Lovely Lecce: Puglia’s baroque beauty

After a couple of days in sparkling white Ostuni, our Puglian road trip saw us heading further down the heel of Italy’s boot to Lecce. It’s a very different city with a distinctive architectural style being heavily dominated by baroque buildings created in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Lecce tends to divide opinions. It’s called the most beautiful city in Italy by some, but the Marchese Grimaldi said the facade of Basilica di Santa Croce made him think a lunatic was having a nightmare! Brothers Antonio and Giuseppe Zimbalo were both involved in building the church and were known for creating some of Lecce’s craziest and most lavish baroque decorations.

Santa Croce is one of more than 40 churches in Lecce and is included in a ticket that gets you into the city’s most popular churches and the Museum of Sacred Art. The Basilica’s interior is more conventionally baroque but the facade has sheep, dodos, cherubs and beasties writhing across it. So definitely one to spend some time gazing up at.

In fact, we found ourselves walking past Santa Croce many times. Partly because despite being one of Puglia’s larger cities Lecce is quite compact. But also because it’s very easy to get lost there. My friend and I are pretty good with maps as a rule. But in Lecce we seemed to regularly go down narrow streets that were very pretty but didn’t take us where we expected them to!

Palazzo dei Celestini (also known as Palazzo della Provincia di Lecce) is the lovely building next door to Santa Croce. It was previously a convent but is now the local government HQ, not a bad place to come to work every day.

Palazzo della Provincia di LecceIf you walk through the Palazzo dei Celestini’s pretty courtyard you’ll come out opposite Villa Comunale, Lecce’s public gardens. It’s a nice spot with a fountain and plenty of benches so a good place for walk around or to sit a while in the sun.

Back in the old town maze, Piazza del Duomo is the centre of Lecce’s baroqueness. It’s a surprisingly large space amongst the tightly packed streets. Evidently, the city’s residents barricaded themselves into the sizeable square when under invasion.

Piazza del Duomo, LecceGiuseppe Zimbalo reconstructed Lecce’s 12th-century cathedral in 1659 and it’s pretty unusual as has two facades. The more ornate one faces the piazza while the other plainer one is on the western side. Next to the cathedral is the beautiful Episcopal Palace (Palazzo Arcivescovile) while the Museum of Sacred Art is on the other side of the square.

Piazza del Duomo is definitely somewhere you’ll want to visit during the day, but it’s also worth swinging by late in the evening when the visitors are few and far between and the buildings are beautifully lit.

There are lots of other churches to visit in Lecce, but I’ll just mention a couple more. Chiesa di Santa Chiara is very nice with twisting columns and ornate statues. The ceiling is made from Lecce cartapestra (papier mache) masquerading as wood. Opposite the church is a row of cafe bars, and it seemed only right to pop across to Profumo di Pane to have a glass of wine while admiring the view.

Chiesa di San Matteo is a graceful little church that was also worked on by Guiseppe Zimbalo after the original architect died. It has an elaborate facade and a nice light interior. Most of the photos in this post are of interiors because it’s difficult to get an exterior shot that is landscape, but there are a few in the gallery at the end.

The Chiesa di Santa Maria della Provvidenza below is one of very few that is in a big enough space to stand back and get a landscape shot. It’s really quite amazing how these stunning churches are squeezed into Lecce’s narrow streets and small squares.

And although Lecce is dominated by baroque buildings there are also signs of Roman times. In Piazza Sant’Oronzo, the city’s main communal square, you’ll find a restored 2nd-century Roman amphitheatre that was discovered by construction workers and excavated in the 1930s. It has a perfect horseshoe of seats with an original capacity of 15,000. There’s a handy row of cafe bars just opposite including Bona Sciana which has plenty of outside seating.

Teatro Romano is smaller and like so many of Leece sights is well tucked away. We came across it by accident and then struggled to find our way back to it the next day! It’s well worth hunting down to peer through the railings and imagine seeing a performance there years before.

Other sights of note are the old city gates. Porta Rudiae is topped with statues of saints while Porta Napoli is the main city gate built in 1548 in anticipation of a visit from the King of Spain Charles V. It was modelled on a Roman triumphal arch carved with toy weapons and a large Spanish coat of arms.

There’s also a 12th-century castle but we didn’t find it particularly interesting! Better were the multitude of beautiful palaces, or palazzos scattered all over Lecce’s old town, some of which are now hotels. We stayed at Centro Storico B&B in Via Andrea Vignes which is housed in the 16th century Palazzo Astore. It has lovely big rooms and a large rooftop terrace.

