Seafood and Splendour: Espressino Travel’s Six Essential Experiences in Gallipoli, Puglia
The first thing you need to know about Gallipoli is that it has nothing to do with First World War campaign or the movie starring Mel Gibson. That’s a different Gallipoli (in Turkey). So forget about that.
The second and far more interesting thing you need to know about Gallipoli is that there’s nowhere else in Puglia, or the rest of Italy, that looks or feels anything like it. The clue is in the name. Gallipoli, in Greek, means beautiful place. Founded as an Ancient Greek colony in the 7th Century BC, Gallipoli has retained that heritage over the centuries. The local dialect is mainly Greek and the architecture is unmistakeably Hellenic, markedly distinct from the regal architecture in the rest of the Salento, the bottom third of the Heel of Puglia.
Still, for committed Italiaphiles, there are plenty of Italian delights to go around. Guests on our Puglia Tour will be able to soak in the splendour first-hand. But for those who can't come along with us, here’s our guide to the travel experiences you won’t want to miss.
Eat: The Seafood
Even in the region of Puglia, where amazing seafood is a way of life, the dining options in Gallipoli stand apart from the crowd. At its heart is the city’s Fish Market, the biggest in the Salento. You like your fish fresh? Much of the fare at this famous market, held in the shadow of the magnificent castle, is still alive. You’ll encounter clams squirting water at overeager visitors and octopi trying to drag themselves to freedom. Restaurateurs and home cooks know that there’s no substitute for freshness, and will gather in the shadow of the castle every morning hustling for the best deals and the pick of the catch.
With such great produce on their doorstep, you’d expect the restaurants of Gallipoli to deliver. They do. Great, (mostly) reasonable seafood joints line the Riviera Nazario Sauro, the road that circles Gallipoli’s island old town. The pick of the bunch is Il Bastione. If you make it there, insist on a seat on the terrace, where the stunning sea views are paired with inventive reinterpretations of Puglian seafood classics. Highly recommended is their delicious ravioli filled with the catch of the day, served in a succulent sauce of sweet tomatoes and topped with crushed pistachio nuts (pictured above). At Il Bastione, refinement and spectacle combine for unforgettable seafood experiences.
Soak in: The History
The island that now forms Gallipoli’s Old Town has been inhabited since before recorded history so don’t expect to get the full story in a day’s visit. But for a great sample of its past glories there are two terrific sights: the Fontana Greca and the Castello Angioino.
Some claim that Gallipoli’s Fontana Greca (Greek Fountain), at the west end of the bridge connecting the Old Town to the mainland, is the oldest fountain in Italy. Created from super-soft Leccese stone and scarred by centuries of coastal weather, its crumbling curves tell its ancient history, while a closer look reveals details that still give a sense of its past glory. In recent years some (but not all) archaeologists have voiced the opinion that it’s not Greek at all, and merely a renaissance copy. But where’s the fun in that?
There’s plenty of fun to be enjoyed in the Castello Angioino, a fairy-tale medieval castle full of cavernous echo chambers and historical displays about Gallipoli’s past as the region’s biggest trading port. Although hardly awash with artistic treasures it’s easy to get an impression of what medieval life on the Puglian coast would have been like. And as an added bonus they have what English-speakers might find to be the funniest warning sign in Southern Italy.
You’d expect to pay a premium for a world-class view, but that’s not the case at the Buena Vista Bar, at the westernmost outpost of Gallipoli’s old town. An Aperol Spritz (the ultimate aperitivo for a relaxed pre-dinner hang-out) costs just €5 and arrives accompanied by several platefuls of delicious Salentini snacks. Make sure to time your arrival before sunset, as watching the sun disappear over the Ionian from the Buena Vista seafront patio is one of the best views in Italy. Or anywhere else for that matter.
Relax at: The Beach
If the heat of the Puglian day is getting to you cool off by strolling down to the Riviera Nazario Sauro and relaxing at Gallipoli’s public beach. There aren’t many towns that can claim to have 200metres of unspoilt sand steps from their most historic monuments, but that’s the reality of life in Gallipoli. Like so much of the Salento, the limpid waters around the town are warm and crystal clear, making it ideal for a spot of low-impact snorkelling.
Be Surprised by: The Churches
You have to time your arrival wisely if you want to see inside the Chiesa della Purita in the flesh. From the outside it oozes Greek classicism, but if you can make it through its doors (it’s only open from 10am to noon) you’ll be greeted by pure Italian drama. Its walls are covered by some of the most violent biblical interpretations you’ll see in Italy. David and Goliath. Cain and Abel. Moses vigorously beating water from the rock. Throw in a vault covered with scenes from the Apocalypse and you can’t fail to be moved. Or at least a little unsettled.
Basilica di Sant’Agata is a lot easier to get into and has a lot more to look at. There’s bit of everything in Gallipoli’s mighty Duomo – a baroque exterior to rival the best of Lecce, a fabulous interior full of dramatic paintings and even a shroud shrouded in mystery, like Turin’s more famous version, displaying an outline of the body of Jesus. The Basilica’s patron Saint, Agatha, had her breast sliced off when she refused to denounce her Christianity, and there are plenty of reminders of her gruesome history throughout the interior.
Get lost in: The Backstreets
However short your visit, try to take some time to aimlessly drift around the alleys of Gallipoli’s Old Town. You’re never too far from the water, so you can’t get too lost. It’s easy to stumble upon highlights, which range from a renaissance church converted into a library to opulent palazzi to modest but architecturally perfect Grecian houses. Once you hit the seafront you’ll see a myriad of churches facing out onto the water, striking reminders of the city’s longstanding relationship with the Mediterranean.
The city is at its best in the evening, when the streets come alive with locals stopping for drinks and snacks with friends. It’s the perfect time to drop into Gallipoli’s most spectacular bar/restaurant, the modestly named Blanc. Its garden, a gorgeous space hidden behind a door in an anonymous alley, is one of the most remarkable places to enjoy a glass of vino anywhere in Puglia.
That's Gallipoli in a nutshell; full of hidden treasures waiting to be discovered. So relax with a glass of local Negroamaro and soak in the Salento style, an ideal end to a day exploring this beautiful and historic city.
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