What day is it? I’m unsure, however I do know that I’ve been immersed in history, indulging and dazzling my taste buds with the specialties and local seasonal produce and happily enjoying much of what the Puglia Region of Southern Italy has to offer.
Staying in the regions capital of Bari for a few nights to experience the capitals historic beauty and treasures and journeying a short drive south to be enchanted by the sun-baked coastline and exploring some of the quaint fishing villages.
Journeying further south with stops along the way to be captivated by the uniqueness of a UNESCO World Heritage township and the charm and grace of an historic township that is the half way point between the Ionian and Adriatic Seas. To arrive in Italy’s famous art city, known as “the Lady of the Baroque” – Lecce, home for a couple of nights to take in the charming old town and to explore some of the outer regions treasures.
Having arrived on the outskirts of the old historical city centre of Lecce, we’re being guided by Google maps to make our way through the Porta Napoli Gate. The Porta Napoli Gate is the eastern entrance and is one of three gates to the historical city centre. This gate once formed the start of the road that led to Naples, during the time when Naples was the capital of the Kingdom of Naples.
The monumental and commonly named Porta Napoli gate is also known as Neapolitan Gate, and has the formal title of ‘Triumphal Arch’. Erected in 1548 in honour of Charles V emperor of Habsbury; a historiographical term referred to as Spain during the 16th and 17th centuries. The arch shows the Habsburg family Coat of Arms in recognition of Charles V triumphant against rival countries trying to seize and win power over the historic city.
The site of the arch replaced an older gate, known as Porta S. Giusto and is believed to be the resting place and tomb of the Saint of the same name.
Driving a short distance along the narrow historic city lanes and finding our accommodation was a very short walk from the Piazza del Duomo. Whilst, one doesn’t need to drive within the old city, you do need a permit to park within the historical city, and we were very grateful to our accommodation hosts for having arranged the parking permit on our behalf.
Its early evening and what better time to admire the wide open space of Piazza del Il Duomo located in the historic city heart. This beautiful square is enclosed on four sides by historic religious buildings and is only accessible by a small entrance on Via Giuseppe Libertini, with the many statues of the ‘Fathers of the Church’ gazing down upon you with a sense of being honoured for entering the sacred square.
During the mid to later 1600s, when Lecce was bestowed the title of provincial capital of the Kingdom of Naples and therefore, becoming the seat of important State offices and royal audiences a decision was made to renew the urban landscape that would be representative of the city’s cultural and political position.
In support of this decision the presiding Bishop of the day, Bishop Pappacoda chose to revive Lecce and grace the historical centre square with baroque style and principles of design, using the unique soft toned limestone that is only found in Lecce, thus giving Lecce a distinguishable aspect from other cities.
However, prior to the square undergoing its revival, it was known as the Cortile del Vescovado; courtyard of the Bishopric and only permitted churchmen to enter within the walls that were surrounded by religious buildings. Yet, on the first Sunday in November this centre of ecclesiastical life, would open its doors for the ‘Spasa di Monsignore’ (fair) to a select few merchants who gathered outside with their sacks of produce, including food; bread and dried fruit, and the poorer folk with their hand carved wooden toys; spinning tops and wooden carts. During the fair each merchant was chosen to present his produce and was granted entry to the sacred courtyard. As a sign of gratitude the merchant then offered their finest and most beautiful products to the bishop that was presented on a tray known as spasa in local dialect, hence the name of the fair.
During the years of enclosed ecclesiastical life the square saw the bell tower begin to crumble and show signs of wear, while the small church was constantly at the mercy of looters. With the danger of the 1659 plague past and the introduction of Lecce’s own style of baroque, the city entered the period of transformation and revival of the square. It was only during the second half of the 1700s that the square was open to the public and permitting passersby’s and visitors to feast their eyes on the elegance that is seen today.
