Lecce

Lecce may be called the Florence of the Baroque. In this artistic tendency in Italy there is nothing that can be compared. This is how that the historian Gregorovius described Lecce. Lecce is the capital of the Lecce province and of the Salento sub-region.

lecce1Located just 11 Km far from the Adriatic Sea and 23Km from the Ionian Sea, it lies in the middle of fertile plain, surrounded by attractive countryside, seashore and small towns. The city can easily be reached from Brindisi airport and it makes the perfect destination for a weekend break or a holiday as it’s a great base for exploring the Salento Peninsula.

Lecce is the Baroque masterpiece of Italy and stupefies tourists with its little-known magnificence, its noble palaces and undeniable beauty of its numerous churches. In 2010 the city has been listed in “Best in Travel 2010” by Lonely Planet.

Lecce’s history goes back a long way, it was founded by Messapians and then conquered by Romans during the 3rd century BC, at that time it was named Lupiae. Over the centuries, the city has been  conquered by many civilizations – the Norman, the Byzantine, the Spanish and other dynasties had settled here and have left a lot of traces of their existence through art and architecture.

Its long and noble history is certainly witnessed by the numerous buildings and Churches scattered across its lovely historic centre. The town’s great artistic treasure is its architecture with picturesque little lanes and Baroque churches with facades finely decorated. The 17th century was definitely the period of prosperity which led to grand developments and the construction of palaces and churches. These buildings adapted the fashionable Baroque style to the soft local stone, with decorations and cherubs extravagantly covering facades and doorways. This local style is known as barocco Leccese (‘Lecce Baroque’).

Lecce is built of stone that glints gold and cream in the sunlight, it is taken from the surrounding land and it is called pietra leccese (literally stone from Lecce), a light yellow, soft, compact and easily workable limestone. More than the architects, it was the local craftsmen and masons who left their mark in this city, working the stone and letting their ideas run wild especially when designing the facades and creating marvellous compositions made up of animals, birds, monsters, cherubs, flowers and fruit.

We start our tour from St. Oronzo square (piazza Sant’Oronozo). This is the central square and big heart of the city, surrounded by shops and cafes it is constantly full of people; it is site of the most important Roman ruins: a 25,000-seat theatre and amphitheater from the 1st century BC, this is where many wild fights between gladiators and beasts had taken place. A big column stands atop the square and a statue of bishop and patron saint Oronzo is perched on top of it. It is one of the two columns which marked the end of ancient Appia road and originally stood in Brindisi.

lecce2Piazza Duomo (Duomo Square), one of the most beautiful squares in Italy is definitely the best example of Baroque architecture: it is a big enclosed square with the Cathedral sitting on the left corner alongside the 50m high campanile (bell tower). The double-facade Cathedral was built in 1659 with a Latin cross shape and has 13 altars. The main facade is characterized by very simple architecture while the side facade has an exuberant baroque style. Completing the square is the Episcopio (Bishop’s Palace) which is the Bishop’s residence and is built just beside the Cathedral and the Seminario (Seminary). It is adorned with friezes and tall pillars and the courtyard has a beautiful well with two angelic guardians, it is decorated with garlands and also bunches of fruits and flowers.

One of the most fascinating expressions of baroque architecture is the Church of Santa Croce, (which lies north of St. Oronzo square) whose baroque façade is as exuberant as its large Renaissance interior is austere. It took a team of craftsmen over 100 years to complete the church but the result is astonishing. Entirely built which leccese stone the facade is a masterpiece of ancient architecture to marvel at, it is ornamented with strange beasts and allegories, cherubs, fantastical monsters, plants. The interior, in stark contrast to the facade, it is done in plain Renaissance style.

Other main sights in the city are: Church of St. Nicolò and Cataldo built in 1180, Church of St. Irene dedicated to one of the three patron saints (Oronzo, Domenico and Irene), Church of St. Chiara with a madly decorated altar. Porta Rudiae the ancient entrance to the city before leaving this honour to Porta Napoli also called Triumphal Arch, consisting of two slender Corinthian pairs of columns it is one of the most popular landmarks in town. The castle which was built around an ancient Norman fortification, it consists of two concentric trapezoidal structures surrounded by solid battlements and an impenetrable moat.

The Sigismondo Castromediano Province Museum is the oldest in Puglia and as it has been the only museum for years it has an impressive archaeological collection coming from any town in the region. This gives a deep insight to the different ages and civilization the region has gone through.

lecceBut Lecce is not only Churches, museums and Baroque buildings. Lecce’s old city centre is a big outdoor museum: there’s a grace and original elegance in its wonderful small streets, alleys and courtyards packed with upmarket boutiques, antique shops and furniture restorers. There will be always something capturing your glance: a delicate wrought-iron balustrade, a curving whitewashed arch or simply a soft amber street lamp.

