Simply called Leuca by the people of Puglia, the town of Santa Maria di Leuca straddles the area between two rocky tongues, at the foot of the promontory, standing at the extreme tip of the heel of Italy. From the headlands sanctuary above the town, and looking out over where the waters from the three seas of the Aegean, the Ionian and the Adriatic meet and mix in a swirl of currents, it is possible to view the distant high mountains of Albania and Corfu rising out of the seas far off horizon to the east.
In a history that is common to many towns in the Salento, Leuca followed the usual saga of siege, assault, occupation and degradation as one wave of invader fought the next for overall supremacy of this strategic region.
Deriving its modern name from two sources, the settlement was originally called Leukos (meaning “sunlit”) by its original Greek founders, it took its first name of Santa Maria from the actions of St Peter, who on his way to Rome after the crucifixion of Jesus, Christianised the Temple of Minerva that stood in the sanctuary on the headland overlooking the town and its harbour and re-dedicated it in honour of Mary the mother of Jesus.
The soft sedimentary rock of the headland below the sanctuary is riddled with caves showing evidence of occupation since Neolithic times, and human settlement from the stone age.
Near the port, in the cave called Grotto Portinara, it is possible to see where bored sailors and travelers carved wall inscriptions in ancient Greek and Latin with their own names and the names of the ships that they travelled in. There are also Christian symbols and crosses dating from the 1st century AD.
The sanctuary situated on the promontory called Punto Meliso above the town, still has evidence of its pagan past, with a water font from the original Temple of Minerva placed just inside the Church in the courtyard. Because of its strong connection to St Peter and his later founding of the Christian Church in Rome, visiting this sanctuary is regarded as actually taking the first step towards Heaven.
Turkish and Saracen pirates continually raided and in 1689 burnt the Church, also looting the bronze bell and the original statue of the Madonna.
The modern day lighthouse built in 1866 replaced the earlier Aragonese fortified tower that was to warn of approaching sea-borne Turkish invaders. Wonderful views are obtained from its summit terrace but it is now closed to the public due to its use by a governmental ministry.
The beautiful Corinthian column centred in the courtyard of the Basilica was donated in 1939, by “il Duce” Benito Mussolini to celebrate the completion of the Acquedotto Pugliese which, from the mountains of Central Italy, brought piped mains water to the town before the surplus finally flowed into the sea near the base of the steps to the harbour below.
Today the town has a thriving tourist trade, with sailing and diving amongst other water sports supported by the thriving marina, sheltered by the harbours protruding arms.
The waters off Leuca are ideal for kite surfing and scubas divers in particular have an abundance of underwater formations and caves to explore as well as the many wrecks, including the wreck of the Italian submarine Pietro Micca just outside the port, which was sunk with all hands just a short distance offshore of the Punta Ristola during World War Two.
The magnificent scenery surrounding the town, is included in the Regional National Park of the Costa Otranto, and its flower and shrub covered slopes cascade down the rocky hillsides to the towns outskirts, from where a short distance brings you to the promenade along the waterside.
Here it is possible to enjoy a coffee or an ice cream in one of the many waterside cafes or gelateria whilst observing the harbours bustle as the fishing boats and pleasure yachts come and go.
A stroll into the town, with its collection of over forty Palazzos and magnificent 19th century Villas show evidence of the Leuca’s enduring popularity with Puglia’s privileged classes.
Amongst the most beautiful are the Neogothic styled Villa Mellacqua, the pagoda’d Villa Episcopio, the Moorish styled Villa De Francesco, Villa Sangiovanni and Villa Daniela – but there are many more.
- Trattoria Hosteria de Pardo (local cuisine of Salento) ….. via Doppia Croce, Santa Maria di Leuca 73030
At the bottom of the Via Panoramica leading down from the sanctuary. On the right by the harbor.