Lecce - The Florence of the South

In the very heel of Italy’s boot nestles the spellbinding city of Lecce. It is the capital of the Lecce province, which is the second largest in the Puglia region.

It is not at all surprising that Lecce has the nickname of ‘the Florence of the South’. Like its Tuscan counterpart Lecce is packed full of Art and Architecture wherever you turn.

But Lecce is not Florence.

It has a charm and identity of its own, boasting a wealth of Baroque architecture in its spider web of side streets, unlike anywhere else in Italy. And it takes just that little bit more effort to add it on to a tour of the major Italian cities, leaving it enviably free from Florence’s crowds. Those who find Florence on the large side, with its population of 361,000 compared to Lecce’s 95,000, will be pleasantly surprised by this playful and compact city.

As a smallish city, many of the major landmarks and notable gems are within easy reach of each other. These include the impressive Roman remains, which many claim to be much easier to access than those in Rome. Imagine being alive in Roman times by walking to the main square, Piazza Sant’Oronzo, which contains the city’s main amphitheatre. Although half buried today, it was originally built to seat over 25,000 people, and is now used for music and art events. Lecce is a city that constantly surprises. And what greater surprise for local worker who discovered the amphitheatre by accident a few hundred years ago during some city excavation.

Unlike in other cities, while perusing the remains, you will also probably find a small cheese and wine festival, or some music in the squares while you wander around, enjoying the lack of huge crowds or queues. It is not uncommon to be strolling around Lecce when you stumble across a full cast rehearsal for an opera or ballet in one of the roman remains. It truly is like stepping back in time around very corner.

Lecce is over 2000 years old and it takes just a leisurely stroll around the pedestrianised side-streets to imagine life here many years ago. The absence of traffic and the unspoilt church facades help of course, as does the friendly vibe. One of most noted characteristics of this city by visitors is how safe it feels. It is high on the list for those looking for somewhere vibrant and family-friendly.

The city is bathed in cream and golden stone palaces and churches, all tucked within around half a dozen old town gates. However, Lecce’s 48 churches is a lot for even the keenest Baroque fan. These main six offer the best examples of Lecce’s flamboyant style:

Basilica di Santa Croce, which has an incredibly detailed façade, taking more than 200 years to complete, Chiesa di Santa Chiara, Chiesa di San Matteo, Chiesa di San Irene, Chiesa Il Gesu (make sure you look at the painted ceiling), and Chiesa San Giovanni Evangelista/Chiesa del Rosario.

Without seeing them it is nigh on impossible to paint a clear picture of them, unless you are already accustomed to seeing intricately carved gargoyles, buzzards, and wolves, wherever you turn. And don’t forget the Duomo (Cathedral), which is one of the most significant in all of Italy. It was built in 1144 but during the Baroque era a 70m high bell tower was added on.

As well as the churches, one of the most memorable examples of southern Italian Baroque style is the interior of the Theatre near Porta Napoli. There are so many interesting honey coloured buildings to capture by photograph or pencil. It is harder to capture the vibe and sense of the place, however, and the legends behind them.

After a day trying to capture Lecce’s beauty in photographs, sketches, or words it is time to enjoy what the city has to offer at night, at one of its many restaurants or bars. All of this can be done on foot, so leave the car at the walls, and slow down. Via Palmieri is just one example of one of Lecce’s many old cobbled street which acts as a museum of doorways, balconies, and windows. Via Ammirati, on the other hand, will bring you right up to date, leading you to Must, a contemporary modern-art venue.

At night, Lecce is simply beautiful. Piazza Duomo is stunning in the late afternoon light, and makes for a perfect photograph, or just sit back in one of the city’s plentiful cafes, bars, and restaurants, and enjoy an evening aperativo.

Being steeped in tranquillity doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice the convenience of being connected to other major places. Lecce is found at the end of the train line running down Italy’s east coast, with major airports a nearby Bari or Brindisi. And a large student population balances the calm of the day with a buzz at night.

You are also never far from a beach on the Adriatic coastline or a medieval hill top, should you wish to exchange Baroque churches, for a day soaking up the surroundings, with many Italians who flock to the Salento region to escape the cities. With plentiful sandy beaches it is not surprising that this stretch of the Adriatic coast has been called the Caribbean of Italy.

In Lecce, the lack of large tourist groups traipsing around after tired guides means you are likely to receive a warm welcome by the locals, who can often be found offering to take a family shot of tourists, or helping with the language. It is a perfect place to get a snapshot of real life, as you brush shoulders with the locals eating a gelato on the steps of the square.

Lecce is the perfect place to enjoy all the richness of architecture, culture, and history that other major Italian cities can boast about, but without the crowds and traffic. It is a place where tranquillity sits alongside flamboyance in an eclectic mix.

Lecce is a city that likes to be understated, unpredictable, and mysterious, and it seems to delight in surprising those who stumble across this little gem.

Text: Lucy Williams