Lecce is also famous for the craftspeople who construct various models out of cartapesta (papier màché), there are plenty of small studios in the old town where these artists can be admired while modelling a wire and covering it with paper dipped in glue. Finally the model is painted with oil paints.

Not to be missed is also the pietra leccese tradition with many studios in town where artists work and model the famous stone creating great sculptures.

Oasi Le Cesine

Le Cesine has been a nature reserve since 1977 and is the most beautiful WWF protected oasis in Puglia. It is one of the most important wetland in Southern Italy and the only surviving area of marshland that once covered the coast between Brindisi and Otranto. Its name comes from the Latin Seges which means uncultivated or abandoned area.

Located along the coast between San Cataldo and San Foca, the reserve covers over 600 acres and also includes 6km of coastline. Although most of the landscape is covered by wetland, the reserve includes different environments: cultivated areas, the Mediterranean maquis, dunes and beaches, reed groves and water channels, marshes and woods. The coast is mainly sandy with some short rocky stretches and is rich in vegetation and aquatic plant species such as purple orchids, yellow iris and water lily.

The wetland is certainly the most interesting landscape of the whole area with the two small lakes (Salapi and Pantano Grande) and is covered by reed groves, marshes and small swamps. The forest is made up of Aleppo pines, holm oak and cypresses.Le Cesine reserve is located along a major Mediterranean migratory route, making it the perfect resting place for many birds such as wild ducks, grey and purple herons, gulls, hawks, cormorants, grebes, great and little egrets. Seagulls and woodcock are also very common along the coast.The wood and the Mediterranean maquis are populated by reptiles and mammals such as foxes, badgers and the great deer, the lizard and the colubro leopardino (one of the rarest snakes in Europe).

The reserve is open all year round; it can be visited only by walking tours and accompanied by expert guides. The tours are held every Sunday and feast days at fixed times which may vary according to the period of the year. Several routes are available for all visitors needs, including specific trails for photographers and birdwatchers. They all start from the visitor center located in the beautiful Masseria Cesine where WWF has established the headquarter: large spaces for teaching and watching documentaries are available here.

For further information please visit the website: www.riservalecesine.it

Grottaglie

Grottaglie is a city in the province of Taranto and was built on a whole rock of limestone. The countryside that surrounds the city is full of deep ravines that open the ground into the heart of the limestone-rock which has formed breathtaking caves. For this reason the city was named Grottaglie, from the Latin ‘Kriptalys’, which means several caves.

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Grottaglie’s origins date back to the Palaeolithic age but the most important historical remains date back to the medieval period when the population began to settle and make the caves their home.

Still today, if you take a tour of the caves you can still see what remains of the original homes including: stairs, paths and canal systems used to drain rainwater. Despite becoming a Modern and dynamic city in recent years, Grottaglie still retains the historical charm of its past, thanks to a number of buildings dating from the 15th century that adorn the old town including the Bishop’s Castle built in the 15th century by order of the archbishop of Taranto, which had also ordered the construction of the fortification walls. Essential elements of the castle are a large central square and its square tower. It was later enlarged and remodeled, with a facade of the Baroque period. The castle is now owned by the city council and hosts the “Museum of Ceramic” which exhibits ceramics dating back to the 8th century BC till today.

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Of considerable historical and architectural importance is also the Mother Church which was built in the 13th century by order of Bishop too. Inside is the chapel of the Rosary with Baroque altars dedicated to two saints of the city: St. Cyrus and St. Francis.

Grottaglie has become famous over the years for its production of grapes which is used for the production of fine wines, and also in particular to the activity of handmade pottery. The manufacture of pottery within the region dates back to medieval times, but it’s only at the end of 18th century that the School of Art in Grottaglie was created. Still open and in business today, it operates in the old district located in the old town.

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The manufacturing of ceramics is still of strategic importance both in economic but also cultural terms. The school houses its own souvenir shop which is open daily, and for a small fee you can see the masters as they work the clay making everything from: Plates, mugs, bowls, cups, as well as decorative designs on tiles. Grottaglie is also included in the list of the 28 Italian ceramic cities by “AICC” “Italian Association Pottery Town”.

Gallipoli

Gallipoli is a wonderful town in the province of Lecce and is undoubtedly a must-see in the Salento area. Its name derives from the original Greek name ‘Kalé polis’ meaning ‘beautiful city’. Located along the Ionian coast, the town is divided into two parts: the new and also bigger part is of recent construction and is where the main public buildings and businesses are located. The old part of the town is on a small walled island connected to the mainland by a 6th century bridge. Aside of the bridge there is the Aragonese Castle, it was built in the 13th century and is one of the few castles washed by the sea.

