A sun-kissed territory all year round, Salento is a treasure trove of unique art, exquisite Mediterranean cuisine, and genuine hospitality. The area boasts a fabulous landscape, ranging from the Adriatic coast along Melendugno, Santa Cesarea Terme and Otranto, to the Ionian Sea and the golden beaches of Porto Cesareo, Nardò and Gallipoli.
Tinged with a Middle Age Oriental hue, the area called Grecìa Salentina is a magical land of ancient nursery rhymes in the Griko dialect, while in towns like Melpignano primeval rhythms are turned into contemporary beats at the Notte della Taranta folk music festival.
In this green peninsula fringed by two seas, mysterious primeval monuments like dolmens and menhirs lead to millenary olive groves, and drystone walls dot the countryside between Giurdignano and Minervino di Lecce. Take a hike across century-old masserie (manor farms), often turned into sophisticated hotels, and discover Early Christian churches and underground olive-mills. While here, do not miss the amazing sea caves in Castro and Santa Maria di Leuca.
A stroll through Lecce is a journey into Baroque architecture, with churches and palazzi embroidered in stone, alongside courtyards, secret gardens and a stunning Roman amphitheater at the heart of the city. In Brindisi, discover two castles and the spectacular views from the Regina Margherita seafront.
Secluded villages unveil papier-mâché workshops and stone-carving artisans. The local cuisine boasts the finest Salento flavors, best savored with excellent local wines – try tria (homemade pasta prepared with chickpeas), wild vegetables, and delicious sweets such as pasticciotto (filled with pastry cream) and spumoni (artisanal ice cream).
Lecce is the main city of the Salentine Peninsula and is a historic city, the capital of the province of Lecce, the second province in the region by population, as well as one of the most important cities of Puglia.
This is a city of rose windows, stone flourishes, garlands, Solomonic columns, small piazzas, and unexpected alleyways. Start your visit by walking under the arch of Porta Napoli and heading into the historic centre along Via Palmieri, flanked by aristocratic palazzos as it leads to Piazza Duomo. Alternatively, if you start at Porta Rudiae, you can abandon the paving stones of Via Libertini and dive into the ancient and intricate labyrinth that is the multi-ethnic Giravolte district, a crucible of ethnicities and cultures today, as it was in the past. You could then continue your tour by exploring the charming alleys and small piazzas, where the local Lecce stone glows pink as the sun sets.
Paper, straw, rags, glue, and plaster – these poor materials gave life to Lecce’s papier-mâché, shaping many saints and Madonnas statues between the 17th and the 18th centuries. Some say it originated as a humble barbers’ hobby, but the fact remains that the refined art of moulding papier-mâché rapidly gained in popularity and numerous craft shops were set up. These produced saints with highly expressive faces and poses for the city’s churches and to be displayed during religious processions. Today, the long history of Lecce’s papier-mâché production is recounted at the Museum of Papier-Mâché, in the Castle of Charles V.
Things to see in Lecce
Lecce has a lovely historic centre (centro storico), and travellers can easily spend a day or two exploring picturesque little lanes and finding the more far-flung Baroque churches. The town’s great artistic treasure is its architecture; in terms of other arts, such as painting,
The most over-the-top decoration in town is to be seen at the Basilica di Santa Croce, which has a fantastical facade to marvel at, ornamented with strange beasts and allegories. As you wander you’ll also come across a couple of unfinished churches. Visitors will gaze at Lecce’s architecture with wonder, sometimes admiration or perhaps – if cherubs really aren’t your thing – with appalled fascination.
The town has two main focal points: Piazza Sant’Oronzo and Piazza del Duomo. Piazza Sant’Oronzo is the big civic heart of the town, a large square with a slightly strange and incomplete atmosphere, the ancient and the modern sitting uncomfortably together. Among the varied structures here is the town’s excavated Roman amphitheatre. The statue of a bishop perched on a column represents Sant’Oronzo, a patron saint of Lecce. The column is one of two which originally marked the end of the Roman Appian Way in Brindisi (the other is still in Brindisi). Piazza del Duomo is an unusual interpretation of that familiar Italian cathedral square. In Lecce the cathedral sits in one corner of a theatrical enclosed square; a still space in the heart of town. Alongside is the high campanile.
A good way to enjoy an initial introduction to Lecce’s centro storico is to take the little tourist ‘train’ (trenino) which offers a guided tour of the centre. Fun, useful or kitsch depending on your age, fitness and outlook, this is the single most obvious manifestation of tourism in the town as it parp-parps its way around the narrow lanes. You’ll see it pass, and you can hop on and off at various stops.
It’s worth visiting the Roman theatre and its little museum, in the centre of Lecce (Museo Teatro Romano, open Mon-Sat mornings). The town’s principal archaeological museum, the Museo Provinciale, has some interesting exhibits from Puglia’s long history, including Greek and pre-Greek ceramics. Entrance is free; the museum is located on Viale Gallipoli, not far from the railway station. It’s closed for an hour at lunchtime, and on Sunday afternoons.
Lecce has a true southern rhythm. As the day heats up, the streets empty and during the hottest afternoon hours only a handful of overheated tourists can be spotted in the historic lanes. Churches and businesses generally close for several hours. Local people re-appear as the afternoon cools into evening, but the passeggiata hour here is later than northern parts of Italy. Smart youngsters, families with small children and the elderly all promenade the streets late in the evenings, with the town coming to life between eight and midnight.
To take a breath the wonder seascapes of Torre Chianca, San Cataldo, Frigole, Spiaggiabella, Torre Rinalda.
A “green lung”
Lecce is surrounded by two natural areas: the Regional Nature Park Bosco e Paludi di Rauccio and the Natural Oasis Le Cesine.
From Specchia della Milogna, to the thick holm oak forest, as far as the short Idume river, the Regional Nature Park Bosco e Paludi di Rauccio discloses a lush and vivid nature.The Park of Rauccio is the last example of the large groups of forests and marshes, which in the past stretched along the coast between Brindisi and Lecce.The landscape is characterised by ponds on the back dunes, where appears the short Idume river. The forest, instead, consists of a thick and tangled holm oak forest and of a lush understory where there is the pistacia lentiscus, the myrtle and the lonicera implexa. There are four different itineraries inside the park, disclosing the lush vegetation: from the Botanical to the Faunal one, from the Hydrological to the Cultural –Historical one. In the clearings, there are marshes where several amphibians, such as the Italian newts, the emerald green toad and the Italian tree frog live, while here and there appear the rare wild orchids. The name Specchia della Milogna refers to the presence of the badger, which excavates its burrow at the feet of the holm oaks, while in the wetland many water birds eat, among them the swan, who embellishes the Idume river.
The Natural Oasis Le Cesine stretches around the historic masseria, an earthly paradise in which it is possible to admire wild orchids and the flight of herons and mallards.
Located in the municipality of Vernole, in the province of Lecce, the nature reserve ”Le Cesine” covers an area of roughly 348 ha, which encompasses the wonderful oasis run by the WWF. The reserve that draws its name from Latin seges, which refers to a barren and abandoned land, is a wetland of international importance: distinctive habitats are the dunes, the marshland and the maquis shrubland. The two ponds part of the reserve, fed by rain waters, are separated from the sea by a strip of sand dunes, where you can admire herons and mullards. The habitat teems with beautiful plant species, among which the juniper, sea wallflowers, yellow iris and the rare wild orchids. For those who want to enjoy a guided tour of the oasis, the reference point is the Masseria Le Cesine, a defensive structure dating back to the 15th-16th century. In the area there’s also a 800m path for physically and sight-impared visitors.