Lecce – a love story, Italian-style

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It all started 6 years ago, but then no one suspected that anything had started. We had just married and were living our dream to travel across South Italy – a great destination for a honeymoon. And before you choke with all the candy and sugar flowing from the first sentences of this story, let us mention Top Gear. Yes, the former British TV show, a car programme, featuring Jeremy Clarkson and company. We have always thought that this show was a travel show rather than a car show. But it was not our first time to head to a place we had seen on Top Gear. So, we somehow picked Lecce as the final stop of our honeymoon trip, before we head back to Bulgaria.

Lecce, May 2014

We settled in a comfortable small hotel in the suburbs of Lecce. The landlord gave us directions how to reach the historic centre and where to have dinner. We recently recalled the restaurant – Trattoria Nonna Teti, a cozy traditional restaurant. Indeed, after so many days in Italy, we were not hungry at all and had quick pasta. However, we spent a lot of time walking around the historic centre.

Then we came back from Italy, wrote articles about some of the places we had visited but we never wrote one about Lecce. Since then we have been living with the idea that we will be back to Lecce some day and we will definitely write about it. Because the emotion from the first visit was still holding us, we just did not know how to describe it with words.

Lecce, 2014, Santa Chiara church
Lecce, 2014, Santa Chiara church

Salento, 2017 – 2019

We have told about our first invitation to visit Puglia again in our article about Salento. It was an almost shocking invitation but the Universe somehow showed us that Lecce was closer to us. Actually, the organizers of the trip did not take us to Lecce that time, neither during the several trips that followed in the next 2 years. But they took us to other amazing and hidden places. During one of the latest trips, in September 2019, we insisted to stop in Lecce for just one hour, outside the scheduled program, before our flight home. And all of the emotions returned at this moment, flowing and burning us.

Return to Lecce

The Universe is making jokes with us quite often, but it also takes good care of us. In that very moment, during a very special time, just before Christmas, when miracles happen, Maria had the chance to return to Lecce and Andrey stayed with the kids at home. Our friends from Salento made her more tnhan happy by taking their group for a day to Lecce. And despite she was alone on this journey, our memories of Lecce are common and shared, as is our love to Lecce. Now, after this candied introduction, it is time to tell you about Lecce.

We can also mention that Andrey does not feel too bad about missing the last visit to Lecce, because a year earlier he had spent a wonderful night with friends in Lecce on a trip without Maria.

Porta Napoli, Lecce. South Italy
Porta Napoli, Lecce. South Italy

Porta Napoli – welcome to Lecce

Before storming into Lecce and releasing all of our emotions and thoughts about this city, let’s make it clear that we will mainly be speaking about the historic centre of Lecce, which enchants us with its amazing Baroque architecture and for this reason is know as the Florence of the South. Porta Napoli is one of the most popular entrances to the old centre, which is still partially surrounded by fortification walls or massive buildings that distinguish it from the contemporary neighbourhoods of Lecce.

Porta Napoli is one of the three gates in the old town, preserved until now, together with Porta Rudiae and Porta San Biaggio. It was inaugurated in 1547 in honour of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. The gate was built to honour the power of the emperor by the prominent military architect Gian Giacomo of Acaya. Besides the gate, he is the master of other fortifications in Lecce, as well as other fortresses across Salento and South Italy. He was one of the most trusted architects of the emperor, who even called him to Naples to work on the Castel Sant’Elmo, another castle we have visited before.

Porta Napoli was built on the site of the ancient Porta San Giusto. Around it are found archaeological artifacts from the times of the messapians. The story with the name is ordinary. It bears its name from the fact that it is located towards the road to Naples. Porta Napoli is a great place to start our walk in Lecce.

Porta Napoli, Lecce
Porta Napoli, Lecce

The historic centre of Lecce is generally pedestrian and Porta Napoli is a good place to ask your taxi or shuttle to drop you. Unfortunately, there are still cars inside the historic centre, but they have special regime of entrance so the pedestrian walk in Lecce is still a nice and relatively calm experience. However, be wary of two-wheel vehicles – bikers are common.

