A vividly turquoise sea laps the golden sand of Porto Cesareo, in Puglia. Over at Baia dell’Orte, grey and white rocks bathe imperfectly clear waters. And in Alimini, a handful of golden outcrops break up the pure white expanse of the beach, rising proudly above a sea that encapsulates the very definition of aqua.
With more than 700 kilometres of coastline washed by two seas—the Adriatic and the Ionian—Puglia has no shortage of beautiful beaches to visit in summer.
The tiny, rocky coves of the Gargano, in the northeasternmost corner of the region, stand at the foot of jagged cliffs, topped by medieval towns, massive castles and intricate woods thick with pine, holm oak, maple, and ash trees. Just off the coast, the five islands of the Tremiti archipelago stand like pearls in the Adriatic sea, with their craggy coves, slim peninsulas and bizarre outcrops emerging from transparent waters.
South in Salento, where Italy has its heel, the coast opens into long, golden or white beaches interspersed with limestone cliffs and often watched over by early medieval towers. The Salento peninsula separates the Adriatic from the Ionian sea and each shore rivals the other for sheer natural beauty. Places like Nardò, a fairy-tale town of soaring spires and Baroque grandeur, match extraordinary architecture with pristine coves and a deeply blue sea.
And just north of the Salento border, the whitewashed town of Ostuni has the perfect children’s beach—miles of soft sand, shallow shoreline waters and plenty of activities to keep the little ones busy throughout the day.
But what are Puglia’s very best waterside destinations? We have picked three of the most scenic ones.
Porto Selvaggio, Nardò, Salento
Don’t come here if you are after nightlife or fancy services. As the name implies (it means ‘wild harbour’ in Italian), Porto Selvaggio is wild place of sea, rocks, and the rustling sound of pine needles in the salty breeze. The cove—part of a regional nature reserve—is sheltered by high cliffs topped by ancient watchtowers, and can only be reached on foot. But the long, winding walk among pine trees and Mediterranean shrubs is well worth it, because in the end you are rewarded with a slice of crystalline sea lapping whimsical outcrops and flooding underwater caves. Rock, trees and water reign supreme in a caleidoscope of greens, golds and blues barely interrupted by the candour of a miniature sand beach.
And if this weren’t enough, Porto Selvaggio gained five out of five sails for its clean waters, eco-friendly policies and intelligent use of local resources in the 2009 beach guide published by the Italian Touring Club in association with environment protection body Legambiente. Oh and it is very close to prehistoric sites dating to 40,000 years ago.
Beware, though, that, despite the long walk required to reach it, Porto Selvaggio can get crowded in high summer. Also note that the water here is deep.
Cala Pietre di Fucile, Isole Tremiti, Gargano
Diomedeae, the islands of Diomedes. That’s how the Tremiti islands were called in ancient times. Legend has it that the Greek hero, having sailed away from the fallen Troy, reached Puglia, and married Euippe, the local king’s daughter. He lived a long, peaceful life, founding many cities, until death found him an old man on the Tremiti islands. After he passed away, Aphrodite turned his companions into albatrosses, since known as Diomedeidae.
Of all this, it is certainly true that albatrosses reach the islands from Africa every spring, and here build their nests. They are nearly as numerous as the Tremiti’s humans inhabitants, who reach the grand total of 367.
The sparse population, together with the islands’ remoteness, made the area a prime destination for internment—Augustus relegated his granddaughter here in Roman times, and Benito Mussolini did the same with many of his political opponents in the Fascist era. But it also makes it a summer paradise of crystal clear waters, majestic cliffs and hidden coves.
The most spectacular among them all is Cala Pietre di Fucile, on the island of Capraia. Reached by boat, it is an expanse of round, candid pebbles bordered by jagged rocks and washed over by waters so crystalline that you can make out every ridge in the seabed from the nearby cliffs.
It is a perfectly peaceful place, especially if you avoid the high summer peak season, which contrasts markedly with its fierce, martial name. Pietre di Fucile means rifle stones in Italian, and derives from the fact that the monks who inhabited the Tremiti in centuries past used the beach’s biggest pebbles as ammunition.
San Pietro in Bevagna, Manduria, Salento
A long, long shore of fine, pale golden sand, edged on one side by a handful of rocks sheltering moray and conger eels. An infinite sky reflected in clear waters of an impossible shade of turquoise. And behind them, miles and miles of dunes topped by fragrant juniper. This is San Pietro in Bevagna, one of Puglia’s most acclaimed beaches.
Story has it that Saint Peter first set foot here on his way to Rome but this doesn’t sound likely—if he had put ashore here, he wouldn’t have wanted to move on.
Nonetheless, a sanctuary just 50 metres from the sea worships the apostle, who is said to have baptised Italy’s first Christians in the cool waters of the nearby river Chidro. Visitors with a profane bent, however, may ditch the waters in favour of the local wine, a velvety red called Primitivo di Manduria.
And anyone with a penchant for diving will relish the soon to be opened underwater museum, with guided tours to a wrecked ship situated just 100m from the shore and dating from the third century AD.