Ali and I have visited lots of Italian cities in the middle and north of the country over the past few years (Rome, Florence, Bologna, Pisa, Turin), so we felt it was time to explore the southern regions! Originally I was researching a holiday in Sicily but leaving it quite late in the year to book, it was too expensive for us. Puglia is a region I’ve always wanted to visit and being a lover of red wine and olive oil, it was an obvious choice. Lecce, the capital of the scenic Salento peninsula is where we decided to begin our holiday before moving on to Bari for a couple of days.
The ”Florence” of the South
We arrive in Lecce after a relatively easy journey. Our Ryanair flight to Bari Airport is followed by the Tempesta bus into Bari city centre (20 min, €4 each) and a train to Lecce (2 hr, €10.50 each), where our Airbnb host Stefania, kindly picks us up from the station. Our apartment, with its sizeable roof-terrace is wonderful. Air-conditioned with a well stocked kitchen, bedroom and bathroom, it’s the ideal base for our Lecce adventures. It’s late afternoon when we can finally unpack and rest so, after a quick siesta, we head out for dinner at the nearby L’Ostrica Ubriaca (review coming soon!). A fish mongers by day and a restaurant by night, it isn’t surprising that this place serves up some of the best fish dishes you’re likely to have anywhere and a bottle of Ursi, a sparkling white wine from Salento is the perfect accompaniment. We are lucky to get a table without booking as the restaurant is packed with locals, but aren’t so fortunate a few nights later when we try to visit again.
The city of Lecce is a beautiful myriad of narrow streets and is famous for its Baroque architecture. There is a large park in the centre of the city which is used by locals as a tranquil spot to read the mornings papers, socialise and walk their dogs. Most of the important sights are located in the historical centre and even though we’re in peak tourist season, it never feels as packed as its northern cousins. On our first morning, we stroll through the park, visit the beautiful Basilica di Santa Croce (be SURE to look up when you arrive inside) and venture into an old antiques market, filled with everything from jewellery and crockery to art and incredible pieces of furniture. Ali buys a pair of earrings and as we make our way onward, we hear a large crash behind us and lots of shouting coming from the same stall. Initially thinking that somebody had clumsily broken something of value, the sight of an elderly man receiving CPR soon reveals the truth. The ambulance is quick on the scene and by the time Ali and I are able to exit, the afflicted man seems to be unconscious but breathing again. The experience gets even more surreal as we walk straight into Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta minutes later and watch a young couple exchange their wedding vows. This was to become a bit of a theme during our stay, witnessing five weddings over the seven days (I am choosing to ignore the hints).
Food and Wine
Being the capital of Salento, Lecce has a wonderful selection of restaurants. One thing to note is that people eat far later here than we Irish are used to. It’s not unusual to see families, couples etc. sit down to dinner at 11 pm, infact there was a queue of people waiting for a table at A’Roma Osteria when we left at 11.30 pm! A typical breakfast consists of a Caffe Leccese and a Pasticciotto. The Leccese coffee is something I can really do without – an espresso poured into a glass filled with ice and a shot of almond milk. The pasticciotto on the other hand, is something I can very much get on board with. It’s a pastry tart filled with a sweet egg custard – simple yet totally delicious.
Most restaurants in Lecce are centred around the wonderful seafood which the Ionian and Adriatic Seas provide. Prices are ridiculously cheap – a couple could expect to pay around €50 for three courses, including a bottle of local wine. I was excited about drinking lots of Puglian reds before coming but actually I loved the local sparkling whites and rosés. 37 degrees is far too hot to be drinking big beefy reds and plates of baked prawns, smoked swordfish crostini and octopus salads are far better matched with a bottle of refreshing Ursi. Numerous gelateria line the ancient streets and most are of excellent quality. My favourite, Baldo Gelato on Via Idomeneo is located within a busy restaurant quarter and provides the perfect sweet treat end to an evening. Meals of particular note were at L’Ostrica Ubriaca (see above), A’Roma Osteria (review coming soon!) who have the most incredible Panna Cotta you are ever likely to encounter and Crianza (review coming soon!) who serve up creative interpretations of Italian classics – my Smoked Swordfish Bruschetta with Mayonnaise, Rocket, Orange Drops and Pink Pepper is one of the best starters I’ve ever eaten. Doppiozero have a wonderful cold cuts platter which is fantastic value at just €12 – it’s a very generous portion so order it between two.
The traditional Leccese Fritto (usually served as an antipasti) consists of fried potato croquettes and horse meatballs – if you have an aversion to eating horse meat then this is one dish to be avoided. Aswell as the seafood on offer, there is also a wide range of vegetarian dishes available. Orecchiette con Cime di Rapa (ear shaped pasta with turnip tops) is available almost everywhere, and I also had a beautiful Nastri d’Orzo with Vegetables and Fresh Ricotta (traditional barley wheat pasta). The food is not near as heavy as in other parts of Italy so, despite having a fully stocked kitchen, I didn’t cook once.
Why Visit Lecce?
Lecce is a liveable city. Despite it being the middle of tourist season, it’s still relatively quiet and the slower pace of life would appeal to anyone. It does come as a bit of a shock however, to see almost every shop in the city close its doors between 1 pm and 5 pm. Once you are aware of it, you work around it and it’s actually quite nice to enjoy a nice lunch followed by a nap before venturing back out for the evening. The tourist sights and museums stay open in the afternoon so if a nap isn’t your thing, you’ll still have plenty to see and do. Basilica di Santa Croce and Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta are the two biggest churches but there plenty more worth visiting. The Museo Faggiano is a fascinating attraction – run by the Faggiano family in the historical centre, it exhibits artefacts that were found during sewage work in the building. Pieces from the 5th Century B.C. right up to the modern era are on show as well as some rather gruesome historical traditions.
Lecce is also a wonderful base to explore the Salento peninsula. From the beginning of June through to the end of September, Salento In Bus (€3.50 maximum fare) runs a service linking all of the seaside towns and villages to the city and each other. If you’d like to go further afield to visit the picturesque Trulli houses of Alberobello for example, the FSE train is the way to go. This regional service is slower than the Trenitalia lines (which only run to the major towns) but weaving through the villages, vineyards and olive groves of Puglia, you don’t notice the extra time. Speaking of vineyards – the city is surrounded by many top class wineries which as long as you call ahead, are usually more than happy to show you around. Some of the bigger ones have rented shop spaces within Lecce where you can go to taste and buy wine for unbelievably low prices.
Despite visiting some of Italy’s great treasures, Lecce is my favourite place Ali and I have visited. While the food, wine and weather all contribute to this, it’s the pace of life, liberal nature and sense of community that really seal the deal. I can’t wait to visit it again.