The extravagant baroque of Lecce, Puglia

The cathedral square at night

Puglia is poor. Driving from north to south, we witnessed grim estates on the outskirts of Brindisi, derelict buildings that littered the landscape and lots of litter. But the sun was shining and giant bushes bursting with colourful flowers that lined the pot-holed motorway did, at least, provide some relief.

The city of Lecce’s suburbs were as ropey as Brindisi’s but it was the historic heart of the city that was our goal. Driving around it was hideously stressful and it took two attempts to locate our posh hotel, the Patria Palace, thanks to the narrow streets, ‘no entry’ signs and a stroppy local, angry with us for daring to take our car into the centro storico. We ended up parked by the monstrous Porta Napoli, me in a thunderous mood.

It was only after we’d checked in and sorted other problems – I managed to screw up the TV (far too complex, too many channels) and the safe (should’ve ignored the instructions) – that I was able to wind down.

Decoration on the Basilica di Santa Croce
Decoration on the Basilica di Santa Croce

Lecce is a baroque masterpiece but it boasts a particular style of baroque. Maestros like Giuseppe Zimbalo and a host of other artists took advantage of the easily carved limestone that’s particular to the region and the result is a city that’s florid and wildly over-the-top. A walk around the centre brings to mind a wedding cake on steroids.

Churches, palazzo and government buildings are by far the most extravagant but even some of the more modest buildings have flamboyant touches, as if they’re competing for attention with their neighbours. We quickly realised that Lecce was one of those cities you have to walk around with your neck craned, eyes to the sky.

The Church Of St Teresa with its truncated facade and the swirling grandeur of the Church of St Matteo were among the stars.

But Lecce is not as perfect as Florence. The poverty of Puglia seeps into the city’s streets and there are obvious signs of decay. While there’s been a lot of restoration, there are still derelict buildings in the back streets awaiting a saviour or two. Badly pitted stones worn away by centuries of rain and pollution can be seen everywhere and other structures bear scars where rendering has collapsed. However, this shabbiness adds charm to the city.

Palazzo del Governo
Palazzo del Governo

We started our tour in the heat and sunshine of Piazza Sant’Oronzo, a vast open space dominated by two particularly imposing monuments. The Colonna di Sant’Oronzo features the city’s patron saint atop a column, which originally stood in Brindisi and once marked the end of the Via Appia, the old Roman road that began in Rome.

Beside it are the remains of the Roman Amphitheatre, dating from the 2nd century but only excavated in the early 20th. Just a section of it is visible – the rest is under 2,000 years of subsequent development – and it wasn’t possible to go down into its guts to get a feel for it. However, it’s clearly still used for shows and events.

The Piazza del Duomo proved to be an even greater revelation. Turning off the busy main thoroughfare, the Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, we were unexpectedly confronted with a gigantic open space, almost devoid of people, but lined with the most extraordinary baroque buildings.

The Church of St Theresa
The Church of St Teresa

Ahead of us was the 12th century cathedral, which Zimbalo did much to adorn and that boasts not one but two extravagant facades. Next to it, the 68m bell tower – another of Zimbalo’s masterpieces.

Next to them stood the bishop’s palace and a seminary. Hoping to see some state rooms, we paid to go into the diocesan museum in the seminary building but instead found a couple of rooms full of dreadful religious art and artefacts. However, a keen guide showed us around and her enthusiasm and the stories she told made it marginally more bearable.

The most extravagant example of Lecce Baroque is reserved for the Basilica di Santa Croce, which was over the road from our hotel. Although parts of the frontage were covered in scaffolding, we could still make out the creatures and characters that Zimbalo and his artists carved into the manic frontage of the church during the 16th and 17th centuries. The Renaissance interior was impressive too. Nextdoor, the Palazzo del Governo was another of the city’s more attractive piles.

The duomo and bell tower
The duomo and bell tower

But Lecce’s museums are more of a mixed bag. The star of the show was the Museo Faggiano in Via Ascanio Grandi, an extraordinary house that reveals layer upon layer of the city’s history. The stories were revealed when the owner, who was hoping to open a trattoria in the property, started digging to find out why his toilet pipe kept getting blocked.

The family ended up unearthing a Messapian tomb, a Roman granary, a Christian chapel and evidence of the Knights Templar occupation, as well as large quantities of pottery and other detritus from 2,000 years of human habitation. It was fascinating and at times claustrophobic as we clambered down into cisterns and tombs amid the old tiling, drainage systems and architectural details of the building.

Up on the roof, we watched as a storm rumbled around the outskirts of the city.

Lecce's Roman amphitheatre
Lecce’s Roman amphitheatre

The Museo Provinciale Sigismondo Castromediano on the edge of the historic district was packed with artefacts from Lecce and Puglia, a vast collection from pre-history to Roman, Greek and more recent eras. But it was as dry as a bone and there was little in the way of English translation. It was one of those museums that succeed only in sucking the life out of a potentially interesting subject.

The Teatro Romano Museum was tacked on to the remains of the old Roman theatre. The literature was good, we saw slabs from the Via Appia and there was a good model of the theatre as it would’ve looked in its heyday, but the theatre itself was rather neglected.

The previous night it had hosted a concert and nobody had bothered to collect up the chairs, empty water bottles and other rubbish. Wild, mangy cats roamed around and I stumbled across the dried up remains of a dead one. We tried to ignore the rubbish and sat in the sun, picking out the history of the site in the remaining architecture.

The back streets of Lecce
The back streets of Lecce

Our final museum stop, at the Palazzo Taurino, was new and highlighted the history of Jewish occupation of the district around the Basilica di Santa Croce. There was plenty to read but not a huge amount to see amid the building’s cellars.

Of an evening, Lecce was full of life – a lot more so than our other stops in Puglia had been. And that was no doubt in part to the number of students from the city’s university, who could often be seen hanging around the cafes of Piazza Sant’Oronzo.

We stopped mostly in the bars and restaurants around Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II and lining Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, where we could sit outside on the warm evenings and watch the world go by. There were a surprising number of looky looky men and women selling their wares and lots of good wine and prosecco to be drank. A place called 00 was a particular favourite.

We left Lecce on a steamy morning, saying goodbye to a city that had delivered beautiful sights and great nightlife in spades. What had begun so badly had turned into a real treat.