Santa Maria di Leuca is a fraction of 1.263 inhabitants of the municipality of Castrignano del Capo, in the province of Lecce, in southern Salento.
Renowned tourist resort, it is the inhabited center located further south of the entire province.
In the past, it was administratively divided between the municipality of Gagliano del Capo, for the part where the Sanctuary of Santa Maria de Finibus Terrae is located, and the municipality of Castrignano del Capo, for the part between Punta Ristola and Punta Meliso. The legal affair between the municipalities of Castrignano del Capo and Gagliano del Capo, which ended after 83 years, established that Leuca falls entirely within the municipality of Castrignano del Capo.
More precisely, Santa Maria di Leuca means the area above the promontory on which the Basilica and the lighthouse are located (which with its height of 48.60 meters and its location at 102 meters above sea level is one of the most important of Italy), while the Marina di Leuca is located further down and lies between Punta Mèliso in the east, located at the foot of the promontory, and Punta Ristola in the west, the extreme southern edge of Salento.
Although the extreme heel of Italy, it is identifiable with Punta Ristola, Punta Mèliso (probably due to the importance that derives from the above lighthouse) conventionally closes, together with Punta Alice in Calabria, the Gulf of Taranto.
The fact that from Santa Maria di Leuca is sometimes visible, under certain conditions, a longitudinal separation line, well distinguishable in color (actually due to the meeting between the currents coming from the Gulf of Taranto and those dal Canale d’Otranto), has always suggested a physical border between the two seas to the popular imagination.
Since October 2006, the territory of Santa Maria di Leuca is part of the Costa Otranto – Santa Maria di Leuca and Bosco di Tricase Park established by the Puglia Region in order to safeguard the east coast of Salento, rich in valuable architectural assets and important animal species and plant.
Just outside Punta Ristola, 85 meters below sea level, lies the hull of the Italian oceanic submarine Pietro Micca, sunk during the Second World War with his crew of 58 sailors.
A famous legend tells that Santa Maria di Leuca (or perhaps Porto Badisco, but more likely Castro) would have been the first landing of Aeneas. Subsequently, Saint Peter would have landed here, who, arriving from Palestine, began his work of evangelization, to then reach Rome. The passage of San Pietro is also celebrated by the Corinthian column of 1694 erected on the square of the Basilica, recently renovated.
A staircase of 296 steps connects the Basilica to the underlying port, framing the monumental waterfall of the Apulian Aqueduct which, ending in Leuca, flows into the sea.
Let’s start our tour in this lovely holiday resort!
Sanctuary Basilica of Santa Maria de Finibus Terrae
The sanctuary basilica of Santa Maria de Finibus Terrae is a minor basilica and a sanctuary of Castrignano del Capo, located in the hamlet of Santa Maria di Leuca: it is so called because it is located at the southeastern end of the Italian peninsula.
The Basilica, dedicated to the Madonna de Finibus Terrae, a name deriving from the locution de finibus terrae that the ancient Romans used to use for this territory as the last area inhabited by cives (citizens of the city), compared to that beyond the sea inhabited by provinciales (citizen from villages), opens onto a square that overlooks the extreme Apulian tip of the Italian peninsula: in the square there is the cross stone, the Marian column of 1694 surmounted by a statue of the Madonna, by Filiberto Aierbo d’Aragona, and the lighthouse.
The facade of the church is divided in two by an entablature; the lower area, enriched with epigraphs and coats of arms, is divided into five compartments by four pilasters, two of which, the central ones, end with two statues: in the central part the entrance portal opens, while other two, smaller, are placed at both ends. The bronze portals, cast by the Mapelli foundry and designed by the sculptor Armando Marrocco, were placed in place in 2000, in memory of the jubilee year: the central one is named after the Madonna Ianua Coeli and presents, in the central part, a swelling symbol of the virginal and spiritual motherhood of the Madonna, the one on the right is named after the Exodus and the left one on Maria Stella Maris, with the representation of the miracle of 365; the three portals were built respectively thanks to donations from Baroness Maria Serafini Sauli, to the sisters Garzola di Alessano and with the offerings of the faithful.
The upper part of the facade, narrower than the one below, is on two levels, with four pilasters and four windows on each floor, as well as an iron cross placed on the top.