Standing immediately opposite the entrance to Piazza del Duomo is the Cathedral of Saint Maria of the Assumption and Sant’ Oronzo (il Duomo – Cathedral of Lecce), rebuilt in 1659 on the site of a former church that was deemed unsuitable to accommodate the ever growing population. This ornate Cathedral has two façades, given its location within the square and is joined by an angled corner. The main entrance on the left is without ornate carvings and decoration, yet great effort was contributed to the design of the front facing façade in honour of the Virgin of Assumption. Sant’ Oronzo stands atop and centered within a triumphal arch on an image of a cloud, with the co-patrons of the city, San Giusto and San Fortunato, standing left and right presented with richly decorated carvings of fruit, garlands, and trophies of flowers and cherubs. It’s a richly beautiful and very affluent and opulent façade that showcases the exquisiteness of Lecce baroque architecture.
The bell tower (il Campanile) adjoining the Cathedral of Lecce to the left and standing a towering 72 mtrs high was built to replace the crumbling Norman tower during 1661 – 1682. The bell tower consists of five floors with richly decorated balustrades and the fifth floor clay pottery ornamented with paint and finished with an enamel glaze, known as majolica. The ornately designed bell tower can be seen across the historic inner city and is a helpful landmark as you roam the narrow lanes.
To the right of the Cathedral of Lecce stands the Episcope, also known as the Palazzo Vescovile, the Bishop’s Palace; and home for the archbishop of Lecce. The original building was built during the 15th century and enlarged in 1632 and then fully restored in 1758 in keeping with the other elegantly revived buildings in the Piazza Duomo. The 1758 restoration saw the removal of external stairs, and the installation of internal stairs and a complete redesign of the façade. Three niches were included on the upper level that house statues with the centre statue honouring Saint Maria, also referred to as the Madonna when shown in the form of a statue or picture. Three years later in 1761 a clock was added in the centre of the pediment.
Located to the right of the Episcopio within the Piazza Duomo, is The Seminary – The Palazzo del Seminario, originally a school for aspiring priests. The historic Seminary building was built during 1694 to 1709 and like the other buildings in the square was expressively designed using the Lecce Baroque style of architecture. The elegantly carved framed windows can be seen on two floors, whilst the upper floor that was added during 1729 is a more simple and sober design. In 2004 the building became the Diocesan Museum of Sacred Art and library. The library houses more than ten thousand volumes, including many from the 15th and 16th centuries, whilst the Museum located on the first floor houses paintings, and sculptures together with precious furniture and liturgical paraments, ornamental ecclesiastical hanging or vestment.
The Piazza Duomo is truly a very remarkable square in many ways and is extra welcoming at night with the soft lights that gives a warming and magical glow.
By now it’s getting late and finding and choosing a relaxing location for a late super was plentifully, with many options offering choice to dine within the historic city.
Before retiring for the night we walked by the Saint Irene church were a live orchestra performance was being provided. The orchestra shared the stage with an incredible female soprano. Truly A-mazing!
The following day started early with a short 35 min drive through the countryside that ended at the historic island old town of Gallipoli. Gallipoli is a two part city consisting of an old town and port on a small island that rests in the Ionian Sea and is linked by a 16th century stone bridge to Gallipoli’s modern hub on the mainland. It’s also the biggest city on the Salento peninsular and is the southernmost part of Puglia.
We quickly learn that it’s best to find a parking space in the new part of the city and walk the short distance across the ancient bridge to the historic island old city of Gallipoli, were everything is accessible on foot.
During the 17th and 18th centuries beautiful palaces and churches that reflected the wealth of the locals were built.
Let’s take a walk through the narrow streets of this historic city that emerges from the sea and still retains its medieval charm, together with a beautiful enchanting fairytale feel that is steeped in history, art and tradition. It’s no wonder the original Greek settlers called it Kallipolis – beautiful city!
Nestled in the centre and at the highest point on the island old town of Gallipoli stands the impressive Cathedrale di Santa Agata – Cathedral of Gallipoli, dedicated to Saint Agatha the patron saint of the city of Gallipoli, and diocese of the same name.
The present Baroque church built 1629 – 1696 was built on the grounds of an ancient Romanesque church believed to be from the 12th century that was dedicated to St. John Chrysostom, an ancient Greek bishop and theologian, and the Archbishop of Constantinople.
In 1629 the ancient church was destroyed and the first stone of the new Cathedral was laid. However, the former Greek bishop was not forgotten; an inscription that is now placed above the entrance of the sacristy explains the origin of the former church.
