De Finibus Terrae is Latin for “at the ends of the earth” and to the Romans, and probably to many people who came before them, Santa Maria di Leuca was just that. It is the most extreme point of the Italian peninsula where the Ionian and Adriatic Seas meet and it is nothing short of spectacular. It is everything that Salento has become known for and more: breathtaking shores, exceptional food, hospitality, and festivals deeply rooted in tradition.
Where Is Santa Maria di Leuca?
For a visual, Santa Maria di Leuca (often just referred to as “Leuca” for time-saving purposes) is located at the very tip of Italy’s heel in the Lecce province. Or, for history buffs, it’s on the ancient Japigio promontory that divides the Adriatic and Ionian Seas now called Punta Meliso. In many of Leuca’s numerous sea grottos, traces of life have been found dating as far back as the Neanderthals, and up to the Messapic, Greek, and Roman eras.
The Sanctuary of Madonna di Leuca
Our journey to Santa Maria di Leuca begins on Punta Meliso in the Sanctuary of Madonna di Leuca or De Finibus Terrae. Its origins date to pagan times when it served as a temple to the goddess Minerva where sailors would stop as they made their way around the cape. The current shrine dates to the year 1700 and it’s believed to be the sixth to be built in the Christian tradition.
To say that this shrine is highly revered by the locals and by pilgrims from all over the region and beyond would be an understatement. St. Peter himself is thought to have passed through here in 43 AD on his way to Rome. But it’s the devotion to the Blessed Virgin that has continued to draw the faithful here since the year 365 AD. A magnificent portrait of the Virgin Mary by Palma il Giovane can be admired on the altar.
August 15th Celebration
Without a shadow of a doubt, Leuca’s most highly anticipated event of the entire year is the celebration that takes place on August 15th on the Assumption of Mary (Ferragosto in Italian). One of the most noteworthy characteristics of Salento’s celebrations is its luminarie or light installations. Beginning on the 13th, Piazza Redentore, Piazzale Basilica and the promenade are illuminated with magical LED light structures whose look is completely reinvented every year.
The Procession From Land to Sea
Traditionally, devout pilgrims begin their journey on foot walking through the night and arriving at the shrine at sunrise on the 14th. A religious procession takes place on the 15th where hundreds of townspeople along with a marching band carry the Blessed Virgin towards the harbor.
What ensues is one of the most moving celebrations in all of Italy. Around 5 pm, the land procession is transformed into a sea procession when the Blessed Virgin is placed on a boat along with a fleet of small fishing boats. A spectacular fireworks show over the Bay of San Gregorio concludes the celebration with exploding colors reflecting off the water and surrounding coastline.
The Monumental Waterfall
Speaking of colors, another feast for the eyes is the monumental waterfall and lighthouse located just below the sanctuary. Opened in 1866, the lighthouse’s beam can be seen 40 km away and is the second tallest in all of Italy after Genova. The waterfall was built in 1939 to commemorate the opening of the Apulian Aqueduct in Salento. An innovative lighting system was installed in 2015 and since then, the waterfall has been opened more frequently throughout the year. It will be open for the celebration on August 15th as well.
Leuca’s Sea: Truly Paradise
Leuca is a diving, swimming, snorkeling, and scuba diving paradise. The combination of crystal clear waters, sheer cliffs, and sea caves make for an adventurer’s paradise. Many of the hundreds of sea grottoes that dot the cape can be explored by sea and even by land.
Some have been closed in order to preserve and further explore their precious archaeology, such as Grotta Porcinara. Also located on Punta Ristola is Grotta del Diavolo which the locals named after the unsettling sounds that emanate from it (of course, natural in origin). Whether it’s by boat or underwater, by far the best way to enjoy all that Leuca has to offer is by choosing a professional to help you explore the coastline.
This is just the tip of the iceberg (or in this case, the promontory) of the wonders of Santa Maria di Leuca! Once you’ve visited this extraordinary place, you can decide for yourself if it truly is Finibus terrae, where the earth ends, or perhaps, it’s where it begins.
For your overnight stay, we recommend…
waterfall photo copyright: Pro Loco Leuca Facebook page