August 2021: Impressionists, Damin Hirst and a weekend cycling around the heel of ItalySunday, 15 August 2021
Exhibitions in Italy in August:
Impressionists. The Origins of Modernity. MaGa Museum; Gallarate (Varese); until 9 January; http://www.museomaga.it/en/. This fabulous exhibition explores the origins of modern art through over 180 works drawn from major Italian and French public and private collections and includes paintings by Gericault, Courbet, Manet, Renoir, Monet, Cézanne Gauguin, Boldini and De Nittis.
Damien Hurst. Archaeology Now. Galleria Borghese, Rome; until 7 November; www.galleriaborghese.beniculturali.it. Eighty works by the controversial English artist Damien Hurst have been exhibited alongside some of the Ancient and Renaissance masterpieces of one of Italy’s most celebrated museums, a dialogue between ancient and modern that would have pleased the eclectic tastes of the gallery’s founder, Scipione Borghese.
Body and Soul. From Donatella to Michelangelo. Castello Sforzesco, Milan; until 24 October; www.milanocastello.it. Curated by the Louvre in Paris, this important exhibition presents over one hundred and twenty pieces traces the evolution of sculpture in Italy from 1450 to 1550.
Events in Italy in August:
Sulle Vie del Prosecco. Treviso (Venice); from 1/9 to 4/9/21; www.proseccofestival.com/en/. Classical music of international calibre, good wine, and a UNESCO World Heritage landscape, these ingredients of the 8th edition of this music, food and wine festival that runs from 1/9 to 4/9/21, immersed in the beautiful Prosecco Hills.
Borgodivino in Tour. Nemi, Lazio, 10 to 12 September; www.borgodivino.it/nemi/. Every summer the Borghi Piu Belli d’Italia (https://borghipiubelliditalia.it/), an association of Italy’s most beautiful towns and villages, organises a roadshow that promotes a weekend of wines and foods hosted by five of its members. This year it finishes at Nemi, a beautiful town overlooking a volcanic in the hills outside Rome.
Hidden Italy weekend: a gentle ride around the Salento, the southern tip of Puglia.
The Salento is the very tip of the heel of the boot of Italy. It’s the eastern most point of the country. On a clear day, you can see across the gulf to Albania, Macedonia and even Corfu. People have been passing from the Middle East to Europe via the Salento since the time of the Neanderthals. The ancient Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines and the Spanish established important cities here but the Salento’s glory days were in the Middle Ages, the age of the Crusades. Under Norman rule for two hundred years, emperors and kings, armies and pilgrims, traders and artists passed through its ports to and from the Holy Lands and beyond.
The Salento is part of the region Puglia but it is really a region to itself. It is a rocky peninsula with the sandy beaches of the Ionian Sea on the western side and the rocky bays of the Adriatic on the eastern side. Its interior is a patchwork of hard-won farming land dissected by a maze of dry-stone walls scattered with elegant masserie and white-washed, Baroque towns. The Salentini are a very resourceful people who are proud of their heritage, their history, their sea, their music, their food, their olive oil and their wine. For the Italians, the Salento, with its sunshine, beaches and crystalline water, is the perfect holiday destination but it is much more than this. It’s fun in summer but much better in the ‘shoulder’ seasons, particularly May to June and September to October, when the temperatures have dropped and the crowds have thinned.
There are few better ways to explore what the region has to offer than on a bike, E or regular, starting at Lecce, the gorgeous ‘capital’ of the Salento. The itinerary we are suggesting below starts in Lecce and finishes in Gallipoli (not that one, the Italian one). It is one hundred and forty-eight kilometres long and follows lightly trafficked, secondary roads. It can be broken up into three days, riding 50 kilometres a day or, if you have the time and really want to revel in the joys of the Salento, it can be broken up into six days, twenty-five kilometres per day. E-bikes and regular bikes can be hired in Lecce. What are you waiting for?
