Lecce is in the heel of Italy’s boot, with olive trees as far as the eye can see. It is called the Florence of the South because of its baroque architecture. As we found in Bari the shops close from 1-3 for siesta! I don’t remember them doing this in other parts of Italy I have visited. And it might just be in the old part of town that this happens.
While the history of Lecce goes way back the period Lecce is most famous for is the 17th century when the Palaces and churches were built in the Baroque style out of soft local limestone. The Basilica di Santa Croce is the focal point of the old city with its amazing facade. But there are many other fabulously decorated churches in this small space.
You can still see ruins of a Roman amphitheatre which is at the dividing line of the old and new city. The amphitheatre is surrounded by buildings put up by Batista – Fascist architecture – which we saw a lot of in Napoli. It is partly buried because other ancient building were built on top of it. In its day it would hold 20,000. It is still used today for concerts and celebrations. Only the lower tier of seats remain. Near the square theatre there is a pre-Roman necropolis where Messapian inscriptions have been found.
There are a lot of beautiful shops with local art. I don’t recall seeing the pumi before. Pumi are decorative elements in a form recalling a bud that is going to bloom. Symbolizing prosperity and fertility, in the folk culture of the Southern Italy they defend from evil. Deeply rooted in the traditional culture of the ‘heel of the boot’, Pumi are very popular in Puglia, decorating magnificent palaces as well as simple balconies. I could do without the fertility but had to have one to take home.
We had a great time shopping in Lecce, both Bobbi and I met artists and purchased there work. We saw a lot of earthenware sculpture with a white glaze – love it.
This region is also famous for its papier mâché.
Scenes from Lecce.
We went to Otranto for a quick visit, and had a wonderful farm to table meal and wine tasting close by.
We left Lecce the next day and drove to Ostuni – the White City on the top of a hill. Ostuni is located in a region that has been inhabited since the stone age. It is believed to have to been founded by the Messapii, destroyed by the armies of Hannibal during the Punic Wars and then re-built by the Greeks – hence the Ostuni name meaning “new town.”
Its whitewashed defensive walls and houses in the old town with many winding streets, steps and beautifully decorated, colorful window frames can make you think you’re somewhere in Greece. Ostuni’s history is shown predominately within it’s architecture; with many buildings still standing dating back as far as 990 AD when the city was sacked by the Normans and added to it’s own county. The majority of buildings date from 1300 to 1463.
As I discovered the last time I was in Italy the further south I got the more I liked the food and the fewer people there were – well once you get away from Napoli.
My trip started by arriving in Naples, one of the most densely populated cities in Europe. Before I left home I saw a couple of videos and heard people talk about Naples, or Napoli as we were instructed to say (because Naples is in Florida) they said it’s chaotic, dirty, and crowded. It’s all of that but I’m glad I got to walk the streets. The architecture, the street food, the graffiti, the people, all were wonderful (well maybe not the graffiti). Driving from the airport to our hotel, just off Toledo, made me glad I was not driving, it reminded me of driving around the Arc De Triomph in Paris, or pretty much anywhere in Mexico City. You just go and hope others will not hit you, no street lights, hardly any lane markings through some of the city. You walk that way as well, we were told, cross at the crosswalk and be assertive, just step out and they will stop.
There are 60 museums in the city, we visited the Muse o Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli which has many artifacts found at Herculaneum and Pompeii. Some of our group went to Herculaneum, I had been to Pompeii on a previous trip so chose to stroll the streets.
We only got to see one of the Subway stations but Line 1 and Line 6 of the Napoli subway system have become an open-air museum with masterpieces between the staircases and docks. The stations are filled with colors, mosaics, installations, sculptures and photographs. Architects were chosen from across the globe to design each of the stations and international and Italian artists to provide the art. It has made a significant impact on the surrounding areas of the stations they say. Read more about it.
Not on WW but had to have a sfogliatella – The sfogliatella Santa Rosa was created in the monastery of Santa Rosa in Conca dei Marini in the province of Salerno, Italy, in the 17th century. Pasquale Pintauro, a pastry chef from Naples, acquired the original recipe and began selling the pastries in his shop in 1818. Yum!
