Lecce is a city of 90,000 located about as far south on the Italian boot as you can go. And though it is not well known—or perhaps because of this—it took my breath away when I first stumbled upon it three years ago. Intricate Baroque sculptures pop out of the walls at every turn. A Roman amphitheater from 400 A.D. comprises half of the main Piazza Sant’Oronzo where an incredible Duomo with a 210-foot tower sits in the middle, and a young university crowd spills out into the streets from numerous jazz clubs every night.
Lecce is distinguished by those tiny cobblestone streets that Italy is known for, those that twist and wind like a labyrinth. The tall doorways and balconies feature stone carvings that are particularly elaborate because of a rare limestone called Leccese Stone, or Pietra Leccese. Unique to the area, it has the quality of being soft and easily carved when first excavated and then, after it has dried, becoming very hard. Lecce is known as the “Florence of the South” because of its architecture and sculptures.
The façade of the Santa Croce church is the most impressive, and like most of the facades in Lecce, was added to a pre-existing church during the 17th Century, thanks to an outpouring of money and interest from the Hapsburg Dynasty. It features creatures as bizarre as those from the book “Where The Wild Things Are”. The experience of looking up at the façade can be overwhelming and I still, three years later, find new details.
Lecce has two castles; the most impressive being Castel Carlo IV, which was built in the 16th Century. It is one of twenty castles on the Salento peninsula. Lecce’s open-air market sets up around the castle, and you can find everything from inexpensive sunglasses and clothing to African wood-carvings and espresso makers.
Lecce’s cuisine is one of a kind, and its wines have recently gained respect from the world market. A two-to-three course dinner with wine can cost as little as fifteen euro per person. Ciceri e tria is a traditional dish of chickpeas and homemade pasta, half of which is deep fried, and cannot be missed. It is a unique take on comfort food. Two of the best restaurants providing traditional Pugliese cuisine are Nonna Tetti and Alle due Corti.
Throughout the summer, Lecce puts on many free performances, from jazz to chamber music to ballet. Most take place in the Piazza Sant’Oronzo, where large free-standing signs advertise the next event. Concerts and ballets are also performed in the Roman Amphitheater—and they are usually not free. I like to check out the local jazz clubs which feature local musicians, particularly the bar Cagliostro.
In my experience, the best way to stay in Lecce is to stay in a B&B in the city centro. They start as low as forty euro per person or sixty euro for two, with significant reductions for larger groups. The B&Bs are centrally located, and many offer glimpses into the spectacular private gardens that are hidden from the streets. It is best to book in advance, especially during July and August.