In the 17th century, married women in the southern Italian city of Lecce are rumored to have signaled their lovers that their husbands were out by hanging baskets of geraniums on their balcony.
Four centuries later, this pint-sized Florence famous for its ornately decorated baroque architecture (called barocco Leccese) retains its romantic ambience. With hundreds of modestly priced B&Bs, wine bars, sightseeing excursions, and arts and crafts, Lecce is the best bargain escape for lovers seeking an exotic off- the -beaten track southern Italian holiday.
“Lecce is like a bonboniera, the sumptuous wedding favor that newlyweds give their guests as a memory of their nuptials,” says professional guide Daniela Lopez y Royo.
Inn-keeper Roberto Guido, who operates La Bella Lecce B&B and apartments, is one of the best linked-in entrepreneurs in town. He is bilingual, very helpful in a region where few speak English, even in pharmacies and hospitals. Together with his old university colleague Marco Ferriero, his website organizes romantic affordable holidays. We stayed at one of his newly refurbished apartments with a private interior courtyard near the Porta Napoli gated entrance into the city’s historic old town.
When in Lecce, live like an Italian. Tour in the morning; lunch for under 40€ a couple; and siesta in the heat of the day. Lecce becomes vibrantly alive after 5 p.m.
Get your bearings touring the pedestrianized old town with Lecce’s hop on, hop off train and listen closely to the comprehensive audio. It leaves every 30 minutes from the Porta Napoli (one of this formerly walled city’s three remaining gates) and costs just 10€.
Then turned yourself free!
Lecce has more than 100 churches and 11 theaters, including opera houses. The barocco Leccese decorative flourishes will knock your socks off.
Disappointingly, many buildings have been defaced with graffiti.
At the Colognate Leccese bar, stop for a caffe Leccese. Poured over ice cubes, the espresso with almond milk is perfect for warm weather.
Public sculptures in the city will surprise you.
Though they look like marble, they’re actually papier-mâché (cartapesta)! Lecce is the center for this ancient art. Because stone was too pricey and religious figures sculpted from it too heavy to carry during processions, artisans in the Middle Ages needed a cheaper and lighter alternative–. papier-mâché. Today, you can see artists at work making everything from life-size religious figures to small figurines to jewelry.
Learn everything about the tradition of papier-mâché at the museum dedicated to the art in the Castello Carlo V, opened in 2009.
The Leccese are superstitious. At the Ripostiglio di Atena specializing in ceramics, you can buy a colorful owl, which when placed overlooking a door, encourages good luck.
Or hop on a bike and take one of Marco’s guided cycle tours through the countryside.
Eat like a native with these local specialties:
With a 92% alcohol content, Gocce imperial (Imperial drops) liquor has the strongest alcohol content in the world.
Negroamaro wine, pressed from red grapes, is indigenous to the Salento peninsula.
Pasticciotto, a custard pie, is a perfect pick up to flagging energy.
But some dishes are less appealing,
Made of lamb or kid goat offal strips stuffed into a casing of peritoneal membrane, gnummareddi or turcinelli may look a little like a sausage but tastes nothing like it
Polpette di carne di cavallo is a meatball made from horsemeat.
Don’t leave Lecce without exploring fascinating nearby towns by rail. Catch a high speed train from Lecce to Bari and change to the Ferrovie del Sud Est (FSE) to Alberobello, home to the cone shaped houses called trulli. Get off at Alberobello, the stop after Noci.
No, these aren’t the homes of gnomes that the Brits love for garden décor. Made of very flat local rocks, the white-washed one-room structures are built entirely without mortar so that 16th century feudal lords could order them quickly disassembled to avoid taxes on new dwellings.
Another idyllic half-day outing is the train trip to Trani. Though famous for its Romanesque cathedral; a fort which houses a cultural hub and pottery museum; a Gothic Palace of the Doges of Venice and the oldest Jewish temple in Europe, the magnet is the waterfront with its collection of tempting restaurants.
Close to these historic treasures is the Osteriacaccianferno, our choice for its carni alla brace specialty- grilled meats cooked over an open fire. Here, like in all of Puglia, wine is as cheap as bottled water!
If you are trepidatious about ordering the wrong thing because you don’t understand the menu, stick to carni alla brace eateries featuring recognizable cuts of beef, lamb, pork and chicken.
When You Go
Rail Europe ‘s easy-to-navigate website (www.raileurope.com) books 50 different trains across Europe. Fares are inexpensive, including reserved seats. Comfort and premier carriages are basically the same, including luggage space, overhead and behind the seats as well as on racks near the doors. Clean, modern, sometimes two- stories high, trains are extremely punctual.
Discover Lecce, Alberobello, Trani and all things Puglia at www.italiantourism.com where you can find the phone numbers of NY, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Toronto offices.
Book rooms at labellalecce.com and tours at www.slowtours.com.
View papier-mâché sculpture at the Bottega Artigiana di Francesco de Vita, Via Palmieri 91.
Pick up papier-mâché jewelry at Tonda Design www.tondadesign.it.
Up your good luck with ceramics from Il Ripostiglio di Atena. www.facebook.com/ilripostigliodiatea
Enjoy a romantic meal at Osteria Caccianferno in Trani. www.osteriacaccianferno.it.
Make new local Lecce friends with a free walking tour given by locals at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*Words and images by Sheila Sobell and Richard N. Every, professional travel photojournalists who have written much of the content for Romantic Getaways.
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