The 'Alto Salento' is somewhat higher than the classic Salento. In the wonderful world of advertising, everything revolves around the name, or at least riding the coattails of a famous name is a good start. For Apulia (Puglia), it's no secret that the word "Salento" acts like a magnet, attracting tourists irresistibly. It conjures images of sun, olive groves, turquoise seas, whitewashed villages, masserias, flavors, and even the pizzica dance... In short, Salento epitomizes the perfect vacation, a comprehensive travel experience. However, this article is hardly about the well-known cities Monopoli and Brindisi, but rather about everything in between. That's where the magic happens, in our opinion!
The classic Salento becomes massively popular in the summer and is at risk of being overwhelmed by its own success. So, what should genuine slow tourists do? A good alternative is to stay in the region but venture slightly further north, to a relatively "untapped" part of Apulia. This area, however, holds significant potential for tourism. I use the term "untapped" cautiously because there are indeed touristy places like Polignano al Mare, Ostuni, and Alberobello. But we'll skip those for this story.
Where is Alto Salento located?
The most representative cities in the area are Brindisi, Ostuni, Ceglie Messapica, San Michele Salentino, Latiano, Oria, Francavilla Fontana, Mesagne, San Vito dei Normanni, and Carovigno. The region covers approximately 200 square kilometers between the cities of Monopoli and Brindisi.
Monopoli: Starting Point of Alto Salento
Monopoli, a city that might not immediately impress with its surroundings, reveals its true charm once you enter the old city and harbor. Here, you can immerse yourself in the enchanting atmosphere of narrow streets and historic buildings. The locals go about their daily lives, offering an authentic experience. And let's not forget the stunning coastline, which comes alive like a picture postcard. Monopoli is also an ideal base to explore the historic towns of Alto Salento.
The Golden Triangle of Puglia: Ceglie Messapica, San Vito dei Normanni, and Carovigno
We're talking about the golden triangle, where a delightful blend of environment, flavors, culture, history, landscape, and of course, the sea converge. The towns Ceglie Messapica, San Vito dei Normanni, and Carovigno form the corners of this region often referred to as 'Alto Salento'. Geographically, we are much further north than the more popular and well-known true Salento.
Cegli - The Slow Food Paradise of Alto Salento
We kick off our epic road trip through the northern part of Southern Puglia in Cegli Messapica. The figures speak for themselves: 20,000 inhabitants and a staggering 123 gastronomic hotspots. Everything here revolves around taste and dining. And believe me, this isn't by chance. In the ancient heart of this village, named after the old Messapii, there was once a fierce power struggle with neighboring Ostuni over control of meadows and farmlands—think of it as a Game of Thrones but with olive trees and pasta. Here in Ceglie, they truly know their craft. It's like stepping into a culinary paradise. With so many delicious places to eat, you could stay for months and still not try everything. It's a foodie's dream come true. So, if you're a food lover, Ceglie is definitely the place to be.
As you wander through the winding streets, you'll inevitably come across Piazza Ognissanti. And there's something special about this place. The former sports director of Ferrari, Cesare Fiorio, has opened a bed and breakfast here! It's called Palazzo Camarda, housed in a historic mansion from the early 1600s.Palazzo Camarda - Largo Ognissanti, 2, 72013 Ceglie Messapica BR - Phone: +39 0831 380575 - Check it out and make a reservation
The Ceglie castle appears imposing, and you won't be able to escape it. Built in the 18th century by Duke Fabrizio Sanseverino, a nobleman from Naples, he truly left his mark. He introduced brotherhood and education to the city. The place is like a time machine taking you back to days long gone. While you're here, if you seek some shade, the city gardens, carved out of the old walls, are a perfect place to catch your breath. If you're seeking some air conditioning later on, head to the Maac, a small but rich museum with archaeological findings from the Messapian period (6th-3rd century B.C.) and also a beautiful collection of modern pieces.MAAC - Archaeological and Contemporary Art Museum - Via Enrico de Nicola, 1, 72013 Ceglie Messapica BR - Phone: +39 0831 376123 - Hours: 5:00 PM - 9:00 PM
Of course, we can't miss dinner at Cibus, a haven for gourmands recommended by every guide, from Slow Food to Gambero Rosso. Beneath the arches of an ancient monastery, we're welcomed by Lillino Silibello. Not only does he run a restaurant, but he's also a treasure trove of culinary knowledge, especially about the Puglia cuisine.
If you're more in the mood for street food, head to Piazza Plebiscito for the so-called "panino cegliese", a surprising combo of mortadella, capers, provolone, and tuna. Meat and fish together, you'll have to try it to believe it.CIBUS - Via Chianche di Scarano, 7, 72013 Ceglie Messapica BR - Phone: +39 0831 388980 - Website: https://www.ristorantecibus.it/
Just outside the city is the sanctuary of Belvedere, built on the foundations of a Basilian monastery. It has a crypt dug deep into the rocks with wall frescoes, a destination for processions and ancient religious walks. And when you descend the stairs, you're immediately on the beach.
Torre Guaceto Nature Reserve
It's not just any nature reserve; it's so much more than that. It's a place where nature showcases its splendor and where the sea roars with life. We're talking about an expansive area that is fully protected, allowing fish to thrive undisturbed. It's so sustainable that fishing is allowed only once a week. The nature reserve is surrounded by pyramid-shaped Aragonese towers, part of a chain of watchtowers along the coast built to keep the Saracens at bay.
Slow Food, Turtles, and Beaches in Alto Salento
In the summer, access to the Caribbean-colored waters is unfortunately limited to a few beaches. We're referring to places like Penna Grossa, accessible only on foot or by bike along marked paths. Other bays are off-limits to protect the local flora and fauna.
