The wild art of Apulia's deep south

From the wild baroque architecture and papier-mâché of Lecce to the mosaics and seafood of Otranto

Lecce is one of the loveliest cities in Southern Italy. It's a town of traditional craftsmen and virtuoso chefs, and its university lends the place a youthful cultural edge missing from other Apulian cities. In the evening, the streets are thronged with what seems to be the entire population, strolling past the warmly illuminated baroque facades of churches and palazzi, crowding the sidewalk tables that spill out of every café, and passing the time in animated conversation until the 9pm dinner hour.

Not everyone is out and about, though. A community of Benedictine nuns—whom locals simply call Le Suore ("the sisters")—lives a cloistered existence in the twelfth-century convent of San Giovanni Evangelista on Via Manfredi. While you're never allowed to see the sisters, or wander their convent, you can play a kind of culinary Russian roulette with them. Le Suore are almost always selling something to eat, though precisely what changes daily. Ring the bell at the door, and a feathery old woman's voice will crackle over the intercom, inviting you in.

The bare front room looks a bit like a bank counter, but with a solid wall instead of bullet-proof glass, embedded with a blind lazy Susan in place of a teller's window. Remember: No one will appear, so politely direct your conversation at the lazy Susan, and ask whether they happen to have biscotti di pasta di mandorle—soft, almond-paste marzipan cookies with a dollop of pear jelly in the center. A tray of twelve, wrapped up and tied with a green ribbon like a Christmas present, costs around $5. Then again, they may be selling raw fish today; you just never know. (The fact that they speak only Italian makes the game even more interesting.)

The artisans of Lecce

If you'd rather know what you're buying up front, visit the Mostra Permanente dell'Artigianato, just off the main Piazza S. Oronzo, which acts as a communal showcase for artisans from across the region (Via Rubichi 21, Lecce, tel. 011-39-0832-246-758, www.mostrartigianato.le.it). The setting couldn't be blander: a large modern room, harsh florescent lighting, walls lined with shelves, and small tables scattered haphazardly. But the hand-painted ceramics, wrought-iron candlesticks, stone carvings, and other handiworks are beautiful and brilliant—and, since this is a city-run enterprise, there's no markup. There's also no sales pitch, no hustle, and no bargaining; in fact, the entire staff usually consists of just the bottle-blond woman at the cash desk, who hand-tatts lace while waiting for customers.

The only craft item in short supply at the Mostra Permanente is the one for which Lecce has been famous since the seventeenth century: cartapesta (papier-mâché). Most of the cartapesta workshops scattered all around town do a brisk business cranking out life-size saints, crucifixions, and crèche scenes for churches and chapels around the world. After molding the wet sheets of grayish-beige paper around giant, featureless mannequins made of wire and straw, most artisans drag the rough statues into the street and stand them next to a coal-stoked brazier for the next step.

The brazier bristles with iron rods of various sizes and configurations, their ends shoved into the coals until they glow, at which point the maestro plucks them out and uses them to press, sculpt, and burn delicate details into the clothing and faces. Every time he touches the red-hot iron to the paper bodies, it sends up licks of flame and billows of acrid smoke, as if the saint or Savior were being tormented in one of those Hell scenes so popular in medieval Italian mosaics and frescoes. Cartapesta workshops tend to look unsettlingly crammed with charred corpses—until the artisans finally apply thick layers of paint to cover the scars and rough, twisted paper.

Since a six-foot St. Francis won't fit into a carry-on, visit the tiny studio of Maurizio Cianfano, who specializes in foot-high figurines of 19th-century peasants (Via C. Russi 10, Lecce, tel. 011-39-333-799-3906). Constantly grinning under his close-cropped hair, Maurizio wears surgical gloves and a work-spattered white doctor's coat as he practices his own special technique that doesn't involve Lecce's usual hot pokers or other instruments of medieval torture. His workbench is surrounded by shelves crowded with pots of paint, bowls brimming with a selection of pre-crafted clay heads, and regiments of unfinished straw bodies wrapped into human shapes by a haphazard webbing of thread. Onto these, Maurizio crafts flowing, papier-mâché clothing, paints in the details, and finally attaches the peasant's burden: a bundle of sticks across the back, a pile of wood under the arm, and sometimes a jug of wine for the free hand.

The home-cooked meals of Casareccia

On the other side of town, Concettina Cantoro presides over a down-home trattoria so unassuming it's named simply Casareccia, Italian for "home cookin'" (Via Col. Costadura 19, tel. 011-39-0832-245-178). It's clearly a converted family dining room, with ivory paint slapped on the wood plank walls, a sideboard crammed with cutlery and dime-store glasses shoved into one corner, and a stained-glass transom over the open door to the kitchen. But don't let the humble surroundings fool you. Framed on the walls along with a few paintings of food are official certificates and clippings from culinary magazines describing Concettina's trips to demonstrate the finer points of Lecce cooking to top chefs in Boston and New York.

