Love Lecce | Prosperity, Plague, Baroque and Roll

Lecce’s stunning Basilica di Santa Croce (Via Umberto I, 1) has one of the finest and most intricate Baroque facades in Italy, taking over 200 years to complete, its detail exquisite. Photo the Puglia Guys guides to Lecce, Puglia
Baroque and roll

The colour of Lecce is astonishing. From the cream of its baroque architecture – almost every building is constructed out of “pietra leccese” a soft, local limestone – set against the azzurro blue sky, to the faded colours accessorising the palazzi of the centro storico.
400 gradi pizza, Lecce. PugliaGuys Lecce guide
Food and drink

Lecce may be known as the city of 100 churches. But that impressive statistic is dwarfed when it comes to places to eat, with the added bonus that the best pizza in Puglia can be found in Lecce – and that’s official.
Nearby beaches

Lecce lies landlocked between the Adriatic and the Ionian in the heart of Salento, but getting to the beach is easy. It’s 15km from San Cataldo and around a 30-minute drive to Gallipoli. Driving south takes you to some of the most impressive coast and seascapes our region has to offer.

A Baroque masterpiece?

Salento’s main city bursts with piazzas and palazzi built using creamy limestone in Barocco Leccese style.

The Basilica di Santa Croce (Via Umberto I, 1) boasts one of the finest and most intricate Baroque facades in Italy, taking over 200 years to complete, with exquisite detail.

Remnants of Lecce’s Roman history still display. A theatre and an amphitheatre testify to its importance as a flourishing Roman city. But the city existed long before that as a Messapian centre.

The old town, a Baroque maze within walls built by order of Emperor Charles V in the 16th century to protect the city from invading Turks, brims with good restaurants, busy bars, and some of our favorite boutiques (there is no concept of “high street” here). Lecce actively conducts business all year round.

Lecce serves as a good base from which to explore Salento. It takes just over an hour to drive to Santa Maria di Leuca at the very tip of the heel of Italy’s boot.

the astonishing Basilica of Santa Croce. Take your time to contemplate its facade, only recently revealed after years of restoration works. The detail - made possible by the soft Lecce limestone - is astonishing. Flowers, fruits, cherubs, mythical figures, animals and sculpted figures almost seem to form an external altar. Photo the Puglia Guys for the Lecce Guide
the astonishing Basilica of Santa Croce. Take your time to contemplate its facade, only recently revealed after years of restoration works. The detail - made possible by the soft Lecce limestone - is astonishing. Flowers, fruits, cherubs, mythical figures, animals and sculpted figures almost seem to form an external altar. Photo the Puglia Guys for the Lecce Guide
the astonishing Basilica of Santa Croce. Take your time to contemplate its facade, only recently revealed after years of restoration works. The detail - made possible by the soft Lecce limestone - is astonishing. Flowers, fruits, cherubs, mythical figures, animals and sculpted figures almost seem to form an external altar. Photo the Puglia Guys for the Lecce Guide

A brief history

With roots that can be traced back to the Messapians, the town was conquered by the Romans in the 3rd century BC. Five centuries later under the Emperor Hadrian the town was fortified. Hadrian also oversaw the construction of a long, straight Roman road linking the town to the Hadrian Port on the coast (at modern day San Cataldo, some 10km to the east).

The construction of a 25,000-seater amphitheatre and a theatre assured the town’s stature.

With the fall of Rome, Lecce eventually came under the control of Byzantium in 549 and it remained thus until the arrival of the Normans in the 11th century. It prospered greatly as part of the Kingdom of Sicily and from 1053 to 1463 it was one of the most important towns in southern Italy.

The early 17th century saw another invasion: Baroque! Over the course of a hundred or so years, the town changed face almost completely. Existing churches and buildings were given makeovers and many new ones were built by ambitious young architects whose fantasy new no bounds. Baroque Lecce was born in the early 17th century over the next two hundred years transformed into what can still be seen by visitors ambling around the centro storico.

See Lecce

Piazza del Duomo

Entering the old town from the Porta Rudiae will lead you along via Giuseppe Libertini. Where this leads onto Corso Vittorio Emanuele II is the narrow entrance to the Piazza del Duomo. Here you come face to face with 17th and early 18th century Baroque. The five-storey (72 meter) campanile, the double façade cathedral, bishop’s palace and seminary.

