Lecce
Apulia's Baroque Pearl
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If you are fortunate enough to visit this lovely city, you are likely to be impressed by the lavish decorations on its facades. The local sandstone, tinged a warm pink, is so easy to work with that it fostered the rise of a local style (barocco leccese) as ornate and intricate as any the world has seen. More than the architects, it was the local stone masons who left their mark on this city, crowding its buildings with fanciful cherubs, monsters, flowers, fruits, beauties and beasts. Far, far off the beaten track for most of Italy's art-loving visitors, Lecce sits on the southeastern tip of Italy's boot, waiting to stupefy us with its little-known magnificence. Here is an introductory itinerary.


L
ecce was first a Greek city, then a Roman town, so it is fitting to start our walk at piazza Sant'Oronzo, site of the most important local Roman ruins: a 25,000-seat ampitheatre from the 1st century BC and a column which originally stood in Brindisi to mark the end of the Appian Way. Walk a few yards to the church of Santa Croce, whose baroque façade is as exuberant as its large Renaissance interior is austere. Adjacent to the church is the Palazzo del Governo (Town Hall); step back and view the whole block-long complex to really appreciate the scope of its decorations. On the other side of the church is the Celestine monastery, which is far more restrained.

Walk through the quiet streets of the old town, beneath delicate wrought-iron balustrades, curving whitewashed arches and soft amber street lamps, and you will find something to capture your fancy on almost every building. In Corso Vittorio Emanuele I, the church of S. Irene boasts whimsical, yet highly stylized carvings. The same can be said for the 17th-century façade of the Cathedral, just a few blocks away beneath its 210-foot bell tower. The Palazzo del Vescovado (Bishop's Palace) and the Palazzo del Seminario (Seminary) complete one of the loveliest piazzas in Europe; walk into the seminary's courtyard to see the delightful little wellhead and its two angelic guardians.

Stroll down Via Palmieri, stopping to watch artisans working the local sandstone in their shops. Eventually you will reach Piazza Falconieri, dominated by the splendid Palazzo Marrese, whose portal is flanked by two caryatids and whose balcony rests on gloriously carved shelves.

Now follow Via Libertini until you reach the basilica of San Giovanni Battista, whose façade has a slightly different look: although the center is pure leccese, the sides are marked by two simple columns topped with beautifully detailed pine cones. Walk down Via Rubichi to the 18th-century Palazzo Carrafa. The shop at Via Rubichi 21 is a great place to find bargains on all the local crafts; next door is a wine shop that sells the excellent Salento wines. A little further on is the lovely church of Gesù and Palazzo Costantini, which has a most unusual balcony. Also worthy of note is the beautiful concave-convex façade of the church of San Matteo.

After all this walking, you'll probably want to try some of the excellent local food. Stop in at Villa della Monica (Via S.S. Giacomo e Filippo 40, tel. 358432; closed Tuesday); dinner is about 20 Euro/person, plus wine.

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