On the road between Casalabate and San Cataldo on the east coast, turn off just beyond Torre Rinalda on one of the many unpaved tracks that peter out where the dunes begin. Clamber over the dunes, find your spot - it’s rarely busy, often just a few sunbathers and a man with a dog - and go into the sea. If it’s windy there are waves, if it’s sunny the sea is warm and turquoise and there is this secret to be discovered: fifty metres off-shore, just below the surface, a sunken wreck. The outer boards of the hull have rotted away but the ribs, the skeleton, are intact. It’s so near to the surface you don’t need special equipment to explore it: just take a deep breath, dive down, cling on to the beams and move from one to the next for as long you can hold your breath. Magic. There’s no marker, but I’ve found it each time I’ve been there.
Google map: bit.ly/MiFDcB
Santa Maria al Bagno is a beautiful little town on the Ionian coast. The seafront is compact and low key, fronted by old Italian town houses-cum-waterfront cafés. Here you can pick up a gelato or an Africano (espresso with Disaronno, fizzy water and ice) for the tiny but perfectly formed beach. The beach gets busy, especially at weekends but is a fantastic spot for people watching as the crowds are an eclectic mix of bronzed locals, young and old.
I’d recommend spending the afternoon swimming in the crystal clear sea and wait to watch the sun begin to set into the sea before heading south a few miles down the coastal road towards Lido Conchiglie to the fish restaurant, La Maruzella. This restaurant sits right on the water's edge and you can watch the sun disappear into the sea while enjoying their wide range of basic but delicious and incredibly fresh fish dishes (sometimes you can watch the fisherman arrive at the restaurant’s jetty with their catch and see it on your plate 30 minutes later).
We stayed at the wonderful beachside Riva di Ugento campsite on the Ionian side of the Salento Peninsula. A grasp of Italian comes in useful and there were no other English campers at the site when we stayed there last August. You'll have the large oval pool to yourself most of the time if you wish, as the Italians spend all their time sunning themselves on the beach or cooking long lunches in their family encampments under the trees. And what better, as not for nothing are the beaches in this part of Italy dubbed 'Les Maldives'!
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