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Gallipoli is a great town for exploration, lose yourself wandering its winding, picturesque streets. The little old town is surrounded by powerful walls constructed with the aim to defend the city against enemies. Mostly built of white stone, the small historic center is a collection of small streets that blend to form a maze, where you can find beautiful baroque buildings including the Cathedral of Sant’Agata, built in 1629, it is a wonderful example of the Lecce baroque style developed in this region. Of particular historical interest is also the Greek fountain (rebuilt in 1560) being the oldest fountain in Italy. Wandering in the small streets of the old town you will find small shops and businesses where local food and wine can be purchased along with souvenirs. The historic center also houses the fish market, just underneath the bridge, small but very nice and characteristic.

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Gallipoli is indeed famous for its fishing port and is a must-visit for seafood lovers. Thanks to its numerous white, sandy beaches and crystal-clear water, Gallipoli is one of the most sought tourist destinations of South Italy. Most of the beautiful beaches are outside the city center, however the “Seno della Purità” meaning the “Breast of Purity”, is within the town walls. It’s a small, pleasant beach where you can take a swim during your visit.

After your swimming, climb up the town walls and sit outdoors to eat a seafood dinner at one of the restaurants overlooking this harbor as night falls, certainly the perfect ending to an enjoyable day in Gallipoli. Fun is always guaranteed in Gallipoli, the day can be enjoyed on the beach, along with activities such as spas, natural reserves and water sports. At night the city offers also an amazing nightlife. Many discos and nightclubs are within the city or just outside. The evening usually starts as early as in the late afternoon on the beach where you can enjoy the aperitivo and drink a cocktail on the beach listening to music.

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Galatina

Galatina is a city in the Lecce Province and one of the largest in the Salento sub-region; it is located 20 km south of Lecce and 20 km from the Adriatic coast. Mainly an agricultural center it is well-known for wine-production and tobacco-processing. It has very ancient and unclear origins: it probably existed during the Roman times but the first evidences of its existence date back to the Middle Ages when it was a Byzantine and Greek colony. It was originally called San Pietro in Galatina, in honor of the Saint who passed from here on his way to Rome and it kept this name until the unification of Italy in 1861.

GalatinaLike most of the cities in Salento, Galatina has many remnants of the former Greek colonization, even if it reached its cultural peak during the Renaissance and Baroque times when beautiful palaces and churches were built. Among the most important buildings there is the Palace Vernaleone, palace Galluccio-Mezio and palace Gorgoni. In St. Peter’s Square is where the large parish church is located, dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul it was built by architect Zimbalo between 1633 and 1663 in Baroque style and preserves precious paintings in the interior. Galatina is home to the precious Church of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, one of the most beautiful in Salento it was built in Romanesque style. Built in local stone the imposing facade has a coat of arms of the Orsini del Balzo family who ordered its construction in 1384, the church was completed in 1391. The facade is adorned with a statue of Christ and the 12 Apostles. The church is enriched by the graves of the family and an array of columns, but what makes the church famous is the interior: its interior is in fact entirely covered with frescoes and paintings depicting the history of the Virgin, of Saint Catherine, scenes of apocalypse, the Old and New Testament.

Galatina_ChiesaFinally, the Civic Museum Cavoti which preserves numerous works of asr and paintings of local painters, including Pietro Cavoti and Gaetano Martinez, and works of art from medieval times.

It is also one the main centres in the whole Salento for the ritual of tarantella, the folk dance which evolved from the tarantismo. Every year it is celebrated on the 29th of June with a big festival dedicated the Saint Peter and Paul. Its origin is actually bizarre, the tarantati (people who were victims of the tarantula bite) used to go to Galatina to dance all together and the next day they used to go in the church to be blessed and healed by the two Saints.

Brindisi

Brindisi is the capital of the homonym Province of Brindisi. Located at the northern border of the Salento sub-region, the city and its fortune were built around its port, the most Oriental in Italy and one of the most beautiful and crowded in the Mediterranean Sea. The city is indeed better known for its port and is usually visited by travelers departing for or arriving from Greece, however it is a fascinating city rich in history and culture and it is worth a visit through its old city center.

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According to a legend, it was founded by the Greek Diomede returning from the Trojan War but its origins most likely date back to 8th century BC when Messapian civilization settled in the area.

