Just me, the tree gods, and a mosaic full of mermaids
Jeremy Atiyah hears echoes of
in Byzantium 's Italy Land's
End - the deserted, beautiful, and mysterious region of Salento
The Salento peninsula - the tip of the stiletto heel of
20 February 2005
The latest flood of tourist arrivals to
Perhaps it is Salento's blessing that it has nothing as obviously quaint as the trullo: it has to make do, instead, with tree-gods, hypnotic dances, echoes of a lost
For a six-week period in July and August, the whole region suddenly teems with noisy Italian tourists. For the rest of the year, it is dead quiet. A few rich foreigners live discreetly in their baronial homes, undisturbed by the Ryanair hoards. But let traditional Italophiles be warned: Salento does not look like your dream of
It actually resembles a particularly scuffed part of
This is not to say that it is not lovely. Every village contains its historic centre, displaying the antique gold and pink hues of authentic, Leccese stone. There's usually a baroque palazzo; a castle or two. The only pity is the number of antique houses that have been hastily modernised by locals: the resulting Swiss-chalet style of architecture can be almost funny, until you remember what has been destroyed.
But I'm not complaining. The peninsula is also full of olive trees. The olives of Salento, they boast, once fed the lamps that illuminated the streets of
And a random drive through the interior throws up one obscure marvel after another. Here is what happened when I drove south from
It is this suggestion of the exotic east that is particularly seductive. The Roman world was slow in penetrating these parts, and there are villages in Salento where the Greek language lingers on, dating back certainly to the era of
On narrow lanes, between dry-stone walls lined with oleander, amid groves containing trees a thousand years old or more, I get the impression of a region steeped in mysterious religions. Turn off the road anywhere and I find menhirs and dolmens and other relics of the long-lost Messapian culture. But what excites me still more is one magic religion that survives today in Salento - Tarantism.
This bizarre little cult, with its own indigenous symbols and beliefs, has the potential to fill the whole peninsula with stupefied foreign tourists. In summer festivals, you find its music everywhere. Old men by bonfires beat out a frenetic rhythm on tambourines, while women sing, and breathless dancers spin and whirl their way to redemption. Centuries ago, it was believed that a strange sickness, found only in women, and believed to have been caused by the bite of a spider, could be cured by engaging in this ritual, high-speed dance. The people of Salento still swear by its therapeutic properties.
Except that this is winter. It is not the season for dancing. It is time for off-season tours of the regional highlights.
For my own trip, I have elected to bypass the Ionian coast, on the western side of the peninsula. Developments on the shore over there are a little tawdry. The
The land hereabouts is a treeless, rocky maquis, covered in tiny flowers. When the sun's rays are horizontal, it might be the west coast of
Otranto's cathedral contains one of the most fabulous gems of mediaeval art in
The coastal road meanders south. My next stop is Santa Cesarea Terme, an old-fashioned spa resort that has seen better days in years gone by, and may well see better days in years to come. Faded mansions, the playthings of 19th-century aristocrats, dominate the front, in particular the famous Villa Sticchi with its Arabesque domes and arches. On a sunny winter's day, I find a few cafés open here; a couple of old hotels are undergoing refurbishment for the coming season.
The gorgeous rocky coast beyond remains unexploited all the way to the southernmost tip of the peninsula. The road is narrow and winding. In summer, Italian holidaymakers will cruise up and down in search of the perfect cove or grotto, accessible by steps cut into the cliffs. But hotels are few and far between. Olive groves still dominate the landward view.
I stop for lunch at Marina di Andrano, where a stout little lady provides a dish of stout little squid. When I ask if I might eat my lunch at the picnic tables across the road, by the blue sea, bathed in warm winter sunshine, she cries, "Why not?", and scuttles across the road with my dishes in her hands.
Finally I reach Santa Maria di Leuca,
I feel sure that all of them enjoyed the views, the food, and the spirit of Salento.
GIVE ME THE FACTS
How to get there
Ryanair (0871-246 0000; www.ryanair.com) offers returns from Stansted to
Where to stay
Long Travel (01694 722367; www.long-travel.co.uk) offers seven nights' b&b at Hotel Patria Palace in Lecce from £571 per person, based on two sharing, including car hire but not flights. It also offers stays at the family-run Hotel Al Duemila, about 20 km from Gallipoli, from £299 per person per week, a price which includes return airport transfers and half-board based on two sharing but excludes flights.
Perhaps the best place to stay in Salento is the eight-bedroom 15th century covent Il Convento di Santa Maria di Costantinopoli, Marittima di Diso (07736 362328), owned by Lord and Lady McAlpine. Doubles start at €250 (£178) per night on a half-board basis. The house is open from May until the end of October.
Italian State Tourist Board (020-7408 1254; www.enit.it)