I loved Nardò. The Baroque churches were full of women fanning themselves. The men were gathered in circoli, something akin to social clubs, playing cards and drinking beer. Or else they were in barbershops, leaning back to be shaved with straight razors. In the town’s well-curated crafts shop, I asked the young woman who helped me where all her peers were. “At the beach,” she answered, sighing.
Every meal we ate, whether at a beach bar or a swell restaurant, was handsomely presented, with flavors stronger, purer, deeper than I have eaten after decades of traveling and living in Italy. In Taviano we dined at A Casa tu Martinu, which specializes in such Salentine dishes as pure di fave e cicorie, a purée of fava beans served with wilted chicory, and ciceri e tria, a partly fried pasta tossed with chickpeas. In Lecce, our next destination, we ate three meals at Alle due Corti, a family-run place where the menu is in dialect (and English). Also while in Lecce I had a cooking lesson with the American-born Silvestro Silvestori, whose grandmother was Leccese and who has operated a culinary school there since 2003. Silvestori talked to me about the Salento’s push-and-pull relationship to tradition and change. Tradition: people still eat horsemeat, snails, breads of spelt and barley that are meatlike and sustaining; they are suspicious of outsiders; they dislike innovation. Yet change was undeniably in the air: local vintners, after years of trying to imitate northern-style wines, are learning to cherish their own varietals, among them Primitivo and Negroamaro; the town has an active tourist board; ugly macadam has been torn up and replaced with cobblestones; wine bars have been proliferating.
We were staying around the corner from Silvestori’s school at Suite 68, a small, chic B&B in a private palazzo so welcoming that when Lucia walked into the entry hall she looked around and asked if she could take off her shoes. The exceedingly affable Mary Rossi, who manages the B&B, told me that in the past five years or so Lecce had begun to “wake up and realize what it has”: a modestly scaled city with great food, a revived tradition of papier-mâché artisanship, a Roman amphitheater, a wonderful bookstore, and miles of Baroque architecture, much of it designed by Giuseppe Zimbalo, and almost all of it so insanely exuberant and over-the-top that my wife described it as drunk.
We had one more masseria, montelauro, just south of Otranto: another early complex of buildings, once home to 20 families, that had been redesigned by the fashionable owner Elisabetta Turgi Prosperi. Our room was the smallest we’d stayed in, but there were compensations: a long pool set in a dark, crunchy lawn; delicious breakfasts and lunches, both served all’aperto; and a clientele ranging from friendly children to voluble older women in large silver-framed glasses and linen shifts.
Otranto turned out to be the one place in all of the Salento that seemed all too awake to its tourists’ wants. It had the first (and 21st) T-shirt shop I’d seen on my trip, kitschy gewgaws, a boisterous carousel. This was Otranto by night, though; the next morning I found a more somber place, almost as if, by day, Otranto regularly woke up to the memory of the excruciating massacre perpetrated in 1480 by invading Turks, who beheaded 800 Otrantini when they refused to convert to Islam. Their bones are on display in the cathedral, which is also home to a set of masterfully worked mosaics completed in 1166, and several of the Turks’ granite cannonballs are still scattered in the streets. It felt as though they could have been shot there five hours instead of 530 years ago.
On my last afternoon I ended my trip as I began it: with a drive. I went south to see the menhirs and dolmens near Uggiano la Chiesa. These mysterious arrangements of stones, accessible by slender (if well-marked) dirt roads, were left by Bronze Age locals known as Messapians; they seemed to me to have dropped down into deserted fields like visitors from another planet. Afterward I went north to check out the Laghi Alimini, more spectacular Salentine water. On my way back to Montelauro, with the sun lowering and my memorable sun-soaked visit drawing to its close, I stopped at a farm stand where, alongside apricots, peaches, grapes, cherries, melons, and yards of greens, the farmer’s wife was selling her own dried tomatoes, mushrooms, zucchini—which I’d never seen before—and capers. She scooped up a caper with a battered wooden spoon and held it out to me. I tasted sweet, I tasted salt, I felt a small pod of fruity liquor burst open in my mouth.
“Do you know what makes it so special?” she asked.
“Actually,” I told her, “I believe I do.”
Michael Frank’s writing has been anthologized in Italy: The Best Travel Writing from the New York Times. He is currently at work on a novel.