Saline of Monks - A natural oasis along the Salento coastline

During our recent trip to Puglia we visited the natural protected area known with the name of Salina dei Monaci, literally “The Saline of the Monks”. If you’re in the area, we highly recommend visiting it, ideal for a walk and it has direct access to the beach.
Easy to reach by driving along the road SP122, the saline is located just before the village of Torre Colimena, in the territory of the town of Manduria (TA). It’s been a nature reserve since 2010 and it is also included in the official list of Italian Protected Areas.
Known as the Salt of the monks, this water basin covers an area of about 250,000 square meters. In the past it was used for the extraction and collection of sea salt, exploiting the waves and sea storms, the sea water was in fact channeled and collected in this stretch of land.
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Used for centuries as saline, it was subsequently abandoned. The whole area has been partially reclaimed after the Second World War and subsequently damaged by the construction of the Ionian road SP122 which was built along the coast and separated the saline from the beach. In 2007, the road was completely removed to make room for vegetation. The Mediterranean scrub and the sand brought by the wind have reoccupied the space that had once been taken away to make room for concrete.
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The water is abundant in the saline during the winter months and is slightly drier in the summer. We have visited the area in August and as the photos show, the water level was still pretty high.
An area that was left to itself and abandoned in the past and that it’s now coming back to life, a little oasis surrounded by the Mediterranean vegetation typical of the Ionian coast of Salento and high sand dunes separating it from the sea. As shown in the map, you can access it via a small path that runs parallel to the beach.

It is an optimal environment for many migratory birds and therefore ideal destination for bird watchers. The most popular are certainly the pink flamingos that we were lucky enough to see and photograph.


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Isola dei Conigli Puglia (Rabbits Island)

About 1 km from the coastal village of Porto Cesareo there is the charming Rabbits Isle (Isola dei Conigli), a must-see if you’re in the area! The island runs parallel to the coast, it is about 2,5 km long and just over 400m wide.

Porto CesareoPhoto Credits Fran Flickr

Origin of its name!

Also known on the sailing maps with the name of Isola Grande, it was renamed Rabbit Island due to a herd of cattle that was started on the island for the local population, particularly rabbits.

The stretch of sea that separates the island from the coast reaches a maximum height of 40 feet, which is why a lot of people swim to the island or walk for short excursions or perhaps to spend the entire day.
Alternatively, the island can be reached by boat from the nearby harbor and, for a few euros, you can indeed get a ride from the local fishermen who can also come and pick you up at an agreed hour; alternatively you can hire the typical Italian “pedalò”.

DSC_0020Photo Credits Frank Flickr

It is important to note that the island is completely uninhabited and without accommodations, bars or any recreational structures. Essentially it is a true natural oasis.
The island is mostly covered by pine trees, Aleppo and Acacias trees, and typical Mediterranean vegetation, which cover most of the dunes and beaches of Salento Peninsula.
It is part of the Marine Protected Area of Porto Cesareo and is surrounded by beautiful seabed, perfect for diving lovers!

Isola dei conigliPhoto Credits Simone Flickr

Zinzulusa Cave

Just a couple of miles north of Castro, there is the phenomenal Zinzulusa Grotto, the most famous Karst cave along the Puglian coastline and considered to be one of the most important examples of this geologic phenomenon in Italy. The name comes from the word zinzuli, meaning rags. In fact the extensive collection of stalactites and stalagmites that fill this cave look like rags hanging from the ceiling.

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The cave was discovered in 1793 but has only been explored and open to the public for about 50 years. During its exploration, many vases and votive axes dating back 5,000 years were discovered. The excavated part is huge but only a small portion is open to the public and it can only be visited on a guided tour. The entrance to the cave faces the sea, the access consists of a long set of purpose-built steps followed by a walk along the cliff side. If there is high tide the steps are covered and the cave becomes inaccessible.

The cave consists of three different areas:

The entrance leads to the Corridoio delle Meraviglie (Corridor of Marvels) which preserves the best rock formations. In this area there is also a small lake, called Trabocchetto, of crystalline water mixed with fresh sea infiltration. It also houses a number of endemic species of aquatic life, among these there is a rare species of shrimp, with no eyes.

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The corridor leads to a crypt area, also called Duomo (Cathedral) where smooth walls soar 25 meters above the floor level, creating a rather enormous room. The Crypt used to be inhabited by bats which had covered the floor with their guano for 5-7 meters. The guano, solid and on which it was possible to walk, was lifted in 1940 by workers who also created the interior walkways, today used for sightseeing. All bats have since left for less crowded areas, leaving the room open for tourists to enjoy.

The final section of the cave is called Cocito, it reaches up to 160 meters beyond the entrance, and houses the small enclosed basin on Cocito. Its waters are characterized by a stratification: in the lower part they are warm and brackish, on the surface they are sweet and cold.

The Zinzulusa cave gets very busy in summer. During the summer season many fishing boats are also available just outside the cave’s entrance for tours at the water level: experienced guides will guide you along the cliffs overlooking the sea to discover many coves and small caves.

