Lecce - Italy's Best Kept Secret
Authentic and Mysterious - Italy's South
As most fellow footwear fashionista’s will appreciate, the heel of your Boot is of utmost importance, to the overall look and function of said boot! If it did not exist, it would not make sense, right? The “heel” of Italy, the region of Puglia (Apulia in English) I believe also to be of similar importance to Italy. Without Puglia, Italy would be a poorer country. The long narrow region spreads 800 km in length kissing the Adriatic Sea to the east before meeting the Ionian Sea in the south. It is the largest coastline in Italy, and undoubtedly Italy’s best kept secret. I stumbled upon this region four years ago and a love affair began which has brought me back again and again, exploring all that this region offers in abundance and then some. Lecce, pronounced "lay-chay", is one of those reasons that bring me back and this is my introduction to the Baroque Capital of Italy . . . . . .
Lecce Baroque Architecture
The Pearl Of The Baroque
Commonly referred to as “The Florence of the South”, Lecce is situated right at the bottom of the” heel”, on the Salento Peninsula, and may seem like too much of an "out of reach destination" for many. An explanation, perhaps, as to why it is not widely known to the majority of foreign visitors and has that fresh, unique and undiscovered mystique about it. With a population of 95,000 it is the second largest city in Puglia. Built predominantly in the 16th and 17th Centuries, upon entering the town you are captivated by the colouring of the buildings in the local Leccese stone. Hues of gold, cream and honey twinkle and glisten in the sunshine. The stone is so soft initially, you could grab a spoon, close your eyes and think you were scooping out some of the local gelato (ice-cream) instead!! This makes it very pliable for sculpting and building, before it hardens. Evidence of the creativity and touch of madness is everywhere in the baroque architecture. The best example of this is the amazing Basilica Di Santa Croce. a beautiful place to visit day and night, even whilst partaking in the Italian custom of La Passeggiata.
Peasant Food Fit For Kings
Much of the cuisine in Lecce has its grass roots in what is called “cucina povera” (peasant food) and dates back thousands of years, passed down in families. It is ironic then that one of the most popular “street food” dishes, Il Rustico Leccese actually originated with the nobility of Lecce. Although facts are sketchy, it is believed to have been made by the chefs in the Nobile homes of Lecce as their take on the French classic vol au vent. Il Rustico is a “cake” style sandwich of béchamel sauce, tomatoes and mozzarella cheese encased in two layers of puff pastry. What makes this so different is the puff in the pastry! It is made with lard and not butter. This you will notice in the first bite as it gives a softer, richer texture than the traditional crispy flaky variety. Definitely not to be missed for all foodies as It is a dish that is only known here and is not even featured in northern Puglia cuisine.
Parking with a Smart Car not a problem!
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Planes, Trains and Automobiles
On first observing where Lecce is situated, you may dismiss it as a contender worthy of a visit. Appearing isolated, looks can be deceiving and this is a case in point.
There are 2 International airports, Brindisi and Bari (the capital of Puglia) which make flying in an option and both I have frequented, both in arrivals and departures! I have even flown into Rome and Naples, hired a car, and driven with trusty map in the general direction of the “heel” into the unknown! Everything is an option is my point if you want to get somewhere, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way”. If flying you will need to either connect with a train or bus to Lecce or pick up a hire car at the airport. Brindisi is closest at 40 km (25 miles) and Bari is 137 km (85 miles)
Well serviced with trains, you can not only travel to the major Cities in Italy such as Rome, Milan and Florence, but also many of the smaller ones in the south that are a “must see” when in the area. These include Martina Franca, Alberobello and Ostuni all good day trip options. Having printed timetables in advance is a good idea, to help you plan your Itinery to a degree. I say to a degree because if you are like me, nothing will go to plan exactly, there’s always a curve ball at some point, an unexpected opportunity to experience, one that you may never get again and would regret not having taken.
I would strongly recommend car hire for this region however, as you will see so much more and experience a great deal. Many of the beautiful towns and villages in this region are easily accessible for day trips from Lecce, even Alberobello and Matera.
These two in particular do deserve a full day in each (if possible) to wander around leisurely, as they are truly magnificent and both are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Car hire we have always booked in advance and have picked up our trusty wheels in Rome, Naples and Bari without any problems. I came across an interesting site called Rentasmart recently, which I thought sounded great if you fancy driving a Smart Car!!! I think they are funky and totally perfect for manoeuvring the tiny back streets of towns in Puglia.
They also seem very reasonable and have had good reviews online. Driving here is an experience, not for the faint hearted, however it is the way to go to really get the very best out of your visit. Mopeds are the other very common site along with Smart Cars in Southern Italy. lining up on the piazzas they are every colour, style and price tag imaginable and are a great idea to hire for the shorter trips in and around Lecce with the added bonus of being much easier to park up!
Just remember where you park and what your moped looks like!! I did say there are quite a few of them about!!!
Wander the Side Streets in Lecce
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Lecce is a sophisticated yet down to earth town with its roots firmly planted in Rustic charm. With over 40 churches and nearly as many palazzi (palaces), it oozes grandeur around every corner. Predominantly visited by Northern Italians, it is a busy place in the height of summer yet you do not feel it in the same way as you would in places such as Rome. A university town, it is lively yet has that sleepy feel to it. The people are warm, welcoming and delight in you just being there in their town they are so proud of. If you are looking for an ideal destination that will give you something different then this “Florence of Southern Italy” with the barmy Baroque is just the answer!
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© 2012 Suzanne Ridgeway