We love staying in our luxurious apartment right in the middle of the old city of Lecce. Francesco, our landlord, told us about a car park a short walk from the Airbnb and it truly was easy. We had leased the car for the entire 3 months we were in Europe and we enjoy being able to go exploring whenever we wish. On the other hand, we also like exploring places on foot without having to worry about crazy drivers or finding a place to park.
We entered the Old Town through one of its three main gates, Porta Napoli. The other two are: Porta San Biago and Porta Rudiae. All are equally lovely.
On one end of the Old City we found the Castle of Charles V. His titles were mind boggling. He succeeded his grandfather, Maximillan I, as Holy Roman Emperor from 1519 – 1556 and during this time he was also King of Spain and ruled the Spanish Empire while at the same time reining as King of Germany and King of Italy as well as archduke of Austria. He was the grandson of the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella. I can’t begin to understand how students of European history manage to keep it all straight! Today the castle acts as a cultural center. There is a legend that says when the Orsini del Balzo family lived in the castle during the 14th century they kept a white bear in the moat. This served as a status symbol and also acted as protection against unwanted visitors!
Not far from the castle, we happened upon Villa Comunale, a beautiful park with fountains and flowers just beginning to bloom. And although it was the middle of March, the day was warm and it was a great place to sit and people watch.
We had been told to see the Basilica and in particular its beautiful facade, but because of the construction, its beauty was hidden behind a covering, but the inside was lovely. We had two favorite squares in Lecce: one is the The Piazza del Duomo, which houses the Baroque Cathedral whose chimes we enjoyed throughout our stay and I featured in my last blog. The second is the Piazza Sant’Oronzo named for the patron saint of Lecce who legend says protected the city from the plague in the 1700’s. In fact in the square stands a column that once stood at the end of the Appian Way in Brindisi where its twin still stands. There are two very different stories about the column. One says that it was the gift of the people of Brindisi thanking Sant Oronzo for protecting them from the plague. The other says that the column lay in ruins for several centuries before the people of Lecce restored it. Hmmm…I think I like the first better. In any event, this column too was being refurbished so it was hidden behind a covering!
We stood on the Appian Way in Rome, nearly 600 miles away. I find it beyond comprehension to take in the size of the Roman Empire. This was a road that was built under Hadrian’s Rule, the same Hadrian, whose wall we saw on our train trip from Edinburgh to London in 2016. That’s further than the distance from Portland, Maine, to Miami, Florida! And we’re talking second century A.D.
There’s a huge Roman amphitheatre close by the square. And while it dates to the second century A.D. it wasn’t unearthed until the early 1900’s. It seats 25,000 while Lecce’s population at the time was only 4,000. How those folks loved to see the competition between the gladiators and the wild animals! I think it also speaks to the importance of Lecce during that time. (The ancient column is located behind the advertising cover in the center of the second photo.)
WWe love Italian food and there were so many choices, always for a reasonable price. Our landlord had suggested we try Prendici Gusto which was just right around the corner. https://www.prendicigustolecce.it/ He said it was a place where locals ate and we could also get take away there. What a find! I always try to learn a couple of phrases in the local language just to be polite. So after asking the guy behind the counter, who also appeared to be the proprietor, “Parli Italiano?” and getting the usual, “Un po,” Bob and I began to point and smile and laugh. And when we had selected way too much food, he rang it up and charged us ten euros! Total! We definitely made a point to go back later in our stay. We enjoyed take out because we could pick it up, take it back to our apartment and then eat a bit earlier than the locals.
We had hoped to find some local Piccicata dancing and asked at several places but no luck, Evidently we weren’t visiting during the right time of year. We also came across a self-serve 24 hour cannibas shop, and a fun little bar, but nothing in the way of local folk music.
Perhaps one of the most interesting events we attended was the Van Gogh Immersion which is touring Europe. We read about it online but were unsure what to expect. We had timed tickets and when we entered the convent where it was housed, we encountered several of his paintings that had been recreated in 3D form.
Then we entered the area of projections. The room was dark with soft music playing while Van Gogh’s artwork was projected on the walls as well as the ceiling, totally immersing us in the painter’s world. People sat on benches, on the floor, or slowly ambled through. There was no beginning; no end. It continued endlessly. Absolutely amazing! It was like nothing we had ever experienced. We intend to visit another, perhaps more elaborate Van Gogh immersion in Provence next month.
Lecce served as a great base for exploring the area. We first took a trip down the Adriatic Coast starting in Otronto, the easternmost point of Italy. The scenery was spectacular. We passed beautiful olive groves, gorgeous yellow fields that Cary later told us was rape seed. It belongs to the same family as mustard and cabbage. And it’s so very pretty…bright yellow as far as the eye can see. We also passed herds of goats and old stone buildings among the olive groves. The buildings, we learned, allowed in days past, for the farmers to live in their fields during their busiest times of year.
