I love Italy, the Italian people and their wonderful culture. If you asked me to pick my favourite place I’d struggle to whittle the list down – but if pushed I’d pick Salento. This beautiful area includes parts of the provinces of Brindisi and Taranto, plus the whole of the province of Lecce. It ends where the Ionian and Adriatic seas meet the cliffs at the tip of the Italian boot’s heel. I am lucky to have spent a lot of time in this area and the city of Lecce – here are my top six things not to miss when you visit.
1. Exploring Lecce’s Cento Storico
You won’t read much about Lecce without seeing it referred to as “the Florence of the South”. Personally I prefer Lecce – like the Tuscan city, it has wonderful culture to explore but doesn’t have thousands of tourists lining the streets. I’d go so far to say that no visit to this part of Italy would be complete without spending time in the heart of Lecce’s beautiful baroque old town.
Piazza sant’ Oronzo is the city’s main square and is home to a Roman amphitheatre and tall column, topped with a statue of the aforementioned saint. In the evenings you’ll find young and old spending time here with friends and family. Italian cities always seem to house such majestic cathedrals and Lecce is no exception. Standing in the courtyard in front of the Duomo (cathedral), you are surrounded by stone buildings built in local Pietra Leccese (sandstone from Lecce) – they really are a sight to behold. For the best example of baroque art hewn out of Pietra Leccese, head to the nearby church of Santa Croce. It reminds me of a cake covered in intricate icing, there are hundreds of little detailed flourishes to take in.
Top tip:Keep your eyes peeled for the profile of the architect hidden in the facade of Santa Croce.
2. An evening visit to Otranto
A 40-minute drive from Lecce, towards the Adriatic coast, leads you to the charming town of Otranto. The little streets in the old town are busy with small restaurants selling the catch of the day, artisan workshops and gift shops for those holiday souvenirs. The highlight of a visit to Otranto is exploring the castle overlooking the sea. After a hot day under the Salentine sun, an evening walking around Otranto is wonderfully restorative.
3) An afternoon in Gallipoli
Just 30 minutes’ drive from Lecce, the town of Gallipoli juts out into the Gulf of Taranto like a frying pan. The old town is almost circular and is connected to the modern part of the town by a thin, pan handle-like bridge. There is a veritable rabbit warren of narrow streets to get lost in, safe in the knowledge that sooner or later you’ll spy the sea and pop out onto the circular road again. Among the shops, restaurants and churches of the narrow lanes you’ll find a centuries-old olive oil factory now open as a museum. It is fascinating heading underground down ancient stone steps to the chambers where men and donkeys worked side-by-side to turn the huge stone olive oil press.
Top tip: You’ll find excellent fresh seafood in the waterside restaurants in this coastal town.
4) Buying a cartapesta statuette as a souvenir
Lecce is home to a unique variety of papier mache statues called cartapesta. You are sure to notice little workshops dotted around the city selling a mixture of religious and modern works of art. These figures follow a traditional technique that has remained broadly the same for centuries.
Top tip:Be careful to consider your weight limit on the flight home when purchasing cartapesta. They can be deceivingly heavy, as beneath the lightweight paper is a wood-and-wire frame.
5) A football match at Lecce’s Via del Mare stadium
Italians are passionate about some of the best things in life. For many, this includes football and it’s weekly swing from the delirium of victory to the heartbreak of defeat. The tifosi (fans) of Lecce have had rather a hard time in the last few seasons – after playing a number of seasons in the top league, taking on world famous teams like Juventus, Inter Milan and Roma, they now find themselves languishing in the third tier.
The calibre of the opposition not withstanding, you are in for a treat at the stadium. The most passionate fans fill the curva nord (seating behind the northern goal) with scarves, banners and clothing in the club colours of red and yellow. They’ll sing and chant for most of the match; no matter what the result they wear their passion on their sleeves.
Top tip: Blend in with the locals by purchasing a red and yellow scarf in the city before the game.
6) Sampling the local cuisine
This part of Italy is home to so many delicious morsels, it’s hard to pick out the best. For a quick savoury snack on the go, grab a rustico, crisp puff pastry discs encasing a mouthwatering filling of béchamel, melted mozzarella and tangy tomato. If you have more time, order orrechiette (pasta shaped like little ears) in an aged ricotta and tomato sauce. For those with a sweet tooth, a pasticciotto is bound to get you excited with its crispy crust, soft middle and patisserie cream filling. A good drink to accompany any sweet treat is an espressino, a coffee unique to Lecce and made with equal parts espresso and steamed milk. Almond lovers will be in heaven in Lecce as every bakery is filled with hundreds of varieties of paste di mandorla (little almond biscuits). Why not wash your biscuits down with the ultimate coffee; an iced espresso with almond milk.
Top tip: In the summer, restaurants stay open late long into the warm evenings – it’s quite usual for them to be busy until gone 11pm.
Browse our holidays to Lecce and the Salento peninsula.