The Duomo bell tower campanile (the tallest structure in Lecce) served a dual purpose. Used as a watch tower, its bell a sentinel to raise the alarm on sighting suspicious vessels on either sea. Even as late as 1803 slave-raiders abducted 164 people from the province.

Public access to Lecce’s Duomo bell tower is once again available. Since 2023 the UP! lift whisks visitors to a height of 43-metres up the bell tower to reveal a breathtaking panorama. 

Tickets

  • Full price 12,00€ 
  • Reduced price (6-17 years; Residents in the diocese of Lecce) 9,00€ 
  • Family 2 adults+children 29,00€

Opening hours 

Everyday from 10 am to 9 pm (October/March until 6pm), entrance every 20 min.

For tickets and more information on UP! Campanile del Duomo duomo bell tower panoramic lift the check out the Chiese Lecce website.

Sant’Oronzo Column – gone away (back 11/13 April)

Continue along Via Vittorio Emanuele II for the Sant’Oronzo Column, a Roman column that was topped with a bronze statue of the city’s patron saint (the same patron saint as Ostuni, although Saint Orontius of Lecce, the first bishop of Lecce, was born in Rudiae, Lecce), and the sunken Roman amphitheater. The municipality building on via Francesco Rubichi currently houses the removed statue. But he will return! A replica of the original Sant’Oronzo will return to the piazza that bears his name on 11 April and will be lifted and fixed on the top of the column on Saturday 13 April.

An exciting project currently underway aims to restore and give access to the amphitheatre.

Heading down Via Templare off the piazza will lead you to the astonishing Basilica of Santa CroceTake your time to contemplate its facade, only recently revealed after years of restoration works. The detail – made possible by the soft Lecce limestone – is astonishing. Flowers, fruits, cherubs, mythical figures, animals and sculpted figures almost seem to form an external altar.

Santa Chiara

Remaining on the piazza, you will follow the curve of the amphitheater along Via Giuseppe Verdi, leading to Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II. You will find a selection of chic bars and restaurants here, offering shade and respite from the sun. On the western side of the piazza, the chiesa di Santa Chiara will confront you. You will encounter the Roman theatre behind its cloisters. A semicircle of stone risers, with trailing weed growing out of the stone, will enhance the air of forgotten history and neglect. You will find an archaeological museum dedicated to the teatro here.

You will amble through the narrow streets of the old town, crossing from the historic gates that allow you to enter or leave. A maze of medieval alleys and stage-set piazzas will make for joyful exploring. Secret glimpses of cooler courtyards, lush palm trees, and shaded spiral stairways will add to the sense of drama.

Whether you take an afternoon, with time for an aperitivo and dinner, or spread your visit over a leisurely couple of days, the excellence of its coffee spoils Lecce. Be sure to stop for a typical Salento breakfast of pasticciotto – a lemon custard pastry – and a caffè leccese: a shot of espresso served over ice with almond syrup misleadingly described as “milk”. For those who savor the salty, try a rustico. A light, flaky pastry pie, best enjoyed for breakfast, is served warm with a melting mozzarella béchamel and tomato filling.

Eat Lecce

The food in Lecce exemplifies la cucina povera. Traditionally “peasant food,” it now symbolizes simple but inventive dishes using seasonal, locally produced, and always fresh ingredients.

The Leccese relish tasty street food, especially during an aperitivo. They particularly adore long-drawn-out feasts outside in the shade on hot summer weekends, when lunch often seamlessly slips into dinner.

How else would they honor Saint Oronzo, the patron saint who saved the city from the plague, if not by naming a dish after him? Melanzanata di Sant’Oronzo – an aubergine (eggplant) bake with veal meatballs, hard-boiled eggs, and ham alternately layered between fried aubergine, tomato sauce, and mozzarella, and baked au gratin.

