If you want to experience the legendary “real Italy”, you should visit the southernmost regions of the country… More backward, poorer, wilder and deeply rooted in tradition… Such are the southerners! Large portions of everything this you will find in Lecce! A city whose architectural grandeur is incomparable to any other in the Puglia region and in the neighboring areas…
Where is located and how to get there
Lecce is one of the most important cities in the Puglia region. It’s located almost in the middle of the heel of the boot, as they liken the Apennine Peninsula. It is 150 km away from Bari, and the largest nearby town is Brindisi, on 40 km. These are both cities, which are often the first stop for tourists arriving in the region.
Lecce can be reached by train, bus or car. Of course, the latter option is the most convenient. If you don’t have a personal car or car rental, trains are also a good option. From Bari departs almost every 30 minutes, the duration of the trip is just under 2 hours, and the ticket price is 11.30 euro. You can find current schedules on the website TRENITALIA.
We traveled by rental car from Alberobello to pass through Locorotondo and Ostuni and end up in Lecce in the early afternoon. We had planned around 3 hours in the city, which were enough for us. Near the central part there are two convenient car parks, which can be used – Parcheggio di Via Adua and Parcheggio lecce. The first has a barrier and is relatively large, the price is fixed – 5 euro for 6 hours. We used the second one, which is significantly smaller and the summer may be crowded, but in early March it was rather empty. Its price is 0.60 euro per hour, and a ticket from a car can be purchased in advance.
The gates to the old town
The old town of Lecce is what attracts tourists… Most of the sights are positioned there and almost everything is within walking distance. The entrance to it is through one of the three preserved gates from its former walls, which completely surrounded him.
The most famous is the Porta Napoli, which is a typical Roman triumphal arch. Built in honor of Carlo V in 1548, today it is the main entrance to the old part of Lecce and a favorite meeting place for locals. We passed her by car and so we decided not to come back again…
Our parking lot was right next to Porta Rudiae, which is the oldest of the three! The original has collapsed and its current appearance was built in 1703. On each side of the arch there are two columns supporting the busts of the mythical founders of the city.
The third is dating from 1774 Porta San Biagio. It is located on the other side of the center and due to its remoteness is the least visited.
In the streets of Lecce
It isn’t possible to say exactly when the city was born, but judging by the legends, the first information about life in this area dates back to the Trojan War! Then there was a settlement called Sybar, founded by a Greek tribe, whose origin is associated with the island of Crete. In the 3rd century BC, the Romans arrived and renamed it Lupiae. In the 1st – 2nd century AD. its first flowering began, and some buildings from that time can still be seen today! Subsequently, Emperor Hadrian changed the name to Licea or Litium (depending on the sources)…
The city’s greatest prosperity came after the 11th century, when it was conquered by the Normans. Lecce is of key commercial and political importance. From the 15th century it passed under the jurisdiction of the Kingdom of Sicily and became one of the most important cities in southern Italy!
Behind the gates, the movement of cars is limited, although are there and care must be taken. We enter via Via Giuseppe Libertini, which is one of the main streets to the central square Piazza Sant’Oronzo. The yellowish color on the facades attracts the eye, and the best way to get to know this part of Lecce is just to wander through the labyrinths of streets and rediscover small squares and unique baroque churches…
The Baroque of Lecce – Barocco Leccese
Today the city is world-famous as “Baroque Florence” or “Southern Florence”… The reason for this is mostly in the architectural heyday in the 17th century, which has no equal in southern Italy. It is the work of the Habsburgs, and the main architect of the most popular baroque buildings in the old part is Giuseppe Zimbalo, who transformed the vision of Lecce.
Baroque ornaments and facades aren’t limited to the key landmarks in the city, but are present in almost every building! Thus the walk through the streets of Lecce becomes a kind of tour of a unique construction for the region. To make it even more unique, the builders used local limestone with shades of yellow (pietra leccese), which is very soft in composition and this allowed them to unleash their talent in the details of the facades! Of course, over time it hardens and today we can enjoy its unique color and wonderful shapes created by the hands of local masters…
The most wonderful example of this baroque flourishing is the cathedral square, which contrasts with its space on the streets around it so far – Pizza del Duomo. One of the few Italian squares where you will not find the usual noise and the many cafes and restaurants… It’s completely enclosed by buildings and is entered through a small gap on Via Giuseppe Libertini and Via Vittorio Emanuele II. In the past, it even has been closed with a gate in the evening!
Here the atmosphere is much more secluded and allows us to enjoy the exquisite baroque creations. It houses the Cathedral of Lecce (Duomo di Lecce – Cattedrale Maria Santissima Assunta), the bell tower (Campanile), the Episcopal Palace (Palazzo Arcivescovile) and the Seminary (Palazzo del Seminario).
Cathedral of Lecce – Duomo di Lecce
The exquisite cathedral of Lecce dates from 1144, but was rebuilt in the 17th century by the aforementioned Zimbalo. According to many, this is his best creation! Unfortunately, the visit to the temple is paid… We paid a ticket of 5 euro, which includes a visit to the Duomo, the crypt to it and the opposite building of the ancient seminary.
The facade of the cathedral is remarkable! There is an abundance of baroque elements, and in the center you can see the statue of the patron saint of Lecce – Saint Oronzo (Sant’Oronzo). The 72-meter bell tower rises right next to the gate. In fact, this is not the main entrance, but it is more impressive and noticed by tourists. The other is located at the opposite end of the square and remains unnoticed.