Brindisi has always played a major role trading with the East; it became the ‘City of Bronze’ (weapons and coins were produced here) and it can be considered the real Roman gateway between East and West. As most of the Puglian cities, Brindisi reached its cultural and economic peak during the Roman Empire: Romans took over the city, made it a colony which very soon became the main commercial and military port towards the East. Its port became the end point of the Appia Road and Traiana Road which Romans built to connect the city to Rome. Romans also built temples, baths, amphitheater  forum, barracks, academies and the aqueduct. With the fall of the Roman Empire (5th century), Brindisi suffered an inevitable decline and was repeatedly conquered and ruled by different civilizations. In 1869, with the opening of the Suez Canal, the port of Brindisi was chosen by the British as terminal point for the naval link up to Bombay which made the city a rich commercial emporium.

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There are still few remains of the ancient glory days: the ancient defensive walls still surround the old city center along with the gates and the bastions. The Swabian Castle (also known as castle of land): it was built in 1227 by Emperor Frederick II who used it as his own residence, prison and arsenal. Since 1909 it has been used by the Navy and it is closed to the public; however it can be visited on organized tours. The Alfonsino Castle (also known as castle of sea) which was built on the St. Andrew Island strategically placed at the entrance of the city port against the sea attacks. Characteristic is its small inner harbor  the castle consists of a part called the Red Castle, due to the typical color of the stones used for its construction and one called Forte used as accommodation for the garrison. The Monument to the Italian Sailor which was built in 1933 by Mussolini and was totally financed with concerts staged across the country; the giant monument (54m high) has the shape of a ship’s rudder and commemorates the lives of 6000 Italian sailors who lost their lives during World War I; their names are inscribed on the walls. The monument is open to public for visits.

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The roman columns which were built by Romans to mark the end of the Appia road (It took over 150 years the Romans to build this road). Only one column is still present in Brindisi as one was given to the city of Lecce in 1666 in honor of the patron Saint Oronzo who had relieved Brindisi from the plague. Nearby the columns is a house where it is said that poet Virgilio lived and passed away after returning back from a journey to Greece.

The Cathedral located in the middle of the historical city center  it was constructed in 12th century and rebuilt in 1743 after the earthquake. Here is where the Swabian Emperor Frederick II married Isabella of Brienne in 1225.

During the period of the Crusades the port became the crossroad for crusaders going to the Holy Land. Many buildings and residences were built to accommodate knights and the pilgrims, directed to the Sepulcher. The Porta dei Cavalieri Templari is today the only remain of the of Knights Templar’s imposing residence.

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The Archaeological Museum is worth a visit, it holds thousands of Roman and Greek remains such as coins and sculpture; flagship of the museum is the Punta del Serrone bronzes, a collection of more than 3000 bronzes that have been recovered in the sea water just off the harbor.

The city has also a picturesque promenade: walking along this street you can enjoy the public gardens of Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II and the monument dedicated to the poet Virgilio.

Photo Credits Per Sempre Brindisi

Acaya

Acaya is a small village, with less than one thousand inhabitants, in the province of Lecce. It is located in the heart of the Salento sub-region, just 5 Km from the WWF oasis of Le Cesine on the Adriatic coast and 20 minutes driving from Lecce, the capital of the province. It has an immense historical and architectural importance as it is one of the few fortified villages left in Italy.Originally named Borgata di Segine (township of Segine), at the end of the 13th century it was given by Charles II d’Angiò to the Acaya family which had arrived in Puglia from Greece.

Acaya CastlePhoto Credits: Flickr-raschiapedane

The family ruled the village for over three centuries. During the following two centuries the whole region of Puglia was repeatedly attacked by the Turks and in 1535 the Emperor Charles V decided to fortify the village by giving the project to the magister Gian Giacomo of Acaya, a “royal military engineer”. It was also in that occasion that it was renamed Acaya.

Gian Giacomo rebuilt the village following his utopian model of the “ideal town” and providing the village with a solid defensive structure: he continued his father’s work, by building the perfectly rectangular city walls that still surround the village today. He also strengthened three corners by building rampants and bastions into the perimeter walls. The fourth corner was occupied by the castle that his father had built 29 years before.

Acaya, Salento 2013Photo Credits: Flickr-Giorgio Guerrieri

He also added the moat to the castle and a walkaway for guards along the higher part of the surronding defensive walls. Finally he reconstructed the parish church along with the bell tower and built the Convent of Minori Osservanti, dedicated to Saint Antonio.

In 1570 Gian Giacomo passed away, Acaya was sold and a period of inevitable decline began. In 1714 Acaya was invaded and destroyed by Turks but the village still retains the original architectural style and is today at the centre of a great restoration and recovering activity which aims to bring the whole area to its the ancient splendour. As part of this restoration, a new 18-hole golf club has been established here in Acaya.

AcayaPhoto Credits: Flickr-Simonluca Laitempergher