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A road with a myriad of twists and turns is the historic backbone of a breathtaking landscape. From the terraced olive trees to the sheer cliff faces over the sea, even its most secret corners are sights not to be missed by Francesco Minonne
Otranto-Leuca Coast regional nature park. The enchanting rocky cliffs near Acquaviva,
immediately south of Castro. Photo by Francesco Minonne
On the east coast of Salento, the long, rocky coastline that extends from Otranto to Santa Maria di Leuca gives visitors the impression of a distinct entity in terms of its landscape, which is in parts wild and harsh, often fragmented and disconnected, but certainly one of the loveliest and most interesting in Puglia.
It is not surprising, therefore, that here, where the last stretch of the Adriatic gives way to the Ionian Sea, there is a large Protected Area, instituted by a regional by-law in 2006, which has become part of the network of reserves and nature parks in Salento; a long strip of land contained between two historic coastal bulwarks: Torre del Serpe, an ancient Roman lighthouse, setting of the legendary events described in Maria Corti’s Il canto delle sirene (The Siren Song), marks the entrance to the Park, at the easternmost point of Italy (Palascìa) and takes us on a thrilling trail amidst stunning coves, meadows, pine forest, olive groves, little woods and deep ravines as far as the mighty Leuca lighthouse, ending up at that Finis terrae where Italy finishes, too, and gazes into the distance towards another continent.
A complicated perimeter from an administrative point of view contains geo-morphological riches and botanical and faunal rarities, most of which had already been studied by past experts, though others have been discovered more recently by contemporary researchers; their peregrinations, studies and field trips have led to the flagging up of species which are rare or completely absent in other parts of the world.
You only have to think that in this area almost all of the flora and fauna endemisms of Salento can be found; species exclusive to Salento like the Salento carnation (Dianthus japigicum), the Leuca cornflower (Centaurea leucadea), the noble cornflower (Centaurea nobilis) and Giacomini’s vetch (Vicia giacominiana) share the space on the spectacular cliff tops with other rare species like the Leuca alyssum (Aurinia leucadea), the Apulian bellflower (Campanula versicolor) and the oriental ephedra (Ephedra campylopoda) which here finds its only Italian home.
A varied group of orchids, of the genuses Serapias, Ophris, Orchis, Spiranthes, Anacamptis and Epipactis embellishes the floral component of the Park with their rarity and extraordinary beauty.
Of the arboreal species, the Vallona oak (Quercus macrolepis subsp. ithaburensis) has its westernmost European outpost right here, in the area around Tricase in particular. An oak from the Balkan forests, it creates in this area an arboreal landscape composed of monumental specimens like the famous “Vallonea dei Cento Cavalieri” (Hundred Knights’ Oak), a perfect dividing of the ways between the road that goes from Tricase to the harbor and the breathtaking panorama towards Capo di Leuca; on this route you come across the regal Torre Naspare, the stony little harbour of Novaglie and the Ciolo canyon with its spectacular grottoes that multiply from here onwards in an incredible underground labyrinth that opens repeatedly onto the mythical sea of Leuca.
The wealth of Karst and erosive phenomena finds its greatest expression right in the midst of this myriad of coastal, often semi-submerged grottoes, which represent real sanctuaries of geo-morphological validity, dwelling-places to some rare animal species.
Not forgetting that in this area there was the last regional presence of Europe’s rarest mammal, the monk seal (Monachus monachus). In these environments the troglobe fauna numbers various species of rare invertebrates; Apulian endemisms like Typhlocaris salentina, and other organisms that find submerged and semi-submerged conditions of refuge and survival in the grottoes, like Higginsia ciccaresei, a sponge known exclusively in the waters of the Grotta Zinzulusa. But the Park is home also to some of the most relevant examples of prehistoric complexes in Italy, like those investigated in the Cervi, Romanelli, Zinzulusa and Leuca grottoes.
Historical aspects connected with Saracen incursions are evidenced in the system of watch-towers and fortifications that, together with imposing masserie (fortified farmsteads) in the hinterland come together to make what is one of the richest and most interesting of historical and cultural settings in Puglia.
The stone architecture and traditional agriculture delineate an archaic anthropical landscape; the terraced olive groves cover a large part of the agricultural surface inside the perimeter of the Park and mazes of dry-stone walls define the triumph of stone in the terrains in which it so difficult to grow anything in.
The handiwork in this sector offers some outstanding examples of dimension and perfection of artisan skills; you might come across, for example, some imposing dry-stone walls (mantagnate) built to protect wizened olive, fig, pear and other fruit trees.
Some of the agrarian varieties present here have become real botanical rarities by now, jealously guarded in the many tiny traditional orchards and kitchen gardens. A few examples are the pastanaca de Santu Pati in Tiggiano, the Vitigliano pisello secco, the Salento cavolo mùgnulo and the Otranto chicory that is being re-launched these days as part of a virtuous circuit in which well-informed producers and consumers attempt to create a new food culture.
Likewise, efforts are being made to do the same thing with olive oil production, with wheat, with local cheeses like those obtained from the old Mediterranean meadows; environments which are rare on a European scale, but which here are well represented and object of particular safeguards. The sustainable management of these and other important habitats that the Park contains is the main challenge that the Administrative Authority and the local population will have to face in the coming years.
WHERE: Litoranea Otranto-Leuca (LE)