The Adriatic is as blue as the Caribbean and the views as we drove along the coast were stunning. Around every bend the view seemed to be better than the last. At one point we could look across the sea and see just the faintest hint of the mountains of Albania. We had read that in the summer the coast is so congested you can walk faster than cars move. So we felt really lucky to be there in March.
Leuca, at the tip of the heel, is where the Adriatic meets the Ionian Sea. Although Leuca isn’t far from Lecce, we decided to spend the night there and drive up the the other side of the coast the next day. I made a reservation at Booking.com because I thought it was a small town and there might be little English spoken. Making the reservation online would help me avoid any confusion. Wrong! Our GPS guided us to our destination which although technically in town, in reality was in the middle of nowhere. When we arrived there was a sign posted on the door, in Italian, of course. My phone took this moment to not have data. So much for Google translate. There was a number listed. I called the number and a woman answered who again spoke only Italian. I repeated the name of the establishment a couple of times and tried to communicate we were there to spend the night. As I hung up the phone I wasn’t sure what to do but figured we should just stay put. After about 20 minutes of frustration, a car pulled up. Yay! I asked him if he spoke English. No. He asked me if I spoke French. No. I asked him if he spoke Spanish. No. We both laughed and he indicated I should follow him inside. I did. We made a lot of hand gestures; we wrote numbers on paper. He showed me how much we owed which matched the reservation online. We even got to the point where he gave me directions to a pizza place. Unbelievable how much you can communicate without speaking the same language. We walked down to the room; pretty spartan. No table to play cards; no side chairs; only the overhead light. But overall an ok place: clean with a great view; reasonable price. Unfortunately, even though he turned the heater on for us, we froze. I don’t think the temperature ever got above 50. We spent the night curled up under the blankets watching an Italian quiz show that had people guessing contestants’ age. Even without speaking Italian we found it hysterical. When we got up in the morning, we walked over to breakfast only to find an amazing spread of croissants and other breads, jams and jellies, cheese, fresh fruit, meats as well juices and cappuccino. Wow! What a fabulous surprise!
We decided to walk through the downtown before heading out. Leuca is a pretty place located right at the edge of the water. (We found a hotel right down near the water. Couldn’t help but wonder why I didn’t find that place online the night before!) We found ourselves imagining where the two seas met as we could discern where two currents seemed to meet.
We then headed on to Gallipoli. This is not the Gallipoli of World War I; that one is in Turkey. Instead this city was described as a pretty fishing village. When I hear fishing village I keep thinking of the coast of Nova Scotia. Gallipoli turned out to be a city of more than 30,000. Today it’s divided into two cities: one old and one modern.
The old city is what we wanted to see and to access it we drove across a bridge that dates to the 1500’s. Despite all the congestion, it is very pretty. We found a parking place; and then marked it with our parking app to ensure that we’d find it after following the meandering streets. Lovely place!
About two hours north of Lecce is Alberobello, a UNESCO site, that consists of little houses made of limestone with conical roofs. These homes are called trullis. When I first read about them I decided we had to visit. So when Cary came to spend my birthday with us off we went. We even made an Airbnb reservation to spend the night in one. Some of them date back to the 1400’s when farmers used them as shelters or for storage.
Many of the trullis have little alcoves and fireplaces in them. And although the entire town had the largest concentration of trullis with more than a thousand, we saw them throughout the valley, and I’m thinking the stone buildings we saw on our drive down the Adriatic were very similar. They’re all whitewashed and as we walked among them we half expected little elves to appear. Some are shops and restaurants as well as dwellings. Today many have modern conveniences. The one we stayed in had an electric stove and a bathroom complete with shower, a flat-screen television, a living room and bedroom. Pasquale, the owner, met us and explained the village as we walked to his trulli.
He was quick to tell us that because of the historic nature of the village no changes could be made to the outside. After explaining how everything worked, he told us his mom would bring us breakfast in the morning at whatever time we prefered. He went on to explain some of the sites and also told us of a couple of great restaurants. It was cold and rainy the day we were there. But that also gave us most of the town to ourselves. We headed first to lunch, learning that in Italy you have a limited time for lunch and then rarely is food served before 7:30. One of the places Pasquale had suggested was just down the hill, according to his directions. So we set off to find it. We walked down the steep hill; we turned where we thought we were supposed to. We came to a construction site but undaunted we continued across the uneven pavement and rubble. Finally, we found it. We walked into the restaurant, down some very narrow windy steps where we came upon two waiters who gave us very strange looks but graciously took us to a table. As we looked up from the table we saw a main door that opened right on to a busy street. No wonder they looked at us oddly! Fabulous meal! We spent the afternoon exploring the shops and the local museum that explained the town’s history. The next morning Pasquale’s mother delivered an amazing breakfast: scrambled eggs, croissants, homemade jams and jellies and of course, cappacinno.
We then headed back to Lecce in the beautiful sunshine. When we got back it was time to pack up, and say good bye to this beautiful section of Italy. Next we drive back across to Rome and up through Tuscany to the southern coast of France. A special thank you to Davida, Cary’s friend who suggested Lecce; we’d never have found this fabulous spot with you!