In the corridor adjacent to the basilica, in 1990, a chapel was built, protected by a wrought iron gate, forged by Giacinto Nuzzo da Taurisano, which houses the statue of a Madonna dating back to 1897, adorned with crowns donated by Baroness Maria Serafini Sauli: the statue is in turn placed in a wooden niche decorated in gold leaf, the work of Ettore and Alessandro Mangia. In the chapel, there are also a triptych depicting the Crucifixion with Saint Peter and Saint Paul, by Francesco Saverio Mercaldi, a wooden nativity scene and small shrines with scenes from the Via Crucis, both by Zaccaria Bros, a reliquary with the remains of Saint Alexander Sauli and a wooden statue of the Madonna, both from the 18th century, small ivory objects, certified scrolls and relics.
The Monumental Waterfall, built more than a century ago, has now become a symbol of Puglia, the land of disputes, of seas that come together and of white cliffs, land of caves, of nineteenth-century villas, of stories and elegant rhythms, hidden away by the most “pop” folklore.
There are many beauties present in Santa Maria di Leuca, but the spectacular Monumental Waterfall, an impressive work nestled between rock and Mediterranean scrub, is right here to bewitch tourists and vacationers, right here at the southernmost point of the province and the entire region.
The monumental waterfall was built to complement another major work, the Apulian Aqueduct. It was Mussolini who chose its imposing and monumental style, so that the work celebrated the economic and social efforts that were necessary for the construction of the Aqueduct. We talk about an imposing work, completed in 1939, which boasts a length of over 250 meters and a vertical drop of about 120 meters, with a flow rate of 1,000 liters per second which ends directly in the sea.
The water that flows into the fountain is flanked by two flights of stairs – each with three hundred steps – which start from the Japigio promontory and lead down to the port of Santa Maria di Leuca. The difference in height is one hundred and twenty meters, and the flow rate is one thousand liters per second. Already this would be enough to make this monument a sight to be admired.
On the top, near the Sanctuary and the Basilica of Santa Maria di Leuca, we find the ancient monolithic Roman column. Starting the descent through the staircase, a natural setting opens before the eyes of those who walk it, a view capable of flooding us with a sense of grandeur and wonder. At the foot of the staircase opens a semicircular belvedere, which turns pink and orange during sunset, and is a perfect set for the most beautiful photos.
To enjoy the majesty and spectacularity of the event in the best possible way, two locations have been designed, two ideal points of view: the first is the upper belvedere, from which you can admire the waterfall and all the surrounding landscape, complete with sea and vegetation typical of the Mediterranean scrub.
The second, on the contrary, is located at the foot of the waterfall, in the lower part therefore of the work: from here it is possible to admire the majesty and the power released by the water, as well as being, for the more curious, the opportunity to see some historical remains relating to the fascist era when the waterfall was completed
The Monumental Waterfall of Santa Maria di Leuca is one of the most photographed attractions in Puglia, also thanks to a recent lighting system created ad hoc which in summer becomes a real attractive show.
It has been included in the ranking of the fifteen most beautiful waterfalls in Italy, bringing the name of Salento even higher.
Lighthouse of Santa Maria di Leuca
Placed a few steps away from the square of the Basilica Santa Maria de Finibus Terrae, the Lighthouse di Leuca overlooks the small town, offering the opportunity to admire a fantastic panorama, and is the reference point, today as in the past, of sailors who sail the waters of the Mediterranean and approach the Salento coasts.
The height of the lighthouse, which is precisely 48, 60 meters, is added to that of the elevated territory on which it rests, which is 102 meters above sea level. Once you climb on the circular terrace of the lighthouse, the landscape you can see is majestic: an unlimited view of the sea, interrupted only by the horizon line and the play of light created by the sun, an immense sense of peace and admiration for nature. If you are particularly lucky, in the days of clear air, your gaze reaches the Greek coasts and the Acrocerauni Mountains, located on the border between Albania and Greece.
The lighthouse ideally represents one of the two extremes of the Gulf of Taranto, together with Punta Alice, obviously located in Calabria. In addition to the suggestive and naturalistic aspect, the tower represents an important geographical point for the Mediterranean area.