Where to stay in Lecce
B&B Centro Storico,
Just a few blocks from the main square on a quiet side-street bang in the center of town. Nice owner, too. Via Andrea Vignes 2b, Lecce, 011-39-338-588-1265 or 011-39-0832-242-828, www.bedandbreakfast.lecce.it, from€60.

Concettina is a bit of a surrogate mamma to the local workers who lunch here and to the extended families who come for celebratory dinners, and she hates the concept of impersonal menus, preferring to take charge of your meal herself.

She seems to be offering you choices—Would you like a potato-mussels-and-zucchini salad? How about some polpette (meatballs) for afterward, with puréed fava beans mixed and wild chicory on the side? And to start, maybe a nice plate of sagna ‘ncannulata (tagliatelle rolled into rough spirals under a sauce of tomato and sharp ricotta forte cheese)? But by the time she bustles back into the kitchen, you realize that, through that sweet smile, she's actually dictated your entire meal. Ah, well. Mamma knows best. However, you might want to politely decline if she offers an after-dinner shot of the nuclear-green digestivo d'alloro, an intensely bitter local liqueur made from laurel leaves.

The sights of Lecce: Baroque anyone?

Lecce is often called "the Florence of the Baroque" or the "Apulian Athens," both of which stretch things a bit. It has no museums to speak of, the ancient ruins are third-rate, and its population has never produced a Michelangelo or Leonardo. The city did, however, invent its own version of Baroque, which skipped from the Romanesque style—full medieval iconography and heavy on fantastic creatures—right into the curves and curlicues of the florid Baroque era without ever really going through the tempering, staid neoclassicism of the Renaissance.

The façade on the church of Santa Croce is a perfect example, freely mixing pagan references and Christian symbols: dragons and cherubs, winged harpies and pot-bellied mermaids. Atop one column, a mother pelican pecks at her breast, the blood flowing down to feed the three fledglings clamoring at her feet, an ancient symbol of Christ's Passion.

There's more effusively baroque stonework on the buildings surrounding Piazza del Duomo, but not Lecce's central Piazza S. Oronzo because most of its structures were bulldozed in the 1930s in an attempt to excavate the curve of a Roman amphitheater underneath (the Fascists were crazy about ancient ruins). All that remains from Lecce's golden era is a tiny section of the sixteenth-century town hall, stranded alone in the middle of the square near an ancient Roman column. (Even the column is out of place. It was one of two that once marked the end of the Appian Way in Brindisi. When it collapsed in 1528, Lecce bought it cheap, dragged it here, and stuck a statue of the city's obscure patron, St. Orontius, on top.)

The mosaics of Ótranto

If the façade of Santa Croce whetted your appetite for bizarre medieval symbolism, follow the coastal road 35 miles south of Lecce—through the wild olives and scrub of the San Cataldo nature preserve, passing modest resort towns and, every few miles, a crumbling fifteenth-century stone defensive tower—to Ótranto, an ancient city of twisting, flagstone streets girded by a mighty wall.

The mosaic floor of Ótranto's cathedral is a wall-to-wall phantasmagoria of fantastical creatures: elephants, peacocks, cats with human feet, bow-brandishing centaurs, and a horse's body with three human heads atop serpentine necks. Some scenes are typical for a medieval church, like the damned souls wrestling with man-eating snakes in a Hell ruled by fork-tongued Satan. Other elements look oddly out of place: the portrait of Alexander the Great flanked by griffins, or King Arthur surrounded by symbols for the months of the year. A few details seem downright inappropriate for the setting, especially the siren spreading the two halves of her tail in a kind of prehistoric Penthouse pose; it's an ancient symbol of fertility.

A short walk from the cathedral, Trattoria Da Sergio serves heaping plates of linguine studded with a generous helping of two kinds of shrimp (Corso Garibaldi 9, tel. 011-39-0836-801-408). Sergio, like Concettina in Lecce, prefers reciting the day's best to you in person; rather than handing you a menu, he will proudly present an oversize plate piled with the best of the day's catch, which he picked himself down at the docks that morning. If you order the succulent roast sea bass, he'll insist that it needs a couple of giant prawns, "to keep the fish company on the plate." As with Concettina, it's best to just crack open a bottle of Salice Salentino wine and order whatever Sergio suggests.

Apulia is a region too eccentric to approach with preconceived notions or plans set in stone.

It reveals its best secrets only to adventurous folks willing to spend the night in a cave or a trullo, pester cloistered nuns for cookies, seek out the guy who holds the keys to an ancient shrine, or let their waiter take control of their lunch.

Tips & links

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Apulia tourism information
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