00 Doppiozero | Via Guglielmo Paladini, 2 | +39 (0)832 521052 | not just Italian cuisine | €€

3 Rane | Via Camillo Benso conte di Cavour, 7 | +39 375 504 0165 | creative cuisine with tasting menu in an intimate setting | 3 Rane – Ristoro | €-€€

400 gradi pizza, Lecce. PugliaGuys Lecce guide
400 Gradi

400 Gradi | Viale Porta d’Europa 65 | +39 391 331 8359 | a trendy award winning pizzeria famous for its pizze bianche without the tomato sauce | located just outside Lecce’s centro storico but so very worth it | pizzeria400gradi.it/ | €-€€

L’Angolino di Via Matteotti | Via Giacomo Matteotti, 31 | +39 (0)832 159 5957 | for the best puccia in town – street food at its finest (and cheapest)| €

Eat Puglia with the Puglia Guys guide to Puglia’s best restaurants. La cucina di Mamma Elvira, Lecce. Ciceri e tria
ciceri e tria, Bar Moro

Bar Moro | Via degli Ammirati, 10 | +39 (0)832 303244 | traditional trattoria when craving pasta and lasagna | don’t miss their warming ciceri e tria (chickpeas with served up with a mix of deep fried and al dente tria pasta) a speciality of Lecce | €-€€

Bros’ | Via degli Acaya, 2 | info@pellegrinobrothers.it | Michelin starred gourmet gastronomic experience | 8-course tasting menu €120 pp | 13-course tasting menu €180 pp | Ristorante Bros’ | €€€€-€€€€€

La Cucina di Mama Elvia | Via Ludovico Maremonti, 33 | +39 331 579 5127 | regional dishes celebrating seasonality | La Cucina di Mamma Elvira | €-€€€

Primo | Via 47 Reggimenton Fanteria 7 | +39 0832 24 3802 | fine dining and tasting menu | Primo | €€€€ – €€€€€

Tabisca | Via Dietro Ospedale dei Pellegrini, 29 (in an alley near Piazzatta Santa Chiara) | +39 380 634 4345 | cold cuts and pies – though not in the AngloAmerican sense – and meat, much meat | don’t miss the caponata di melanzane – chopped fried aubergine/eggplant and other vegetables, seasoned with olive oil, tomato sauce, celery, olives, and capers, in an agrodolce sauce | Tabisca | €€-€€€

Eat Puglia with the Puglia Guys guide to Puglia’s best restaurants. Vico del Cuciniere, Restaurant Towards the finer end of dining, friendly service. Traditional ingredients used in interesting ways. We couldn’t resist the fettucciona di mortadella (pasta made using mortadella as a base ingredient). Vicolo Mondo Nuovo, 2/4, 73100 Lecce | +39 347 495 9976
Vico del Cuciniere

Vico del Cuciniere | Vicolo Mondo Nuovo, 2/4, 73100 Lecce | +39 347 495 9976 | Towards the finer end of dining, friendly service. Traditional ingredients used in interesting ways. We couldn’t resist the fettucciona di mortadella (pasta made using mortadella as a base ingredient) | Vico del Cuciniere | €€-€€€

Le Zie Trattoria Casereccia | Via Colonnello Archimede Costadura, 19 |+39 083 224 5178 | traditional home cooking | €-€€

Shop Lecce

Boutique | Society Limonta | €€€€€ | Uru | €€€

Laboratorio creativo Div.ergo | an art-craft project for social inclusion | divergo.org/it | €-€€

Where to park

As with most towns and cities in Puglia, parking can be a challenge. Usually, we find parking easiest on the side of the old town.

Driving in from the northwest, from the Bari side of the Adriatic highway, you will encounter two roundabouts when you get close to the center of Lecce. At the second roundabout, turn right down the Via F. Calasse, which leads into the Viale dell’ Università. After the Villa Reale park, take a right and find a parking space in the side streets.

Stay Lecce

On our last visit we stayed at Arryvo Hotel, Lecce. A modern, inclusive 25 bedroom independent hotel in the historic center.

Beyond Lecce

Lecce is perfectly placed for journeying into Salento. Puglia has so much more on offer than the much visited and well trodden Itria Valley…

The coast is spectacular, especially south of Otranto, from Santa Cesare Terme all the way to the tip of the heel. Castro, Marina Serra, Tricase and Santa Maria di Leuca. Discover how to fit these into a road trip to suit your itinerary.

