The road less travelled: four ultimate Italian journeys by car

The Salento peninsula at the southern tip of Puglia offers a road trip packed with sandy beaches, clifftop cave dwellings, dolmens and towns studded with elaborate, baroque palazzi. But where else stands out for an off-the-beaten-track road trip?

Thursday, September 24, 2020,
By Julia Buckley
Photographs By Francesco Lastrucci
Locals share coffee at a beach bar in Punta Prosciutto, on Puglia’s west coast.

Locals share coffee at a beach bar in Punta Prosciutto, on Puglia’s west coast.

Photograph by Francesco Lastrucci

The lights are off but everyone’s home in Gallipoli. It’s Sunday lunchtime, and they’ve gone from church to table. At least, that’s according to the clinking of cutlery through open windows. Outside, it’s a ghost town, the summer heat sitting heavily on the cream-stoned palazzi.

Gallipoli is already a fairytale of a place — a fishing village teetering on a rock in the Ionian Sea, tethered to the mainland by a sandy wedge. But the stillness makes it more special. Even in summer, when tourists flock to the sugar-sanded bay, life continues at a rhythm established over hundreds of years.

History is inescapable here on the Salento peninsula, the southernmost tip of Italy’s heel. It’s here in the prehistoric dolmens; here in the angels smiling down from baroque buildings. It goes still further back at Porto Selvaggio, to the north of Gallipoli, whose cliffside caves were, 45,000 years ago, home to Europe’s first documented Homo sapiens. 

Those early humans, who’d travelled up from Africa, were the first of Puglia’s many immigrants. Some had fled here (like the Basilian monks, escaping Jerusalem in the eighth century, sculpting underground churches whose frescoes survive to this day). Others chose to settle here (the Greeks founded towns like Calimera). Other arrived with conquest in mind: the Normans, Lombards and Saracens all left their mark on Salento architecture; the watchtowers — valiant attempts to ward them off — dot the clifftop as I head south on my road trip around the Salento coast.

A rowing boat by the cliffside entrance to Grotta della Zinzulusa.

Photograph by Francesco Lastrucci

Salento may be just 25 miles across at its widest point, but its east and west coasts are starkly different. The flatter, western side is known for its beaches. Earlier, I’d stopped at Punta Prosciutto, where dunes melt into thick sand. South of Gallipoli, there’s a beach every five minutes — some with a platform of spiky rock sheering into the sea; others, more idyllic, like Pescoluse, nicknamed Puglia’s Maldives. 

Santa Maria di Leuca, Italy’s most southeasterly point, is where the Ionian and Adriatic coasts slide into each other. From Leuca, the coast gets more spectacular, the road roller coastering up and down sharp cliffs, past teeny fishing villages below a headland speckled with myrtle and carob bushes. At the Grotta Zinzulusa, a local guide shimmies me deep into the cliffside to an enormous, bat-filled cave. In the town of Otranto, I see the cathedral’s 12th-century mosaic ‘carpet’, complete with cameos from an elephant and a buxom mermaid. Just above it, from the Aragonese castle, I look back along the coast: it’s a carbon copy of the Amalfi shoreline — but without the traffic, crowds or high prices.

Citalia has five nights at Masseria Montelauro in Salento, including flights from Gatwick to Brindisi and car hire, from £699 per person.

Explore more photography of Puglia's villages

The roads less travelled: three more unusual Italian road trips

Capo Vaticano, Calabria
The coastal road between Pizzo and Reggio Calabria passes pretty villages and apocalyptic views of two active volcanoes: Stromboli, smoking offshore to the east, and Etna, puffing away in Sicily, across the water. Stop at Tropea, where palazzi teeter against the blue, and finish at Reggio’s Lungomare walkway, with Sicily brooding across the Straits of Messina. 

Gran Sasso National Park, Abruzzo
This mountainous region is home to bears, clifftop villages and twisting roads. The Grand Highway winds through the best of it, cleaving through mountains and rolling through the altipiano between L’Aquila and Teramo provinces.

Sulcis coast, Sardinia
Sardinia’s southwest coast is less manicured than the Costa Smeralda, but no less spectacular (its hairpin clifftop roads aren’t for the fainthearted). From Fontanamare, wiggle round the old mining coast, stopping at Porto Flavia, home to a mining tunnel that looks out on the cobalt sea. Finish inland at Carbonia’s mining museum.

Read more travel guides for Italy

Published in the Sept/Oct 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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