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Puglia's Ionic coast

A fascinating journey discovering the ancient history and culture of the land of the Messapi.

Puglia's Ionic coast

The view of Taranto as you approach the Puglian Ionic coast is spectacular. The capital of the region, this historic city is the third largest in Italy. Much of Taranto's history, economy and way of life are linked to the sea, and have been ever since the city was colonized by the Ancient Greeks. Traces of this period are still visible both in the old town and on the immediate periphery, as a trip around the MarTa, Taranto's recently renovated National Archaeological Museum, swiftly demonstrates. Here visitors can observe the columns and the base of a Doric temple dating back to the first half of the 6th century B.C. The city's Aragonese castle, built in the 15th century on the site of a previously existing fort, is well worth a visit, as are other impressive works of architecture located in the old town, such as the 18th century Palazzo d'Ayala, the Seminario Arcivescovile (1568) and 17th century Palazzo Carducci-Artemisio.

Traveling south along Puglia's Ionian coast, a brief detour inland leads to Pulsano. The town's most important edifice is its 15th century Castle which, according to legend, was once linked by way of an underground passage to the castle in nearby Leporano. Other landmarks include the Castelluccia tower, also known as the 'Saracen', which stands on a promontory dominating the soft sandy dunes of the Lido Silvana beach.

After Taranto, Manduria is perhaps the best known of the towns situated in the province of northern Salento: in recent years its name is most often associated with the town's 'Primitivo', the ambassador of Puglian wine. Primitivo di Manduria is a powerful red, which first obtained DOC status in 1974. The primitivo grapes, thought to have been brought here by the ancient Greeks, are cultivated in the fertile lands surrounding Manduria. A town of Messapic origin, Manduria's old historic center developed around a maze of twisting narrow lanes, in which there are a medieval Jewish Ghetto, Mother Church and Clock Tower. The surrounding countryside is scattered with ancient farmsteads, many of which have now been transformed into welcoming farm stays and bed & breakfasts, where you can enjoy a holiday amidst the century old olive trees and abundant Mediterranean scrub.

Porto Cesareo, in the province of Lecce, is best known for its crystal clear sea and long sandy beach, comparable in beauty only to that of nearby Punta Prosciutto. Porto Cesareo, since 1997 part of a protected marine park, is home to an important marine biology museum containing a fascinating collection of shells and rare species of Mediterranean fish and marine plant life.

From Porto Cesareo, the rugged coastline, characterized by deep bays alternating with brief stretches of sand, leads all the way to Gallipoli. Lying on the west coast of the Salentine peninsula, Gallipoli has only surprisingly recently discovered its vocation as tourist destination. A bridge, built in the 16th century, links the old city, situated on an island of calciferous rock, to the 'borgo nuovo', home to all of Gallipoli's modern buildings and which, over the years, has developed its own distinct identity and even its own dialect. If the historic center, a maze of little roads which open out to reveal tantalizing glimpses of the sea, represents the heart of Gallipoli, the 'new' part of town is it's main artery - brimming with bars, restaurants and clubs, which draw tourists from every corner of Salento.

Right on the tip of the promontory forming the southern most point of Puglia, Santa Maria di Leuca, home to a number of impressive late 19th century Liberty villas built in pseudo-Arabian style, is famous for its lighthouse, one of the most important in Italy, and for its 18th century Sanctuary of Santa Maria de Finibus Terrae, built on the site of an ancient Roman temple dedicated to Minerva. From the large, perennially wind swept, square in front of the sanctuary, it is said that visitors can see the meeting of the Ionian and Adriatic seas (in reality the waters do not meet here and the official border is actually in the Strait of Otranto). The Basilica, is linked to the port below via an incredibly long flight of steps. By the sea, an ancient Roman column rises skywards, marking the end of the Puglian aqueduct.


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