Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Lecce, Florence of the South

Lecce is a city that will seduce, beguile and ever so gently, educate you, but like all beautiful women, she requires your undivided attention. What makes Lecce so special? Why have the Stoic One and I made 4 trips here in the last 2 years? Let me begin my telling you a little story about the people. Several years ago Lecce was in competition for the 2019 European Cultural Capital award. http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-14-1176_en.htm

The city of Lecce lost to the city of Matera, also in the south and definitely worth seeing. (see my post on Matera...http://americansinumbria.blogspot.it/search?q=matera) The prize for this competition was 40 million Euros! Everyone I talked to in Lecce said that they were happy Matera won because that city needed the money more than Lecce. Matera has no railroad or airport, they said, and we have a very good train station and an airport close by in Brindisi, so it was good that Matera got the money. This was said without sarcasm, jealousy or resentment. Remarkable. In my experience, the people in Lecce are humble, kind and appreciative for what they have in life. They are also extremely welcoming to visitors and do all they can to make the tourist experience a good one. I wish more Americans would go to visit as they all love the US and welcome Americans with open arms.

The main thing that makes Lecce special and unique is the Baroque architecture. The period of high Baroque style was from 1625 to 1675. Historians believe that it was developed in response to the protestant reformation and was considered a primary component of the Catholic counter-reformation movement. Whereas the protestants threw out the madonna, the saints and all decoration both inside and outside of the church, the catholics went the other way and doubled down on adornments, florishes, and decorations. As you look at the facades of the building or inside the churches, is a panopoly of sculptures; fruit, angles, saints, trees, women, animals. The architecture is meant to inspire you with the power and artistry of the catholic church. Visiting Italy is nothing if not about the cultural experience and Lecce is a town that displays culture in an accessible way for most Americans.

Baroque is also defined by dynamism, or a sense of movement. Notice the carvings of these two women above a doorway at a palazzo in Lecce. Their garments are sculpted to show the movement of the wind as it blows through their dresses. 

Besides movement, Baroque is also about decoration. The three elements that are decorated in the Baroque style are the doorways, the windows and the balconies. Remember the goal of Baroque is to elicit an emotional respose in the viewer. If you have been awe-struck by the architecture of St. Peters, you have experienced the emotional theater of the Baroque style.

The Lecce stone, "pietra leccese" which is mined only in the enviorns of Lecce, makes Lecce unique in the world of Baroque architecture. It turns out that this stone is porous and soft when it first comes from the earth, which makes it ideal for sculpting, but then hardens, like cement after only a few years exposed to the atmosphere. This durability gives it the capacity to survive for 400 years. With time, it turns into a creamy yellow that makes the city look as if it is bathed in moonlight.

As a matter of fact, the city is particularly beautiful at night.

There are 56 churches in the historical center of Lecce. Each one can teach you something about the architecture of the era, the people and the way of life of a bygone time.

The next thing that makes Lecce great is the artisanship of its current population. Papier-mache, or cartapesta, is a true art form in Lecce. As the French say, "need is the mother of invention" cartapesta began as a craft about the same time as Baroque. It was used because the population did not have enough wood to make the statues that the church required, so they came up with the idea of using papermache. It is light to carry, easy to mold and paint and the components were readily available.  As you go into the churches and see the statues, take time and look carefully to see if you can tell that they are made of paper.

It is also important to comment on Lecce's long and complicated history. It was founded about 200 BC by the Messapi (a people whose origens are still debated.) It was conquered by Rome in the third century BC and there are remaining Roman amphitheater and theater that one can visit today. It was sacked in the Gothic Wars and remained part of the Eastern Roman Empire for 500 years.

This is the Roman Theater

The Roman Amphitheater in the middle of town.

There is much more, as you can imagine. The important thing is that with each invasion, and there were many, the people from Lecce absorbed the newcomers culture, sometimes food and sometimes language, which made them the interesting mix that you find today.

The food, wine and olive oil are also noteworthy. The bread and the sweets are fantastic, and fish is plentiful. The prices are low and the quality is high. What more can I say?

Lecce has not always been a great city for the tourists. Before the mid-nineties Lecce was riddled with crime, grafitti on the walls and a laissez-faire attitude toward the few tourists who straggled into town. That all changed when a woman, signora Andriana Polibortone became mayor in 1995. She saw that her city was going to die if changes were not made. She got the city cleaned up, repaired the streets, erased the graffitti and gave business owners 2 years of no taxes if they started a business aimed at tourists. She explained to the townspeople that tourism was their only economy, and they needed to take care of their treasures if they were to survive. The changes in the town, according to those who live there, have been remarkable. The town is very grateful to Sig. Polibortone, as you will be too as you walk around a clean, safe, beautiful city.

Both times we have stayed over night here we have stayed at a lovely B&B, Mantatelure'.  Marta provides excellent service, the breakfast is complete and the rooms and surrounding are beautifully designed.

As you can see, I am a big supporter of this city. I hope that American toursits will branch out and take a chance on Lecce. It is about a 5 hour train ride from Rome. Once in Lecce, you don't need a car. Just walking around the old town is enough to entertain and inform you of the history of this beautiful city.

While we were there we tour with an excellent guide, Silvia Mazzotta...I highly recommend her.

Guide: Silvia Mazzotta : silvia_mazzotta@hotmail.com
Places to stay: Mantatelurehttp://www.mantatelure.it
Things to see: The Duomo Square, Bishop's Palace, Chiesa del Rosario, Church of Sant'Irene, Basilica of Santa Croce, Roman Theater, Roman Amphitheater. In May look for the Cortile Aperti...where privately owned palazzi are opened to the public for tours.
Places to shop: Jewellery, Tonda Designhttp://www.tondadesign.it Beautiful Italian made linens
society store lecce
Places to eat: Pesceria con Cottura (a fresh fish restaurant where you choose your fish and cooking style. Excellent.)


  1. Hi Susan, this is your neighbour, Jill enjoying your blog. The last three years I have been doing occasional Tour Managing jobs and Puglia, commencing in Lecce is one of my favourites. There are so many things you find here and nowhere else in Italy, Lampascioni, Caroselli, Percoca and that lovely Fave purée. Do you visit the rest of Puglia at all....I have lots of recommendations

  2. Darn it. I wish I had talked to you before. We had a great trip, but I love referrals. Next time we go, I will pop downstairs to talk to you for sure!