Lecce, is one of the most fascinating open-air museums in Italy, so much so that it has earned the nickname of Florence of the South.
The Lecce Baroque, both for the refined processing of limestone and for the decorative themes chosen, has no equal in the Italian artistic and cultural heritage. Besides the art, the palaces and the many churches of the city, the other rewarding factor is the strategic location in the heart of Salento, with the sea just 10 kilometres away: not only a city of art but, if you wish, also a summer resort with a sparkling nightlife among cultural events, concerts and popular traditions.
The Cathedral, dedicated to Santa Maria Assunta, was built starting from 1659 by the architect Giuseppe Zimbalo, called “lo Zingarello”, who deeply revisited the previous building giving the cathedral that touch of “Lecce Baroque” present in all the religious architecture of the city. The detail of the two façades is characteristic: the one on the left of the archiepiscopal palace is the main one, while the secondary one looks at the centre of the square. The latter is the most decorated and almost always misleads the visitor, convinced that he is in front of the main entrance portal.
The central nave is surmounted by a wooden ceiling.
From the top of the bell tower, made by Zingarello himself, on particularly clear days you can see the coast of Albania from the other side of the Adriatic Sea. The interior is also exuberant from a decorative point of view, with three naves and a Latin cross.
Lecce was born as a Messapian city: at the end of the “Social War” in 89 B.C. it became a “Roman municipium”. The extension of citizenship rights to the population allowed the Messapian elite who commanded the city to transfer their power under the insignia of the Roman Empire. Hence the construction of the Amphitheatre and the Theatre, located respectively in Piazza Sant’Oronzo and Via Arte della Cartapesta.
The Roman Theatre is a bit hidden but, with its 18-metre diameter arena that could hold up to 5,000 spectators, it is definitely worth a visit.
Not to be missed, near the theatre, is the Must, historical museum of the city of Lecce, which often hosts interesting exhibitions.
Another museum that deserves a special mention is the Faggiano Museum, in via Ascanio Grandi: until 2000 it was nothing more than a private building in the historic centre, but in 2001, following extraordinary maintenance work and the breaking of the floor, a floor from the Messapian period (5th century BC), cisterns for collecting rainwater and storing grain, a small child’s grave and a larger commune, as well as other ceramic and masonry finds, emerged: more than 2000 years of the city of Lecce’s history at your fingertips.
The oldest museum in the whole of Apulia with finds ranging from Messapic ceramics to Attic vases and statues of the Imperial Age, the Sigismondo Castromediano Museum. immerses us in over a thousand years of history among documents and finds perfectly catalogued and narrated (roughly from the 9th century B.C. to the 2nd century A.D.). And it is not over because this museum, founded in 1868 by the Italian archaeologist and patriot Sigismondo Castromediano (1811-1895), houses a library and an art gallery with a section reserved for paintings of Renaissance and Baroque taste, and another that houses paintings by the major Salento artists of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Not to be missed is the Basilica di Santa Croce, built between the 16th and 17th centuries, the emblem of Lecce Baroque.
Its façade is completely decorated: from the main portal delimited by two pairs of Corinthian columns, to the decorations of the balustrade (flames, lions, pelicans, pomegranates, angels, signs, coats of arms, etc.) to the Romanesque rose window. The interior, in the shape of a Latin cross, was originally divided into five naves, two of which were later reabsorbed into side chapels added in the 18th century.
Not only churches and museums, Lecce is also home to the Castle of Charles V: designed by the royal architect Gian Giacomo dell’Acaya, the Castle was strongly desired by Charles V of Habsburg to defend the city from dangers on the other side of the Adriatic.
The Hapsburg king, in fact, in 1539, transformed the medieval bulwark into a real military fortress, able to resist the ferocious attacks by the Turks.
The new construction radically changed the medieval aspect of the fortress, of which, however, traces are still visible in the two surviving towers (“Torre Maestra/Magistra” and “Torre Mozza“) and in the underground tunnels subject to intense archaeological excavations. In 1870, it was transformed into a Military District and placed under the control of the Ministry of Defence of the newborn Italian State, and this saved it from slow decline.
In the 80s of the last century it passed to the municipality of Lecce, which made it a privileged venue for exhibitions, shows and conferences, as well as the seat of the Department of Culture.
Since 2010 it has housed the Museo della Carta Pesta.
Halfway between the Ionian and Adriatic sea Lecce gives the possibility, in a few kilometres, to swim every day in a different place. The beaches are really many: Punta Prosciutto in Porto San Cesareo, with expanses of fine white sand, crystal clear water with shades of sky and splendid dunes stained with luxuriant vegetation, and Baia Verde in Gallipoli are among the most famous on the Ionian coast. On the other side, Torre dell’Orso and the Alimini beach, near the lakes of the same name, are worth a visit.
The surroundings of Lecce are also a real discovery. The eleven villages in Salento’s Greece are a consortium of municipalities created primarily to protect and enhance the “griko” dialect spoken by the local population. A very ancient idiom, dating back to Magna Graecia and the subsequent Byzantine domination, which mixes Greek words with other neo-Latin and typically dialectal ones: Calimera, Carpignano Salentino, Castrignano de’ Greci, Corigliano d’Otranto, Cutrofiano, Martano, Martignano, Melpignano, Soleto, Sternatia and Zollino, manage in a consortium way a whole series of services including tourist promotion. In this context was born the “Notte della Taranta”, itinerant festival that every year, during the month of August, brings in these lands hundreds of thousands of tourists from all over the world.