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Lav­ish ar­chi­tec­ture, ir­re­sistible food and wine -- this city is Italy at its clas­si­cal best

- by DO­MINIC MIDGLEY City Guides · Recreation · Arts · Urbanism · Travel · Lecce · Italy · Rome · Lecce · Santa Maria · Naples · Charles V · Hadrian · Apulia · London · Brindisi · Apulia · Gambero Rosso

Good old Italy is one of those coun­tries whose cities are of­ten ad­mirably suited to par­tic­u­lar tastes.

If it’s Ro­man ru­ins you’re after, there’s no bet­ter des­ti­na­tion than Rome it­self; if art’s your bag, you can’t beat Florence with its world-renowned Uf­fizi Gallery. But if churchspot­ting is your thing head for the Puglian city of Lecce. dubbed the ‘Florence of the south’ thanks to its mag­nif­i­cent ar­chi­tec­ture, it is also known as ‘the city of 100 churches’ and there are in­deed more bell tow­ers than you can shake a crozier at.

And while in any nor­mal year you would be jostling with hun­dreds of other tourists, in the era of Covid that cer­tainly won’t be a prob­lem. Given the ubiq­uity of Lecce’s places of wor­ship it is im­por­tant to ra­tion your nave-gaz­ing, though. The ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal equiv­a­lent of the sa­fari’s Big Five are: the duomo, the basil­ica of Santa Croce, the Churches of Santa Chiara, Santa Irene and San Mat­teo, with the duomo the lion in the pack.

You can get a pass to en­ter all th­ese (plus all the other fee-charg­ing churches in town) from the Palace of the An­cient Sem­i­nary on Pi­azza duomo. Known as a Ticket Lec­cEc­cle­siae, it costs just £8.

on the same square as the sem­i­nary is the Cathe­dral of Santa Maria As­sunta, pop­u­larly known as the duomo, and so that’s as good a place as any to start.

The duomo’s fa­cade is — as is oblig­a­tory in th­ese parts — a riot of baroque fea­tures: pil­lars lined with acan­thus leaves, win­dows topped by cherubs and gar­goyles, and enough bunches of grapes to pro­duce a healthy vin­tage.

From the duomo it’s a short hop to Santa Croce, whose or­nate ex­te­rior re­cently un­der­went painstak­ing ren­o­va­tion work.

The in­te­rior, while im­pres­sive, can­not com­pete with the grandeur of the fa­cade but does have 17 al­tars — in­clud­ing a beau­ti­ful one ded­i­cated to Saint Fran­cis of Paola. There are dis­tin­guished works of art, among them a de­pic­tion of the Holy Trin­ity by Gianse­rio Strafella set into the ceil­ing.

The most strik­ing build­ings were pri­mar­ily the work of three ar­chi­tects — Giuseppe Cino, Giuseppe Zim­balo, and Emanuele Manieri — who trans­formed the city into a sort of holy dis­ney­land dur­ing the 17th and 18th cen­turies.

But there’s more to Lecce than churches. Three of the an­cient lime­stone gates to the city — Porta Napoli, Porta Ru­diae and Porta San Bi­a­gio — re­main in good con­di­tion and the cen­tre of the old town is dom­i­nated by the 16th- cen­tury Charles V Cas­tle, that is now a cul­tural cen­tre.

But per­haps the most re­mark­able at­trac­tion is the Ro­man the­atre on Pi­azza Sant’oronzo.

Erected dur­ing the reign of the Em­peror Hadrian in the 2nd cen­tury Ad, it was lost for hun­dreds of years after be­ing built over. It was only re­dis­cov­ered in 1929 when con­struc­tion work­ers stum­bled across it while dig­ging foun­da­tions for a new bank build­ing.

Lecce also pro­vides a per­fect op­por­tu­nity to eat like a Puglian. And that means sam­pling the lo­cal cui­sine known as cucina

povera, or peas­ant food. It might as well be known as cucina fill-you-up-a. I’d defy any­one to order a meat or fish course once they’d been served a por­tion of zuc­chini crudo and an obli­ga­to­rily mas­sive plate of Puglia’s sig­na­ture blend of pasta — orechi­ette and fri­celli — with th beef ragu.

That didn’t stop the pro­pri­etor ieon of one restau­rant pil­ing on the hos­pi­tal­ity. When he dis­cov­ered cov­i­cally my wife was a clas­si­cally trained chef, he or­dered a second econd ta­ble to be placed next to us and a suc­ces­sion of com­pli­men­tary ntary dishes were served.

For an au­then­tic cucina povera ex­pe­ri­ence in Lecce, try Le Zie Trat­to­ria. Le Zie trans­lates as ‘The Aunts’ and the women-only kitchen churns out lo­cal clas­sics such as horse­meat in a salsa pic­cante. And if it’s seafood you’re after, you could do worse than Il Gam­bero Rosso — the Red Prawn — in the his­toric cen­tre.

The lo­cal wine is also won­der­ful. Prim­i­tivo — made from a grape we know as Zin­fan­del — is a mus­cu­lar red that is of­ten served chilled.

A fab­u­lous lit­tle ho­tel about a 1212-min­uteite ddriveie ffro­mom Lecce is Masse­ria Tra­pana, and a per­fect spot to stay while you’re dis­cov­er­ing the charms of Lecce’s food, wine and ar­chi­tec­ture.

Co-owned by an af­fa­ble Aus­tralian, if you’re not happy here you won’t be happy any­where.


Ryanair (ryanair.com) Lon­don to Brin­disi from £40 re­turn. Dou­bles at Masse­ria Tra­pana (tra­pana.

com/en) from £244. More in­for­ma­tion at lecce.it.

 ??  ?? En­chant­ing: The Seg­gio San Marco palace in Lecce and, in­set, Orec­chi­ette al ragu u
En­chant­ing: The Seg­gio San Marco palace in Lecce and, in­set, Orec­chi­ette al ragu u
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