Good old Italy is one of those countries whose cities are often admirably suited to particular tastes.
If it’s Roman ruins you’re after, there’s no better destination than Rome itself; if art’s your bag, you can’t beat Florence with its world-renowned Uffizi Gallery. But if churchspotting is your thing head for the Puglian city of Lecce.
Dubbed the ‘Florence of the south’ thanks to its magnificent architecture, it is also known as ‘the city of 100 churches’ and there are indeed more bell towers than you can shake a crozier at.
The Piazza del Duomo in Lecce, which has been dubbed both the ‘Florence of the south’ and ‘the city of 100 churches’
And while in any normal year you would be jostling with hundreds of other tourists, in the era of Covid that certainly won’t be a problem. Given the ubiquity of Lecce’s places of worship it is important to ration your nave-gazing, though.
The ecclesiastical equivalent of the safari’s Big Five are: the Duomo, the basilica of Santa Croce, the Churches of Santa Chiara, Santa Irene and San Matteo, with the Duomo the lion in the pack.
You can get a pass to enter all these (plus all the other fee-charging churches in town) from the Palace of the Ancient Seminary on Piazza Duomo. Known as a Ticket LeccEcclesiae, it costs just £8. On the same square as the seminary is the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, popularly known as the Duomo, and so that’s as good a place as any to start.
The Duomo’s facade is – as is obligatory in these parts – a riot of baroque features: pillars lined with acanthus leaves, windows topped by cherubs and gargoyles, and enough bunches of grapes to produce a healthy vintage.
From the Duomo it’s a short hop to Santa Croce, whose ornate exterior recently underwent painstaking renovation work.
The interior, while impressive, cannot compete with the grandeur of the facade but does have 17 altars – including a beautiful one dedicated to Saint Francis of Paola. There are distinguished works of art, among them a depiction of the Holy Trinity by Gianserio Strafella set into the ceiling.
The Roman Amphitheatre in Lecce, which was erected during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian in the 2nd century AD
The most striking buildings were primarily the work of three architects – Giuseppe Cino, Giuseppe Zimbalo, and Emanuele Manieri – who transformed the city into a sort of holy Disneyland during the 17th and 18th centuries.
But there’s more to Lecce than churches. Three of the ancient limestone gates to the city – Porta Napoli, Porta Rudiae and Porta San Biagio – remain in good condition and the centre of the old town is dominated by the 16th-century Charles V Castle, that is now a cultural centre.
But perhaps the most remarkable attraction is the Roman theatre on Piazza Sant’Oronzo.
Erected during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian in the 2nd century AD, it was lost for hundreds of years after being built over. It was only rediscovered in 1929 when construction workers stumbled across it while digging foundations for a new bank building. Lecce also provides a perfect opportunity to eat like a Puglian.
And that means sampling the local cuisine known as cucina povera, or peasant food.
As well as having beautiful buildings, Lecce also allows visitors to eat like a true Puglian, says Dominic Midgley, who visited the Italian city
A portion of Orecchiette pasta which is a Puglian speciality
It might as well be known as cucina fill-you-up-a. I’d defy anyone to order a meat or fish course once they’d been served a portion of zucchini crudo and an obligatorily massive plate of Puglia’s signature blend of pasta – orechiette and fricelli – with beef ragu.
That didn’t stop the proprietor of one restaurant piling on the hospitality. When he discovered my wife was a classically trained chef, he ordered a second table to be placed next to us and a succession of complimentary dishes were served.
For an authentic cucina povera experience in Lecce, try Le Zie Trattoria. Le Zie translates as ‘The Aunts’ and the women-only kitchen churns out local classics such as horsemeat in a salsa piccante. And if it’s seafood you’re after, you could do worse than Il Gambero Rosso – the Red Prawn – in the historic centre.
The local wine is also wonderful. Primitivo – made from a grape we know as Zinfandel – is a muscular red that is often served chilled.
A fabulous little hotel about a 12-minute drive from Lecce is Masseria Trapana, and a perfect spot to stay while you’re discovering the charms of Lecce’s food, wine and architecture.
Co-owned by an affable Australian, if you’re not happy here you won’t be happy anywhere.