Welcome to our first The Thinking Traveller journey that explores the Salento Region of Southern Puglia.
Our postcards from Puglia are a random collection of images and travel notes that share the best of what we discovered and learnt during our own travels to the region. Not a guide but a first hand collection of experiences, practical information, thoughts and hindsight that hopefully inspire meaningful travel while at the same time staying respectful to the local culture, economy and environment.
The Ancient Land
In the southern most part of Italy’s heel, you’ll find a flat region that is surrounded by the Adriatic sea on one side and the Ionian on the other. We love this part of Puglia for the many small towns clustered throughout the countryside and the incredible rocky coastline brimming with old school lidos and insanely beautiful grottos. This part of Puglia is mostly off the tourist trail and less busy than other regions. The area plays a big role in Italy’s agriculture economy and the countryside is carpeted with Olive trees as far as the eye can see. Things move slower here, time is not important. Here you might stop and have a café with the locals who were always appreciative of how far we’d travelled. The beauty of the region is unlike anywhere else, a collection of baroque and medieval towns and cities blend historical influences from the ancient Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines and the Normans. Described as the ancient land, Salento has handed down it’s trades and traditions for centuries to the local inhabitants and still to this day it is the land of both country and coast. The ancient trades of fishing, herding sheep, making cheese and olive oil are ill the corner stones of industry and lifestyle.
40.4234° N, 17.9532° E
Our local beach, only ten minutes from our The Thinking Traveller villa in the region of Diso soon became a family favourite. This is what we had imagined a beach day in Italy to look like and it was a pinch me moment to realise it actually existed. A collection of cold water springs and small bays with pebbles make up the small cove called Acquaviva. Cliffs make it the perfect place to dive into the ridiculously crystal clear water. On a windy day it is quite protected. Added magic is resident artist Franco De Giovanny who has created an outdoor studio at the top of the sandstone stairs. Franco is passionate, animated and completely engaging so the fact we couldn’t understand one another made no difference. He spent time painting with the kids and writing us poetry. From what I could gather he was doing this purely for love, his love for creating art and the company of people; not for a tip, not for instagram. He gave Sam a small gift wanting nothing in return, a tiny ceramic plaque that said Salento; it was like he was saying don’t forget this magical place, my home.
Interesting fact | The fjord has been awarded as one of the most beautiful beaches in Italy and has an environmental protection.
Bring | Rockshoes, snorkel and a book.
No need to book as the rocks are the perfect place to lounge. There is a small kiosk with all you need… Aperol, ice cream, pastries, café and beer, oh and water.
A restored dusty pink tobacco factory from the early 1900’s was our The Thinking Traveller home near the small country town of Diso. Nothing had prepared us for the beauty of the property even though the TTT team had tried. This is where I must share my dirty little secret. I did not magically stumble upon all these incredible local and intimate experiences on Google or instagram (shocking I know). Many were well thought out suggestions by the local TTT expert. Let's call her Martina shall we? Martina (her actual name) is a born and bred local Salento gal and from before you even land at Brindisi Airport she will be in touch, to make sure you have what you need to arrive safely, to send you pin drops, Google Map links and to make sure she is there to greet you, to show you around, and to welcome you with glorious locally made food for your weary travelled bones. I had not even Googled the area before arriving, or researched where to go or what to do. I had the great fortune of a Martina; an actual human with real thoughts and an opinion who met me in the morning over a café and a map to workshop what we might do that week; and to hear what was important to us as a family and what we wanted our experiences to yield. In two hours I had the week loosely planned and mapped out by a true blue local.
