Before we arrived in Lecce, we stopped in Otranto, the eastern most part of Italy, where you are closest to Albania and can even see the coast on a clear day. I need to mention it because not only it boasts a large Aragon castle and fortified walls but I especially liked its cathedral. Its entire floor is covered in beautiful mosaics representing the tree of life. This floor has been skillfully and meticulously made by a monk named Pantaleone from 1163 to 1166. The scenes are inspired by the Old Testament so you can imagine how barbaric they are which is very unusual in a catholic church.
At night we had settled in our wonderful B&B and went to the restaurant recommended by our hosts. The cuisine was delicious: I had a delicate fish on a bed of wild mushrooms. We discovered the grape of the region, the negroamaro, a powerful grape that had actually been toned down for modern tastes. On a Friday night we didn’t understand why we were alone in this very good restaurant. Eventually we tried to pay with our visa card but the rain had damaged the lines. The owner came, tried, and tried again, apologized. We asked him where we could find an ATM and that we would return promptly. He told us the closest ATM was within a 15-minute walk but his voice had the resignation tone that he half believed we would return.
This interlude allowed us to discovered Lecce by night, which was delightful. The huge Porta Napoli (Naples gate), almost as big as the Arch of Triumph in Paris, erected in 1548, was even more majestuous all lit up in the dark. The most baroque church you can imagine, the Santa Croce, built in 1646, looked even more complicated and imposing at night. Twin columns frame the door, six more are on the lower part and four more columns on the upper part surround the large Romanesque rosacea, all decorated with niches, telamons (male caryatids), imaginary creatures, animals, mythological and historical characters.
When we returned, the restaurant owner was so happy he rounded down the bill and offered us a drink! In this part of Italy we had to have Limoncello. And here we are, after a hard start of the day, full of rain, having a great time with a total stranger speaking Italian only – a language we understand about 70 to 80% of but can speak much less.
The next day we visited Lecce by day: the cathedral (il Duomo), the Roman amphitheater, the Piazza San Oronzo . What is interesting about this main plaza is the fact that Saint Irene was the patron of the city until the plague invaded all of Southern Italy in 1666 except Lecce. The inhabitants thought it was because of the bishop at the time, Oronzo, made him a saint, erected a statue, gave him a plaza and declared him the new patron of the city. We basked in the sun while a classical pianist played in front of the Saint Irene church. It finally felt like holiday!
We went to Gallipoli for lunch. Not the Turkish Gallipoli, known since Mel Gibson featured in a film about the First World War, but the Italian Gallipoli situated on the inside of the heel of the Italian boot.. Gallipoli, comes from the Greek word Kallipolis which means ‘beautiful city’. The old town is on a peninsula. Just after you pass the bridge there is a large castle built in the 13th century by the Byzantines and remodeled by the Aragons and the Angevines who added a polygonal wall fortified with round towers. Among many other nice monuments there is the baroque cathedral of Sant Agata from the 17th century with a richly decorated façade with niches featuring statues of saints.
That evening we arrived in Matera. To be continued …