When the large food venders rolled in, I knew this was going to be a big one. Lecce features events of all shapes and sizes on a weekly basis each summer, but the biggest celebration of all is the Sant’Oronzo Festival. The streets are lined with elaborate, blazing light displays as well as food and merchandise stands of all types. The annual event takes place on the 26th of August, and marks the end of a long month of rest and relaxation for Italians. Concerts also take place in every arena in the city, many of which are outdoors. One such concert takes place at the ancient amphitheater in the center of the main piazza, and the music can be heard drifting up the streets in all directions. The event features the very best light display that I’ve ever seen.
The festival begins with a solemn parade in honor of the patron saint of Lecce, Saint Orontius of Lecce (Sant’Oronzo in Italian). Sant’Oronzo is famously attributed with saving the city from a plague in 1656, and is now honored with a statue of him which stands atop a tall pillar in Piazza Sant’Oronzo. Beginning at 7pm, the parade features a brass band, religious singing, monks and nuns dressed in traditional attire, and large gold and silver statues of saints that are carried on biers by priests and military men. This rather short, but impressive parade winds its way through the whole length of the town and back.
Several of the largest streets in Lecce are taken over by street merchants who sell trinkets, toys, cookware, and other odds and ends. The food venders are nearly as eclectic, selling everything from hot-dog and French-fry pizzas to fresh olives and pate. I chose to stay away from these areas because they were so busy. Once you get lost in one, it’s very hard to escape!
The music struck up all around the city after nightfall. My favorite performance, modern dance with accompanying music, took place in the Teatro Romano—an ancient Roman theater in the city center. The Amphiteatro Romano in Piazza Sant’Oronzo featured a complete symphony that could be heard everywhere in the massive square. I’m not sure why anyone would pay for a seat!
The most impressive element of this celebration is the massive display of lights that fill the city. The streets of light all lead to Piazza Sant’Oronzo where a towering dome of light stands nearly 25 or 30 feet high. When there are no bands playing beneath the dome, you can walk beneath it and stare into the thousands of twinkling lights for a memorable visual experience. It took the city an entire week to erect the lights, and even three weeks after the event, the lights were still up, though no longer lit at night. It seemed that the people of Lecce were simply not ready to let go of this fabulous festival.