My point is, I thought it would be the experience of staying in these incredible hand picked properties and locations that would be my TTT takeaway. but it went beyond that to the people in the TTT team. From their villa experts (hello Susannah you gorgeous thing) who can magically locate the villa of your dreams whether that be a two bedroom cottage in amongst an olive farm or a Mediterranean palatial home perched on the edge of a cliff; to a person who I may have started to think was actually my brain (but a way better version than my brain), lets call her Michela. Michela (her actual name) goes by the title Think Exquisite Team Manager but I like to call her “The Organised One”. Michela organised our schedule, when, where and what Thinking experiences we wanted locked in (in-house chef, boat hire, groceries, archaeological tours, wine tasting and so on). She makes sure from the moment your plane lands that your experience has no loose ends. It is crazy I tell you. All these people making sure you have the best holiday of your life, have you ever heard of such a thing? Even if your “organised one” hasn’t heard of what you are looking for (I may have requested one thing… a list of flea markets and vintage stores) they will ask locals and other experts till they have the answer you are looking for.
So yes I divert but it was this, the human experience from the moment you think of booking, to the local family who comes to visit every day that really became the defining reason to travel with The Thinking Traveller.
ITALIAN PHRASES YOU NEED TO KNOW
"Can I order a Long Black with Cream?" Posso avere un Americano con la panna?
"What is your name?" Come ti chiami? / Come si chiama?
"No Plastic Straws, please" Niente cannuccia di plastica, per favore
"Thank you so much" Grazie mille!
"May I have the bill, please?" Il conto per favore
"I love Italy" Io amo l'Italia
"Yes, I want two scoops of gelato, please" Si due gusti di gelato per favore
"Where is the ATM?" Dove si trova il bancomat |
"Can I have two Aperol Spritz?" Due aperol spritz per favore |
Respectful and mutually beneficial tourism has been on my mind a lot lately. This trip really cemented for us how important it is to be aware of your travel choices and what kind of direct effect that might have on the environment and the local economy. To partner with the TTT was a solid decision for us based on so many things, but one was their commitment to ecotourism. We love that their villas are located in small villages or close by, usually somewhere a little remote and surrounded by nature. We also loved that by staying in these places we got to spend time with locals, usually families who are passionate about sharing all that they love about their home. TTT are heavily invested both personally and financially in their hosts community to provide economic and ecological benefits while respecting the local culture and tradition of its people. This approach to tourism really made our stay meaningful and connected us in ways we hadn’t expected.
A rambling mix of whitewash and pastel buildings that hug the coastline looking out to the island of Corfu; Castro is a good base for exploring the coastline of Salento along the Adriatic coast. Here you’ll find a collection of grottos, beaches and seaside towns that reach from Otranto Port to the town Leuca. The great thing about Castro is that even though very popular in the summer it hasn’t succumbed to the commercial needs of tourism like it’s neighbouring city Otranto. The old town is very local and lovely for a stroll and a drink but it’s the harbour that is the jewel of the town. Here you will find bars, restaurants and cafes opened along the seafront with handy little places too grab snorkels and rock shoes. Castro Marina is home to the town’s small fishing fleet but in the summer they say you might see a fancy yacht or two. The rocky shoreline and insanely crystal clear turquoise water is the perfect place to swim and lounge. Here you can rent a Pedallo (those super cool water crafts with the slippery dip on the back) for around $20Euro for the hour. Along the rocky seafront there are lidos and small hotels where you can rent a sun bed and have lunch. We chose this one, at Hotel Roca. Highly recommend it.
40.0034° N, 18.4233° E
THE AREA OF OUR VILLA
So this is the weirdest thing. Our villa was indeed spectacular, six bedrooms and ensuites, a cinema room and a pool under a roof of sculptured arches. To be honest on arrival I was a little in awe. It felt a tad excessive for a family of four but in the pursuit of honesty it took a day to have these feelings wash away. As was the case with all the TTT properties we snoozed in, nothing felt precious. The properties were the homes of families and you could feel that. Il Tabacchificio was indeed stunning but it was also very real. The location had so much to do with this. The villa is in the middle of an olive farm and our neighbour was a herd of sheep and a very lovely Shepherd. The only people we would see on a bike ride or walk would be our friends the sheep or a farmer tending crops of some description. At night the only noises were those of a random sheep bell tinkling in the distance. During the day we would often see Guido who would come and check on us, and the property. His daughter cooked for us one night and another day we ran into him taking his grandson for a bike ride. We bumped into him in the small nearby town of Diso where he ushered for us to come and have a cafe together. We sat mostly in silence as neither could speak the others language but we enjoyed each other’s company and meeting the locals he introduced us to. Everyone is family in these small towns. It felt incredibly safe with the kids.
