To round out our Italy adventure we decided our last stop should be Lecce, all the way down into the heel of the boot, a city of about 100 thousand. There are much less tourists down this far and English isn’t as ubiquitous as it is in the tourist havens of Naples and the Amalfi Coast. So we had to use more hand gestures to do our shopping. But the town is very welcoming and we had no problems.
Lecce is a Roman city originally called Sybar at the time of the Trojan War, conquered by the Romans in the third century BC, and then moved in the second century BC by Hadrian 2 miles to the northeast and renamed Licea or Litium. It was connected directly to Hadrian’s Port (now San Cataldo), and had both a theater and an amphitheater. The city’s patron saint, Orontius of Lecce or Sant’Oronzo, is considered to be the city’s first Christian bishop.
When we arrived I had finally nursed my sprained calf into what seemed like a healed state. Sadly, after two blocks of normal walking, a sharp stabbing pain and totally different sprain. Gah! So once again I was bound to the apartment for a bit. But I took the time to cook some lovely local food, sample the wine, and before too long I was able to get out a bit to see the town, though not nearly as much as I had wanted.
Our first walk through Old Town
Though my mobility was short lived, we did manage to get a nice walk in through the city’s old town on one of our first days, even if I was limping unbearably slow through most of it. We had picked an apartment near the Villa Comunale public garden so it was only a short walk. The park was quite lively and a great place to hang out. Two play areas entertained lots of children with a modest merry-go-round for a fee. And a large round “temple” of sorts with an elaborate green dome sits at the center of the main cross street where Via Imperatore Adriano intersects, the main pedestrian path through the park.
Continuing along that rout you pass through the Palazzo della Provincia di Lecce and out the other side, where you encounter the beautifully ornamented Basilica di Santa Croce.
From there we continued down Piazzetta Gabriele Riccardi to the Chiesa del Gesù and then on to the Piazza Sant’Oronzo the main square of old town. Directly adjacent you will find the impressive (and only partially excavated) Lecce Amphitheater which has been restored and is now used for community shows once again. Then back towards our apartment, passing by the Castello Carlo V and Teatro Apollo on the way back home.
The Roman Amphitheater
Built during the rule of Augustus, this amphitheater which is only one-third excavated, originally seated 12,000 to 14,000 people, and was used for gladiatorial combat and hunting recreations. Rediscovered at the end of the 19th century during the construction of the Bank of Italy building, it was partially excavated from 1900-1940 and has been restored and is actively in use for outdoor shows. Originally measuring 335 feet by 269 feet, it’s definitely a site to see.
Food in Lecce
Generally the food in Lecce was similar to what we found in Matera. You find more seafood in the peninsula similar to the Amalfi Coast. More fava beans instead of cannellini. The pucce sandwiches are pretty popular. You can also find horse on the menus here. Which is quite delicious if you can get past the American prejudice. I mostly cooked our meals in Lecce especially meat stewed in tomato sauce which we were into at the time.
Every region in Italy seems to have their own coffee specialty and in Lecce it’s the caffè leccese. Simple and refreshing. Fresh espresso over ice with latte di mandorla, a milky, sweet almond syrup. It’s delicious and I had a lot of them. The addition of a pasticciotto makes the perfect afternoon snack.
The pucce sandwich
One of our favorite discoveries in southern Italy was the puccia sandwich or pucce for plural. Generally speaking it’s a type of bread, a pizza dough spread thin in a square or circle, baked crispy, split, then used as sandwich bread. Ingredients vary, but typically a mélange of local cured meat, fresh cheese, fresh herbs, and traditional toppings. In Lecce we found the pucce bread sealed in sets of two that you pop in the oven for a bit and have real puccia at home.
Our second walk from the Lecce Cathedral through old town back to Piazza Sant’Oronzo
After taking it easy for the majority of our time in Lecce, I really needed to see the city a bit more. So to get the most mileage out of my leg, we decided to take a cab to the Lecce Cathedral and then walk back to our apartment via the main road through the old district, with the thought that we could always call a cab if things got bad. It turned out to be one of our best walks through the city with lots of exploring little alleys and new spaces.
The Lecce Cathedral
Originally built in 1144, this cathedral is a great example of Lecce Baroque with its ornate spiraled white pillars and ornamentation. The interior is impressive but it also had one of the best crypts we’ve visited. A section of old crypt is left open to explore with piles of bones and several deeper chambers are topped with grates with mirrors to see back into the spaces. A host of interesting skull themed ornaments rounds the space out. Don’t miss it.
Walking through old town back to the apartment from the cathedral
From the cathedral we ambled along narrow white stone streets lined with impressive palatial doorways and elaborate facades. We snuck into the Roman theater for a peek even though they were closed, then made our way back to Piazza Sant’Oronzo. To me, the detail of the ornament was the most fascinating. The sculptural underwork of balconies with interesting ironwork railings. The emblems over doors. The city is very charming.
Our amazing experience at “The worst Michelin Star restaurant in the world”.
An acquaintance from Seattle had written a scathing review of a molecular restaurant in Lecce that went viral. Like making the late night talk shows kind of viral. It was hilarious but I had always suspected it was one of those American interpretations of a not-for-everyone kind of high-end places. The kind of humor you see on sitcoms with the giant plate and tiny single turnip. I had read it a year before and completely forgotten about it until I found myself in Lecce and ran across the place. So we had to go see for ourself. As it turns out, the restaurant was quite amazing and was doing some really cutting edge stuff. And then I got a bit angry at how much they had been dragged around from that review. You can read my full review of Bros in Lecce here. A few photos below but with 20-25 courses, there is much more to see.
I ended up spending a lot of time in the our apartment convalescing and cooking local specialties. And staring off the balcony down our street and watching the sun set. It was quite large for the price and had a fabulous kitchen!
Lecce’s vending machine game was on point. Throughout town you’ll find these little 24 hour “cafes” that consist of about 5 vending machines which in addition to the regular snacks you’d expect include a variety of cold alcoholic beverages, hot beverages like coffee, and basic essentials like covid tests, vibrators and condoms, simple pharmacy needs, and fresh food items.