Sometimes I get so caught up in daily life that I have to stop, look around, pinch myself and realize where I’m living. The Salento is the sub peninsula that makes the “heel” if you are looking at a map of Italy.
It’s different than the rest of Italy. Every region has its own identity and traditions, but here in the south, the difference is pronounced. On one hand, it’s the Italy people dream of, untouched by mass tourism. Things are slow, shops close from 1:00 to 5 or 5:30 in the afternoon, people hit the streets of Lecce in bici, on their bicycles, green grocers can be found everywhere, and the gelato is just right. All the things you might fantasize about when thinking of Italy, you will probably find here.
On the other hand, I feel like I’m in my own special place, removed from the rest of Italy. I think anyone in southern Italy, be it Calabria, Basilicata or Sicily, might feel the same way. Being at the bottom of the peninsula, the Salento is nice and isolated. It’s not the easiest to reach, and when you do finally get here, you feel like you are separated, in a way, from Italy. On the train along the Adriatic Coast, as soon as you pass Bari, your view out the window suddenly consists of red soil (with olive trees) muretti a secco (dry stone walls characteristic of this region), and the occasional trullo.
The Salento even has its own railway system: the Ferrovie del Sud Est! It’s truly a parallel universe. At the regular TrenItalia train station in Lecce, you’ll find chaos and grumpy employees, as you would at any station belonging to the national train network. But pop into a Ferrovie del Sud Est station in one of the neighboring Salento towns, and it’s a completely different set up. Complete tranquility. “Is the train for Lecce running?” you ask. The man at the biglietteria, calm as can be with glistening eyes, shrugs his shoulders, nods his head and says, “Sure.” You press further: “What time?” He nods his head again and answers, “Quando vuoi. When you want.” You move to the platform to wait for the train. The same man comes out and manually lowers a bar to block automobile traffic from crossing the tracks, and finally, a tiny toy train pulls up. Off you go.
On the other hand, it is also a region of progressive artists. Plenty of modern talent comes from the Salento, including musicians such as Dolcenera, i Bambini Latini and Sud Sound System. In Lecce, artisans sell their wares on the streets on summer evenings, and galleries abound with original, avant-garde creations by local artists.
It’s strange to think that I am five hours from Rome on the train, but if I were to take my friend’s boat, I would get to Corfu (Greece) in only three. (In fact, there are a few towns near me where you’ll hear people speak Griko, a “modern” Greek spoken in the Magna Graecia region of Southern Italy, including the Salento.) It’s also strange to think that after all the time an American English speaker might spend learning to roll their r’s properly in order to pronounce Italian, if you want to speak Leccese, the American “r” is actually much better, at least when it follows a “t.”
Perhaps the language here is Italian, perhaps this region belongs to the republic of Italy, but once in a while I realize, as I walk through Lecce’s historic center in the morning, looking up at homes made of white-gold Leccese stone and the contrast against the Mediterranean blue sky, or as I make my way down the road on the way to Gallipoli, surrounded by oleanders and prickly pears, with the salty scent of the Ionian Sea in the air, that I am in a very special, truly unique Paradise in the south: the Salento.
Tina Ferrari is an Italian-American tango dancer, translator and writer living in Lecce. You can find her at TinaFerrariTango.com.
Grazie mille Tina!
Tomorrow: a quick trip to Abruzzo.