40.0092° N, 18.3922° E
A TTT experience and recommendation took us to a small dive shop in the town of Santa Cesarea Terme where we met up with Claudia and Elisa, the owners of UP Salento Diving. Pretty new in town I instantly liked Claudia as we chatted while she fitted us with our wetsuits, goggles and flippers. Both women are really great with kids and both Sugar and Captain felt instantly at home and safe. We loved this as a family adventure as it was something everyone could confidently and easily do. It was a magical way to really experience the stunning waters of Salento and learn about the aquatic life of the Mediterranean. Also I loved that the girls had just started their company in a male dominated industry and were shaking things up a little. They are very passionate about their local marine environment organising local events and clean ups. Definitely drop them a line for anything diving in the region. They are close to the town Santa Cesarea Terme (see below).
Santa Cesarea Terme
We didn’t get enough time here, only really discovering what a gem it was in our last few days. Here we enjoyed a quick breakfast - when in doubt head to the town centre of the seaside marina and any cafe should have a good simple Italia breakfast of coffee and pastries. We discovered the town by chance before our diving adventure and it was the striking architecture that captivated us; in particular, Villa Sticchi, an elegant villa that resembles a Mosque but is coloured in pastels and mosaics. The town’s architecture is a mix of Eastern and Western cultures and is home to some of the areas most beautiful swimming spots such as Torre Miggiano. Worth spending some time here.
40.0352° N, 18.4559° E
Nestled down a side street in the quaint town of Maritime you will find Tulsishop. Now having been and met Deborah the founder, I say no visit to Salento is complete without the experience of A: Meeting said Deborah, and B: Finding a hand made or vintage treasure in her eclectic store. Deborah sources from all over the world, ethically made and fair trade goods often supporting women in smaller villages and towns. It’s a place for those who love far away lands and the craftsmanship of local artisans. Look for the bright blue doorframe and the overhanging light. I recommend reaching out to Deborah on Instagram to make a time to meet with her. She also has other stores in the region, which might be closer to you.
TIP | Pop into Utopia after for a delicious gelato
our favourite gelato flavours
fior di latte | menta | stracciatella | melone
pistacchio | fragola | caffe | crema
BAGNO MARINO ARCHI
Oh what a place. My Disneyland, my utopia, the beach of my dreams. When I arrived and saw what lies beneath the blue archway sign Bagno Marino Archi I nearly hyperventilated. The 1950’s beach lido in all its rust and cream coloured glory feels like a scene in an old Italia movie. Blending into the sandstone cliffs it sets the stage for the electric green crystal clear waters that frame it. Ochre umbrellas line the shoreline framed by cliffs, a sight so beautiful I can barely breathe.
I don’t really know what else to say to describe how Italian it feels, that sounds so ridiculous in itself but it’s true. The people watching is nearly as good as the buffalino pizza. Yes that’s right. Pizza. Could it get any better? Oh actually it can. The restaurant is worth a visit for the view alone but to eat real Italian pizza in wet cosies on the edge of the Mediterranean Sea, sipping an Aperol Spritz under your own umbrella is pretty damn hard to beat on the holiday fun scale.
TIP | Make sure you call and book your lounge and umbrella ahead of time during peak season (July/August). The cost of two is 20 Euro. Private change rooms can also be booked.
LOCATION | This area is part of the town Santa Cesarea Terme (see below) which you should make time to explore.
Masseria Le Stanzie
This was as close we would get to really experiencing ancient and genuine Salento gastronomy.
