Like distant cannon fire, the thunder bounces long and menacing around the rocky rounded inlets due south of where we stand. The sky is split in two as starkly as a half moon cookie, and Porto Selvaggio sits on the dividing line.
Just as we settle ourselves on an outcrop to the north of the bay where the sky is still pale, lightning slices through the sky above the squat, square Torre Santa Maria dell’Alto. There is nothing for it, we must turn on our heels and retrace our steps to the car with everyone else on the beach.
One by one, vehicles pull off, vacating the keenly fought-over parking spots by Villa Tafuro on the road between Gallipoli and Porto Cesareo. Minutes pass — five, ten, fifteen of them. Andy wants to leave, but I am determined to wait it out. Finally the pelting rain and we can see through the windscreen again. The rivulets begin to wane, the sky lightens and I jump from the car.
“I told you it would blow over,” I say, feeling vindicated.
For the second time in an hour, we pick our way down the well-worn path to the cove between gnarly Macedonian oaks. The air is thick with the scent of rosemary and pine after the rain, and the beach… well, the beach is worth the wait.
Tucked up on the inner west side of Italy’s heel, Porto Selvaggio is a wild, craggy anomaly on the otherwise calm Ionian coastline known for pale fondant beaches lapped at by milky waters.
This time we have the whole place to ourselves — a rare thing on the Salento coast. All around this peninsula, Italians spread out their towels like one great patchwork blanket. And so it is to these rock-strewn corners you must retreat if you want to find a quieter place to perch.
Aside from Porto Selvaggio, the best of these spots are actually found on the parallel coast — the Adriatic side of the peninsula. Worth seeking out in particular is Marina Serra, where you can pootle about with a snorkel in the jewel green water of a natural swimming pool formed by the surrounding rock with the sandy floor only an arm’s length a way.
Then, just a short drive north from Otranto, there is the small town of Sant’Andrea, which is blessed with both beautiful stone structures jutting from the water and easy access to the sea in many places. Wander for a little while and you can spread yourself out on the white-gold rocks and tumble in and out of the sea in relative privacy.
Thrill seekers may prefer the Grotta Della Poesia (the Caves of Poetry), a 100ft sinkhole by the sea where the water is deep and clear blue. Swimmers barrel over the side, freefalling into the water below, from where they can explore the sea caves, or — more likely — clamber out so they can jump in all over again.
For Italians, Puglia is very much a beach destination, but due to how busy (and sometimes litter strewn) many of the beaches are, it would be far from my first choice for a beach holiday in the Med. That said, if you love wild swimming you can find some truly special spots and we loved seeking them out during what was a wonderful ten days travelling through this gorgeous and fascinating region.
Take a mask and snorkel, a towel and some beach shoes and dive right in.
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