A little history of Lecce

There are various legends about the earliest settlers in the region. Some of them say that the city was founded in the age of the Trojan war by a man named Malennio, a participant in the war and grandson of Cretan king Milos. He founded the ancient city of Sybar. There are stronger evidences that some of the earliest settlers in the Salento region are the Messapians, who arrived sometime between 1000 – 800 years B.C. Their origin is also debated but they are thought to be Illiryan tribe or originating from Crete. Messapians inhabited and ruled Salento for several centuries and have left a rich heritage which can be seen in every museum across Puglia. In 266 the ancient city was conquered by the Romans, who renamed it to Lupiae (she-wolf).

The Romans contributed a lot to the development of the city. In the 2nd century emperor Hadrian decided to more the city 3 km northeast. The Romans contributed to its economic and social growth with the construction of an amphitheatre and the Porto Adrianeo (Hadrian Port). The remains of both can stilll be seen today. Porto Adrianeo was once one of the most important ports in the Mediterranean.

The remains of the amphitheatre in Lecce, South Italy
The remains of the amphitheatre in Lecce, South Italy

After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Lecce was a scene of bloody battles for influence between Byzantines, Lombards and Saracines. In the meantime, it was often a target of pirates. In 552 the city was eventually overtaken by the Byzantines and remained within the Byzantine empire for 5 centuries. Until the mid-11th century, when it was taken by the Normans. The city regained its glory while being under the Kingdom of Sicily (1055 – 1463) when it passed to the Aragonese kings of Naples.

Here comes the story about Porta Napoli which we mentioned in the beginning of our story.

The cozy streets of Lecce
The cozy streets of Lecce

Lecce and the Baroque

In the times of the Kingdom of Sicily Lecce became a flourishing centre, one of the most important cities in the region. Under the Aragonese kings in the 16th and 17th century started the intensive construction of baroque buildings all around the city, which made the current face of Lecce.

During those times were built hundreds of beautiful and unique buildings – public buildings, churches, private homes. It was not just baroque but a local variety of baroque, enriched with the local traditions in modelling stone. What makes the Lecce buildings unique is the characteristic pietra leccese (Lecce stone), a light yellow, easily worked limestone, whose particular friability lent itself perfectly to the fine carving done with patience, craft and extraordinary fantasy by thousands of stone-cutters, almost becoming lacework.*

*Reading notes on Lecce, University of Salento – read the full document here.

The rich decorated facade of one of the churches in Lecce
The richly decorated facade of one of the churches in Lecce

The artistic boom at those times resulted not only in public buildings but also in numerous private homes. The works of the masters of those ages can be seen not only on the facades but inside the churches and other buildings as well.

One of the many churches in Lecce
One of the many churches in Lecce

One of the most notable examples of baroque art and architecture in Lecce is Piazza del Duomo. The cathedral square is surrounded from three sides by notable religious buildings – the main cathedral of the city, Assumption of Virgin Mary, the Bishop’s palace Palazzo Vescovile and the Seminary. Another symbol of Lecce baroque is the Basillica di Santa Croce, whose facade is one of the masterpieces of Baroque art.

The bell wtower of the cathedral in Lecce - Campanile
The bell tower of the cathedral in Lecce – Campanile

But we will tell you more details about these places a bit later. Now we will briefly take you to another story – our own.

The golden city

Our memories of Lecce have always included pictures of the warm golden city with exquisite facades, tens of narrow streets ending in small cozy squares between the houses. But our brightest memory has always been that of the big square, Piazza del Duomo, the spiritual centre of Lecce.

We on Piazza del Duomo - Lecce, 2014
We on Piazza del Duomo during our honeymoon trip – Lecce, 2014

However, when we stepped down in Lecce for an hour in September 2019, we could barely find the large square after we got lost several times between the small streets and the big churches.

In the morning hours Lecce was still as golden and cozy, as we had remembered it. The cafes were just opening but we were hurrying to walk it all, to feed our eyes and hearts with the energy of Lecce.

Lecce, South Italy
Lecce, South Italy
The baroque streets of Lecce, South Italy
The baroque streets of Lecce, South Italy

We were running on the streets, taking photos here and there. We passed quickly by the amphitheater, Maria got lost, we had a brief fight, a usual part of all our trips. But Lecce was still as amazing as always and we were only sorry that we did not have more time to enjoy it.

A walk in Lecce
A walk in Lecce

Piazza del Duomo – the spiritual centre of Lecce

The Piazza del Duomo is amazing not only with its beauty and size, it is the heart of Lecce, surrounded by the most important buildings of local clergy.