Not far from there, right on the coast, there's a special place where turtles are rescued. It's like a nursery for these adorable marine creatures. They are nurtured and protected, ensuring they can safely grow and eventually venture into the sea.
In the park, you'll also find ancient olive groves, from which organic extra virgin olive oil is produced. Some of these trees are a thousand years old. They produce a unique oil, the so-called Pietrasanta olive oil (DOP Collina di Brindisi). The oil is sold under the label 'Oro del parco', or 'gold of the park'. In addition, the park cultivates the Fiaschetto tomato, a Slow Food presidium. These tomatoes, grown with much care, are exceptionally juicy and sweet.
After an adventurous journey to the star-shaped tower of Santa Sabina, also known as the "priest's hat" due to its four corners perfectly aligned with the cardinal points, it will be time for a culinary pit stop. And trust me, the wait was more than worth it. We dined at Michele's Miramare Restaurant, greeted by the scent of fresh seafood dishes.Miramare Restaurant by Michele - Via della Torre, 72012 Torre Santa Sabina BR - Tel. +39 338 243 0001
Unfortunately, we can't linger too long because there's more on the itinerary. We head to the hill upon which the village of Carovigno sits. A village with a fascinating history, rooted in the times of the ancient Messapii. It's like a living history book that transports you back in time.
In Carovigno, there's a piece of culinary heritage you really shouldn't miss. Lu Scattusu is an old bakery with wood-fired ovens that has been providing the village with bread for five centuries. Giovanna, the last in a line of four generations of bakers, constantly churns out taralli, friselle, and fresh-baked bread. She does it with such passion and dedication, you can taste the centuries-old baking traditions in every bite.Lu Scattusu - Via del Prete, 12, 72012 Carovigno BR
We wrap up our visit to Carovigno amidst performances by flag bearers, set against the backdrop of the stunning triangular Dentice di Frasso castle. This symbol of perfection was unfortunately sold off by its last heir in 1961 for a mere 43 million old lire. It has since been restored and is now owned by the municipality. The castle also bears the distinction of the place where King Vittorio Emanuele III took refuge during his ignominious flight to Brindisi on September 8, 1943.
Learn more about this beautiful castle: https://www.castellodicarovigno.it/storia-castello
San Vito dei Normanni
The southernmost point of this epic culinary triangle is San Vito dei Normanni. The town boasts a rich history, formerly known as "degli Schiavoni" because of the ancient Slavic colony that settled here. Here, we savor the distinctive tastes of the Salento highlands at a beautiful rural masseria hotel.Masseria Zambardo, contrada zambardo, 72019 San Vito dei Normanni BR - Check it out and make a reservationMasseria Incantalupi, SP37bis, 30, 72100 Brindisi BR - Check it out and make a reservation
This is also where the red Susumaniello wine is made, from a small yet ancient vineyard. Like many Italian grape varieties, the name Susumaniello has a curious backstory. It's derived from "somarello", meaning "little donkey", probably because – much like the donkeys that once carried the grape harvest – this high-yield variety can bear remarkably heavy loads. Susumaniello grapes are used to craft both red and rosé wines – sometimes on their own, but often blended with Negroamaro. The typical red Susumaniello has a deep ruby hue and aromas of red berries and plums.
We cap off our tour with a visit to the limestone caves that house the rock church of San Biagio. On its walls and ceilings, we admire a breathtaking collection of late 12th-century frescoes depicting scenes from Christ's life and stories about San Biagio.
Now, it's time to spruce up because we're expected at the Dentice di Frasso palace in the heart of San Vito dei Normanni. A branch of the family still resides in this magnificent mansion, overlooking the Leonardo Leo Square.
After a hearty welcome, we stroll down to the former 'Fadda', now the ExFadda, an old winery that's been transformed into a vibrant community hub. This place bustles with dance, music, and photography workshops, as well as courses in traditional and modern crafts.
The adjoining restaurant radiates a cozy ambiance, surrounded by sprawling herb and vegetable gardens. What sets this eatery apart is its staff, composed of people with Down syndrome. Moreover, it's furnished with 'rescued' furniture that's been refurbished and is also up for sale.Ristorante ExFadda - Via Mare, opposite Via Fleming, San Vito dei Normanni, San Vito dei Normanni - Ph. +39 366 891 3041 - Website: http://www.ristorantexfood.com/
As we stroll through the streets of San Vito, it's hard not to notice that every house's doors and windows are adorned with wicker windows called rezze. These are painted or graffiti-laden, depicting a myriad of themes. For three days, from August 11th to 14th, these wicker curtains are paired with pizzica, a dance related to tarantella, during the "Rezzica" event. It's a unique way to immerse oneself in Salento's most beloved attractions.
Lastly, our Puglia adventure takes us to the vibrant port city of Brindisi. This coastal metropolis was the last stop of the Appian Way, the ancient road linking Rome to the Adriatic. It has played a pivotal role in trade, wars, and politics for millennia.
We stop at the marina, a stone's throw from the iconic Roman columns that once marked the road's end. As we venture into town, we're greeted by a labyrinth of narrow lanes, brimming with charm and dotted with churches, palaces, and squares. From the majestic Brindisi Cathedral to the archaeological museum and waterfront, every corner of the city beckons with a story waiting to be unveiled.
For your stay in Brindisi we have a few suggestions.Kelina Charme Hotel, Piazza Aldo Moro, 26, 72020 Cellino San Marco BR - Check it out and make a reservationFilia Solis - Old Town SUITEs & SPA, Via Bernardo de Royas, 17, 72100 Brindisi BR - Check it out and make a reservationExecutive Inn Boutique Hotel, Via Pozzo Traiano, 24, 72100 Brindisi BR - Check it out and make a reservation