Our host Alberto couldn’t have been more friendly and helpful. He gave us a lovely welcome and was always happy to both recommend places to eat and make the bookings for us. For breakfast, he provided vouchers for nearby Pasticceria Pinti. Every region of Italy has its local specialities and a typical breakfast in Lecce includes coffee (or tea in my case), juice and a Pasticciotti. These crumbly pastries filled with sweet, thick cream sounded a bit rich for breakfast but when in Lecce…

Staying on the food theme, Piazza Castromediano Sigismondo is a good place to find a meal or a drink at any time of day. We liked sitting outside Messapia Wine Bar. There was always lots of people watching to be done, including what looked to be the filming of an episode of an Italian reality TV show. We also had a light dinner one evening at Enogastronomia Povero. We’d had a proper lunch so just had simple dishes like cheeses, anchovies and tomatoes, but everything was full of flavour and delicious.

Not far from here in Via Idomeneo is Baldo Gelato, which claims to sell the best ice cream in Lecce. I wouldn’t argue with that, mine was the most intense chocolate ice cream I’ve ever had. As recommended by Alberto we also had lunch just across the street from Baldo at Betty’s, a traditional but pretty quirky place.

Our first night in Lecce was a Monday and not much was open so we just went around the corner from the B&B to La Negra Tomasa. Alberto had recommended Il Quinto which is right opposite the B&B but it was closed. La Negra was probably not one he would have recommended as a bit more cheap and cheerful, but the waiter was friendly, the food was good and we liked it.

By contrast, we also had dinner at La Barca di Mario, a restaurant specialising in fish. It’s in a quiet corner very close to Porta Rudiae and the food and service were both excellent.

For drinks after dinner, there is Quanto Basta in Via Marco Basseo, a great place to drink classic cocktails (or whatever else you fancy) on outdoor tables. Opposite is Prohibition and round the corner is QuarantaCinqueEnoteca, so if you can’t get a table at one you can try another.

Mamma Elvira is one of a row of bars near Santa Croce that had been recommended by Alberto as a good for late afternoon drinks and apertivi, but we never found them open. Possibly trade was still slow because of the pandemic restrictions so the hours were shorter. We went after dinner on our last night and Mamma’s was open but busy, so we went to the Jolly Roger. An unlikely name for a bar in a beautiful Italian city but good cocktails!

So as you can tell there is lots to see and do in Lecce. But another reason we stayed three nights was to have time for a day trip to another of the region’s towns. We were torn between driving further down the Adriatic coast to Otranto or across to Gallipoli on the Ionian Sea. We opted for the latter on the basis that it might be nice to see a different coast and we were glad we did as Gallipoli is a lovely place.

The very pretty old town is on an island that’s connected by a causeway to the modern part of the town on the mainland. We walked all the way around the peninsula enjoying the sea views before heading in to explore the old town.

There is some similar baroque architecture to Lecce including 17th-century Cattedrale di Sant’Agata. Unsurprisingly Giuseppe Zimbalo had worked on that church too. Inside is a mix of Byzantine and Renaissance styles with marble columns and large paintings and frescoes.

There are quite a few other churches worth popping into. Some have gorgeous mosaic-tiled floors as well as also being decorated with paintings and frescos. The Chiesa della Purita was an interesting one as looked quite plain from the outside but the inside was pretty elaborate.

Chiesa della Purita, GallipoliChiesa della Purita, GallipoliWe also visited Frantoi Ipogei which is one of 35 olive presses buried in the rock under the town. Between the 16th and early 19th centuries, local workers pressed Gallipoli’s olive oil which was stored in 2,000 cisterns carved under the old town.

Just around the corner in Via Sant’Angelo we came across the prettiest library I’ve ever seen and Baguetteria de Pace a small sandwich shop with a few tables. But as Gallipoli is known for its seafood we were in the market for some fish with a sea view. So we walked around the peninsula again and settled on Il Faro where the swordfish was fresh and delicious.

And that was a wrap on our visit to lovely Lecce. The next morning we packed up and headed down to Pinti for a final indulgent breakfast before heading back to our very small rental car and on to our next stop, Alberobello. Look out for a post about that pretty unique Puglia town coming soon.

Click on an image below to scroll through the gallery and visit the Europe section of my blog for more about this trip and other ideas for holidays on the continent.

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