Piazza del Duomo, Lecce
Piazza del Duomo, Lecce

Lecce Cathedral Assumption of Mary

The main building on the square is the Duomo, the main cathedral in Lecce, dedicated to the Assumption of Virgin Mary. The first cathedral on this site was built in 1144, then rebuilt in 1230. Its current baroque look dates back to the 17th century. The cathedral was completed by prominent architect and sculptor Giuseppe Zimbalo, a.k.a. Lo Zingarello (the little gipsy).

The entrance of the Lecce Cathedral
The entrance of the Lecce Cathedral
The beautiful facade of the Duomo
The beautiful facade of the Duomo

Giuseppe Zimbalo was one of the most notable artists in the so-called Baroque of Lecce. He is the master of several notable works in the city, including the 72-m tall bell tower of the Duomo (Campanile), which is often presented as a separate attraction.

The tall tower is very helpful for navigating through the numerous small streets of Lecce that create a small cozy labyrinth. From its top you could see the Adriatic sea and sometimes even the coasts of Albania. The current tower was built in 1661 – 1682 on the site of a previous tower that was destructed. On the top is the statue of St. Oronzo, the patron of Lecce. We will tell you more about him later.

Piazza del Duomo, the Duomo and the bell tower
Piazza del Duomo, the Duomo and the bell tower

The Bishop’s palace and the Seminary

The cathedral is one of the two building that meet the first look of anyone entering Piazza del Duomo through the only entrance to the square. Once this entrance, towards the streets Vittorio Emmanuele II and Giuseppe Palmieri, was open only during the day. Now, after you see the amazing facade of the Duomo, your look goes a bit right and falls on the next building, the Bishop’s palace. The place from where the spiritual life in Lecce is governed.

The Seminary in Lecce and a part of the Bishop's palace
The Seminary in Lecce and a part of the Bishop’s palace

Just next to the Bishop’s palace is the Seminary of Lecce, which closes the square from the western side.

On the northern side of the square, next to its only entrance, there is a residential building. During our last visit there was some emergency there and we found fire trucks and ambulances, getting an old woman out of her house through a window.

Emergency trucks on Piazza del Duomo, Lecce
Emergency trucks on Piazza del Duomo, Lecce

The Basilica of Santa Croce

The Basilica of Santa Croce (Basilica di Santa Croce) is one of the symbols of Lecce and the local baroque architecture. It is probably even more famous than the Duomo because of its outstanding facade with thousands of precise decorations, telling numerous stories.

The Basilica di Santa Croce in Lecce, south Italy
The Basilica di Santa Croce in Lecce, south Italy

Cherubs, flowers, fruits, symbols, lions, griffins, dragons, columns and a huge rose window are only part of the magnificent facade, created within 2 centuries by several generations of artists.

The construction of the church started in 1549. Earlier on the site there was a 14-century monastery. The last details were completed in 1695. At least four generations of architects led the construction of the basilica. The last one was the above mentioned Giuseppe Zimbalo, who is the author of the upper part of the facade.

A part of the facade of the Basilica di Santa Croce in Lecce, Italy
A part of the facade of the Basilica di Santa Croce in Lecce, Italy

The Basilica of Santa Croce is a magical place. Our eyes jump from one to another of the thousands of big and small decorative elements, each one telling a different story. A game of symbols, beliefs and ideas. Now, looking at our photos, we still cannot take our eyes off them, but we are also unable to get the whole story told in this decorative ensemble.

Next time when we visit Lecce we must visit the basilica with a guide to better understand the numerous symbols and stories.

More churches in Lecce

We have always been impressed by the place and the impoprtance of churches in Catholic countries, particularly in Italy where we travel often. What impresses us the most is the presence of churches on almost every street, even in small towns. Also, impressive is the size of the buildings, which obviously represents the importance of faith in life.

In Lecce churches and monasteries are on every street, on every corner. Most of the former monasteries are turned into cultural venues or other public spaces and others fall within the areas of the churches. Some churches are not functioning anymore, turned into art galleries or museums. And despite there are so many churches in Lecce, all of them are richly decorated, stunning beautiful and you cannot take your eyes off them.

Aanta Theresa church in Lecce
Santa Theresa church in Lecce

Santa Maria della Nova church

During our latest visit to Lecce our guide Carlo took us first in the Santa Maria della Nova church. We were a bit surprised to see there an art installation. But we later learned that it was not acting as church anymore but rather as an art exhibition centre. Once it was a part of a Dominican monastery. The current building is from the 18th century.