Le Stanzie is a typical Apulia farmhouse located in Supersano, the heart of Salento and is one of the oldest rural buildings in the region. The farm dates back to the early 1500s and has been kept very much in its original condition including the furniture (there is a beautiful old loom in one of the rooms exactly where it was found hundreds of years ago) and ceramics found in it. Here you can wander the kitchen and the garden, see the animals and where all the produce is grown. You could taste the difference in the food; all freshly grown and made on the property from scratch. You eat only what is in season and what is put in front of you. There is no menu just delicious food typical to the area. I love that you get two choices to choose from when it comes to quenching your thirst; water or wine. Both served in a big ceramic terracotta jug.
TIP | It’s not officially part of the experience but if you ask and they are not busy they will give you a history tour of the farmhouse, which the kids loved. They had a million questions about the people that made the cheese in the dark, mouldy underground room; the men who made the olive oil for illumination down in the basement; and the animals so valuable that they lived inside during the cold winter months sharing a room with many of the family who lived there. Definitely book as they only prepare enough food for those that do.
The Grotto Road Trip
Here’s a quick glimpse at our top swimming holes in order of location that will take you on a spectacular coastal drive starting at Santa Cesarea Terme to the very southern point of Puglia, Santa Maria di Leuca. Many deserve an entire day and others are perfect for a quick dip and a rock jump.
Bagno Marino Archi
Marina of Novaglie
Canale del Ciolo
Marina of Novaglie | Lo Scalo
If you are wondering if you are Amalfi or Puglia this might be your deciding factor. The marina itself, still maintains its original charm; once a small rock hewn dock for local fisherman boats seeking shelter becomes a chic beach hang in the summer. The intense blue sea laps small inlets and rocky cliffs making it alone the perfect destination for swimming, diving and snorkelling, but the fact that amongst all of this sits the famous Lo Scalo restaurant really makes this a true Italia summer destination. Lobster and pasta, Rose and Aperol are the call of the day and if rock lounging isn’t your thing you can rent a sun bed and umbrella to sit out on Lo Scalo’s lido which is perched on the edge of the sea. This is the perfect spot for a day of swimming and feasting in a truly stunning part of Salento.
TIP | Book for lunch or dinner asking to sit as close to the sea as possible.
They say Specchia is one the prettiest towns in all of Italy and it is easy to see why. We loved this small town for many reasons. There is no way we would have found this place if it wasn’t for Martina, (our TTT local expert). It became evident very quickly in our travels that access to a local person - passionate about their area and wanting to immerse us into their culture - was a complete game changer in making the most of our time and finding those really authentic experiences.
Specchia is the perfect town to get a real insight into what village life in Italy looks like. You will find old boys sitting on the street in the late afternoon; many of them playing the card game Scopa while the “Nonnas” are hanging their washing out on their balconies. Families sit on the street in front of their doors to socialise and catch the early evening breeze. Bars and restaurants spill out onto the piazzas and pavements amongst the smaller food vendors selling delicious local produce. Here if you look deep enough off the main square you will find locally made treasures such as towels, linens and ceramics.
39.9412° N, 18.3000° E
At the very least, grab a gelato and walk around the small winding streets to admire all the things off beauty that elsewhere might go unnoticed. Doorways, light posts, an iron balcony, the patina on a wall, the stones on the floor… so much beauty from centuries ago that is so foreign to me in my real life, is present at every turn.
PS: One thing we didn't do but was highly recommended was to visit a frantoi ipogei, which is an underground olive press which date back to the 15th Century. TTT recommend booking a guide from the Pro Loco tourism office to experience this subterranean wonder, which will give you insight in to the heart of life, not only in Puglia, but in Italy.