As soon as you enter, the exquisite baroque ornaments and the yellowish local limestone make an impression… On the beautiful ceiling next to the entrance are three paintings that recreate some of the exploits of St. Oronzo. It is worth visiting the beautiful altars and the underground crypt, where the remains of the cathedral can be seen before the Baroque renovation. Photos are forbidden there…
We decided to take a look there too, it was иn the ticket for the Duomo… The architecture of the building impresses with linearity, harmony and lavish baroque decorations around windows and balconies… The former seminary serves as a museum, with the exhibits arranged on two floors and viewed quickly.
We were most impressed by the yard and more precisely the well located in its center… The creation is the work of Giuseppe Cino (sculptor from Lecce), who also works on the vision of the facade. The two columns show many sculpted fruits, two images of angels and the statue of the first patroness of the city – St. Irene (Santa Irene).
Less than 500 meters from the Cathedral Square is hidden one of the greatest treasures in Lecce – the Roman Theater. Visitors to the city often wander around it, but unsuspecting of its existence miss it…
It dates back to the 1-2 century AD. and is the only Roman theater in Puglia! While the amphitheaters were battles with animals and gladiators, the theaters were for the play of comedies and tragedies. For thousands of years, this place was buried and erased from the map, until it was accidentally discovered in 1929 during construction work in the gardens of nearby palaces. To this day, much of it remains under the foundations of neighboring buildings… But it’s also exceptional in its current form – nestled among the surrounding homes! It once seated around 5,000 people…
💡 Its official entrance is from Via Degli Ammirati and a fee of 3 euro is charged for visiting. But you can get around it and enjoy it for free from the corner of Via Del Teatro Romano and Via Arte della Cartapesta – HERE.
The central square
St. Oronzo Square is the heart of the city! Since Roman times, it has been the busiest place in Lecce. Spacious and surrounded by many boutiques, cafes and restaurants. There is a variety of architectural styles, interesting buildings, palaces and churches. But the most attractive are the 29 m high column of St. Oronzo and the huge Roman amphitheater…
The statue of Saint Oronzo
This is one of the two columns that in the past marked the end of the ancient Roman road Via Appia in the nearby town Brindisi. Today on top of it rises a bronze statue of the patron saint of Lecce. Well, when we visited it, she was in restoration and the statue was gone…
💡 Saint Oronzo, or Saint Orontius, is the patron saint of Lecce and is highly revered throughout Puglia, but less well known in other parts of the country… According to locals, he was proclaimed the first bishop of Lecce by St. Paul! He was declared a saint in the 17th century, when legend has it that he saved Lecce from the terrible plague that swept through the area. His statues can also be seen in Ostuni, where he is also considered the patron saint of the city.
The Roman amphitheater
The view of the huge amphitheater in the square is one of the most recognizable in Lecce! What we see today is only a third of the entire facility. Like the Teatro Romano, the amphitheater was discovered by chance in 1901 during the construction of the Italian bank – Banca d’Italia. It was built in the 1st or 2nd century AD. and in its entirety could hold almost 25,000 spectators!
Church of the Holy Cross – Basilica di Santa Croce
The basilica is the absolute baroque masterpiece of Lecce. The construction of the current vision began in 1549 and lasted for almost 100 years! It is due to several architects, and I will not surprise you that one is Zimbalo… For the city he is like Antoni Gaudi for Barcelona!
Due to the duration of construction, the lower row of the façade retains the typical 16th-century Renaissance appearance, and in the upper row the Baroque simply explodes and attracts the attention…The entire facade is built with local limestone, and the mixture of strange shapes, fruits, plants, animal and human images creates a unique work of art!
Time for eat
The street food in Lecce is great! And one place has been here since 1941. This Antica Pucceria Giannone dal 1941. There you will find the typical for this area sandwiches – Puccia. Their breads don’t look like the traditional ones for Puglia, but this is the secret of their unique taste…
We are greeted by Giuseppe – a salesman, baker, manager and even a brewer. With a flame in his eyes he tells us that his grandfather is the founder of the restaurant and he is a third generation owner. He claims that this is the first pucceria in the world! Sandwiches are made from freshly baked traditional bread according to his grandfather’s secret recipe… It all started in the field with the local workers. His grandfather kneaded the breads and went to sell them… Some ate it at the moment, others put it in their pockets and kept working…
Seasonal products from the region are added to the dough – dried tomatoes, olives and even turnips. Be careful only with the olives, because they are baked in the bread directly with the stones! We trusted Giuseppe completely for the choice of ingredients! Inside there were tomatoes, arugula, local salami from Martina Franca, typical for the region cheese burrata and various other delicacies… The price of the sandwich is about 7 euro.
The typical dessert of Lecce
We can’t help but try the traditional Lecce dessert – pasticciotto! This is the local confectionery pride. It is an exquisite dessert with a crispy crust and superb egg custard… Sold in almost every restaurant, bakery or restaurant. It can be seen in different varieties – with pistachios, almonds or nutella… I recommend you try the original taste of the Pasticceria Natale… against the background of the amphitheater…
What we missed
Lecce is famous for something else – papier-maché statues! You will find many studios with similar figures, such as Cartapesta Riso и Cartapesta Leccese Baldari, which you can visit and see the creations of local masters. This art gained popularity in the 17th century, when the Baroque conquered the city. Many people cannot afford to order stone statues and stop at paper ones. The craft has survived to this day…
You can also try the local latte with almond milk – Caffe Leccese! Represents espresso coffee, a few ice cubes and almond milk from the region. Serves are everywhere. Interestingly, the region around Salento and Lecce is the producer of one third of all almond production in Italy!