On seeing the facade of Lecce's Basilica Santa Croce, the Marchese Grimaldi said it made him think that a lunatic was having a nightmare. It's too whimsical and merry to make me think of nightmares. Instead the extravagence and frivolity of it had me wondering what kind of happy hallucinogenics those artists were taking, and hey, could I get some. I think the facade has every kind of flower, leaf, garland, fruit, vegetable, cherub and animal known to man.
This elaborate ornamentaion also adorns other churches, building facades, courtyards, terraces and windows throughout Lecce's historic center. The style is the city's own, called barocco Leccese (Baroque Leccese) and carved from the local stone, pietra Leccese. The stone begins as a soft mass and hardens with time, making it easy to carve into intricate decorations.
During my visit, I spent most of my mornings wandering and wondering through the streets and piazze of this outdoor Baroque museum. I'd imagine the stories and fantasies behind each whimsical carving. Lecce, the capital of its province commonly called Salento, was my base from which I explored this most southern region in Puglia, and the bottom point of Italy's heel. The mornings were relatively quiet in the historic center, but at Noon it's a different story. Opera music rings out in Piazza Sant' Oronzo, alerting everyone to get out in the piazza and drink; it's aperitivo time! The cafes that line the piazza and its side streets fill up with those meeting for a before-lunch drink.
As it is a great meeting place and the social center for many of Lecce's festivals and festivities, the piazza is bustling at night. Calling back to Lecce's Roman era and the first century, are the remains of the city's Roman Amphitheater. A little less than half of the theater has been uncovered. The rest remains hidden underneath the piazza. The column in the center of the piazza is one of two from Brindisi, which marked the end of the Appian Way. There's still some dispute as to whether Brindisi gave the column to Lecce or whether Lecce took it. Atop the column is a statue of Lecce's patron saint, Sant' Oronzo, who is credited for saving the city from the plague in 1656. Every August, the city holds a celebration in his honor.
One can easily stroll through the entire historic center in a day. The other Baroque beauty not to be missed on your walk through Lecce is the Piazza Duomo, and the Duomo itself and its bell tower. Also spectacular is the Church of Santa Chiara with another ornate facade and a famous ceiling made of papier mache.
Other things to see beyond the Baroque is the Villa Comunale. The lush gardens are a perfect place to have a picnic or sit and rest your feet. You can visit the cartapesta museum and the many cartapesta shops that dot the historic center's streets. Some even offer lessons in this centuries-old tradition. Wine bars and pubs fill both the historic center and newer city center (it encircles the historic center). Lecce has a vibrant and nightlife, yet one with a very casual feel. Definitely a city, but a small one with a population of around 100,000 people. All the locals seem to be friends with each other.
Lecce and the entire Salento region are still very much one of Italy's best kept secrets. In July and August, Italians, and some Europeans, flock to Salento's long and curving coastline to bask on the sun-drenched sand beaches. The other months are ideal for a less crowded visit to the area. Even warmer and more welcoming than its climate, and as playful and festive as the barocco Leccese, are the people of the Salento region. Every person I met proudly and enthusiastically showed me a little bit of his or her land. And, how can you not love a city that announces Noon-time happy hour with arias in the piazza?
Some places to eat:
Locanda Rivoli - Via Augusto Imperatore 13 - phone: +39 0832 1830128: In the historic center, just around the corner from Piazza Sant' Oronzo, this trattoria serves up traditional Salento cuisine and homemade desserts.
Joyce Pub - Via Matteo da Lecce 5 - phone: +39 0832 279443: Part Irish pub part vineria, they serve up classic Salento cuisine. Also, it is possibly the only restaurant open in the historic center on Mondays. You'll find it a short walk from both the Basilica Santa Croce and Piazza Sant' Oronzo.
Bar Sette di Sette - Galleria Piazza Mazzini, Via Oberdan 13 A/B: Located in the newer city center, Chef Paola puts a creative twist on traditional Salento cuisine. They offer a "Happy Hour" buffet where you can nibble on traditional dishes in finger food portions. The buffet is included with a cocktail purchase. Cocktails range from 6 to 8 euros. Lunch is also served daily.
Le Zie - Via Colonnello Archimede Costadura 19 - phone: +39 0832 245178: The "aunts" serve up traditonal fare with a home-cooking feel.
Pizzeria La Perla - Via Giovanni Antonio Orsini De Balzo 15 - phone: +39 0832 246380: If pizza is what you're craving, this is the place to go. The pizza is thin and crispy and toppings are generous.
To satisfy a sweet tooth:
Bar Cin Cin - Piazza Sant' Oronzo: The second pastry shop of Luca Capilungo, this pasticceria is in the historic center, serving chef Luca's pastries and gelato.
Caffe Alvino - Piazza Sant' Oronzo: Another pastry shop in the historic center's piazza to find pastries and gelato
Where to Stay:
Chiesa Greca Bed & Breakfast - Piazzetta Chiesa Greca 11 - phone; +39 0832 302330. This B&B was once part of the Greek Church, which is still there beside the B&B, and dates back to the 1300s. They have 5 charming and spacious suites, where you sleep under ancient Leccese walls with all the modern comforts. My room, "La Chiesetta," still had the remains of one of the church's frescoes. I stayed at the Chiesa Greca Bed & Breakfast as a guest of YL Tours Congressi.
Getting there and around:
By train: You can reach Lecce easily by Rome, Naples and Bari on Italy's high-speed Frecce trains.
By plane: From many Italian and European cities, you can find low fares with the low-cost airlines (i.e. EasyJet and Ryan Air) flying into the Brindisi Airport or Bari Airport. From there, you would drive or take a train into Lecce.
Getting around in Salento: It is best to have a car. The roads are tranquil and easy to drive. Trains in the Salento region aren't a feasible way of getting from one town to another. During the summer months, SalentoinBus provides quicker bus transportation from Lecce to many of the region's coastal cities, like Otranto, Gallipoli, and Santa Maria Leuca and more.
Join me in Puglia in 2013! For this food lover's culinary tour, we'll be cooking with our beautiful Italian mamme and professional chefs. We'll also be eating and exploring our way through the region. There are four tour dates available from which to choose! For tour details, check out this page: Culinary Tours in Puglia 2013!
***Early booking discount: Book and pay by check by January 31, 2013 and receive a $200 discount off the tour price.****