A drive around the heel of Italy

If there is one thing the Italian countryside has plenty of it is picturesque little towns. Heading south and east out of Lecce, this combines with the long coastline along the Adriatic to make the picturesque even more so. The region is compact enough that it can be covered in a relatively casual day, which is exactly what we did.

The first task was to get out to the coast. We started relatively early on a Sunday morning and by the time we arrived in Otranto the town was just beginning to wake up from its slumber. There were a few locals out and about, either fishing or grabbing their morning coffee, but for the most part the town was quiet. It is easy to see how this area can become bustling in the summer. With a protected cove of a beach and cabanas set up along the shore, it no doubt attracts sun worshipers in quantity. On this February morning, however, it was just us and the fishermen out and about.

One of many small fishing boats in the harbor

Towards the end of our walk through town and the marina a local farmer was setting up shop. Given the opportunity to add to out picnic bounty we fumbled through the half dozen or so words of Italian I can muster, along with copious (polite) hand gestures to make it clear what we wanted to buy. Once the fruit was secure it was back to the car and back on the road.

Fresh citrus. It was delicious!

The coastal road along the Adriatic is truly an amazing drive. The towns built along side might be smaller than those in the Cinque Terre region but the views are no less amazing. Mixed in with the small towns and beaches are reminders of the World Wars, with pill boxes and sentry emplacements. Stark reminders that not everything along these beaches was all fun and games.

Looking back up the coast

We passed through several cities along the coast, stopping in some to take photos and stopping in one at the lure of a sign on the side of the road promising a grotto. The caverns of Zinzulusa were actually incredible, dating back thousands of years and quite accessible. The tours only goes in a small portion of the way but it was very much a worthwhile side trip.

Eventually we found ourselves very much at the end of the road. Situated on a bluff overlooking the end of the heel, Santa Maria di Leuca boasts tremendous views of the coast, the town and marina below and the confluence of the Adriatic and Mediterranean Seas.

Looking down from atop Santa Maria di Leuca

This is where we chose to stop for our picnic lunch. The scenery was tough to beat and we were getting pretty hungry. Fortunately we had plenty of supplies to sate that hunger.

An awesome picnic lunch

The tale of how we acquired all the food is a rather entertaining one. Speaking nearly no Italian and traveling in a region of the country where they didn’t seem to speak much English made for some interesting negotiations of selections and quantities. Fortunately most of the meat names are the same (we’ve simply co-opted the Italian versions into English) and my fingers were sufficient to indicate the number of slices of each that we wanted. Not without a bit of confusion and a bit more comedy did we finally complete the necessary transactions for the cheese, bread and desserts; with our collected bounty from the various vendors in Lecce we were set for a great meal.

I’m a big fan of the picnic as an alternative to traditional dining out. In this particular case it was effective on multiple levels. We kept our food costs relatively low, avoided the typical junk food that comes from tourist-focused shops and we were able to guarantee that we’d actually find something to eat in rural Italy on a Sunday afternoon. The last was our primary motivation this time around and it worked out quite well for us.


The views from atop the bluff were stunning and the picnic was delicious, but we also had more driving ahead of us. We were on our way to Gallipoli and it was time to get a move on.

Kids enjoying the piazzo for some footie

Read more of our adventures in and around Lecce, Italy, here.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.