How to get there
By train: The fast Frecciargento train runs regularly between Rome and Lecce. It takes around 5 hours and is a beautiful trip (www.trenitalia.com). By car: The A14 autostrada connects Bologna to Taranto, running down the east coast, following the Adriatic Sea. The A16, the ‘Autostrada of the Two Seas’, crosses the peninsula, connecting the A1 with the A14 on the coast. It is a great drive, particularly when you pass through the Apennine mountains. By air: The most convenient at Bari, the Karol Wojtyla Airport. You can get a train from here to Bari Centrale and then change for Lecce. .By bus: Flixbus (www.flixbus.it) and Marozzi (www.marozzivt.it) run regular bus services from Rome to Lecce.
Day 1: Lecce
Lecce is a city of around ninety thousand people in the centre of the Salento peninsula. It is a busy, agricultural, commercial and university, known as the Florence of the South. It is an elegant city with a lively pedestrian centre filled with boutiques, shops, bars and small restaurants. Lecce is famous for its extravagant Baroque architecture thanks to several hundred years of Spanish rule and the availability of pietra leccese, the soft, easily-worked local stone that adorns the palazzi and churches. It is a very interesting town with a laid-back southern air, the perfect place to start your visit to the Salento.
Where to hire your bikes:
Elerent (Via Biccari, 21, Lecce, www.elerent.it). Road bikes, mountain bikes and E-bikes can be all hired from here. Prices range from 120 euro to 180 euro per week, pick up and drop off in Lecce.
Where to stay:
Patria Palace Hotel (Piazzetta Gabriele Riccardi, 13, Lecce). This elegant, 5-star hotel is in the pedestrian heart of the city. It is in a recently renovated palazzo that dates from the 18th century, located in front of one of the great treasures of the town, the extravagantly Baroque façade of the Basilica of Santa Croce. Doubles from 240 euro per night.
B&B Dimora San Leucia (Via Balmes, 8, Lecce). This is one of a number of noble residences in the centre of town that have been opened up for guests. It is in an 18th century palazzo and has four suites. It is airy, has very attentive hosts and offers a splendid breakfast based on local pastries. Double with breakfast from 110 euro.
Where to eat:
Osteria degli Spiriti (Via Cesare Battisti, Lecce). This elegant restaurant is a short walk from the centre of Lecce. It prides itself of serving local specialities with a modern twist. It has an excellent wine list. Dinner per person around 50 euro.
Tre Rane Ristoro (Via Cavour, 7, Lecce). Chef Maurizio Raselli is one of the innovative young chefs in the Salento. The Tre Rane (Three Frogs) offers degustation menus starting at 35 euro per person to going the whole hog at 65 euro per person.
Alle Due Corti (Via Leonardo Prato, 42, Lecce). This small family-run restaurant is a compendium of Lecce home-cooking, its recipes based on traditional, seasonal dishes. The antipasto is must and a meal in itself. From 20 euro per person.
Day 2: Lecce to Otranto. 46 kms
Leaving Lecce to the east, you ride through olive groves for 13 kilometres to Acaia, with its Renaissance castle and fortified village that date from the mid-1500s. I love Acaia. It was constructed by Gian Giacomo dell’Acaya to defend Lecce from incursions by the Ottomans. The castle has been beautifully restored and has a small but very interesting museum. One of my favourite restaurants is in the piazza in front of the castle, the Ristorante Minuti Piaceri. It’ll probably be too early for lunch, but it’s worth bearing mind.
From here it is an easy ride to the coast, five flat kilometres through more olive groves to the Nature Reserve of Le Cesine, six hundred and twenty hectares of coastal wetlands. The Reserve is notable for its lagoons, birdlife, pine forests and pristine beaches. There is a cycle path that takes you south through the park to the lovely town of San Foca, twenty-five kilometres from Lecce, where we’d suggest stopping for a swim and a coffee.
If you are doing the six-day version of the ride, San Foca is a good place to stop and you could do a lot worse than spend the night at the Posia Luxury Retreat.
The second leg of the first day takes you south along the coast to Otranto, detouring at the Torre dell’Orso (the Tower of the Bear) to skirt around the Alimini Lakes Nature Reserve. It is a coastline characterised by rocky cliffs, 16th century lookout towers, the occasional sandy beach and some spectacular swimming spots. The most celebrated is the Grotta della Poesia (the Grotto of Poetry) a sunken cave on the edge of the cliffs that have been decorated with prehistoric hieroglyphs. The day’s ride finishes at Otranto, a perfectly preserved medieval port tucked behind 15th century Spanish walls above an idyllic harbour, one of the stars of any visit to Puglia.
