LECCE, Italy (Reuters Life!) - Tucked away in the heel of the Italian “boot,” the town hosting the Group of Eight’s finance ministers this weekend has a lot to offer its visitors.
Famous for its voluptuous Baroque architecture, Lecce has an elegant city center which has earned the town nicknames such as “Florence of the South,” “Baroque pearl” or “Apulia’s Athens.”
To find out why, just wander through the center and admire the facades of the buildings, all carved in a soft local stone with a warm sandy color. And when the Mediterranean sun hits too hard, sit down for an iced coffee sweetened with almond milk.
6:30 p.m. Step into the heart of Lecce, a city of about 95,000 people, and start to get familiar with its web of narrow alleys by stopping for a drink in an atmospheric little square known as Corte dei Cicala (the Cicadas’ Court).
Part of the nearby Liberrima bookshop, the All’ombra del Barocco cafe (1, Corte dei Cicala, +39 0832 242 626) occupies a cozy corner with its shaded outdoor tables and offers a fine view of one of Lecce’s numerous Baroque churches, Sant’Irene. 8:30 p.m. Lecce’s Apulia region has a traditional diet in which vegetables feature heavily, followed by fish. The two Earth and Sea menus of the Picton restaurant (14, via Idomeneo, +39 0832 332 383) allow a vast choice, especially when ordering starters. Follow up with a tuna filet pasta dish and jumbo prawns with bread crumbs.
9 a.m. Start your tour of Lecce from Piazza Sant’Oronzo, named after the town’s patron saint, whose statue crowns a pillar in the middle of the square.
Next to the column, find the remains of a Roman amphitheatre as well as an unusually shaped building known as The Seat. Built in the 16th century, the squared construction with large pointed windows was home to the local administration until 1851. Note the portal of the nearby St Mark’s chapel: the lion, symbol of the Venetian Republic, testifies to the close ties between Venice and Lecce.
10 a.m. Facing the Roman amphitheatre is Caffe Alvino (24, Piazza Sant’Oronzo, +39 0832 246 748), one of Lecce’s best-known cafes. Recently renovated, Alvino is worth a stop for a coffee and a taste of Lecce’s trademark sweet, the ‘pasticciotto’, a pastry filled with custard cream. 10:30 a.m. From the square take Via Vittorio Emanuele II to reach the spectacular Piazza Duomo. The cathedral’s square is closed on three sides so that, on accessing it through a passage guarded on each side by statues of saints standing on a balcony, one has the impression of entering a stage. The theatrical effect is even greater at night when the square is beautifully lit. Next to the cathedral are the bishop’s residence, with its elegant loggia, and the seminary’s building, whose courtyard treasures an artfully sculpted stone well. 11:30 a.m. Resume your tour and head to the Santa Croce Basilica (Via Umberto I), considered the acme of Lecce’s Baroque monuments next to the former Celestine convent. Let the wealth of the decoration dazzle you as your eyes wander from the mythological animals to the festoons and numberless angels. 1 p.m. Stop for lunch at the Il Giardino restaurant (10, Via Cesare Battisti, +39 0832 309 612) where you can dine among orange trees in a pleasant courtyard. The chef recommends egg pasta sheets with prawns and monkfish — the poor man’s lobster. Leave some room for a ‘spumone’, a local hazelnut ice-cream. 3 p.m. Visit Lecce’s 16th century castle, named after the Spanish king Charles V (Viale 25 Luglio, +39 0832 244 845). The castle was built as part of an ambitious project to strengthen the area’s defensive system after the Ottomans sacked the coastal town of Otranto, southeast of Lecce, in 1480.
5 p.m. Lecce’s shopping district occupies the newer part of the center, developing down Via Salvatore Trinchese until the modern Piazza Giuseppe Mazzini. If you wish to remain in the older neighborhood, though, you will find quite a few shops, often selling artisans’ works, along Via Giuseppe Palmieri and on the side streets off Via Vittorio Emanuele II. 8 p.m. Take a deeper dip into the Apulia region’s gastronomic tradition with dinner at Trattoria Cucina Casereccia (19, Via Colonnello Costadura, +39 0832 245 178) commonly known as Le Zie. In this homely setting go for a staple dish like ‘ciceri e tria’, homemade pasta with chickpeas. 11 p.m. To enjoy old Lecce by night your address is Piazzetta Raimondello Orsini. Here you can join customers of wine bars La Tipografia (+39 0832 307 024) and Corte dei Pandolfi (+39 0832 332 309) drinking and chatting outdoors.
10 a.m. Spend time visiting a permanent exhibition of local handicrafts (21, Via Francesco Rubichi). Lecce’s craftsmen are famous for their papier-mache works, often representing characters from a Christmas creche. The artisan tradition also includes pottery, embroidery and wrought iron. 1 p.m. Lunch at Osteria degli Spiriti (4, Via Cesare Battisti, +39 0832 246 274). Try ‘polpette’, meat balls with a tomato sauce, or ‘fave e cicorie’, bean puree with wild chicory. The ample wine list offers both regional and national names. 3 p.m. For a last stroll in the center return to Via Vittorio Emanuele II, which then becomes Via Giuseppe Libertini and takes you to the Chiesa del Rosario — with its exuberant facade rich in sculpted flowers — and Porta Rudiae, once one of the four access points to the city.
Old palaces built by Lecce’s wealthy families are as much of an attraction as the city’s religious monuments, so watch for the carved decorations of portals and balconies. Particularly noteworthy are palaces Marrese (Piazzetta Ignazio Falconieri) and Persone (Via Vittorio Emanuele II).
Among the many Baroque churches don’t miss San Matteo (Via dei Perroni) with its peculiar concave-and-convex facade, partly decorated by scales. 5 p.m. Don’t leave Lecce without having an ice-cream from Gelateria Natale (7, Via Salvatore Trinchese, +39 0836 256 060). If you don’t have a sweet tooth, try a ‘rustico’, with its phyllo dough stuffed with bechamel and tomato sauce. Walk down the same road to Avio Bar (16, Via Salvatore Trinchese, +39 0832 304 150), famous also for its iced coffee.
Editing by Paul Casciato