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Gargano National Park

The Gargano National Park is a protected nature reserve which was established in 1991, it is entirely located in the Gargano Promontory, the spur of Italy. It covers an area of 300000 acres and includes the Foresta Umbra (Umbra Forest) and the archipelago of Tremiti Islands.

foresta umbraPhoto Credits Flickr

Of particular interest is the morphology of this area. The Gargano was originally an island separated from the mainland. Later it merged to the mainland to form the unmistakable “spur” but the origin of this area as an island has marked the evolution of its environment in terms of fauna and flora.

The Gargano National Park is one of the richest places in terms of biodiversity and is characterized by many different and rare habitats, (many of these are protected). Among the others there are the rocky cliffs of the coastline, the beach woods, and the dunes which surround the lagoons of Lesina and Varano lakes.

Laghetto, Foresta UmbraPhoto Credits Flickr

The Foresta Umbra, is definitely the biggest and richest habitat of the park. This huge green lung covers 15,000 hectares in the Gargano National Park and its altitude ranges from 300 meters to 832 meters of the Mount Iacotenente.

The origin of the name is uncertain but it is probably related to its distinctive soil. The name “umbra” derives from Latin and means dark, shadowy, as its soil appears today. It is covered with a 25 cm thick layer formed over thousands of years as a result of a very slow decomposition process of fungi, insects and larvae that feed on wood and other organic material. The presence of this type of dark soil is the ideal terrain for the thick vegetation of the forest.

The Umbra Forest is undoubtedly the most representative and unspoilt environment of the entire area of the Gargano. The forest can be visited thanks to the many hiking trails. These hikes are easily accessible on foot or by mountain bike and are of spectacular beauty and natural interest. Most important plant species in the forest are the green patriarchs, specimens of beeches, oaks, fir and chestnut with a monumental stature.

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Of particular interest are the wild orchids, the Gargano is the richest area in Europe with its 60 species and subspecies of wild orchids. The fauna is distinguished by a large population of roe deer, foxes, badgers, hares, the rare wild cat, woodpecker, peregrines, buzzards, kestrel, owl and birds of any species. Also, an incredible variety of aquatic and pelagic species also live in the coastal and lake areas. Wild ducks, seagulls, and coots, which live amongst the reeds, bamboo canes, tamarisks, pools and stretches of water, are some of the more easily identifiable species.

From April to October a museum is opened which has a section dedicated to the history of botany and a special section on the fauna of the forest.

The Gargano National Park and its Forest are undoubtedly a must-see destination for adventurers and nature-lovers travellers. Being a wild area we recommend getting information and maps from “Corpo Forestale dello Stato”, kind of Park Rangers, to better enjoy the hikes and the whole forest.

Foresta UmbraPhoto Credits Flickr

For further information visit the website: www.parcogargano.it

Castellana Caves

Castellana Caves (Castellana Grotte) is a small town in the province of Bari. The town bases its economy mainly on agriculture and tourism. It has a very nice historic center with many ancient buildings dating back to the 17th century.

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grotte_di_castellana1The town links its name primarily to the enchanting beauty of its caves, the largest and most picturesque complex of caves in Italy and one of the main tourist destination in Puglia. The formation of these karst caves dates back about as far as 90 million years ago. The presence of the caves had been known since the 18th century as people used to tell stories about monsters and ghosts living inside the big chasm (called La Grave) just outside the town.

However it was only in 1938 when the speleologist Franco Anelli descended to the floor of the chasm and started to explore it. As of today this big caves complex is one of the world’s largest karst complex that has ever been explored by man. Since its discovery millions of tourists have been able to admire this wonder of nature.

The whole karst complex is a mix of white stalactites and stalagmites. Their formation started 90M years ago and the process is still ongoing. The process of formation starts with the action of rainwater that is absorbed by the calcareous soil . The water dissolves the calcium carbonate present in the soil, the water then evaporates when it comes into the cave, the calcium carbonate settles to the ground and forms the stalactites and stalagmites . Later on they get covered by crystals.

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Some details relating the caves: 2 km long route, 70 meters deep, temperature ranging between 11 and 15 degrees Celsius, humidity is extremely high with peaks of 90%.

The tour starts from the main hall where grotte_di_castellana2there is a bust of Franco Anelli. This is called La Grave and is the main entrance to the karst complex. Here you can admire the 50m wide and 60m deep group of stalagmites.

Two different tours can then be taken inside: the classic tour (the shortest one) lasts 50 minutes and is 1Km long. The second one lasts 2 hours and is 2Km long. It leads to the White Cave (Grotta Bianca) which for the whiteness of its alabaster has been defined by cavers as the most gleaming in the world. Here you can truly see the most unspoiled nature as you’ll admire this lunar landscape.

Many caves are scattered along the 2Km path, among the others: the black caves, big caves of monuments, cave of altar, cave of Milan. Names are usually given because of the shape of rocks inside them.

For further information please visit the website: www.grottedicastellana.it