Whilst the incredibly beautiful façade captures your attention, the cathedrals interior is adorned with paintings, giving the feeling that you’ve walked into an art gallery.
One such painting holds a haunting past to the Cathedrals name sake, that of St. Agatha, the virgin martyr who devoted forever her worship to God by a consecrate ceremony at a very young age, and who resisted the advances of a high official Roman. Her faith and rejection of the high official Roman resulted in her brutal torture, during which her breasts were cut off. Then being sent to prison to await her death at the stake, only to be saved by an earthquake and the cries of the local people that the earthquake was a sign for her to be released.
Stepping outside of the cathedral to see many locals are mingling around the small cathedral square. A small cafe across from the Cathedral presented and opportunity to sit, relax and enjoy a hot chocolate and a local pastry treat, known as il pasticciotto. These divine little round shaped pastries are filled with yummy lemon flavoured custard that originated in Galatina in 1875 and are as much a symbol of southern Puglia, as a croissant is in France.
A short walk from the cathedral is Frantoio Ipogeo, one of the 35 olive presses found below ground in the old city. Between the 16th to 19th centuries Gallipoli was the richest city in Salerno, given the abundance of olive groves that provided an opportunity to export as olive oil. In addition to exporting olive oil for human consumption, these local workers of Gallipoli pressed olive oil that then became lamp oil to light lamps all across the town and beyond, to richly famous city’s like London, Paris, Berlin, Vienna and Amsterdam, cities that were all a lighted by oil from Gallipoli.
Spending time whilst enjoying a slower pace and roaming aimlessly through the charming cobblestone lanes and seaside streets, not looking for anything in particular… and finding decorative homes with ornate wrought iron balconies, and street lights.
Strolling past the local fish markets, now quiet of fishermen selling their morning catch for the day and then past the marina to enjoy a stroll along the seaside and see some interesting churches.
The terracotta coloured framed Catholic Church of the Santissimo Crocifisso – Holy Crucifix, seat of the holy crucifix brotherhood built in 1750 on land that was purchased in 1741 that had previously belonged to the Dominican fathers.
The Church of San Domenico al Rosario, home to the historic Confraterneity of the Rosary that is annexed to the former convent of the Dominicans, built in 1696 and stands on the ruins of architectural elements from a previous sacred building.
The morning has now turned into early afternoon and it’s time for a bite to eat in one of the many cafes along Gallipoli’s ancient waterfront. An enjoyable and relaxing mid afternoon lunch on a lovely warm autumn day with views across to the new city of Gallipoli, that looks across to the Gallipoli Port, Castello di Gallipoli – Gallipoli Castle and a short distance away from the Il Rivellino Fortress.
The imposing stronghold castle that has watched over the old town of Gallipoli and its harbour for centuries has had a turbulent past that dates back to as early as 265 BC. The Roman fortress was built to accommodate soldiers of the Roman legion who were to safe guard the old city and the port that was once a crossroad of thriving trade. During the 5th century the castle was seriously damaged and close to being destroyed that it was rebuilt during the Byzantine rule during 599.
The castle had a single tower that was connected to the old town by a pontoon type structure and a wooden drawbridge.
Having withstood various Norman sieges during 1055/1056, in 1071 the stronghold castle fell captive to the Normans, and whilst in Norman hands the castle fell into ruin. A second rebuild was undertaken in the second half of the 12th century and subsequent upgrade in 1320.
Then a third extensive rebuild was undertaken during the 15th and 16th centuries under the protection of the House of Anjou together with the House of Aragón and became surrounded by a moat on all sides. It was also during 1522 that the outdated castle defence had a major upgrade with the construction of the rivellino – il ravelin tower and wall adjoining the castle, that was then detached from the castle in the 17th century.
Little then changed until the second half on the 19th century, when the moat was filled in, the supporting arches for the drawbridge were buried together with the construction of the stone bridge, and the façade was covered with the construction of the local fish market, during 1870 to 1879. This left the quadrangle shaped castle standing alone and separated from the rivellino left isolated in the Ionian Sea.
Throughout the decades of change, the Gallipoli Castle still stands proud at the entrance of Gallipoli’s historic old town and offers a more calm existence as one walks through the ancient rooms that have witnessed several invasions. One can join an informative guided tour, spend time learning through the varied temporary exhibitions and enjoy dance shows and live music events. An historic past that brings together an important future. Worth the visit!
