At the very bottom of the Italian peninsula, making up the heel of the boot, is the amazing Province of Lecce. Located in the region of Puglia, this area has an extensive history and has been inhabited since the time of Emperor Hadrian and the Roman Empire. Following the fall of Rome, the city has been conquered by a myriad of invaders including the Saracens, Lombards, Slavs and Ostrogoths. Today Lecce is a popular tourist destination and there has been a surge in its popularity as people are now beginning to discover Puglia.
A journey through Lecce will take visitors from prehistoric civilizations, through medieval villages and to masterpieces of Baroque architecture. Two different seas make this part of Puglia and it is a true paradise for those seeking a vacation filled with sun, relaxation and great food. The Adriatic Coast, with its imposing cliffs and lovely bays is nestled between the blue sea and green pine forests. It offers an unspoiled landscape and features the Nature Reserve of San Cataldo and the Alimini Lakes.
Lecce, the capital of the province, is nicknamed “the Florence of the South” due to its large number of beautiful and historic buildings. The city is famous for the quality of its stone, which remains one of its major exports and has been used to create most of the city’s monuments due to its soft and workable nature.
To the southeast, bays, inlets, cliffs and natural caves define the coastline. It is one of the best scuba diving areas in the entire Mediterranean. In Santa Maria di Leuca, the Adriatic gives way to the Ionian Sea which laps the western coast of Salento, with beaches of fine sand and water as clear as you can imagine.
Although nowhere are you more than 15 miles from the sea, in the interior heart of the province there are plains and gentle hills where vineyards and olive groves are outlined by low, dry-stone walls that might were built a generation ago or a millennium ago. Wherever you go, you feel as though you are part of a living history book, where the chapter devoted to the Middle Ages is recounted by the ancient villages and imposing castles. The Renaissance is defined by manor houses and building that recall the splendor, elegance and status of the city.
The city is renowned for its beautiful historical structures such as the Basilica di Santa Croce, the Porta Napoli and the Duomo. Furthermore, its location is within a stone’s throw of some charming and interesting coastal destinations such as Gallipoli.
But it is best to begin the exploration in Lecce and with the Basilica di Santa Croce. This is one of the two most beautiful churches and is renowned for its amazing architecture and stunning Baroque façade. Built in the 17th century, its walls contain all manner of intricate sculptures, gorgeous rose windows and interesting stone statues. The interior in contrast is not as opulent, but still features some beautiful stonework and religious decoration.
Located in the Piazza del Duomo, Cattedrale dell’Assunzione della Virgine is on a par with the Basilica as the most important religious buildings in the city. The Cathedral also features a Baroque design and has a magnificent northern façade and beautiful bell tower. In contrast to the Basilica, the interior of the Cathedral is highly decorative and features a treasure of gold artwork, sweeping arches and a ceiling that contains remarkable historical artwork.
The Piazza del Duomo is located in the center of the oldest part of the city. The other notable building in the square is the library, which looks more like a palace than it does a library. The surrounding streets feature shops and restaurants for those who want to enjoy a fine meal or engage in a little retail therapy.
A short distance further to the east is Piazza Sant’Oronzo, another beautiful open square with some interesting architecture and fantastic sites. Notable structures include the Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Grazie, the Roman Amphitheatre and the beautiful Palazzo del Sedile, the most noticeable structure and features a huge glass doorway framed by intricate stonework. Although it seems hard to imagine, the 2nd century AD amphitheater was not unearthed until 1929. Many of the 25,000 seats, external walls, columns and stairs are in excellent condition.
The castle of Charles V is the main defensive fortification in the city and has stood since the 16th century. It uses a typical four cornered defensive structure was used with guard towers and high walls. Aside from walking through the grounds, there is also an interesting Papier-Mache Museum and seasonal exhibitions containing artwork and historical displays.
As with many historical cities in Italy, Lecce once had an impressive defensive network and encircling city wall. The Porta Napoli is a relic from this defensive network and is one of the three remaining city gates. Originally constructed in 1548 in honor of King Charles V, the portal features a Baroque design and is made from white Lecce stone.
Villa Comunale di Lecce is the most impressive public garden. The 19th century public space is great for a walk on a fine summer’s day. There are also several delightful fountains and ponds, plus numerous statues and monuments.
Another beautiful coastal town that is accessible from Lecce is Gallipoli. The town is split into two main sections, the main part that sits along the coast and the small island that is accessible from a single road jutting out into the sea. The island is a fascinating place for a walk, since it contains charming side streets packed full with beautiful architecture. Furthermore, there is the stunning Baroque Cathedral of St. Agata, the Castello and the old fishing harbor which are all interesting sites in their own right.
Another spot to stay is in Torre del Parco. This 15th century castle has actually been converted into a boutique hotel. Located on the Viale Torre del Parco, this tower has stood for hundreds of years and was once an important structure in the defensive network of Lecce.
If you are looking for something different and wish to experience a less well-known part of Italy, the province of Lecce should certainly be included on your list.