NOT ‘DOWN AT HEEL’ IN ITALY!

Lecce cathedral - Copy

Lecce’s 12th century cathedral

Neither my words nor my photographs can portray the utter “over-the-topness” of the baroque architecture of Lecce in southern Italy.   The building façades are so ornate and flowery with their statues, curlicues, gargoyles and festoons, that the style has its own name – “barocco leccese”.

Lecce gate

One of Lecce’s city gates : Porta Napoli

I was staying right down in the stiletto heel of Italy after catching a night boat from Croatia to Bari.  Like Dubrovnik which I had just left, Lecce is another old, walled city but the comparison ends there.  Lecce is smaller, compact and self-contained, and its stone walls and streets are buttermilk yellow rather than white.  There were no hordes of visitors and I found the tourist industry was subtle, running in parallel to the normal life of Lecce’s residents.    As you stroll around this town everything pleases the eye and is gentle on it, and something about the atmosphere encourages you to sit in a café and slow down.   When the summer heat cools there are attractive shops to wander through, some selling the papier mâché objects that Lecce is renowned for.

Memorabilia 1

There are 40 churches in Lecce and numerous palaces, and just when you think you have seen an extremely ornate façade you turn from the narrow streets into the open space of Piazza del Duomo or arrive at the Basilica di Sante Croce and behold a new level of voluptuousness.   The French novelist and poet, Paul Bourget, wrote : “The whole of this city is, so to speak, nothing but a sculpture and gracefulness. Studied ornaments twist around the balconies of the houses; a whole population of statues gathers above the doors; columns following other columns; just as pediments follow pediments.”

Piazza del Duomo

Piazza del Duomo with its 68 metre bell tower, cathedral & Palazzo Vescovile

Lecce has interesting sights, including a well-preserved roman forum and a castle, but my favourite was tucked away in a side street, Via Ascanio Grandi, and was a curiosity that was not well publicised.  In 2001 Luciano Faggiano decided to turn his lodging house into a restaurant and, as he had been having problems with the sewers, started to do some repairs underground with the help of his sons, evidently telling them it would take about a week.  To their astonishment they started to discover historical artefacts and chambers beneath the property.  It turned out that their building sat on layer upon layer of archaeological remains, like a time capsule.  Luciano became fascinated with the find, even obsessed, and continued to excavate at his own expense.

As you walk around what is now a museum you can see the deepest layer dating from the 5th century BC up through Roman remains, then medieval, Byzantine and Renaissance residues, to symbols of The Knights Templar on the roof.    It is all the more fascinating for having centuries of human life displayed in one simple house.

I chatted to Andrea Faggiano who was in his early twenties and at university when the ruins were unearthed by his father. He and his brother spent the next seven years on the dig under the supervision of a government archaeologist until the museum could be opened to the public in 2008.   Amongst the family’s finds were a Mesopotamian tomb; a Roman grain store; and evidence of a Franciscan convent as well as numerous artefacts and even frescoes.   The house is a symbol of the history of the region and the various populations and invaders who resided there over thousands of years.  Andrea is now a well-informed museum guide, though he laughingly confessed that he had needed to escape the dig at one point and had travelled for a while.

Andrea Museo

Andrea at the Faggiano Museum (permission to publish given)

I liked one of the Knights Templar signs  –  “The Templar Rose” or “The Flower of Life”.   Each of the six petals symbolises a day of the World’s creation and the symbol marks a sacred place and protects it from evil.   Another interesting discovery was a carved lintel stone which was over the convent door saying : “Si deus pro nobis quis contra nos?” –  If God be for us, who can be against us?

Knights Templar symbols found on the walls & roof :

Not far from Lecce there is so much to explore in the region of Puglia.  Whiter than white Locorotondo, high on a hill, is a member of the elite club of most beautiful villages in Italy (I Borghi Piu Belli D’Italia).   All streets lead to the village’s church where I was fortunate enough to see a happy wedding and the couple drive off in a tiny fiat.

Locorotondo 1

Locorotondo

Looking down from the heights of Locorotondo you can see the “trulli” that the region is famous for, though they are more plentiful at Alberobello where a lively tourist industry has grown up around them.   Trulli, from the Greek for ‘round’, are little conical houses that look as if they are straight out of a Hollywood film about gnomes or hobbits.  They were originally constructed by farmers to store tools and grain and over time the style became adopted for living accommodation.   They are cute with their white lime-washed sides and bobble hats of grey chiancarelle stone –  the roofs often marked with signs of the zodiac or devotional and good luck symbols.

Alberobello 1

Trulli in Alberobello

You could spend weeks exploring this region of Italy.  The Adriatic coast on the east of the heel is a rough one with cliffs and rocky fronts, whilst the western Ionian Sea coastline, overlooked by Gallipoli, is flat, protected, and lined with beaches.

As my time in the southern heel of Italy came to a close I looked at a map and wondered which route I would take to slowly wend my way back up to my home near Geneva.  I could head west, see Sicily and take a two day car ferry up to Genoa.  Or I could travel up the western coast through Naples and Rome, taking in Pompeii and Herculaneum on the way.   Or maybe take a road less travelled up the eastern coast of Italy continuing through Puglia and on into Abruzzo and Umbria….   What a feeling of freedom an open map and no immediate plan generates!    Which route would you have taken?

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Comments
6 Responses to “NOT ‘DOWN AT HEEL’ IN ITALY!”
  1. Rosie xx says:

    Just all sounds really amazing and so lovely to hear all your news !!

  2. Ishita says:

    Oh Lecce ❤ such a lovely town. I have a similar picture that you had of the Memorabilia

  3. Jill Barth says:

    What a place, apparent visually many other wonderful ways. We live in such a gorgeous world. Thanks for sharing!

  4. I find that with most of Italy it is covered in hidden gems at every corner.. the country exudes beauty and breathtaking architecture

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