Because of its good port and position, Otranto was always an important town. It was founded by the Spartans. In Roman times it was it was an important link between the Roman Empire and Greece. In the Medieval period it was a very important Byzantine centre and the seat of the Greek Orthodox bishop. Otranto thrived under Norman rule, who took control in 1070, becoming a trade centre with the east, hosting trading delegations from Venice, Dalmatia and the Levant as well as being an important port during the Crusades.
Where to stay:
Balconcino d’Oriente (Via S. Francesco da Paola, 71). This welcoming B&B has three very comfortable rooms, two of them with terraces, one overlooking the moat (dry) and walls of the old city. Double with excellent breakfast from 70 euro per room.
Hotel Palazzo Papaleo (Via Rondachi, 1). An elegant boutique, 5-star hotel in a restored noble palazzo in the heart of the old town, one block from the port. An abundant breakfast is served on the rooftop terrace with spectacular views over the port. Doubles from 220 euro per night.
Where to eat:
L’Atro Baffo (Via Cenobio Basiliano, 23). Several years ago, Cristina Conte was voted the best young chef in Puglia and it is no surprise. This charming small restaurant, in a lane near the cathedral, specialises in the freshest of seafood straight off the boats. Dinner per person from 55 euro.
Balconcino d’Oriente (Via S. Francesco da Paola, 71). The lovely breakfast room of this B&B, situated downstairs in vaulted cellars, is converted into a charming dining room in the evening. The ingredients are rigorously 0-kilometres and seasonal and the delicious meals, proudly local Dinner per person from 25 euro.
Day 3: Otranto to Santa Maria di Leuca. 52 kms
Today’s ride is fifty-two kilometres and is probably the most spectacular of the tour. It follows secondary roads south along the coast, with the mountains of Albania usually visible across the Adriatic on the horizon. The first point of interest is the lighthouse on Punta Palascia, the eastern most point of the Italian peninsula. From here you cycle above rocky cliffs, to Porto Badisco, which, with its small bay, is perfect for a swim and a coffee at the kiosk behind the beach.
From here you continue on the undulating coastal road towards the town of Castro Marina, along the way passing Santa Cesarea Terme, an elegant resort town that developed in the late 1800s around thermal springs. Carry on through rows of prickly pairs and drystone walls, you come to Castro, twenty-four kilometres from Otranto, where you have the choice of climbing up a steep road to visit the historic town or turning right and heading down to the sea for a swim. The Ristorante Grotta del Conte, overlooking the bay, is a perfect place for lunch
If you are doing the six-day version of the ride, the Orsa Maggiore is a comfortable modern hotel halfway between the coast and the old town with a restaurant and spectacular views along the coast.
From here you carry on following the less developed coast all the way to Santa Maria Leuca, Along the way you pass the deep canyon of Il Ciolo, which also has a good swimming beach, and then the sanctuary of Santa Maria de Finisbus Terrae above a cliff with a lighthouse, the southernmost tip of the Salento. It is directly opposite Corfu. This vast sanctuary was a pilgrim destination for centuries and was built on top on a Roman temple dedicated to Minerva. The resort town of Santa Maria Leuca is a short roll down the hill.
Santa Maria Leuca:
The legend goes that St Peter first set foot here on his way from the Orient to evangelise the West, although there is not much sing of this antiquity now. The Santa Maria Leuca has been a very popular seaside resort for the Salentini since the late 1800s as the rows of lovely arte nouveau residences along the coast show. The town still has a refined, slightly old-fashioned air about it, although it certainly livens up with the summer when the youth of the Salento descend to enjoy its numerous bars and restaurants.
Where to stay:
Villa La Meridiana (Lungomare Cristoforo Colombo). A classy, old-fahioned four-star hotel is on waterfront of Santa Maria Leuca in beautiful arte nouveau palazzo. The Villa has all the mod cons including liveried butlers, a vast swimming pool, a wellness centre and a sophisticated restaurant with sea views. Double from 180 euro.
