The white stone, the centuries-old olive trees, the wild smells, the wind – you never know if it will be north wind or sirocco. And then that age-old slowness, which the further you go south, the more it becomes a state of mind with which you have to deal.
They say there is no room for melancholy when cycling. Perhaps because there is no time to look back when you keep your eyes stretched out towards the horizon. But this saying is put to the test by the wild beauty of Salento, a place “split by the sun and solitude”, as the ethnologist Ernesto De Martino wrote in La Terra del remorso, his famous monograph of 1959. Although for decades now the solitude of this region in summer coexists happily with the culture of hedonism.
It is difficult to find a better way of exploring the area than the bicycle. Pedaling slowly, without haste, perhaps avoiding the crowded weekends of July and August. There are no long-distance cycle paths in Salento but there is no need: just let yourself be carried away by the wind and follow the coastline, from the Adriatic to the Ionian, in a succession of colors and scenarios that surprise and change constantly. A simple journey, which requires a small commitment within everyone’s reach – the villages are close together, so a stop is always around the corner – between Caribbean coves, canyons, caves, watchtowers, natural pools and wild inlets. In short, something very similar to a paradise. One of the recommended itineraries is a circular route in 4 stages, for a total of 220 kilometers.
Leaving Lecce along rural streets in the direction of Otranto, entering an urbanized countryside. The appearance of the first dry stone walls, just after an overpass, indicates that you are already out of town. After a few, silent kilometers among the olive trees made fragile by the Xylella bacterium, we find ourselves in front of the fortified village of Acaya, with its sixteenth-century walls. Immediately after you enter the WWF Le Cesine oasis: it is a nature reserve of 350 hectares and a small paradise off-limits to cars. From there you get directly to the sea, in the marine area of Melendugno, where there are some of the most beautiful inlets in all of Salento, from the Grotta della Poesia to the arch of lovers. Giving up on a bathroom around here would be crazy. We are in the area between San Foca and Torre dell’Orso, from which the so-called Salento rebirth began: exactly thirty years ago, in fact, some boys occupied a farm near San Foca, La Mantagnata, attracting students from all over Italy and transforming that place into a sort of local Woodstock, between sea, reggae music, improvised rhymes and concerts. The Jamaica of Italy was taking shape.
Continue along the coast, alternating the coast road, secondary roads and dirt roads overlooking the sea, until the sight of the imposing Aragonese castle indicates that you have arrived near Otranto, the easternmost point of Italy. Until November 2, the city hosts Other Americas, an unmissable exhibition by Sebastião Salgado, unpublished in Italy, which tells about his first major photographic project in Latin America between 1977 and 1984.
Otranto-Santa Maria di Leuca
This is the most treacherous stage, due to the alternation of descents and small climbs, although never too demanding. But it is also the most scenic, with the road at a slight altitude that follows the sinuous and jagged profile of the coast. It’s only fifty kilometers but you have to earn it. The first stop arrives after a few kilometers and is one of the classic Salento postcards: the former bauxite quarry closed in 1976 and today known for the contrast between the emerald green waters of the freshwater lake and the red of the gullies dug by the meteoric rains. Resume the coast road, pass the lighthouse of Punta Palascia – from which, it is said, on the clearest days you can see the mountains of Albania – and in a short time you reach the picturesque center of Porto Badisco, one of the places hypothesized as a first refuge of Aeneas fleeing the ruins of the ancient city. But prosaically also known for the legendary sandwiches of the Da Carlo bar, among the best on the entire Adriatic coast. From here on it is a succession of almost mandatory stops: from the karst cave of Zinzulusa – it is difficult not to take at least a dip – to the village of Castro, with its terraces and flower gardens, from the natural swimming pool of Marina Serra to the amazing Ciolo, a small canyon that plunges into the Adriatic. Until the final destination: Santa Maria di Leuca, which the Romans called De finibus terrae. The quintessence of the Salento land.
Santa Maria di Leuca-Gallipoli
For the first time since the start of the tour, we head north. If you do not have the misfortune to find a headwind, this stage is little more than a simple sea walk, with the comfort of the sea always on the left. We leave behind the elegant liberty villas of Santa Maria di Leuca and immediately find ourselves pedaling along the seafront, just in time to admire the landscape from the promontory of Punta Ristola. Then the scenery changes and the rocky coast gives way to long and white Caribbean beaches, shallow waters, fine sand, another symbolic image of the Salento rebirth. But the most interesting stretch comes after Torre Mozza, when you enter the Litorale di Ugento regional natural park, pedaling a stone’s throw from the sea along the cycle path of the basins, built in the first half of the twentieth century to reclaim the marshes that characterized this stretch of coast. There is still time for a swim in one of the most beautiful beaches in all of Salento, Punta della Suina, within a nature reserve, before covering the last few kilometers, crossing the Baia Verde cycle path and reaching the bridge. of Gallipoli. The sunset stroll along the old city walls is worth much of the trip.
and pedaling by the sea. You pass the town of Rivabella, the Lido delle Conchiglie and reach the small village of Santa Maria al Bagno, where there is one of the most beautiful urban beaches in Italy. If there is time, it is worth stopping to visit the Museum of Memory and Hospitality, dedicated to the Jews who took refuge in this area of Salento between 1943 and 1947. It deserves a last marine stop, a little more ahead, the unspoiled natural park of Porto Selvaggio. At that point you leave the coast inland and focus on Nardò, a small Lecce, with its historic center of white stone, beautiful churches and the elegant Salandra square as an urban living room.
And then it’s time to close the tour. From Nardò, follow the signs for Copertino and then head straight for Lecce, being careful not to take the ring road. The last stretch of the road is more monotonous than the previous ones, but the beauties of the Apulian baroque capital will repay for every kilometer of effort.
Masseria Panareo In an enchanting position along the stretch of coast between Otranto and Porto Badisco, this ancient farmhouse is surrounded by the Mediterranean scrub and the cobalt blue sea
La Bella Lecce In the center of Lecce, but in a secluded position, it has sober and modern rooms with a touch of personality
Corte Casole In Gallipoli, ancient fishermen’s houses adapted to B & b inspired by local tradition, with a beautiful internal courtyard
This article appeared in number 31 of the Essential, on page 26.