Spaced between five and ten kilometers apart, rock towers line the Salentine coast. Once used to quickly relay important news from one side of Italy to the other, they are now perfect markers for planning a hike. These towers, which date roughly from the late middle ages, are in varying degrees of restoration and ruin. Some have been converted into restaurants and others are little more than crumbling piles of stones.
There are no real organized trails from one tower to the next. Some towers mark the beginning and end points of coastal towns, while others are perched upon the rocky coasts with only the makeshift paths of those who have passed before, but offer enough direction for most reasonably experienced hikers. Fishermen are a common sight and use the same paths with their poles and bait in hand. The Adriatic Sea, and on clear days the distant Albanian coast, provide colors and shapes for seafaring daydreams. At least, I have these sorts of daydreams as I look out over the water at the little fishing boats that probably havenâ€™t changed since the coastal towers were the most sophisticated mode of communication in the country. Tide pools pop up now and then, reflecting light and the chance to hunt alien looking crabs and urchins. However, these are not the only good finds in the area.
Edible wild greens grow among the rocky crevices and in the fields. There is a strong culinary culture and history surrounding these plants. During World War II, and in the years immediately following, large parts of the Salentine population kept from starving by harvesting and cooking these wild plants. Today itâ€™s a treat to seek out these various greens along with wild thyme and mint, and cook them for a healthy post hike meal. One of the most common greens is called â€˜zanguneâ€™ in the local dialect. It looks like a dandelion plant but its leaves are more curled along the edges, especially towards the center of the plant where there is new growth. Harvest by cutting the entire plant from the ground. Later, cut away the tips and the thicker area near the base of the plant. Boil it for about ten minutes and serve topped with olive oil, salt, and a bit of lemon juice or balsamic vinegar. If you are starving, forgot your power bars at home, and boiled zangune is just too difficult a proposition, try a bit of wild fennel or finocchio as it is known in Italian. It grows a foot high and has fernlike leaves at the top and a white bulbous base that is easy to spot. Cut away the top of this plant and eat the layered white bulb by pulling apart the segments. The smaller segments in the center are tender and sweet. Fennel has a light taste that reminds me a bit of licorice.
A couple of practical tips:
A nice place to start a coastal hike is the Faro di Punta Palascia, it is not far from the town of Otranto and it is easy to find. There is a parking lot there as well as a beautifully restored and functioning lighthouse. Another point to note is that zanguni, fennel, and more commonly found, chicory, are so much a part of the culinary culture that they can be easily ordered in local restaurants. The word â€˜finocchioâ€™ in Italian is also a slang for homosexual â€“ so be careful of the context in which you use this word if you are practicing your language skills.
Written and photography by Kimberli Waack