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Lecce, Puglia's Baroque masterpiece

PUGLIA'S TOWNS AND CITIES

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Lecce in PugliaBuilt in the local soft creamy limestone with dazzling architectural surprises around every corner, Lecce is a minor Baroque masterpiece. Its spider's web of streets offer a kaleidoscopic mix of long-range vistas, alluring glimpses and playful perspectives that have long enchanted visitors.

Supported by a history going back at least 2,500 years, modern-day Lecce is the main town on Puglia's Salento peninsula and a major draw for the area's tourism industry. Its 95,000 inhabitants haven't forgotten their roots, however, and the production and sale of olive oil, wine and ceramics continues to be the mainstay of the local economy.

History

Legend tells us that a town existed near the site of Lecce right back at the time of the Trojan Wars, though this is hard to verify. What is sure, however, is that the town was taken over by the Romans in the 3rd century BC. Evidently not caring much for its position, they moved it 3km north, began developing its potential and renamed it Licea.

The Emperor Hadrian spent considerable time and resources fortifying it (he loved building walls remember!) and oversaw the building of an archetypally straight Roman road linking the town to the coast (at modern day San Cataldo, about 10km away). The town's stature was assured with the construction of a 25,000-seater amphitheatre and a theatre.

With the fall of Rome, Lecce eventually came under the control of Byzantium in 549 and it remained thus until the arrival of the Normans in the 11th century. It prospered greatly as part of the Kingdom of Sicily and from 1053 to 1463 it was one of the most important towns in southern Italy. 

The early 17th century saw a new invasion, but this time of a cultural variety: the Baroque! Over the course of a hundred or so years, the town changed face almost completely. Existing churches and buildings were given makeovers and many new ones were built by ambitious young architects whose fantasy new no bounds. Baroque Lecce was born and most still survives to wow visitors.

Sights to see while strolling through Lecce's lovely streets 

Piazza del Duomo is a real treat, surrounded, as it is, by some delightful buildings. The Duomo itself was built originally in 1144 but with the arrival of the Baroque zealots in the mid-17th century it was given a facelift and a 70m-high bell tower was added for good measure.

The Basilica di Santa Croce has one of the finest and most intricate Baroque facades in Italy. The level of detail is quite stunning and the evident perfectionism of its creators most probably contributed to the building's exceptionally long period of gestation: it took over 200 years to complete before it was finally opened for worship in 1695.

The Church of Saints Niccolo’ and Cataldo is a fascinating Norman church built by King Tancred of Sicily in 1180. The façade was significantly embellished with statues and other decorative art in the early 1700s, but the impressive original portal fortunately remained. The result is a fascinating mix of Norman austerity and Italianate Baroque fussiness.

Cafés, bars and restaurants flank the streets offering refreshments and front row seats from which to observe the comings and goings of the locals as they go about their daily business.

The Statue of Saint Oronzo: Saint Oronzo is the beloved patron saint of Lecce. The column from which his statue surveys the old town centre of Lecce was originally one of two that signalled the end of the Roman Via Appia in Brindisi. It arrived in Lecce in the 17th century as a gift from the people of Brindisi, who believed that their neighbour's patron Saint had interceded on their behalf and save their town from the plague.

Under the gaze of Saint Oronzo's statue is Lecce's Roman amphitheatre, built at the end of the 2nd Century BC. A series of earthquakes, bombardments and unfortunate town-planning initiatives meant that it remained buried and forgotten until after the 2nd World War, when excavations began. About two thirds of the arena were uncovered and archaeologists have calculated that it would have measure some 100x80m with a capacity of around 25,000 spectators.

Il Castello di Carlo V: Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain (just two of his many titles), inherited vast swathes of Europe, including the south-east of Italy. Plagued by attacks from the bothersome Ottomans, he ordered a series of towers and fortifications to be built along the coast of Puglia. One such work was the castle in Lecce, built between 1539 and 1549 on the site of an existing Norman fortress. Its muscular ramparts belie the beauty of the interiors, which feature a delightful central courtyard and a series of halls decorated to suit the tastes of a Holy Roman Emperor. Today the castle plays host to cultural and artistic events.

A quintessentially southern Italian town, bursting with piazzas and palazzi, Lecce's old town centre is a wonderful setting for the strolling visitor. Cafés, bars and restaurants flank the streets offering refreshments and front row seats from which to observe the comings and goings of the locals as they go about their daily business.

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