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Exploring Italy, Pt. 2: The Heel - Matera, Lecce, Otranto, Torre San Giovanni (2023)


If you came here via “Exploring: Naples and Sorrento, Italy (Pt. 1)”, you know what a debacle it was dealing with a missing suitcase. If you haven't read that one yet, spoiler alert(!), we were able to claim our luggage at the last possible opportunity, before our scheduled train ride from Italy's west coast to the east coast. Whew.


From Naples, the trains take us to Caserta, then Bari, which is the best place in Italy's "heel" for rental car options. Once we get moving along in the Jeep Renegade, we soon find many rules of the road seem to be unwritten. Cars straddle lanes, scooters squeeze through the smallest of gaps, and there’s plenty of honking all around. Outside the city, on two-lane highways, we see hurried drivers pass vehicles without much caution, forcing oncoming cars to drive on the shoulder. That's the situation here:

A car is shown driving over the center lines, forcing an oncoming car to drive on the shoulder in Italy. - photo by KilmerMedia

TRAVEL TIP: Some really helpful info about driving in Italy can be found in this post:

Italy: Avoiding Traffic Fines While Renting a Car and Safe Driving Tips


 

MATERA:

 

If you watched the latest James Bond film, “No Time to Die”, the scene where people are burning handwritten secrets in a town carved into a hillside is in Matera. This is a little inland, north of where the "heel" and the "arch" meet, and it's our first driving destination today. It’s a fascinating place, where people lived in caves carved into the porous rock until around the 1950s, when some-16,000 residents were moved into public housing. Before then, some people claimed to have lived in their ancestral homes from 9,000 years ago!


According to the navigation app, we’ve arrived, yet this must be the newer town, which is reminiscent of a city like Galway, Ireland. It's not at all obvious which way it is to the historic section. I try to overplan for this reason, although it’s just not possible to figure out every little detail ahead of time. Plus, that would take away some of the fun of traveling and exploring… yet this part isn’t fun.


More of the map finally loads on the phone, and it seems as if we walk (—>) that way, we should run into the ancient section of town. Fingers crossed!

We feed the parking meter and begin our trek in the hot, humid air. Yeah, this is definitely the right direction.

Matera, Italy wide view during the day - photo by KilmerMedia

It’s frustrating that the points of interest in Matera I plotted on the map won’t load, considering our time here is short…. The drive to our B&B, in Lecce, will take about two hours, and we might have to pay a late check-in fee as-is.


More than anything else, what I want to see here is a church literally built into a hilltop boulder. Wandering around town, that outcrop finally comes into view, and it’s such a spectacular sight!

Sant Maria of Idris rock carved church in Matera, Italy - photo by KilmerMedia

We don’t have enough time to trek up and down even more stairs closer to it but, from a distance, this church is one of the most incredible/unusual structures I have ever seen. After a quick lunch, we've got to hit the road - talk to you again in two hours.


 

LECCE:

 

Lecce isn’t a big city, yet it doesn’t take long to feel like it is. We discovered while planning this trip that parking options here aren’t great here. Janine contacted some hotels and B&Bs before booking, and we ruled out staying at some of them based on not having any guaranteed place to park nearby.


The lodging we chose is in the middle of a city block, and there’s a paid, city parking lot just a little further down the street. It’s completely full. We try the other one a little further down - also full! We then drive up and down the city streets behind the B&B.


Finally, we wedge into what may be a legal spot on the street. Just inside our building is a lobby, and not a soul is around. Our patience slowly erodes into aggravation, then Janine makes an international call to the one phone number she has for this place. A cell phone starts ringing on the front desk 10 feet away - not helpful. Janine emails the place, and we don’t get any quick response. I hear some voices upstairs, but that turns out to be someone running some sort of separate business in this space - also not helpful.


Feeling like my blood is about to start boiling, I step outside to take a deep breath on the sidewalk and spot someone who appears to be intently walking my way. Could it be? “Hi, are you here to check in?” “Yeah, we’ve been trying to for a while.”


As usual, we show our passports and have some paperwork to sign. Janine doesn’t want to sign it without some guarantees first. After this debacle, part of her concern is that we won’t be able to find a place to park after we’re done exploring tomorrow. I completely get that, especially during vacation. Plus, we once lived in L.A.’s Koreatown neighborhood, which is one of the most densely packed places in the U.S. We both have a few rage-filled memories of not being able to find a place to park after driving around for over an hour.


