The southernmost part of Italy's heel, the Salento begins (more or less - because differing opinions do exist!) where the hills of the Valle d'Itria end. From there, the land becomes a long flat tongue of land that laps two seas: the Adriatic to the the east, the Ionian to the west.
The Salento is home to some of Italy's loveliest towns and cities: the sea-front fortified gems of Gallipoli and Otranto, the creamy baroque sophistication of Lecce and the luxurious seaside Liberty pleasures of Leuca.
But the Salento is also full to brimming with small sleepy towns that are off the tourist trail but greatly worth visiting for their unspoilt historic centres and their unassuming genuineness. Examples include Specchia and the so-called Greek towns of Calimera, Carpignano Salentino, Castrignano dei Greci, Corigliano d’Otranto, Cutrofiano, Martano, Martignano, Melpignano, Soleto, Sternatia and Zollino.
These towns - around 20km south of Lecce - preserve the Salento's strong historic ties with Greece, dating back thousands of years. The local dialect, 'Grika', and many of the area's gastronomic, cultural and religious traditions have evident Hellenic roots which are celebrated with frequent festivals, including the hugely popular and energetic Notte della Taranta.
The Salento's hinterland plays a fundamental role in Italy's agricultural economy, producing enomous quantities of excellent olive oil and full-bodied, robust wines, such as Primitivo di Manduria and Salice Salentino.
It is the long and varied coastline, however, that is the major attraction for the area's tourist industry. Home to some of Italy's loveliest beaches and most dramatic rocky coastline, the Salento is a haven for sea lovers. From the southernmost tip near Leuca, running up the west coast to Gallipoli and beyond, is a vast almost non-stop strip of paradisiacal golden sand and transparent azure waters. To the east, the Adriatic coastline is more varied, offering sandy beaches, Karstic grottoes, chalk cliffs and salt-water lagoons.
Lecce is a beautiful baroque town. It's a architectural confection of palaces and churches intricately sculpted from the soft local sandstone.
It is a city full of surprises: one minute you are perusing sleek designer fashions from Milan, the next you are faced with a church – dizzyingly decorated with asparagus column tops, decorative dodos and cavorting gremlins. 18th-century traveller Thomas Ashe thought it 'the most beautiful city in Italy'.
it's a lively, graceful but relaxed university town packed with upmarket boutiques, antique shops, restaurants and bars. Both the Adriatic and Ionian Seas are within easy access and it's a great base from which to explore the Salento.