We left Napoli and drove to the city of Benevento –A UNESCO World Heritage Site . They know the Romans were here in 298 BC, there is a large Roman theatre here and the Arch of Trajann. The Arch of Trajan is one of the best-preserved Roman structures in the Campania (as this region of Italy is called). The church we visited was built in 760 – The Church of Santa Sofia, it’s circular of Lombard design. It was severely damaged in an earthquake a while back but has been restored. It’s interesting that in the construction they used artifacts as building materials, some from the Roman times. They also have a lot of artifacts from that period on their grounds. The church has a cloister from the 12th century. The church interior was once totally frescoed by Byzantine artists: fragments of these paintings, portraying the Histories of Christ, can be still seen in the two side aps.
The Appian Way is one of the earliest and strategically most important Roman roads of the ancient republic. And it ran right through this arch.
From Benevento we headed east and stopped at an interesting Castle Castel del Monte or Castle of the Mountain – built in the 13th-century it sits alone on a hill, no need for a moat because being the highest point in the area you could see the enemy coming, even from the sea. It was built by the Emperor Frederick II, who had inherited the lands from his mother Constance of Sicily. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (one of 54 in Italy – of the 1092 sites worldwide, Italy has the most of any country.
The Between Benevento and Bari were miles and miles and miles of olive trees and vineyards. Bari is on the Adriatic Sea. Again – reading about Bari on the internet people kind of pan it. But we were entralled. The ancient part of Bari – Bari Vecchia – is a maze of narrow alleys. It is fascinating. The homes are tiny and much of their living is on the street.
St Nicholas is the patron Saint of Bari. They were preparing for the twice yearly celebrated festival when we were there. If you go on a tour in Europe you invariably go to dozens of churches, the Basilica of San Nicola, is a treasure built in 1087 to house the relics of the patron saint of the city. Today it is a popular destination for pilgrims from all over the world, devoted to St. Nicholas, but especially Russian Orthodox citizens, with whom the city of Bari has important relationships. Putin had even visited there recently.
There is a pasta that they make here – the women sit in their doorways and cut and twist the pasta into shapes called orecchiette – little ears. Click here to see a video of them cutting and twisting the pasta.
From Bari we headed to Monopoli – a town with heavy Greek influences. The Agean sea is less that 70 miles wide at this point with Albania and Greece being the closest countries to the east.
Our last stop of the day was to visit an olive farm – Masseria Brancati – This is the oldest masseria (fortified farmhouse) in the region. They gave us a tour of their ancient underground oil mill used throughout the Middle Ages and up until 1800. We saw olive trees that were 2000 years old. There are some in the region that are 4000 years old. The oldest trees are given a number and are protected – read about the Millenari Di Puglia. We tasted their oil and learned about the different qualities of them. The first press is the extra virgin and has the most antioxidants and is the strongest. Whether extra virgin or virgin has to do with the time the olive is harvested. Here in this region (maybe everywhere I don’t know) they are harvested first in October, then 2nd in November and 3rd in December. The December harvest is the mildest and the one you cook with. The October is the strongest flavor and most healthy. The November oil falls somewhere in-between.
We had some rain in the area of Italy “that it never rains” but it didn’t dampen our spirits or slow us down.
Next stop Lecce – called the Florence of the South – in Road Trip Southern Italy Part 2
Janet Francoeur is a painter, a tile maker, a wanna be writer, an ok photographer, a gardener, she has wanderlust and not enough time to do everything she wants to do! Jan, as she likes to be called, has been a professional artist her entire adult life. She started with drawing in pencil, then ink, then watercolor, clay and now oil and mosaic. For 25 years she did house portraits in ink and for the past 15 years she also does them in watercolor. Jan and her husband Michael moved to New Bern, North Carolina in 1989 from Aspen, Colorado, where they had lived for 6 years. They were both born and raised in southern Michigan not far from Ann Arbor.