Head over heels with Puglia

Why you'll love Italy’s little-visited region of Salento


Scenic sight in Castro, in the Salento region of Puglia (Apulia), Italy.

If you’re kicking around the idea of a holiday in Italy, it’s not normally the heel of the country’s famous boot that jumps to mind. Salento, the southernmost region of Puglia, is closer to Albania than it is to Rome — the very teetering tip of the heel, well south of the region’s capital Bari and Puglia’s most famous tourist draw, the trulli of Alberobello.

But there are treasures to be found here, including our luxurious hotel base for the trip, Castle Elvira, a magical hidden gem just outside Lecce. Well, with sat-nav, nowhere is hidden any more, but magical and gem-like it most certainly is.

As the name suggests, the main building is indeed a castle, with turrets and everything; there’s no drawbridge or moat, this is far more of a welcoming than repelling type of castle.

And when the co-owner bounces up to you in a multi-coloured ensemble saying, “tonight I’m wearing a fruit salad,” you kind of get a hunch that it’s not your run-of-the-mill place. And that hunch would be correct.

There are just ten rooms in total — four in the castle itself and the others in The Tower, The Masseria (literally, farmhouse) and The Cottage, all dotted around the 37-acre grounds. We (me, my wife and my two all grown-up children) were in The Cottage, a delightful two-bedroom abode with a private garden and Jacuzzi, also (thankfully) private.

So far, so lovely, but where’s the promised magic I hear you murmur? The legend of the castle says it was built by two adoring parents for their daughter Elvira — and today’s castle is very much the lovechild of its owners, husband and husband team Steve Riseley and Harvey B-Brown. (Full disclosure, I know Harvey a little bit, but I shan’t allow it to affect my review, of course).

They bought it in 2018 when it was less castle-like and more seen better days-like. Steve set to work on the ramparts and all the other parts, and sturdied the place up, while design guru Harvey’s attention to detail is mind-boggling. Everything has been touched by his kitsch, camp, glam, yet still classy and elegant hand.

Somehow, it’s not in-yer-face either — it took me two nights to notice I’d been sleeping under a picture of a bejewelled bulldog in a cape. It all just fits, as if it has always been there, from the serene faces on the flowerpots in the garden to the chicken-shaped egg cups to the pineapple and pomegranate cushions.

Add in the warmth of Harvey, Steve and the staff, who welcome you on to the roof of the castle for cocktails every evening and create the most sociable of atmospheres for those who want it — and peace and quiet for others — and you’ve got an enchanting mix as fortifying as the castle itself.

Of course, no castle is complete without a ghost, and adding to the magic is Elvira herself. There seem to be two stories about her, one in which she tragically died when she was 17 and the other when she was ten.

Currently, two people have reported that the ghost is definitely more ten than 17, and she’s very pleased with how her old gaff looks, so is not at all scary. Possibly the greatest of all reviews.

I could go on about the delicious breakfasts — they have cake in the morning in Italy, for goodness sake — the three pools with their Bluetooth speakers, so you can play your favourite music while you swim, or pizza and prosecco night, but then you really would accuse me of bias, so I won’t.

Elvira is about half an hour’s drive from Lecce, apparently the “Florence of The South”. I haven’t been to Florence, but already I prefer Lecce. It’s smaller and more manageable, but astonishingly beautiful.

The walled inner city is the place to head to; saunter around its narrow streets bustling with shops and restaurants until you pop out onto a piazza.

Lecce’s Jewish museum can be found on the site of a former synagogue, in what was the Jewish Quarter. Today, it’s just three streets and the museum, more of a 16th than a quarter, but it’s well worth a visit.

It’s very much in the shadow of the Basilica di Santa Croce, a mightily impressive Baroque-style church the building of which began in 1549, just a few years after the last Jews were kicked out of the area.

Dare I say it but beautiful as it is, it does feel as if it’s making a statement; we got rid of you, now we’re going to make sure you don’t come back. And sadly Jews didn’t return. Currently the only community is in Trani on the western side of Salento, which runs to three families.

On a more positive note though, after the Holocaust, Salento was home to quite a few survivors. They were actually on their way to Israel, (Mandatory Palestine as it was then called) but the British wouldn’t let them in, so they had to stay in Salento till 1948.

They were warmly welcomed to the area and many had children. There’s a short, but very moving film about this period that you can see in the museum in which, in later life, some of the people born there return for the first time.

Further south, the tiny village called Ortelle makes a pretty base to explore more of the region; just about every place, be it big or small, has a fairly nondescript exterior and a beautiful, often walled, interior. Highlights include Castro, Maglie and Tricase (our favourite), which are all a little larger, and the smaller, Poggiardo and Diso.

Diso in particular is tiny, but a lovely, chilled village with a café, Portici, and central square I want to visit every day for the rest of my life. There’s also a cracking trattoria, Al Giardino.

This close to the tip of the heel, there’s a lot of sea, of course, and you’ll surely want to take a dip to escape the heat. The coastline on the eastern side of Salento is pretty rocky — it does get sandier at the bottom and along the western side — and Italians have a sort of two-tier system when it comes to hitting the beach.

There are myriad private places where, in the busier times of year, you have to book and pay for a sunbed in advance rather than just rock up.

Some of these places have their own access to the sea and/or saltwater swimming pools. We went to Summer Club 19, which was a bit meh, and Bagno Marino Archi, which was hectic, but great.

There are other, very pretty — and free — places to swim, but there are no sunbeds and it’s something of a free-for-all, so best to go early (which, let’s face it you’re not going to do on holiday) or late afternoon/evening.

Cala dell’Acquaviva is a lovely spot and Tricase Porto is also worth a visit. If you make it all the way to the southernmost point, Santa Maria di Leuca, you’ll be rewarded by a small, free sandy beach, and the town itself is lovely.

Food is as tempting as you’d expect from Italy, with local dishes alongside the usual fare. The ear-shaped orecchiette pasta was supposedly introduced to the area by Jews, while pasticciotto are custard cream-filled pastries — delicious, but quite heavy, so do your best not to have one every day. I failed.

It’s also worth mentioning the roads, where often the potholes have potholes, and the parking, which is stressful and requires a certain level of optimistic fatalism. But when it comes to heels, Salento is easily the nicest I have ever visited.

Getting There

Direct flights to Brindisi cost from around £60 with Ryanair.

Suites at Castle Elvira cost from around £475 per night, bed and breakfast.

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