Before returning to the car we make a last stop at the Greek Fountain located just at the end of the stone bridge connecting the old town with the new city of Gallipoli.
The two sided fountain features stone carvings of prominent figures from Greek mythology, with the other side showing the historic old town Coat of Arms.
Leaving the fairytale historic old town of Gallipoli, we take a return leisurely drive through the countryside back to Lecce.
Returning to Lecce, with time for a hot chocolate before meeting with others for a two and a half hour guided walk to take in more of the cultural and beauty found in a number of the major historic locations and buildings.
Lecce also boasts being home to 100 churches; the guided walk takes in a selection of the most important and ornately designed churches located within the old city walls of Lecce, including the Lecce Cathedral.
Our starting point was the Piazza del Duomo and for me, a return visit to the Lecce Cathedral. Only this time I had the opportunity to step inside and both admire and appreciate the grandeur of carved columns, a gold gilded altar and a number of beautiful wall paintings.
A short five minute walk from Piazza del Duomo and we’re standing in the historic city centre of Sant’ Oronzo Square that represents the heart of the ancient city.
The Column of Sant’ Oronzo, Lecce’s patron can also be found in Sant’ Oronzo square and was given to Lecce by the city of Brindisi as Sant’ Oronzo was reputed to have cured the plague in Brindisi. The column was also one of two that marked the end point of what was originally known as the Appian Way, a Roman road that was used as a main route for transporting military supplies since its construction for the purpose in 312 BC.
Standing beside the Column of Sant’ Oronzo is what was formerly known as The Seat, once the Palace of the Chair when the city centre was a rich Venetian merchant trade centre during the 15th century that shows both Gothic and Renaissance features. Until 1851 the building was the local Town Hall, then became the National Guard and Civic Centre and today is used as a tourist information hub.
Beneath the historical marketplace square lies the excavated ruins of the 2nd century Roman Amphitheatre. The ancient amphitheatre was discovered by chance by construction workers back in 1901. Sometime later the amphitheatre was partly excavated and restored however, a large amount of the ruins remain buried beneath the historic lanes and buildings of Lecce. Little imagination is needed when moving your eyes across the open ancient stadium with lower underground entrances whilst visualising Roman locals and visitors of the day congregating to watch various events, including gladiator fights. Today the historic amphitheatre has a new modern purpose, as the place for summer music and theatre events and the scene of a model Nativity presentation in winter.
As we continued through the charming lanes, we stopped by to appreciate the Church of Santa’ Irene, where I had the amazing opportunity to experience a live orchestra performance the night before.
The church of Sant’ Irene was built in 1591 and dedicated to the old city’s former patron saint until 1656. Her statute greets all who pass through the entrance.
The interior shows the devotion and respect deserving of Lecce’s’ first patron saint with various paintings, ornate carvings atop the Corinthian columns, an altar of the Archangel Michael and is also home to one of the largest altars in Lecce.
Leaving Sant’ Irene we then took a slow ten minute stroll through the winding lanes before turning a corner to be greeted by the Basilica di Santa Croce a masterpiece of baroque design.
Built on the site of a former 14th century monastery now stands the impressive Basilica di Santa Croce together with the Celestini Convent. Work commenced on the basilica in 1549, however it took more than 100 years until completion in 1699, with the convent completion four years earlier in 1695.
The incredibly delicate and detailed carvings decorate nearly every inch of the façade, with carvings of animals, cupids, interesting gargoyles, together with flowers, fruit and vegetables and a stunning rose window atop a six column entrance.
Due to time considerations, we didn’t go inside the basilica as there was still more to see.The joy of roaming the historic laneways and chatting with others along the way whilst passing hidden piazzas was enough as we made our way to Castle of Charles V, or Castello Carlo V, also known as Lecce Castle.
Built on the site of a former Norman castle dating back to medieval times, the imposing stronghold fortress was renovated during the 16th century with an aim of being a real fortress to defend the historic city.
Ruins of the former 12th century medieval castle foundations can be seen in the courtyard of the existing castle walls that were built during various eras. The present day castle stands on two levels, with the first level offering visitors free access and the upper second level requires an admission fee.
