Love to dive into beautiful, natural pools of blue? A water addict found southern Italy’s most magical coves, caves and springs for swimmers.
When Salentini talk about their homeland they smile, shrug their shoulders, turn their palms to the sky and say, ‘Il mare, il sole, il vento’ as if apologising that the sea, the sun, the wind is all they have. For newcomers like myself, this peninsula-which forms the heel of Italy’s boot and lies between the Adriatic and Ionian seas – offers an abundance of natural resources to enjoy, including the alluring, turquoise waters.
Salento has recently become popular. As investment in tourism has grown, so too have the numbers of people who come here to languish in the sea, soak up the cultural traditions and sample the sublime cuisine. The Brindisi Papola Casale Airport, one of two that serve the area, had a record number of passengers in the 2015 summer season – a four per cent increase from the previous year.
But while Salento has now taken its rightful place on the global tourism map, its significance reaches back more than 3 000 years. The peninsula is littered with archaeological sites and the local museums have abundant collections of Mesappian pottery from the fourth to third centuries BC. The Mycenaean Greeks included Salento in their Mediterranean trade routes, as did the Ancient Greeks. A statue believed to be of the goddess Minerva was recently discovered in Castro, reinforcing Virgil’s location of the temple in his epic poem Aeneid. Brindisi was the southernmost point of the Roman Appian Way, and oil and grain production became the mainstay of the local economy during the Imperial Age.
Today visitors are here to relax, and any conquests are of an amorous nature. While upcountry Italians and foreigners jostle for umbrella space on packed beaches, locals enjoy quiet swimming spots relatively unknown to outsiders. Discovering these gems didn’t only entail immersing myself in crystalline waters away from the crowds; I was also to encounter a goddess, learn some ancient myths and, like the travelers of old, face a few challenges. If you decide to follow in my wake, be sure to pack a good pair of swimming shoes and learn the words ‘scirocco’ and ‘tramontana’ – names given to the winds that blow from the south or the north.
‘The real Salento starts at Otranto and ends at Santa Maria di Leuca,’ said Mauro Zezza, my olive skinned and good-looking local guide. Technically speaking, Salento is a region whose borders are further north. But, like their ancestors, Italians are very protective of the region from which they hail.
Over the next seven days, we took to the waters along the rocky Adriatic coast from Otranto to the tip of the peninsula and a little bit beyond, and headed back for repeat swims at the most memorable places.
The SP358 road from Otranto to Santa Maria di Leuca is considered one of the most beautiful drives in the region. Our first port of call was Porto Badisco, a fishing village south of Otranto where, according to Virgil, Aeneas landed after fleeing from Troy. Apart from feeling enormously relieved to jump into refreshing, turquoise water, it was equally satisfying to be in an area where a hero of epic proportions may well have set foot. Porto Badisco, protected from all winds but the scirocco, is perfect for swimming and jumping off the low cliffs surrounding the deep bay.
Just seven kilometres south, at Santa Cesarea Terme, thermal springs charged with minerals seep from underground and filter through the rock face and caves into the sea. We headed down a steep ramp south of the spring town to Porto Miggiano, a small port carved out of the stratified rock face. After a short walk along the harbour wall we came to a large, concrete pier where tanned Italians chatted and played cards and children jumped repeatedly into the cool, deep water. We followed suit. I climbed back onto the pier in a euphoric state, convinced I was feeling the effects of the thermal minerals.
The summer heat can be relentless and those in the know head 10 kilometres south to Acquaviva, a small, verdant gorge about 200 metres deep, where underground freshwater springs run into the sea. A.melia Rizzello, who works in the nearby inland town of Diso, chatted to us while she massaged her husband’s shoulders with her feet. Tor me, this is the only natural place. There is little work of man,’ she said. Bathing at Acquaviva, where the water appears out of focus when the fresh streams mix with the sea, is like swimming in the sparkling facets of liquid topaz.
About three kilometres further on, the colour of the water turns from topaz to emerald inside the Grotta Verde on the south side of the Marina di Andrano. Most bathers loll about in the water at the cave entrance. The more adventurous swim through a narrow channel below an overhang into the cave. The first sight of shimmering, green light reflecting off the water, lit by the sun’s rays penetrating a large gap in the cave wall, is breathtaking. It’s hard to retreat from the jewel-like cavern – even when the shivers set in.
I was determined to swim to all of the locations I had heard about, but some of the most noteworthy caves can only be reached by boat. At Marina di Novaglie, 17 kilometres south of Marina di Andrano, two kiosks in the parking lot advertise boat excursions, Valeria Casciaro looks like the reincarnation of a Greek goddess with soft black curls framing her tanned, broad cheekbones,
‘We are a family of fishermen. We were born here/ she told me. Valeria’s father, Salvatore Casciaro, told me about a rare monk seal that used to sit on the point below and sing. ‘The disaster is man/ said Salvatore. Because of the dwindling fish stocks, local fishermen have turned to faking tourists on excursions to make ends meet.
The boat trip from Marina di Novaglie reveals caves and anecdotes known exclusively to local fishermen. Valeria’s brother shows us the cave where the area’s only known fisherwoman waited while her nets were out. Il Ciolo, a small coastal canyon named after the birds that live there, is the site of a number of caves including La Grotta degli Innamorati, the cave of the lovers. A few metres from here a swim of faith under the rock face leads to a turquoise cavern demarcated by a resounding thud followed by white spray at high.
An impressive 36-metre bridge spans the narrow gorge, under which bathers nestle on a narrow concrete slipway. On the north side of the bridge it is possible to walk down a set of stairs to a less populated entry point. The water is a deep cobalt blue and calmest when the westerly ponente wind blows.
To my surprise, and contrary to some of the pictures you see in the guide books, one of the challenges of my quest for places to swim included finding clean water. The scirocco wind that blows from the south brings in flotsam and jetsam from the Strait of Otranto. Cosimo Pizzolanie, a petite, fanned ex-naval engineer with long silver hair who looks like the reincarnation of one of Aeneas’s crew, was hanging out at a makeshift bar above the Ristola Point at Santa Maria di Leuca. I asked him where the best swimming was and he pointed to the bay below where the salty water has eroded the limestone rock into coastal caves. ‘The water is always clean here, even when there is scirocco.
Around the tip of the pensinsula and up the west coast of the Ionian Sea, we were welcomed to Torre Vado by Francesco Colella. He was instrumental in keeping developers away from this stretch of coast. “My grandparents told me that the water helps women who are struggling to have children to fall pregnant/ he said of the many healing properties of the freshwater springs. I felt like I had travelled back in time and could have been with a group of Ancient Romans easing into the 16°C water after pressing olives all day. Getting into the water felt like a rite of passage; everyone sighed in unison as the initiate grimaced, then smiled with the elation of a baptism of cold water emanating from deep within the Earth.
One evening, I joined two women treading water and chatting off the pier near the Torre Pali port.
One of them said, ‘La vita e cosi. Devi cercarla.’ Life is like that. You have to look for it. I swam further out and gazed back at the silhouetted figures moving along the pier. I reflected on my quest to find local bathing spots which pushed me to ditch my guide book and explore the unknown. Yes, I thought to myself, life and the journeys we make are like that. You have to find them.
Region Puglia (Apulia)
Population 4 million
Languages Italian and regional dialect
When to go June and September, when prices are lower and you miss the summer crowds.