The Jesuit church (Chiesa del Gesù)

The Jesuit church (Chiesa del Gesù) is one of the most important churches in Lecce and keeps some of the most important examples of baroque art.. Behind the relatively simple facade are hiding not only sophisticated and beautiful decorations but also interesting and rare religious scenes.

The altar of this church is highly impressive, made almost entirely of the typical local limestone, with thousands of elements, looking almost like a fine lace. Not less impressive is the central icon, representing the circumcision of Christ. In this church are also kept the relics of San Bernardino Realino, a Jesuit priest from the late 16th and early 17th century, another patron of Lecce.

The relics of San Bernardino Realino
The relics of San Bernardino Realino
The ceiling of Chiesa del Gesu in Lecce
The ceiling of Chiesa del Gesu in Lecce

Saint Irene church

The Saint Irene church is another example of the magnificent baroque art in Lecce. It again features richly decorated stone altars with column, decorated with floral motives.

One of the chapels in the church of Saint Irene, Lecce
One of the chapels in the church of Saint Irene, Lecce
The church of Saint Irene, Lecce
The church of Saint Irene, Lecce

The church was built between 1591 and 1639 in honour of Saint Irene, who at that time was a patron of Lecce. In 1656 it was replaces as main patron by Saint Orontius (Sant’ Oronzo), who is believed to have rescued the city from plague. One of the rare religious scenes in this church is the one representing the young Virgin Mary, overlooked by an angel.

Santa Irene church, Lecce
Santa Irene church, Lecce

Saint Orontius (Sant’Oronzo) – who is the patron of Lecce?  

Above the Roman amphitheatre and the surrounding buildings dated to various ages, on a 29-m tall Roman column that once marked the end of the ancient way Via Appia, stands the bronze statue of a saint not very popular around the world, but strogly respected in Puglia. Saint Orontius (Sant’Oronzo) is the patron of Lecce.

The statue of Saint Orontius, the patron saint of Lecce
The statue of Saint Orontius, the patron saint of Lecce

One of the legends about Saint Orontius (lived 22 – 68 AD) is written on a manuscript from 12th century. It says that Orontius and his nephew Fortunatus were first christianed by a disciple of Saint Paul who on his way to Rome was shipwrecked at Salento. The two men were then denounced as Chrustian by Romans, sent to prison and tortured. After their release they travelled to Corinth, where they met Saint Paul. Orontius was confirmed as the first bishop of Lecce, and Fortunatus his successor.

Orontous was declared a saint in the 17th century when he is believed to have saved the region from plague. The disease hit all South Italy, even the Kingdom of Naples, but somehow spared the Salento region. Meanwhile, local people insisted that Orontius appeared to them and told them that they would be spared from the disease. Since then Saint Orontous is declared the patron saint of Lecce.

Lecce amphitheatre and the statue of Saint Orontius
Lecce amphitheatre and the statue of Saint Orontius

Piazza Sant’Oronzo – the pulse of Lecce

While Piazza del Duomo has always been considered as the spiritual centre of Lecce, Sant’Oronzo square has always been the centre of everyday life ever since the Roman times. This is quite obvious from the interesting architectural landscape around the square – a unique mix of buildings from various ages.

The Roman amphitheatre, half revealed, the palaces of fascist rationalism, the tracks of Venetian presence and the baroque church Santa Maria della Grazia. Above this strtange ensemble stands the statue of Saint Oronzo, made in Venice in 1739.

Piazza Sant'Oronzo before Christmas
Piazza Sant’Oronzo before Christmas

The nowadays square was built on the remains of an ancient trade quarter. The site was then known as the “trade square”, while Piazza del Duomo has always been known as the “sacred square”. Piazza Sant’Oronzo is the lively centre of Lecce, regularly a scene of cultural events, entertainment, festivals, exhibitions and other attractions for guests and locals.

The Christmas decorations at Piazza Sant'Oronzo
The Christmas decorations at Piazza Sant’Oronzo

We found ourselves at Piazza Sant’Oronzo in a very special and romantic time, two weeks before Christmas. The square was turned into Wonderland, with Christmas houses, decorations, a sleigh with deers, a Christmas tree and a lot of blinking lights. We were walking together with all the locals, enjoying the spirit of winter Puglia and the warmth of South Italian people.