The structure, completely white and octagonal in shape, was designed by the engineer Achille Rossi and operated for the first time on September 6, 1866, replacing the old building that overlooked Punta Meliso and wanted by Federico II, that is, an anti-race tower. Throughout its history, the lighthouse has received several maintenance works, such as the replacement of the original lantern and the rotary apparatus. Naturally, over time, the power supply method also changed, passing from the old oil system to the most modern electrical system, in the year 1937.
Inside the tower, there is a long staircase, composed by 254 steps, which allows the ascent to the cage of the projection apparatus.
The lantern, which emits a beam of visible light up to 50 km away in particular weather conditions, has a diameter of 3 meters and is equipped with 16 lenses, 10 of which are darkened, to allow the right alternation of white and red light signals. These provide the right information to sailors, including the presence of dangerous shoals present in the sea of Ugento.
Now, the lighthouse gives off 3 beams of light every 15 seconds and is active from sunset until dawn.
The Caves of Santa Maria di Leuca
To make Santa Maria di Leuca even more interesting, in all its beauty and with all its facets, is the presence of numerous karst caves, about thirty, to which man’s imagination and imagination have attributed somewhat singular names. In general, to admire their beauty and the variety of colors that the waters assume, it is preferable to visit the caves located to the east with the morning light and those located west in the afternoon because the effect of light refractions is much more intense and suggestive.
Due to their karst nature, the caves of Santa Maria di Leuca, both on the western and eastern slopes, are protected by specific prohibitions by the Port Authority and the Ministry of the Environment.
The Devil’s Grotto is always located on Punta Ristola at about 150 meters from the Porcinara cave and is accessible both from the sea and from the ground through an opening about 4 meters high and 2 wide. It was called so, because it was said that they felt somber rumours that were attributed by popular fantasy to devils.
The cave can be divided into three parts: the main entrance, located 16 meters above sea level, has an opening of 6 meters by 5 to the north which leads to a slightly exposed vestibule; the central part which ends after about 20 meters in a lower vestibule which gradually declines almost to reaching sea level; the atrium that shrinks more and more until it opens two paths leading to the sea. Recent research has brought to light a series of tools and weapons of flint or bone, ceramic mollusc larvae dating back to the Neolithic period.
The Cave of Giants is linked to the legend that the corpses of giants killed by Libyan Hercules were buried there. In reality its name derives from the presence of bones and teeth of pachyderms. Even if you access by sea to visit it, you need to get off the boat. From the paleontological and archaeological point of view it is one of the most interesting caves because studies carried out have revealed the presence of deposits of Mousterian industry. From a small strip of reddish brown earth fragments of human bones and a glass jar, Byzantine shards and 5 bronze coins of Constantine VII (913-919) and of Roman I (919-921) were extracted.
The Grotta del Presepe is so named because of its similarities to the biblical scenario and is formed by a series of low arches that can only be crossed when the sea is calm.
The Cave of the Three Doors is made of three large openings that allow you to glimpse an immense cavity, which can be completely visited both by boat and by swimming. On the north wall of the compartment inside the cave, there is a tunnel that ends after about thirty meters, in a large room with stalactites and stalagmites.
Inside, in the Grotta del Bambino, a left upper molar of a 10-year-old boy from the Neanderthal age was found. In the tunnel, on the other hand, the remains of rhinoceros bones, ancient elephant and deer were found.
Wild and characterized by steep rocks, promontories on the sea and uncontaminated nature, Santa Maria di Leuca is between Punta Ristola in the west, the extreme southern edge of Salento and Punta Mèliso in the east, located at the foot of the promontory. And it is from here, that sometimes, it is possible to see on the sea a sort of longitudinal separation line, well distinct in terms of color, which has always suggested to the popular imagination a real border between the Adriatic Sea and the Ionian Sea.
The promontory of Punta Meliso, conventionally, but not geographically, is the meeting point between the two seas. From a landscape point of view, Punta Meliso offers splendid views of the sea, but the location is particularly interesting also for the important archaeological finds found in the area.
These are the remains of an ancient fortified village probably dating back to the fifteenth fourteenth century BC, when Puglia was inhabited by ancient populations that were both permanent and the result of intense movements of peoples who in the Apulian territory found their way to the east by crossing the sea, or which, coming from the eastern lands, chose the Apulian territory as a place to settle and found new villages.