There are also many remarkable beaches within easy reach. San Cataldo, Grotta della Poesia, Le Due Sorelle. Journeying over to Gallipoli and the Ionian will take you to Baia Verde and beyond.

Lecce a little deeper

Ancient Times:

Founded by Messapians, Lecce’s historical significance in the Salentine peninsula dates back to Roman times, when the city was known as Lupiae.

The city thrived under Roman rule. Hadrian’s influence is still evident. During his reign Lecce’s centre was moved three kilometres to the northeast, taking the name Litium. The Via Traiana was extended to Lecce and its port at San Cataldo became the second most important in the Salento. A well-preserved Roman amphitheatre in Piazza Sant’Oronzo hosted gladiator contests and other public events.

The city faced challenges from Goths and Saracens, and eventually fell under Byzantine influence. It remained under Byzantine rule until captured by the Normans in 1053.

Medieval and Renaissance Periods:

Under Norman rule, Lecce flourished. Tancred, Count of Lecce, became the last Norman King of Sicily in 1194.

Towards the end of the 15th century, Lecce experienced a further resurgence in prosperity, driven by flourishing commercial dealings with Florence, Venice, Genoa, Greece and Albania. These commercial ties played a pivotal role in elevating Lecce to a status of wealth and cultural prominence.

Emperor Charles V, also known as Charles I of Spain, ruled over Puglia during the first half of the 16th century. Charles V was a powerful monarch who inherited the territories of the Habsburg Empire, including Spain and the Holy Roman Empire. He became King of Spain in 1516 and was elected Holy Roman Emperor in 1519.

Charles V played a significant role in the history of Puglia, particularly in relation to the defense against the Ottoman Turks. He ordered the construction of defensive structures, including walls and a castle in Lecce, to protect the region from Turkish incursions. The rebuilding of the Castle of Lecce, which occurred between 1539 and 1549, is attributed to Charles V.

Subsequent hardships impacted Lecce. The 1656 plague killed a quarter of the city’s population, only being brought to a halt by the intervention of Sant’ Oronzo who, from this time, became the city’s patron saint. The city celebrates its patron saint annually on August 26th, with religious processions and festivities.

Despite the protection of its patron saint, a subsequent plague outbreak in 1679 further reduced Lecce’s population to a mere 9,000.

Baroque Era:

Reaching its architectural zenith in the seventeenth century, Lecce’s most outstanding ecclesiastical buildings are Santa Croce and the adjacent Palazzo dei Celestini, the Cathedral, Sant’Irene dei Teatini, Basilica di San Giovanni Battista al Rosario, Chiesa del Carmine, Chiesa di San Matteo and the Cloister of the Dominicans.

Baroque and Roll

“Lecce, the principal city in the region, attracted legal and administrative business and became the hub of the Salentine nobility’s social life, resulting in a constant demand for new palazzi and churches. The Baroque architecture in Lecce, prevalent until the late eighteenth century, was primarily religious, celebrating Catholicism with exuberance.

“Leccese Baroque” is a distinctive yet controversial style, admired by some and criticized by others for its extravagant ornamentation on the easily-carved local stone. In “Baroque and Roccoco” (1978) Anthony Blunt questions the existence of Baroque in Lecce, noting outdated decorative motifs and the absence of true Baroque elements in the architecture.

“[…] it can be argued that there is not a single building in Lecce or the surrounding district – the Salento – which can properly be described as Baroque…Both the façades and the altarpieces of the churches show a richness and gaiety of decoration which have perhaps no parallel, save in Sicily. The decorative motifs employed are, however, mainly derived from a sixteenth century vocabulary which had long been out of date in Rome or even Naples…”

With their Romanesque rose windows, he pointed out, the design of the churches was not even remotely Baroque.

The most notable examples of Leccese Baroque are found around the Piazza del Duomo, where the cathedral, designed by Giuseppe Zimbalo, stands as a remarkable example. The 270 feet high campanile (the tallest structure in Lecce) served a dual purpose. Used as a watch tower, its bell a sentinel to raise the alarm on sighting suspicious vessels on either sea. Even as late as 1803 slave-raiders abducted 164 people from the province.