Another short stroll from the castle and we passed by the Sant’ Oronzo square on our way to the ancient Augustan Roman Theatre tucked away in a back lane amidst historic dwellings.
The theatre was built during the 2nd century and over a lengthy period of time lay dormant, covered by gardens and what is believed to have been a small temple, and then immersed by the 18th century city, until 1929 when it was rediscovered.
The cavea, referred to as the seating sections is approx. 70 metres in width and was built following a Greek style on the side of a rocky slope that also suggests approx. 4000 audience seating capacity.
The theatre was reopened to the public in 1940, however it underwent further restorations during the end of the 1990s.
During the 1990 restorations a Museum of the Roman Theatre was also built, just around the corner and houses the finds of marble statues of Greek Gods and Goddess that once decorated the scaenae fons, an elaborately decorated and permanent architectural background of a Greek and/or Roman theatre stage.
Various finds included the head of the Greek God of healing, Asclepius and statues of the Greek Goddesses Athena and Artemis and the Greek Gods Ares and Heracles and are all now housed in the Museum of the Roman Theatre.
Today this wonderful ancient theatre breathes new life and is the seat of various live shows and plays. Standing in the presence of ancient history and only a stone’s throw away from the buzz of the busy Sant’ Oronzo square, you can’t help but notice the unusual silence and the sense of joy that experiencing a live theatre performance today would bring.
Returning to Sant’ Oronzo square concluded the two and a half hour afternoon small group guided walk, however for me there was still ample time to wonder some more and see what else was around the next corner, or down a charming lane and admire the quaintness of this historic inner walled city.
Roaming the lanes, I found myself at another of the three once ancient walled city gates. Porta Rudiae, also known as Sant’ Oronzo gate.
Porta Rudiae constructed in 1703 is the oldest of the three city gates and stands at the eastern side of Lecce. This gate holds an interesting past and like the Porta Napoli Gate stands on the site of a collapsed former gate. The Porta Rudiae forms the exit from the ancient city of Lecce in the direction of the ancient and destroyed city of Rudiae, from which the name of the gate derives.
An important feature of the Porta Rudiae is the statues of three prominent protectors of the city of Lecce. Standing atop and centre is a statue of Sant’ Oronzo and lower to his (facing) left is St. Irene and to his (facing) right is St. Dominic.
There are also four busts statues of the mythical founders of the formerly known Messapian Empire, now known as the city of Lecce. These being Queen Equippa, her husband Idomeneo who was a Cretan warrior and grandson of King Minos of Crete and the Queens brother Dauno and her father Malennio the Salentine king and mythical founder of Lupiae – Greek: Luppìu; Latin: Lupiae.
As I was returning to our accommodation to meet with my friend who I’ve been travelling with, I found hat i was unsure where I was. Hmm, I looked up to see the direction of the bell tower in Piazza del Duomo to reorientate myself and head in the general direction, however along the way I came across the Church of San Matteo.
This ornate church is another of the 100 churches that were built in 1667 in Lecce’s typical baroque style. Looking closer, I notice that there is a clear ornamental difference between the two columns at either side of the entrance. In fact the left column is lacking any ornate decoration, whilst the right column has a less ornate design with only a number of slanted lines as decoration. How odd that both columns are lacking in ornate and artistic decorations, like rich figures, and carvings with meticulous details that fill the rest of the baroque façade. As I walked away, I was left with a puzzling thought – why would the columns be left without ornate decorations. I later learn that according to a local legend, the devil himself, envious of the sculptors’ masterful work, intervened by taking his life. The devil thought that such beauty and art would attract too much attention by many as they walked by and glanced at the sacred church and would encourage many of the unfaithful to convert. Certainly an interesting and intriguing tale or legend of one of the old city of Lecce and one of the city’s impressive and historical buildings.
The night nears and tomorrow we take a leisurely drive to return to Bari.
This blog is the fourth in a series of posts sharing my travels on day trips around Southern Italy’s Puglia Region, with longer stays in the regions capital Bari and the enchanting and graceful old city of Lecce, known as the Lady of Baroque. I hope you enjoy reading and that I bring some inspiration (if needed) to visit this amazing and magical part of the world.
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