The landscape of Lecce is mostly flat and dry. The houses and modern buildings tend to be low with flat roofs (except in the historic center). This creates somewhat of a “barracks” feel as you look around punctuated by an oasis of greenery from the public park -filled with palm trees, flower beds, benches and a majestic gazebo with a tiled dome. Open every day until sundown, it’s where everyone brings kids, dogs and books to wile away the afternoon.
The arid landscape changes dramatically as you head out of town toward the beaches. The land gives way to a seemingly endless expanse of crystal blue sky and sea. Lecce is located just about dead center of the heel of the Italian boot; a peninsula within a peninsula. Consequently, there is easy access to beaches on the eastern coast of the heel (Adriatic Sea) and the western coast of the heel (Ionian Sea). On any given day, you can choose your coast depending upon which way the wind is blowing. I’m not kidding. When the wind is blowing due east, go to the Adriatic. When it blows to the west, go to the Ionian coast. With so many sandy beachfronts at your disposal, you can afford to be picky. One of my favorite beaches is Torre di Chianca, on the Ionian coast. The sand is soft and the water is clean, clear and warm, even in October.
The historic center of Lecce is why the town is called “Florence of the South”. Filled with churches constructed in Baroque style, it’s easy to lose yourself and your way in the labyrinth of narrow streets. Eventually you’ll reach the Piazza del Duomo, the architectural centerpiece of town. Splendid in daylight, it’s especially beguiling at night. Indirect lighting installed throughout the Piazza illuminates the statuary, almost bringing them to life.
The historic center is also the place to go for entertainment and shopping. Restaurants, bars, movie theaters and gelato abound. During my stay, silent films starring Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton were shown against the wall of an outdoor café. Like so many other Italian cities, you can walk out of anyplace directly onto an excavation of subterranean Roman structures. Now that’s entertainment!
The shopping in the historic center is quite diverse. In addition to Italian clothes, shoes and artwork, you can find African and Indonesian jewelry and furniture. A famous local craft is Cartapesta. This is a centuries-old technique of fashioning lifelike figures out of straw and paper mache. The figures are then painted so skillfully that they seem to be carved out of stone. The artisans in Lecce excel in religious and nativity statues, many of them life size.
High-end and designer shopping can be found just outside the historic center, at Piazza Mazzini. Max Mara, Missoni and Valle Verde are at your disposal, just to name a few. The Piazza is also home to a large stone fountain made with whimsical, impish figures perched throughout– peeking at you from under the streams of water and having great fun.
Saturday night is party night in Lecce. Around midnight, everyone drives into the historic center, creating bumper to bumper traffic seldom seen outside of New York City. Everyone miraculously finds parking and it’s off on foot to the bar of their choice. We chose Route 66, a noisy, crowded place with music videos playing from multiple screens, but no dancing. It’s a place to sit, smoke, drink and speak loudly.
After the bar, there’s always a party going on in somebody’s apartment. It’s a great opportunity to hear someone sing, watch someone else learn how to juggle, and try to find the bathroom. When this party dies down everyone heads to Leopardi, open 24 hours serving coffee, liquor and pastry. This place is very popular (especially around 3:00 a.m.) and there’s always a line to get in. We wait patiently and our reward is cappuccino and pastry amid the music and neon. Even as we leave about an hour later, the line outside is just as long and the place is just as lively as when we arrived. It makes you wonder if anyone in this town ever sleeps on a Saturday night.