Population: About 95,000
Claims to fame: Known as the “Florence of the South” due to its many baroque buildings, Lecce is the main city in Salento, the lower part of Puglia, the heel of Italy.
Pros: Lecce is a lovely town and quite small so it’s easy to walk around and admire the baroque architecture and churches on almost every street corner. It is also a good base for exploring further down the Adriatic coast.
Cons: While I was there (in early December) the town really shut down between midday and about four, including the many churches, so I was left twiddling my thumbs for a while, though the guy running my bed and breakfast suggested I take a nap like the locals.
Lecce is a pretty popular tourist destination, despite being five hours from Rome, so it’s not exactly “hidden” but it’s certainly a gem. I stayed here for two days so I had some time to seek out a few points of interest above and beyond the main sites the town is famous for.
I spent most of my first day touring around the many churches in the centre, each one appearing more ornate than the last. Some of the heavily decorated interiors overwhelmed me, but I found the facades of the churches were in general very beautiful. The one that impressed me the most was the Chiesa del Carmine, next to the Monastery of the Carmelites (Piazzetta Tancredi). It was designed by the architect Giuseppe Cino, and built in the early 1700s. I kept coming back to admire the facade as I found its symmetry made it very smart and impressive, but it wasn’t as extravagant as some of the others.
I was also drawn to the church dedicated to Saint Irene (Via VittorioEmanuele II, 11), who was the patron saint of Lecce until 1656, when she was replaced by Saint Orontius. Building work on this church started in 1591, led by Francesco Grimaldi Teatini. I especially liked the depiction of the she-wolf under the oak tree and crown, which are key symbols of Lecce and make up its coat of arms.
This city is a good place to stop and admire details. You can spend ages spotting gems on the front of the famous church of Santa Croce (Via Umberto I), for example. Here is just one small section I liked:
I noticed as I was walking through the streets of Lecce that there were quite a few people riding bikes and a lot of stray cats and kittens wandering around. I almost got run over a few times by the bikes, I guess I wasn’t expecting to see them in the small winding streets. The cats were cute, especially the many tiny kittens, but very timid.
The guide who had shown me around Matera suggested I visit Lecce’s cemetery. So I decided to take up his advice on my last day. It was a peaceful walk from the entrance of the cemetery up to the church of Santi Niccolo e Cataldo. Behind there I wandered around the family tombs and mausoleums under the cypress trees.
Afterwards I took another short wander through the streets of Lecce leading back to the centre. I stumbled upon a very pretty church called Santa Maria degli Angeli (also known as San Francesco da Paola, on Piazzetta dei Peruzzi). A Mass had just finished and incense smoke was still wafting around. The altar and side-chapels were full of flowers, perhaps to mark the Feast of the Immaculate Conception celebrated on that day, December 8th.
I would advise visitors to Lecce to do something similar to me: get lost in the winding streets, and you’ll surely stumble across some of your own gems! Maybe you’ll also spot some interesting faces like these:
I picked up this unusual book in Lecce, about the myths and legends connected to the city. I plan to read it in coming weeks and might try to shape another blog around it. Does anyone know much about this book? It’s intriguing me.