A travel guide to Lecce, "the Florence of the South" and a festival of exuberent baroque architecture and handmade crafts

In guidebookspeak, Lecce is called "the Florence of the Baroque" or the "Apulian Athens," both of which are stretching things a bit.

True, Lecce is one of the loveliest cities in Southern Italy. It's a town of traditional craftsmen and virtuoso chefs, and its highly regarded university lends the place a youthful and vibrant cultural edge that's notably missing from other Apulian towns. 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.

But this city has no museums to speak of, the ancient ruins are third-rate at best, and its population has never produced a Michelangelo or Leonardo.

They did, however, invent their own version of baroque.

The Leccese baroque is unique, seeming to have grown straight from a quirky Romanesque style into to a florid baroque without ever really bothering to go through the staid neoclassicism of the Renaissance era. This collision of medieval iconography and baroque flourishes gave the city's great churches amazingly intricate facades accented with an almost rococo density of decoration. The carvings are a profusion of totemic animals, jungle-dense foliage motifs, and mythological symbols forming a complex interplay of pagan and Christian references.

A quick history of Lecce

Lecce has had its ups and downs. The prehistoric and Greek settlement grew under the Romans to be the second biggest Adriatic port after Brindisi, then suffered through the Dark Ages under the Byzantines. It regained prestige under the Normans to the point where, from the 15th to 18th centuries, it was known as the Apulian Athens for its scholarship (it's still home to one of Apulia's two universities), but the Bourbon rule kept such a heel to Lecce's neck that the citizens revolted several times. This didn't stop them from engaging in a baroque building boom that gave rise to a playful, idiosyncratic Leccese style and earned the city that other famous nickname: the Florence of the Baroque.

Lecce takes good care of its heritage and makes a wonderful place to spend a few days. Much of the historic center is pedestrianized, with a vibrant outdoor life of pastry cafes, street markets, and free summer concerts; most sights have detailed explanatory plaques out front (in Italian and English); and many baroque facades are floodlit at night.

Tips & links

Useful links & resources

Main tourist office:
Via Monte S. Michele 20
tel. +39-0832-314-117, fax 0832-314-814
open Monday to Friday 9am to 1pm and 5 to 7pm, Saturday 9am to 1pm.

How to get to Lecee
  • By car: Lecce is 38km (24 miles) south of Brindisi on the SS613. It is 143km (86 miles) southeast of Bari, 85km (51 miles) east of Taranto.
  • By train: There are twice hourly trains from Bari (2 hr.) that pass through Brindisi (23–43 min.); 5–8 runs from Martina Franca (110 min.); and 11 runs (6 Sunday) from Taranto (90–125 min.). There are 6 daily trains from Rome (6 hr.).
  • By bus: SITA tel. +39-0832-303-016) runs 4 buses from Brindisi (30 min.), and 3 from Bari (2.5–3 hr.).

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Main tourist office:
Via Monte S. Michele 20
tel. +39-0832-314-117, fax 0832-314-814
open Monday to Friday 9am to 1pm and 5 to 7pm, Saturday 9am to 1pm.

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