbathers to the café boardwalk of the modern town. Aside from swimming and strolling through pretty seaside park in the old town, there’s really very little to do here; but you will find an ideal place to unwind.

Lecce, a short trek inland, is Apulia’s urban jewel. While the industrial sprawls of Bari and Brindisi are eyesores best avoided, Lecce is a visual feast of ivory-marble baroque churches, piazzas and elegant small streets.

Like much of Apulia, Lecce is just tourist-minded enough: it has easy transit links and parking lots, a helpful tourism office and patient locals used to explaining unfamiliar menu terms.

But it’s still just a bit too out-of-the-way for the guidebook-toting masses that can easily overwhelm such a small city. With twice the charm of Rome but none of the great art, Lecce is doable in a few hours or a day. 

Lecce is a joy just to wander amid the vibrancy of local university life. Every piazza buzzes with human energy: groups of giggling local teenagers cluster on cathedral steps; Roman ruins provide the backdrop for elegant business lunches. 

It’s easy to fall in love with Lecce. But Trani beckoned, and it was onward through the charmless suburbs of Bari and Brindisi, where the seawater has a brownish tinge. North from Monopoli, the sprawl subsides somewhat and the towns’ medieval centers come into sharper focus along the harbor-dotted coastline.

Polignano a Mare, just south of Trani, may well be the most picturesque town I’ve ever seen in my life — and I’ve seen a few. Spanning the rocky gorge between two cliffs, Polignano is a tiny, archetypical Mediterranean stone village of romantic alleys and mystical, Capri-style grottos.

Where Polignano is intimate and over-the-top romantic, Trani is stately and urbane. It has an austere quiet and a color scheme of golden buildings against blue sky and sea. Despite what I had been told, neither Polignano nor Trani has what I’d consider a beach — not unless you’re a seal.

Most of Apulia’s synagogues were converted into churches centuries ago. But the historic temple in Trani was converted back and re-dedicated several years ago.  It now competes with the city’s famous cathedral as a tourist magnet.

The Scolanova Synagogue (on the street of the same name) is much like the town it inhabits: polished, peaceful and rich in historical detail for the traveler with an observant eye. Like its Jewish community, Trani itself seems to have slid off the map sometime in the 13th Century, when the temple — and much of its surrounding neighborhood — was built.

Apulia’s erstwhile Jewish-Latin dialects have long since vanished from these streets. But as I strolled along Trani’s wide, still harbor, where numerous painters brushed away at easels, I heard a smattering of more modern tongues: Bulgarian, German, Albanian,  English.

After centuries of relative isolation, change is once again coming to Apulia’s much-conquered, still-lovely shores. 

A piazza in Lecce Photos by Hilary Larson

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