Some might do Lecce in a day. You can, of course you can, just like you can do Lucca or Verona or Bellagio in a day. To really see a place, though, is more than grazing your eyes over its main sights, having a fast bite to eat at a restaurant you may or may not have researched, and doing a lap through the town’s duomo. To really see a place is actually more than seeing; it is listening: listening to the sounds of its people, their accent, the way they interact with one another and with you, listening to the sound of the piazza at twilight, when the shifts in the day occur and family and friends come out to meet one another and spend a few hours lounging over an aperitivo before dinner, listening to the sounds of the town at daybreak, when just a few residents are walking their dog and fetching a caffe, and listening to the clatter of the espresso cups as the day begins to pick up. More than listening, it is feeling, it is tasting, it is smelling… to really see a place requires a bit more time, a bit more patience, to soak it in at least a little. Let it get under your skin. Get to know it. Think of it as a second date, maybe a third if you stay long enough.
On this trip I was prepared to offer Lecce two dates, maybe three if you count a lazy afternoon spent under a September sun. I rented an Airbnb (gasp, she did what?), my first in, well, ever, and it was a gem. The woman who owned it was equally jewel-like; she and her daughter organized my arrival perfectly, even though her daughter lives hundreds of miles away in Milan. Her mother arranged to meet me at a garage outside the ancient walls so that I could shack my car for the weekend in a safe place, and she then drove me to the apartment which was recently renovated and done so very well, if I might say so. Good taste indeed, and not much spared. The best part was of course the terrace overlooking the ancient amphitheater, on which I wiled away that lazy Saturday in the sun. This darling woman had stocked the kitchen with every snack and coffee beverage I might need, as well as a bottle of prosecco in case I happened to meet a man, to which she added that we could enjoy it on the terrace together under the dramatic Leccese night sky. Grazie, mamma.
So I began my ‘getting to know each other’ weekend on Friday afternoon and wasted no time doing a few laps around the city, taking in the phenomenal stone. When you look at photos of Lecce without knowing it’s Lecce, you might innocently assume it to be Malta. The city is built with its famous and beloved Leccese stone (pietra Leccese), so unique to Lecce that the only remotely familiar type has ever been found in Malta.
Can we talk about the stone for just one more minute? Namely because it is so sublime but also because it is so intertwined in every morsel of this baroque, elegant, relaxed city. Everywhere you walk, you will be a) bound to pass at least half a dozen churches and b) will be overcome with wonder at how these ancient Italians managed to create such detailed artwork on every single edifice; the tiniest stone sculptures carved into a facade, an arch, a ceiling as if it were painted. The detail is incredible, and thanks to such proud and dedicated residents, superbly maintained. One day, walking through an empty piazza, my Leccese thoughts were interrupted by loud machinery run by two men at the side of a small ancient church. They were buffing off graffiti. The next day, Sunday, they were still at it. Sunday. Italy. Sunday. That’s dedication.
So, okay, we got to know the stone a bit. What about the food?
Puglia has gained culinary fame for its cucina povera, and there are a few classic recipes that you are bound to find in trattorias all over Lecce. One of them is a fava bean puree topped with cicoria and another is handmade orecchiette with a broccoli rabe pesto, both of which I had at Trattoria alle due Corti. Due Corti is a charming, casual trattoria run by three generations: the grandmother who opened it and was the head chef has passed the Kitchen reigns onto her son. I sat in a corner table across the family table, where the grandmother sat with her granddaughter while she finished her orecchiette. The daughter is there, the son’s wife, the grandfather, and then later in the evening, the grandson appeared as well. They were darlings, all of them, so kind and so friendly and such hard workers. Anthony Bourdain had eaten there just two years ago, and was so impressed with one of the son’s dishes that he set up an episode to shoot the very next day.
Another Lecce classic is Le Zie, just outside of the ancient walls. Reservations are required everywhere, even for lunch, and especially at Le Zie where the room is a perfect, small square. Service doesn’t have the same warmth as Due Corti, let’s just leave it at that, but the cooking by the aunts (le zie) is superb; simple and flavorful. The dining room takes on a quiet tone, at least during lunch, and the walls are lined with quirky art and a few photographs. There was one dog under the table next to me, and the staff was very kind to bring it its own water. The Calamaro, the single stuffed calamaro, another typical dish in the area, was divine. Impossible to photograph elegantly in my case, but very tasty.
There are a few boutiques selling locally made ceramics, scarves, and bedding as well. I found one boutique just off of the main piazza, near Pasticceria Natale, that I liked very much, and it was the only one where I made a few purchases. It is owned by a Bolognese, and true to Bologna, is very quirky and colorful, filled with interesting home wares and clothing and accessories. I really went to town, although one could always go further…
After dinner one evening I moseyed over to the most upscale five star hotel within walking distance: La Fiermontina. Set within the ancient walls, this beautiful property took nearly 10 years to restore. It is owned by a brother and sister who are French in upbringing but whose fabulous grandmother was born in Lecce. Photos of her looking like Botticelli’s Venus, but Bohemian and oh-so-current, line the library walls. I spent an hour or two with tea and chocolate and gorgeous coffee table books all about Puglia, sitting next to the fire and just enjoying a lovely evening with my date, Lecce.
You can take advantage of nearby beaches, there are many of course and what is a visit to Puglia without spending ample time in the sand. My advice however to those impatient travelers, is to give Lecce it’s own time too. Even if you think you can do it in a day (which, honestly, you can), isn’t it far more enjoyable to not rush? Have the Italians taught you nothing?!