Kate and I ended our trip to Puglia (Apulia) in the radiant city of Lecce—and what a delightful conclusion! I don’t know whether it was simply the change of pace from six days of small towns to a large city or spending more than a few hours in one place, but we loved Lecce. We wandered through streets crowded with people—mostly locals, we stepped inside many wildly ornate churches made from the local limestone, we ate delicious food, and we wandered through a lovely cemetery that was a bit off the beaten path (if you’ve read my post on Sabaudia and San Felice Circeo, you know how much I love an interesting cemetery!).
Although Lecce calls itself the Florence of the South, I don’t know why. Both cities are beautiful and lively, but they differ in almost every other way. For example, Florence boasts a tourist-based economy, Lecce’s is agrarian; Florence’s architecture is Renaissance, Lecce’s is the most fun-filled, gleeful Baroque that you’ll ever lay eyes on.
And speaking of Baroque, it’s everywhere — without restraint! The facades and chapels of the churches festooned with garlands and joyful creatures tumbling over each other, the playful supports that hold up the balconies of many of the buildings, the intricately carved courtyard decorations, and the pudgy cherubs that reminded me of the Pillsbury Doughboy vied for our attention. There’s so much to see that it’s sometimes difficult to focus! It was impossible to simply walk past a church; we had to stop and study it—inside and out. All of this stone-carved joy made me feel happy, too, and I couldn’t wipe the smile off of my face.
If you go to Lecce, don’t miss Basilica di Santa Croce, the apotheosis of the Lecce Baroque style. But save it for last, because the other churches, beautiful as they are, pale by comparison. You will spend at least 15 minutes trying to take in the energetic façade with its animals, vegetables, and distorted creatures, and the interior is equally fascinating, with ornate side chapel after ornate side chapel and intricately carved capitals atop the pillars. Many Baroque churches in Puglia sport beautiful but plain wooden ceilings, and Santa Croce is no exception. I guess frescoes on top of all that busy Baroque decoration would be just too much!
Here’s my advice for Lecce. Even if you hate cities, GO! Stay for at least two nights and then walk your feet off both day and night. We stayed at the Santa Chiara Hotel, just steps away from Piazza Sant’Oronzo, and I would stay there again.