Lecce - A pearl on the Italian heel
Italy is so densely populated with artistic, historic and architectural wonders that it is easy for a foreign traveller to focus all their attention on the most famous and crowded tourist sites and landmarks and miss some amazing places hidden in plain sight and well worth the visit.
Apulia or Puglia in Italian, is a region in Southern Italy, occupying “the heel” of Italy. It is blessed with the longest coastline than any other region of Italy, bordering the Adriatic Sea to the east and the Ionian Sea to the southeast. This is the region that accounts for 40% of Italy’s olive oil production and it’s worth saying that there are about 60 million olive trees in Puglia!
Near the Adriatic coast of South Italy lies a small town with a population of about 95,000 inhabitants. Its elegant baroque stone facades mesmerise visitors as they approach it. It is often referred to as “the Florence of the South” and deservedly so.
Lecce had always held a prized place on the wish list of many conquerors. Lecce’s turbulent and rich history which stretches back to Roman times is visible in the city's structure, historic landmarks, and interesting artistic melting pot of cultures that once reigned its narrow streets.
A casual walk through Lecce is like walking through a film set. At first you might think that it is a film set in Roman times because there’s a big Roman theatre dating back all the way from the 2nd century, finely preserved, with 4,000 seats (it could seat 25,000 people at the time of its glory!) and ready to host spectators for the evening show just like in the times of Hadrian the Emperor! It’s no wonder that for the modern citizens of Lecce, it still represents a meeting point, a place to enjoy the sunset, a stop on an evening walk to have an ice-cream under the stars among the thousand years worth of history and culture. A delightful experience!
But as you continue the Lecce adventure, your eyes encounter a beauty from the Middle Ages: The Church of the Holy Cross – started in 1353 and finished in the 17th century, which is the reason for its lavish baroque façade with amazing decorations, array of sculptures carved into the stone walls and mesmerising detailed artwork. Lecce is known for its unique creamy stone that shines soothingly in the Mediterranean sun, giving many buildings in this town a precious glow. The Church of the Holy Cross is built entirely of this stone, making it a true gem of Lecce’s history and religious tradition. Saying that you’d be stunned standing in front of this monumental place might be an understatement.
A casual walk is sure to take you to the Piazza del Duomo. Famous Lecce stone is also the star here. You’ll encounter a beautiful vast square, harbouring another important Lecce meeting point – The Duomo or Lecce Cathedral, originally built in 1144 and restored in 1230, with its 70 metres high bell tower. The interior of the Cathedral is rich in gold artwork, masterfully painted ceilings and historic artefacts. Some consider it to be one of the most important religious sites in the whole of Italy.
As your gaze and wander around the baroque buildings and intricate artwork that emerges in abundance all over Lecce, your feet might get tired. It means that the time has come to experience a bit of the true Dolce Vita and indulge in Lecce’s world famous espresso coffee with almond milk, or as the Italians call it – Caffe Leccese. Three main ingredients make this coffee a welcoming delicacy on a hot and humid day: espresso coffee, ice cubes and almond milk. But as is the case in all the Italian recipes, there are some strict rules to follow: the ice cubes must be large so that they do not melt quickly and dilute the exquisite taste of Caffe Leccese. The almond milk gives a frothy, velvety feeling to this caffeine marvel.
Take me to Italy can organise a special tasting of Caffe Leccese for you and we are sure that you’ll become a fan once you take your first sip!
If you really want to experience the complete Dolce Vita break during your time in Lecce, there is another delicacy that you need to try and, as you might have guessed, it goes well with Caffe Leccese – Pasticciotto. It’s a traditional cake of Lecce made of pastry and filled with egg and vanilla cream or in another version – filled with ricotta cheese. You can taste it in various coffee shops and restaurants in Lecce and no matter where you decide to stop, they will tell you that they make the best Pasticciotto in the whole of Puglia.