Otranto is an ancient Messapian city whose origins lie in the fifth century BC, but over the following millennia, it became Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Gothic, Norman, Swabian, Angevin and Aragonese. Its constant dialogue with the sea can be seen in ancient archaeological finds that tell of rich and frequent trade with Greece, Crete and all the civilisations of the Mediterranean. The Romans called it Hydruntum, possibly named after the River Idro, but according to a more likely hypothesis, the name derives from the Greek ùdor kai derento: water and mountain. Passing the Alfonsina gate, you enter the walled city, which today is included in the list of the most beautiful settlements in Italy and is a UNESCO heritage site. Through the historic centre, along cobbled streets and alleys, you reach the sea, where lie granite balls from Saracen bombardments and a chance to tour the ramparts. Do not miss the cathedral, the remains of the Abbey of San Nicola di Casole, which was destroyed by the Turks, and the Messapian underground temple in the Valley of Memories.
After visiting Otranto, you can relax on the beautiful beaches of the Adriatic coast, such as the Baia dei Turchi, a beach of fine sand caressed by an expanse of turquoise waters, or the beaches and coves of the towns of Torre Sant’Andrea, Torre dell’Orso, San Foca and Torre Specchia. Roca Vecchia is the perfect place for a romantic sunset in front of the ruins of the castle, but above all, you should visit the Grotta della Poesia, one of the most beautiful natural pools in Italy. South of Otranto, along the east coast of the Salento peninsula, you will find Santa Cesarea Terme, which is an important spa that attracts tourists with its hot sulphurous springs. Santa Cesarea Terme also has many nineteenth-century noble villas with eclectic styles, such as the Moorish Villa Sticchi and the Villa Raffaella, built in the second half of the nineteenth century. The rocky coast, where spires, cliffs and caves alternate, offers truly enchanting scenery.
Between Santa Cesarea Terme and the village of Castro, the coastline becomes high and jagged. Here are numerous hidden caves, including the Grotta della Zinzulusa and the Grotta Azzurra, whose name derives from algae that, with the sun’s rays, gives the water an intense turquoise colour. Continuing down the coast, you arrive at the ancient fishing village of Castro, just 7 km from Santa Cesarea Terme. Its name comes from the Latin castrum, meaning ‘fortress’. In the upper part of Castro is the Aragonese castle, built on the remains of a Byzantine fortress, and the Romanesque cathedral; you can also go down to the Castro Marina for a dinner of fried fish with an ocean view. Continuing on, you will find Andrano, where it is worth stopping at the Green Grotto, if you fancy swimming a few metres from the shore. It is a magical place in which, depending on the time of day and the refraction of the water, the play of light can make the water appear to have an intense emerald colour. Further south, you can explore some lesser known but equally fascinating places in Salento, such as Tricase Porto, Marina Serra, Marina di Novaglie and Ponte Ciolo.
The last bastion of Salento, where the Adriatic Sea meets the Ionian, Santa Maria di Leuca was known in ancient times as the finis terrae. It is striking for the light and silence that surround the basilica of Santa Maria de Finibus Terrae; according to legend, St. Peter, travelling to Rome, stopped in Leuca, after which the temple of the goddess Minerva became a place of Christian worship and one of the main pilgrimage centres of the ancient and medieval world. Santa Maria di Leuca is dotted with beautiful nineteenth-century villas, such as La Meridiana, Villa Mellacqua and Villa Sangiovanni, but for those who prefer seaside relaxation, a few kilometres away are the fairy-tale Maldives of Salento, with fine, near-white sand; shallow, crystal-clear waters; and soft dunes shaped by the wind, atop which fragrant white lilies bloom.