«We're almost going to the seaside!» and so, in the middle of winter we decide to cross a small piece of Salento to reach the sea at the gates of Otranto.

From Lecce to Otranto

We start having breakfast under Porta San Biagio, one of the most beautiful ancient gates in Lecce. Ten minutes of pedalling and we are already outside the city. Not even past the first town and the smell of warm bread pushes us to stop at the nearby bakery for a supply of carbohydrates based on "pizzi" (rustic durum wheat, seasoned with tomato, onions and black olives) as an excellent local alternative to energy bars.

We travel a few more kilometres and stop at the gates of Galugnano to visit the small church of the Madonna della Neve. Compliments go to whoever takes care of it because it is always open, clean and welcoming. This small church is the result of several renovations where several styles coexist, an older one, the Romanesque one, a Gothic one, and a third dating back to the interventions that affected almost the whole of the south in the eighteenth century. What fascinates most those who tiptoe into this little jewel is, however, the series of frescoes on the walls, unfortunately not entirely intact, but which testify to a historical period, between the 1300s and 1400s, where the beauty of the art passed right through the decoration on the walls inside the churches.


We continue to pedal easily through the countryside and then arrive in Galatina for a slightly longer break. In the main square of the historic centre, right in the entrance hall of a building, we visit the well of San Paolo; here, legends of the past tell of women bitten by the tarantula who, having fallen into a trance state, began to dance frantically, and asked to be saved right in San Paolo, immersing themselves in this well. The legend transforms over time and, coming to the present day, at the end of August, the Taranta Festival, in nearby Melpignano, recalls these exorcising dances in a large popular festival. A few steps away we take another unmissable gastronomic break: the Ascalone pastry shop, home and genesis of the pasticciotto, invented in 1745, like many other historical inventions in the world, almost by chance. (The identification mark? Here it is slightly singed on the top!). The restaurant, small and simple, retains a traditional appearance from the late nineteenth century.

The Basilica of Santa Caterina di Alessandria awaits us. The great spirituality begins from the simplicity of the façade, but once inside you are literally dazzled by the beauty of the frescoes on which the great masters of the time worked and it really seems to be in one of the great churches of central Italy to which the master Giotto had his hands. The Orsini del Balzo family, who wanted this Basilica, has earned a place of honour in Salento for having given us this wonderful heritage. You never know where to start looking: the roof and walls of this church are so beautifully decorated that it takes us a long time to take our eyes off and decide to go out.
After Galatina we pedal quickly towards the Adriatic Sea. We pass by Corigliano d'Otranto with its beautiful mediaeval castle, by the always elegant Maglie, which dedicated the central square to Aldo Moro, its illustrious citizen, and by Muro Leccese, a small town that still retains the importance of a large Messapian centre where in a small and historic grocery store near the station we get our lunch which, in fact, is closer to the substantial one of the farmers of the past than to the gourmet sandwiches of today.

We take the last easy ride to the port of Otranto along what is called the " megalithic garden of Salento ". There are so many Menhirs and Dolmens set in the countryside here, and it is almost impossible to see them all, so we choose the most important ones. Partly places of worship, devotion, places of rituals and passages in the lives of men and women of the prehistoric world, these mystical testimonies bring this part of Italy closer to Brittany and the south of England.
We arrive in Otranto at sunset, and we immediately appreciate the silence and tranquillity, seeing it always invaded by bathers and tourists of all kinds in summer. We are out of season and this means that not all restaurants are open, nor are the shops, but we like it that way; it is exactly as it once was before becoming one of the most popular tourist destinations in Puglia.

From Otranto to Lecce 

The terrace at the top of our hotel gives us the sea view breakfast we wanted. Our attention is drawn by the seagulls that accompany the small fishing boats as they begin to set sail. It's nice that at least out of season Otranto has retained its charm.

Today we pedal north, going up the Adriatic coast and always keeping the sea on the right. The sky is clear, so we can see the snow on the mountains of nearby Albania (which is actually closer to us than many other regions of Italy). We take a short stretch inland to pass by the many farmhouses in the area near the Alimini Lakes, all the same, which after the Second World War hosted the settlers who arrived following the assignment of newly reclaimed lands. It is the only stretch of coast that is low and sandy because along the rest of the coast road we can only see the sea from the high and beautiful cliffs. In winter the sea gives a sense of peace and melancholy. Or maybe it's nice because in this period there are few of us on this path.

We quickly cross the marine areas that follow one another along the coast, with a seafront snack included! Before returning to Lecce we go a little longer to see the Cerrate Abbey. We are close to Lecce so we can afford to extend the time because the walls of this Abbey contain years of history and require our time. Scriptorium, library, farm, underground oil mill, cereal production centre and obviously a place of worship, Cerrate has seen so much over the years. Romanesque in style, it was probably founded by the Normans in the Middle Ages, then inhabited by Byzantine monks who fled Turkish persecution, and sacked by them in 1711. After a period of total abandonment, it was restored and is now one of the assets managed by the FAI. A thorough visit is unmissable.

This is the bicycle!

Bad thoughts go away as soon as you start cycling and above all even two days near home are enough to escape from everyday life and discover – and sometimes rediscover – the beauty of your own territory.

Doing it in the low season months always gives a mixture of peace, tranquillity, perhaps melancholy, but certainly a lot of beauty!

Written by Daniela Scianaro.
For further insight, you can read the original Daniela Scianaro's article here.