Starting in the north of Puglia, the rocky, mountainous promontory of the Gargano offers some stunning coastal scenery: green wooded hills give way to white cliffs, sea stacks, azure crystalline seas, golden sands and paradisiacal pebbly coves. The beaches around Rodi Gaganico, Peschici and Vieste are particularly popular, but if you get off the beaten track – ideally in a boat – you will come across some real hidden gems.
Heading south down the Adriatic, the coast between Manfredonia and the bustling, historic capital, Bari, is formed by a series of sandy and pebble beaches, the salt pans of the Margherita di Savoia Nature Reserve and some lovely towns such as Trani with its fabulous sea-front cathedral. From Bari, the mostly rocky coast is punctured by occasional spots of sandy beach, such as those at the lovely towns of Polignano a Mare and Monopoli, both well worth a visit.
Continuing south towards Brindisi, one of Puglia’s most important ports, of note are the sandy beaches of Marina di Ostuni and the fabulous Torre Guaceto Nature Reserve, a naturalist’s paradise combining unspoilt woods, Mediterranean maquis, several miles of sandy beach and a protected marine reserve. While there you may well come across a flock of flamingos, just one of the dozens of species of migratory birds who stop off here.
Lecce, Puglia’s baroque jewel, lies about 7km in-land but is connected by a straight, “no-time-to-be-wasted” road to the Adriatic, which ends at the little town of San Cataldo with its lovely sandy beaches and sea-front nature reserve.
From this point the coast becomes rather more dramatic and the magnificently sea-sculpted chalky-white cliffs, transparent waters and sandy beaches of Torre dell’Orso are not to be missed... unless, you opt to continue a few miles south to the Laghi Alimini, two lakes immersed in wonderful Mediterranean pine woods. The larger lake is connected to the sea by a small channel and the sandy beaches are of spectacular beauty. Just a stone’s throw away to the south, is the delightful fortified port town of Otranto, another highlight of this stretch of the Adriatic coast.
Apart from its historical and architectural interest, Otranto also boasts several lovely sandy beaches, one of which is right in the centre of town.
Around 2 miles south of Otranto, at Capo d’Otranto, one comes to the easternmost point of Italy and from here on, until the tip of the heel, where the Adriatic and the Ionian seas meet and mingle at Santa Maria di Leuca, the coastline is characterised by rocky cliffs, probing inlets, such as the one at Porto Badisco which heads inland for nearly 400m, and towns such as Castro, perched above the sea in superb panoramic positions.
Continuing our tour around Puglia’s coast, heading westward from Santa Maria di Leuca, with its strategically positioned lighthouse and sumptuous Liberty-style villas, one soon arrives at one of the most lovely stretches of sandy beach in Italy: about 6 kilometres running along Marina di Salve, through Marina di Pescoluse and up to Torre Pali. A brief interruption of rocky coastline soon gives way to more spectacular sand and turquoise waters at Torre Mozza and Marina di Ugento.
Heading north for another 15km or so, one soon comes to the spiky Punto del Pizzo, which signals the start of the Gulf of Gallipoli, characterised by yet more lovely sandy beaches accessed through fragrant pine woods.
The historic fortress island town of Gallipoli is a must-see if you’re in the area, but we must keep going: there is still over 100km of coastline to explore! A few kilometres up the coast is Rivabella, home to yet more Caribbean-esque sandy beaches. From this point on, right up to Taranto, small stretches of low-lying rocky coastline alternate with long, sensuous expanses of sandy beach, including those at San Caterina di Nardó. Also of interest is the lagoon-like, sandy sea-front of Porto Cesareo, delimited by its own promontory and the offshore Isola dei Conigli, and the 20 or so kilometres of continuous beach along the south-facing stretch of coast below Manduria, between Punto Prosciutto to Acqua Dolce.
As the coast heads north-west towards the historic naval port of Taranto, there are lots of lovely little towns with their own sandy bays. On the other side of Taranto, the Puglian coastline continues westwards along the northern shores of the Gulf of Taranto for about 40km, until, after the Stornara Nature Reserve and its curvaceous, non-stop stretch of sand, it arrives at the border with Basilicata.