The B&B manager (I’m starting to think his family runs the place) promises to give us his personal spot tomorrow if we can’t find a place for the car. That’s awesome yet hard to believe. More than anything else at this point, I just want to get settled in for the night. We accept the parking guarantee, preorder and select a time for breakfast tomorrow, then go relax for the night in our unusual room:

Lecce B&B room interior - photo by KilmerMedia

In the morning, the rooftop breakfast offers an awesome view of Lecce, although the sun beating down makes it warm up, very fast. Right after our coffee arrives, it suddenly feels like a rapid-fire delivery of plate after plate after plate, featuring eggs, bacon, cheese, mixed fruit, biscuits, croissants, bread, jams, cake… It's all so good yet so much food that an after-breakfast nap would be amazing. Instead, though, I'll take a double espresso, please.


Some swimming fun is on the schedule for today. During our trip planning, Janine discovered the Cave of Poetry, which is a natural swimming hole right next to the beautiful, turquoise water of the Adriatic Sea.


TRAVEL TIP: If your itinerary includes just a couple beach days, consider leaving the beach towels at home. You might be able to borrow some from your hotel/B&B or find cheap ones from the market.​


Near the Cave of Poetry, public parking is in a gravel lot, and all of the pay stations are out of order. There’s also normally an entrance fee to access this archaeological area, but not right now, it seems. This sort of feels too good to be true, so we take photos of the out-of-order machines and go swim.


What a beautiful and amazing spot this is. I mean, wow! Just incredible! Some bloggers who apparently haven’t really looked report the swimming hole isn’t really a cave…. When you’re in the water, there is a definitely a recessed, cave-like area.

Cave of Poetry in Italy - photo by KilmerMedia

I wouldn't mind staying here all day, but there is also still so much more to see!


 

OTRANTO:

 

After this fun in the sun, we drive 30 minutes south to Otranto. This is another seaside town, with the historic core being a 15th-century castle surrounded by defensive walls. Walking along them offers views of probably the clearest water I have ever seen.

Otranto, Italy coastal view during a summer day - photo by KilmerMedia

We stop for lunch and take some time trying to translate the dishes listed on the Italian language menu. An anchovy pizza doesn't sound appetizing, yet I can't help but to think back to a time when my brother and I split one in Ohio. That came about when he asked "Have you ever had anchovies? (No.) Maybe they just have a bad rap from people who haven't actually tried them. Want to try an anchovy pizza? (Sure.)" We both thought it was disgusting. The overwhelming, briny, salty flavor dominated the pizza, leaving no room for the rest of it to taste like anything else. Here in Italy, I figure, "Hey, it's probably different. These anchovies are probably more fresh and less offensive." Well, just like before, this pizza ends up being unappetizing. Also like before, it literally leaves me feeling sick to my stomach. Now I know for sure... Never again!

Anchovy pizza at a restaurant in southern Italy - photo by KilmerMedia

​TRAVEL TIP: While visiting coastal towns, it’s not a bad idea to always have your swimwear available (i.e. wear your board shorts around or a bikini under your outfit). I desperately wanted to get in the water here, but my swim trunks and beach towel were packed away in the car, about a mile away.

To close out this day, back in Lecce, we take a “passeggiata” (evening stroll). The smooth uniformity of the limestone buildings here is so beautiful.


The world sometimes seems small and, in this case, it does when thinking about the proliferation of this same type of rock where we grew up, in Ohio.


 

TORRE SAN GIOVANNI:

 

Onto a new day, we head further down Italy’s heel. Torre San Giovanni faces the Ionian Sea and looks as great a place as any for a relaxing beach day next to crystal clear waters. We follow a sign for a “lido” (beach) on the map, ride down a bumpy dirt road and wonder if we missed a turn. After more jostling, we reach a parking lot, hope we’re in the right spot, take a short walk down a sandy trail, and find the shack that rents out the sunloungers and umbrellas.


We have no idea what the rental costs, but it turns out to be very reasonable, around $20, for the day. An employee shows us to our loungers, brushes off the sand, and we get settled in.

Torre San Giovanni Beach of Italy - photo by KilmerMedia

This kind of place is perfect… It’s cheap, relaxing, and has everything you need, since the shack also serves food. Plus, the beach is clean, and it amazes me how clear the water is.


After goofing around in the sea, soaking up some rays, having lunch, a couple beers and a few waters, followed by a short nap, it’s time to move on. We will be heading to Rome tomorrow, so our last stop in this area is the very tip of the heel, which is the town of Santa Maria di Leuca. Maybe with more time here, we could find more points of interest. Today (a Friday), though, not much is going on in town, so we drive up to the lighthouse. It offers a nice view of the sea and the inactivity of the town and adjacent harbor where we just were.

Santa Marie di Leuca, Italy elevated view - photo by KilmerMedia

Time to head back “home” to pack up the suitcase again… I will pick back up in Rome.



Upcoming post:

Exporing Italy (Pt. 3): Rome and Vatican City

 

"Exploring: Italy’s Heel - Matera, Lecce, Otranto, Torre San Giovanni (Pt. 2)"

Written by: Justin Kilmer


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