Lecce has gained the nickname “Florence of the South” for the wall-to-wall baroque architecture found in its streets. While you may not hear Florence referred to as Lecce of the North just yet, this little city in Puglia’s Salento region is well worth a day-trip or a weekend break for those who want to see a historic and visually stunning Italian city without hordes of tour groups getting in the way.
With a population of under 100,000, Lecce is only the 50th biggest city in Italy (compared to Florence’s 370,000 and 8th position), and the old town is even smaller. But once you’ve entered it through one of the three gates, you won’t know where to look or where to point your camera – there are gorgeous baroque churches and monuments on almost every street corner, made in the city’s trademark honey-coloured stone known as pietra leccese.
Walking the fifteen minutes or so from Lecce’s train station towards the old town, we thought “what have we done”? The roads were choked with traffic, there was graffiti everywhere and down-and-outs slept on the streets.
But as soon as we saw the massive Arc de Triomphe-like entrance, Porta Napoli (pictured above), we could see what all the fuss is about. City walls once linked this gate to the other two grand entrances to the old town – Porta San Biagio and Porta Rudiae.
Having skipped breakfast that morning to catch an early train, our first priority was to grab a bite to eat. My buffalo mozzarella salad at Il Banco on Via Umberto I set me up for a day of culture – the big blob of cheese was the size of a baby’s head. I may need to brush up on my Italian language skills though, as although I ordered due spritz per favore, we were given two espressos!
The churches soon came thick and fast – first up was the Basilica di Santa Croce (in the main picture). Some say this is Lecce’s most impressive building, but when we visited it was coated in scaffolding for restoration works so no pictures of it in its entirety, I’m afraid.
Just as many of Barcelona’s highlights are attributable to Antoni Gaudi, the best of Lecce is down to the local sculptor Giuseppe Zimbalo. He worked with the naturally soft local stone to shape it into intricate gargoyles, saints and angels with ease and thus creating a new style known as Barocco Leccese.
As well as working on the Basilica di Santa Croce, Zimbalo adorned Piazza Duomo – one of the most beautiful cathedral squares you are likely to see anywhere (pictured above and below), with a five-storeyed belltower visible from all over the old town.
I’ve heard that the courtyard featuring the Cathedral, Bishop’s Palace and Seminary looks at its best at dusk when the setting sun casts a magical light on the mellow stonework. Alas, we had to catch the 17:15 train home, and in any case there was a thunderstorm at sunset, so I doubt if it would have been very nice to sit in Piazza Duomo.
Wandering around the streets of Lecce, you really need a map as some of the alleyways are tiny and can be very confusing if you can’t see the Cathedral. We didn’t have one, and got horribly lost at times. We accidentally stumbled upon Lecce’s red light district in the heart of the old town – four obese African ladies prancing about in their underwear from house fronts.
Piazza Sant’Oronzo, the square named after the city’s patron saint, is the place to go for bars, restaurants and shops. Bizarrely, part of this square is taken up by half a Roman Amphitheatre, which was only discovered in the 1930s – the other half was built on!Keen-eyed Serie A fans will recognise the wolf emblem below from the yellow and red shirts of Italian football’s yo-yo team extraordinaire, US Lecce. The mosaic can be found in the pavement of Piazza Sant’Oronzo.
Being the only ones in the square, we sat in the sun and enjoyed a Peroni, remarking how quiet and tourist-free Lecce is. I’m not sure how pleased Florentines would be at hearing Lecce referred to as the Florence of the South. After all, Florence is a world-class city, and narrowly missed out on being one of my top ten cities in Europe.
But we loved Lecce – beautiful architecture everywhere, atmospheric side streets, no-one around and also we had the hottest, sunniest day of our two-week break.
Lecce doesn’t have its own airport, but is about 40km from Brindisi which is served by Ryanair. It’s about 30 minutes on the train from Brindisi or 1 hour 50 from Bari which is also served by Ryanair. Alternatively, it makes a great day trip from wherever you’re staying in Puglia. It’s just 1 hour 20 minutes from Polignano a Mare by train and costs about €15 return. Lecce’s train station is 1km outside of the old town. Check out www.bahn.de for train times (yes it’s a German site, but it’s the best site for European train times). Remember to stamp your ticket in the stamping machine.