Hotel L’Approdo (Via Panoramica, 1). This is a comfortable, modern, four-star hotel with views across the bay and a good restaurant. Double room with breakfast from 150 euro.
Day 3: Santa Maria Leuca to Gallipoli. 50 kms
The final leg of the tour leaves the coast for a while, taking you inland across the Salentine plateau, passing through a number of very pleasant small villages and towns. This includes Barbarano del Capo, which used to be called ‘Little Leuca’, as it was the last stop on the pilgrim route to the sanctuary of Santa Maria di Leuca. In the 17th century a local benefactor built a small church with beautiful frescoes, as well as subterranean accommodation for the pilgrims. It is a little gem and well-worth a detour. A little further on is the sleepy little town of Presicce, with its elegant Baroque palaces, hidden gardens, network of lanes and alleys.
Although not very far along the route, if you are doing the six-day version of the ride, Presicce would be an interesting place to stay to enjoy a real taste of the interior of the Salento. The town has some interesting sights, a couple of good hotels nearby (as well as an excellent B&B Giardino degli Angeli in a restored tobacco factory on the edge of town) and some good restaurants (Ristorante Mascapati for seafood and L’Antica Pietra for old-school home-cooking).
You shortly passed through Ugento, with its charming historic centre, complete with a castle and cathedral, which would also be a good option to break the trip. From Ugento, the route continues on to Felline and then re-joins the coastal road for the last twenty-two kilometres of the tour. Before arriving in Gallipoli, it is worth taking a detour to Punta Pizzo, which has a lovely small beach at the foot of another 16th century lookout tower. From here, you have a beautiful view of the old town of Gallipoli, a mirage on the horizon, and the lighthouse on the island of Sant’Andrea.
Gallipoli (or Kallipoli from the ancient Greek for ‘beautiful city’) has a magnificent setting. The old town is on an island, connected to the mainland and the modern town by a single, narrow bridge. It was founded by the ancient Greeks and in the 16th and 17th centuries Gallipoli was one of the richest towns in southern Puglia, famous for exporting olive oil which was used to illuminate the streets of Naples, Paris and London. Those days may be long gone, but the town still retains its island charm. The Salentini see it as a kind of southern Portofino and its weather white old centre has a kind of grungy chic.
Gallipoli’s beaches stretch in great curves to the north and the south of the town. The north is the Lido Conchiglie and the disco quarter, so it is towards the south you’d want to go if you are after a swim to the long sandy beach of the Baia Verde.
That said, I think the real treasure of the area is the elegant town of Santa Caterina, a quiet seaside centre that is twelve kilometres to the north. Apart from being a lovely little town, Santa Caterina is the gateway to the Porto Selvaggio Regional Park, a stretch of protected rocky coastline with umbrella pines, eucalyptus trees and olive groves. It has some great bays and pebbly beaches for swimming as well as a number of hiking trails and it would be worth extending your stay in Gallipoli and makes a visit here as a day trip.
Where to stay:
Relais Corte Palmieri (Via Palmieri, 3). Situated in the heart of the old town, this stylish four-star hotel has white-on-white décor with splashes of strong colours which gives it a decidedly Greek-island feel. It has a spectacular rooftop terrace that overlooks the town and bay. Doubles from 150 euro.
B&B Punta Cutieri (Riviera Armando Diaz 27). A welcoming B&B which has six comfortable rooms, each with their own en suite. It is also in the heart of the old town and also has a terrace overlooking the sea. Doubles from 85 euro with breakfast included.
Where to eat:
Il Vignetto (Via Sansonetti, 1). This elegant restaurant is in the cellars of the Cantina Coppola, a winery that has been in the hands of the Coppola family for fifteen generations since their forebears arrived in Gallipoli from in 1489. The restaurants innovative menu is rigorously based on local produce. It would be the ideal place to celebrate the end of your tour in the Salento. Dinner from 40 euro per person.
Grotta Marina (Via Cesare Battisti 13). A small, romantic restaurant, tucked away in a side street in the old town. It specialises in serving the freshest seafood. Dinner person from 55 euro.