Lecce is an ancient and beautiful city known as the ‘Florence of the South’ because of its ornate Baroque buildings made from the pale-coloured local stone, called pietra leccese. It is one of the most important cities of Italy’s Apulia (Puglia) region, and also the capital of Lecce province. This lively city is buzzing with life every hour of the day. Its compact historical centre is easy to explore on foot and there’s a surprise at every turn, be it a bustling market, a fabulous Baroque building, or a piece of street theatre underway on one of the city’s many lovely squares.
The region of Apulia in Italy’s deep south is attracting more and more tourists every year because of its laid-back way of life, excellent local cuisine and beautiful white-sand beaches. Charming Lecce is definitely worth a stop… here are some of my favourite things to see and do:
1. Just a few steps away from Sant’Oronzo square, is the ‘half-buried’ Roman amphitheatre which was built in the century. It is ‘half-buried’ because it is now surrounded by other monuments, but it is still used for a variety of cultural events.
2. The Chiesa di Santa Croce is another important cultural and historical landmark. It has a beautiful rose window and a richly decorated façade. Have a closer look to spot all the fabulous sculpted details of animals like lions, dragons, and horses, as well as angels, shells, birds, shells and flowers.
First built in 1144, this is an imposing cathedral with a 210-foot bell tower, one of the most important in the whole of Italy.
3. You can see skilled local craftsmen working the local stone “pietra leccese” in their workshops along Via Palmieri, in the old town. Beautiful statues, jewellery, lamps and other objects skilfully crafted out of this malleable material.
4. The Botanical Garden on Via Provinciale Lecce – Monterone is maintained by the University of Lecce and covers an area of over 5 acres with several hundred species of plants, trees and flowers.
5. La “passeggiata” is a late afternoon ritual across Italy, when the heat of the day has finally subsided and locals emerge to enjoy the remaining hours of the day. In Lecce,stretches late in the evenings, giving the city’s streets and squares an animated ambiance.
6. Lecce is known for its traditional handicrafts, especially the art of ‘papier maché’, known as ‘cartapesta’ in Italian, which dates back to the 17th century. There are many small shops selling paper statues, masks, dolls and toys made of this versatile material.
7. Apulia is known for its fabulous regional cuisine, and with Lecce’s many rustic restaurants and eateries, foodies are spoilt for choice. Try local specialties like fava beans pureed with chicory, and hand-made orecchiette (“little ears”) pasta with ‘cime di rapa’ (a type of green). Experience eating in a “norcinera”, or artisan butchers, at Il Simposio (Via Dei Veradi, 7, Tel: +39 0832 277 819), or have a meal in a typical macelleria at Pio Bove which is known for its meat dishes. An excellent place for breakfast. brunch or lunch in the heart of the historic city centre is Doppio Zero (Via Guglielmo Paladini, 2). Its interior is a mix of modern and classical, with a couple of long convivial wooden tables for those who don’t mind sharing a meal with others. On the menu are excellent cured meats and cheeses, organic breads and homemade pasta.
8. Of course no visit to an Italian city is complete without gelato. The place to go in Lecce is Pasticceria-Gelateria Natale (Via Trinchese, 7), the city’s finest and most popular ice cream and cake shop, located just off Piazza Sant’Oronzio. Open from early morning until late into the night, this is a veritable temple of chocolate, gelato and pastry delights.
9. This region is also famous for its excellent wines, like Primitivo (similar to Zinfandel) and Negroamaro, a red wine grape variety grown almost exclusively in Apulia.
10. Must try: The Lecce specialty called caffè in ghiaccio con latte di mandorla (espresso with ice and almond milk).
Not to be missed events
Festival del Cinema Europeo (European Cinema Festival): 13 – 18 April 2015.
Locomotive Jazz Festival: late July / early August.
Best time to visit
Easter and the Holy Week; during the months of September and October.
Paola Fiocchi Van den Brande is Director of Passepartout Homes Ltd.