The negative views on Lecese Baroque continued into the 18th century, with critics like Bishop Berkeley (“too rich and luxuriant”) and Abbé de Saint-Non (“This modern town would be one of the most beauriful in existence had it been built with a little taste; for the beauty of the stone and the materials employed give an appearance of grandeur, but the method is detesable; all the edifices are covered with the worst and most useless sculpture”) expressing disapproval. 

The Baroque was still unfashionable during the 1890s when Paul Bourget visited the city. “Here the bad taste is too intense, fancy carried to such extremes with such genius, that the term loses its meaning”. It wasn’t until 1902 that architect Martin Briggs “discovered” Lecce, praising its Baroque architecture in a book published eight years later (“Baroque architecture may perhaps be seen at its best”). Sir Osbert Sitwell also commended the city’s beauty in 1922 (“Lecce, peer of any Italian city in loveliness”).

The Roman amphitheatre

Dating from the second century, and seating around 25,000, it was only rediscovered during works in the early 20th century. Mussolini resurrected the ruins, and after a six-year restoration the site was reopened in 2000 as a concert venue. Subsequently it was closed to prevent further deterioration, though once again restoration works are underway.

The Gates to the Old City

Lecce’s old city walls were once fortified with four great gates. These gates provided access to the city and were part of the defensive structure. The four main gates into Lecce from the old city walls are:

  1. Porta Napoli (Arco di Trionfo): Also known as the Triumphal Arch, Porta Napoli is one of the most prominent gates. It bears the Imperial coat-of-arms and is a majestic entry point into the historic city center.
  2. Porta Rudiae: Located to the east, Porta Rudiae is another historic gate that has witnessed the city’s centuries-old history. It is named after the ancient city of Rudiae, which existed in the vicinity during Roman times.
  3. Porta San Biagio: This gate is situated to the south and is named after Saint Biagio, the patron saint of Lecce. It is one of the gateways leading into the heart of the city.
  4. Porta San Giusto: Located to the west, this gate is dedicated to Saint Justus. It is another entry point into Lecce and is part of the historic fortifications that once surrounded the city.

These gates not only served as entry points but also played a crucial role in the defensive architecture of Lecce, especially during periods of historical conflict. While the city walls have largely disappeared over the years, some of the gates have survived and continue to be significant landmarks in Lecce’s urban landscape.

Sant’Oronzo

Sant’Oronzo holds significant relevance to the city of Lecce, and he is honored as the patron saint of Lecce. Saint Oronzo (or Saint Orontius) was a Christian martyr who, according to tradition, suffered persecution and martyrdom during the Roman Empire’s rule.

The importance of Sant’Oronzo to Lecce is evident in several ways:

  1. Statue and Column: In the central Piazza Sant’Oronzo, there is a column formerly crowned with a statue of Saint Oronzo (the statue has now been moved to Palazo Carafa Via Francesco Rubichi, 16). The column is an iconic symbol of Lecce and a focal point in the city’s historic centre. The column itself was donated by the city of Brindisi to thank Oronzo for also saving their city from the plague. (He also sits atop a column in Ostuni, for the same reason).
  2. Feast of Saint Oronzo: Lecce celebrates the Feast of Saint Oronzo annually on August 26th. This festival is a significant event in the city’s calendar and involves religious processions, festivities, and cultural events. The celebrations attract locals and visitors alike.
  3. Patron Saint: As the patron saint of Lecce, Sant’Oronzo is considered a protector and intercessor for the city and its inhabitants. The city holds him in high esteem, and his presence is felt throughout various aspects of Lecce’s cultural and religious life.
  4. Spiritual Significance: The veneration of saints, including Sant’Oronzo, plays a crucial role in Catholic traditions. The presence of a patron saint in a community is believed to bring spiritual protection and blessings.

Overall, Sant’Oronzo’s relevance to Lecce is deeply rooted in the city’s history, culture, and religious identity. The statue and column in Piazza Sant’Oronzo serve as a tangible representation of this connection, and the annual feast is a time for the community to come together in celebration and reverence for their patron saint.

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