CANALE DEL CIOLO
Known as “Ciole” to the locals this small hidden beach can be seen from above when you walk across the high coastal bridge that arches over it. Again, this is a very different swimming formation, a little gem of nature in the area of Gagliano del Capo that forms a small canyon that meets the sea. You have to park and look for it then follow a winding stone stairwell some metres down to access it. Or if you love free climbing and rock jumping you can take the direct way down. When we were there groups of kids were jumping from the highest points and it was CRAY CRAY. They were wearing Nikes when they jumped and I wonder if it was to stop their feet from splitting. Anyhow, like I was saying it was pretty mental and needless to say we took the stairwell even though Sammy was chomping at the bit. The action happens once you swim out past the small fjord and to the caves. This is not a spot for the lido lover but more for the adventurous type wanting to hike, dive, snorkel and rock climb.
39.8441° N, 18.3863° E
This is the most unique 'natural swimming pool' in the area and is so striking in it’s colour and formation. A natural cut in the rocky coast, this inlet cove is a swimming gem that the kids will love. What feels like a pool leads out into the sea and along a collection of grottos worth exploring. Don’t get confused when the locals call it a beach, it is all rock lounging here, no sand and no lidos but never fear, an Aperol is only a short walk away. When you spot the old coastal watch tower (Torre Palane) you are in the right spot.
TIP | Get there early in July and August as it gets crowded.
39.9144° N, 18.3906° E
My favourite city in Salento. A stunning labyrinth of baroque architecture at least 2500 years old. Coloured in creamy limestone tones, it’s a collection of piazze and palazzi and is perfect for wandering around exploring restaurants and people watching locals go about their business. Most nights there are street performers, which the kids loved.
40.3515° N, 18.1750° E
PUGLIA MOTTO | Take things slow in Puglia. By doing less you will experience more.
Water Bottles with Built-In Filters | They recommend not drinking the tap water and not all accommodation has filters.
MAPS.ME | An app that allows you to download maps that can be used of offline which is so handy if you are not using roaming or end up in areas with no service.
Rock Shoes | Not the most stylish things in the world and even less if you are purchasing from a local vendor. Definitely invest in for the kids either way but I would source and buy from home better quality ones.
Excess Insurance Car Hire | A lovely follower on Instagram recommended getting vehicle hire excess insurance which can cover you for all of Europe. A one off fee covers you for excess at any car hire. This is where we spent additional funds unexpectedly so will be doing this next time as you save quiet a lot. Leisure Guard looks good.
Snorkelling Equipment | Definitely invest in or bring from home. The kids will have hours of entertainment in the water if you include these in your beach kit. The water is so clear, calm and safe, it is the perfect place for it.
Best Time to Visit | The summer in Puglia goes from May to October. The shoulder months of June and September are ideal for those wanting to avoid the summer crowds. We were there mid June and then again mid July and the difference was noticeable. The water is cooler in June but the weather is hot. There are more locals than foreigners making the most of the summer at that time.
FJORD | An inlet swim spot with steep cliff sides
GROTTO | A small, naturally occurring cave with often bright clear blue water
LIDO | Lounge
HISTORICO | Town Centre
AGRITURISMO | Eco Tourism
MASSERIE | A large farm
APULIA | Puglia
ORECCHIETTE | Puglia's famous pasta shape, derived from "small ear" . Pronounced oh-reck-ee-ET-tay
PIAZZE | A public square in the centre of an Italian town
PALAZZI | A large palatial building, like a museum
Discover the Thinking Traveller in Puglia
The Thinking Traveller have been on the ground in Puglia since 2009 and over this time they have become the global destination for not only the most desirables villas in the area but the experts on cultural and curated experiences. They call them Think Experiences and you can work closely with their team of Experience Specialists to really make the most of your holiday. From the moment we booked with the team and received our Puglia bible which they describe as a “literary and photographic aperitif to whet your appetite and to give you a taste of things to come”, we had a team of travel experts on hand to help us really discover Puglia as guided by locals who are passionate about sharing their home in a meaningful way.
Discover the Thinking Traveller in Puglia HERE
Photography by Sam Elsom on location in Puglia