The village in question then reveals how the community that inhabited it has definitely expanded, because from the original nucleus perched at the top, the traces of the same widen to cover the terraced terraces below until they occupy the middle plateau of the tip.
Once poorly valued and neglected by local administrative institutions since 2006, the Punta Meliso area is located within a protected area, called the Costa Otranto – Santa Maria di Leuca and Bosco di Tricase Park that the Puglia Region has established to protect this territory so rich both from the point of view of flora and fauna and from that of natural beauty and historical and architectural heritage, to be promoted and safeguarded.
Punta Meliso is also at the center of the numerous complexes of caves among the most beautiful and evocative of Puglia, which open into the steep and high cliff that extends east and west of Santa Maria di Leuca.
Torre dell’Omomorto (or of the Dead Man or “delli homini dead” or old tower) is a watchtower on the Salento coast near Santa Maria di Leuca.
It is one of the hundreds of towers that are found regularly throughout the Salento coast. As well as defensive elements, these towers were mainly used to spot the possible presence and approach of Saracen ships, which for a long time invaded Otranto and the other municipalities of the Salento peninsula, and to raise the alarm towards the hinterland through signals lights that were immediately transmitted from one tower to the next.
The Dead Man tower is located near the Cristoforo Colombo promenade; Luigi Tasselli the date to 1555 by Andrea Gonzaga who became count of Alessano in 1560 after the death of his father Ferrante I Gonzaga (also called Ferdinando) and his mother Isabella Di Capua.
It has a truncated-conical base while above the curb it develops in a cylindrical manner with a terrace equipped with battlements for the artillery position. It is commonly assigned to the genus of “hammer towers”, but compared to these it has the peculiarity that instead of the cannoneria, at the base, there is a door.
The denomination “Dead Man” is due to some human bones found in an existing cave near the tower.
The tower appears to be made up of an internal and external wall facing in square blocks of calcarenites stone called carparo (quarried on site) bedded with lime mortar; inside it consists of limestone stones embedded in clay and lime mortar.
In 1576 she was armed with a 7-palm-long bronze falcon capable of shooting 2-pound iron balls; in 1694 she was armed with a cannon capable of shooting three-pound balls.
Between 1677 and 1677 the tower, being a waterfall, was remade and maintained until 1694 by the University of Giuliano.
In February 1694, a “three steps” thick portion of the northern masonry collapsed together with the “gettarola” (storm drain) at the door; the restoration of the collapsed part was started at the expense of the University of Giuliano and was completed in 1696 at the expense of the University of Castrignano by the master masons Giuseppe Nicolardi, Paolo Monsellato and Carlo Papa di Alessano.
In 1878, the tower and the surrounding land was granted in emphyteusis to the Marquis Imperiali of Florence who had it restored, encircled with a quadrangular wall and built a flight of steps to reach the terrace with a wooden hanging staircase as it appears in the 1891 photograph taken by Francesco De Angelis.
Placed a few kilometers away from Santa Maria di Leuca, Ciolo is a seaside resort that can be easily reached by following the Adriatic coast, in the stretch that connects the Novaglie marina to Leuca.
The particular name is due to the dialectal term ‘Ciola’, which means magpie thief, volatile typical of Salento and who loves to nest right along the cliff of the place. The bridge that characterizes this stretch of coast, called the Ciolo Bridge, overlooks the cliff by joining two overhangs that create a deep ravine.
It is an important work of engineering, which allows you to enjoy a fantastic panorama: the high and wild cliffs, the Mediterranean scrub that surrounds you, the sea that stretches endlessly. Driving along the coast road it is impossible to resist the temptation to stop and admire how much nature has given to the place. And then there are the dives, as spectacular as they are dangerous, but certainly an extra attraction for those who stop to admire.
On one of the two sides of the bridge there is a staircase, which allows the descent to the sea, and precisely to a very suggestive inlet, created over time by the incessant and constant action of the wind and the sea.
Here, from a pebbly beach, you can immerse yourself in the waters of Ciolo, living an experience that is difficult to forget: the clear water, the rich and rocky seabed, the surrounding landscape, and finally the large Ciolo cave, so suggestive as to be defined “A marvel worthy of a poet’s pen”, thanks to its particular shape and the color of its waters.