The Christmas houses at Sant'Oronzo square in Lecce, Italy
The Christmas houses at Sant’Oronzo square in Lecce, Italy

Lecce amphitheatre

What a Roman city would be without an amphitheatre?

The amphitheatre in Lecce
The amphitheatre in Lecce

As a strategically important city, Lecce also had an impressive amphitheatre, whose remains we can see today. It is located just next to Sant’Oronzo square. It is not very clear when the amphitheatre was built, but it was probably in 1 – 2 century. The theatre was 102 m long and 83m wide, with elipse shape and arena with size 53-34 m. It is thought that it could accommodate up to 25 000 spectators.

The castle of Charles V (Castello Carlo Cinque) 

While lost in the Christmas spirit, our guide Carlo took us to a small street nearby the square to enter the castle of Charles V. We went there to see a fair of Christmas decorations, mostly Nativitiy scenes. Such a variety of Nativity scenes, made of all types of materials and in so many different styles. Almost an art exhibition. The castle itself is another local attraction and a venue for art and public events year-round.

Exhibition of Christmas decorations in Castello Carlo V in Lecce, Puglia, South Italy
Exhibition of Christmas decorations in Castello Carlo V in Lecce

From the outside the castle is both very impressive and Spartan-looking. The building dates back to Norman times. But it bears the name of Spanish monarch Charles 5th of Habsburg, because the castle was finished and fortified during his reign. It was turned into a massive defense point, located at one of the main roads for those times – the one leading to the port of San Cataldo. The castle has 4 bastions. Once it had only one official gate and one back entrance. Nowadays you can still see cannons inside the castle, as well as some archaeological excavations. From 1870 to 1979 the castle hosted barracks. Nowadays it is a centre for art events and exhibitions.

The art of Lecce: papier-mâché

 There are two arts, strongly associated with Lecce. One of them we mentioned multiple times above – the carving of local Leccese stone, seen in churches and other buildings across the city. The second one is papier-mâché – the making of various figures and decorations of paper.

Inside one of the many ateliers for papier-mâché in Lecce
Inside one of the many ateliers for papier-mâché in Lecce

All around Lecce you will see these small workshops where they make religious and other figures out of paper. From small decorations to life-size figures – everything is carefully made and decorated, the human figures looking almost alive.

 religious figure made of Inside one of the many ateliers for papier-mâché in Lecce
religious figure made of papier-mâché in Lecce

We were briefly explained the technology. First they make the head, usually pre-made by terracotta. Then from metal and wood they form the body. The paper is mixed with glue made of fine white flour and water. The wet paper now allows to be shaped in the desired shape. Finally, to preserve the shape, they dry the paper by burning it with iron 300-degrees hot. The colouring of the figures is the last activity.

Where to eat in Lecce – restaurant Boccon Divino

There are so many attractions and emotions in Lecce. The mentioned in this article are only a third of all of them, even less. But if you want to see everything in Lecce, you will need a few days. Meanwhile, you will also need places to have rest from the cultural emotions and enjoy some culinary emotions. In Puglia this is a must.

The latest restaurant we tried and recommend in Lecce is Boccon Divino. A beautiful and colourful restaurant with tradtitional regional cuisine. We spent long hours there with many glasses of wine together with our friends from Salento and around the world.

They served us numerous starters and appetizers, two main courses and many desserts. I will skip writing them one by one because you may get bored. But just look at the photos, they say enough. In any case it would be a great choice for your lunch or dinner in Lecce. The service was also wonderful.

Restaurant Boccon Divino Lecce
Restaurant Boccon Divino Lecce

How to get to Lecce?

Lecce is a city in South Italy, in one of the southernmost regions – Puglia. It is the largest city at the Salento peninsula. Transport to Lecce is good and reliable. There are trains from different parts of Italy, including Naples and Bologna. The closest airport is the Brindisi airport, about 40 km from Lecce. Another airort in the region is the Bari airport, some 160 km from Lecce. For moving across Salento, we always recoment hiring a car. The public transport between the many small towns and villages is not very reliable. But if you plan to only stay in Lecce, public transport should be fine.

Morning walks in Lecce. We love this city
Morning walks in Lecce. We love this city

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When we hear about travelling to South Italy, we are always ready. And we often write about small places, towns and villages, food, wine and other small stories. See all of our articles about South Italy.

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