Often called “the Florence of the South“, Lecce lies in the heart of the Salento Peninsula, the heel of the Italian boot. The town was founded before the time of the ancient Greeks, but it’s best known for the barocco leccese architecture of many of its buildings. Dating from Lecce’s heyday in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, these structures are made mostly of fine-grained yellow limestone. Masons delighted in working with the golden material; their efforts turned the city into what one architectural critic called a gigantic bowl of overripe fruit. Alas, recent restorations have taken away much of the color as workers have whitewashed the buildings. For centuries, Lecce has been neglected by tourists. Perhaps it’s for this reason that many of the baroque-style buildings have remained intact, progress hasn’t overrun the city with modern development. Lecce’s charm lies in these displays of the lighter baroque.
Piazza Sant’Oronzo is a good place to begin a stroll through Lecce. The 2nd-century-A.D. Roman column erected here, Colonna Romana, once stood near its mate in Brindisi; together they marked the end of the Appian Way. Lightning toppled this column in 1528; and the Brindisians left it lying on the ground until 1661, at which time the citizens of Lecce bought it and set up the pillar in their hometown. St. Oronzo, for whom the square is named, now stands atop it guarding the area. At the southern side of the piazza are the remains of a Roman amphitheater. Dating from the 1st century B.C., it accommodated 20,000 fans, who came to watch bloody fights between gladiators and wild beasts.
The Basilica di Santa Croce is an example of Leccese baroque architecture that it took almost 1 1/2 centuries to complete. Architect Gabriele Riccardo began work in the mid-15th century; the final touches weren’t added until 1680. The facade bears some similarity to the Spanish plateresque style and is peopled by guardian angels, grotesque demons, and a variety of flora and fauna. St. Benedict and St. Peter are also depicted. The top part of the facade is the work of Antonio Zimbalo, who was called Zingarello. The interior is laid out in a Latin cross plan in a simple Renaissance style. The Duomo, which has two facades, was reconstructed between 1659 and 1670 by Zingarello.
Because of the large student population at the University of Lecce, there’s usually something going on to keep night owls entertained. After nightfall, folks head to the main piazza to join friends for a drink. Piazzetta del Duca d’Atena is an especially popular hangout.