Lecce is an Italian city in the South of Italy, the chief town of the highly-populated province located in Puglia, in the flattest part of the Salento peninsula and in the heart of a densely developed area which boasts 432,939 inhabitants and occupies a surface area of 1,580.56 km².
The city was included (the only Italian city) in the Lonely Planet’s 'Best for travel 2010' list as one of the cities to be visited in 2010 together with Abu Dhabi (Arab Emirates), Istanbul (Turkey), Singapore (Singapore), Vancouver (Canada), Kyoto (Japan), Sarajevo (Bosnia Herzegovina), Cork (Ireland), Cuenca (Ecuador) and Charleston (USA). Lecce was chosen from a selection of over 5,000 global cities for the beauty of its monuments and Baroque historic centre.
The local area
Lecce is located in the central-northern part of the Salento plain lands. The area’s morphology is flat on the whole. The Salento Plains, that are also referred to as Tavoliere di Lecce, are vast and uniform lowlands of the Salento area located between the terraced heights of the Murge to the north and the Serre to the south.
One of the area’s characteristics is the impressive layers of red earth and the lack of superficial waterways. However the Karst land features numerous sinkholes (locally called vore or capoventi) where rainwater collects before running into the subsoil going to form real Karst rivers. The surface is also marked by numerous channels dug out to encourage the flow of rainwater into the sinkholes and hence to prevent the formation of swamps.
The city’s area stretches out for more than 238 km² and looks onto the Adriatic Sea for a stretch of more than 20 km. The ports of Casalabate, Frigole, Torre Chianca, Torre Rinalda, San Cataldo, run in part by the town of Vernole, are all hamlets of Lecce along with the town of Villa Convento, run in part by the town of Novoli.
Monuments and places of interest
The city of Lecce is well-known for its wealth of monuments, many of which built in typical Leccese Baroque style. The friezes, capitals, pinnacles and rosettes used to decorate many of the city’s buildings and churches (there are over 40 of them) are of importance, such as, for example Palazzo dei Celestini and the adjacent Basilica of Santa Croce, as well as the church of Santa Chiara and the Cathedral.
The city centre is enclosed by city walls dating from the 16th century, even if these have been largely destroyed. The city originally featured four entrance gates: Arco di Trionfo (Porta Napoli), Porta Rudiae, Porta San Biagio and Porta San Martino. The latter is no longer visible since it collapsed during the 19th century.
Abbey of Santa Maria di Cerrate-Interior
The Abbey of Cerrate is located in the countryside outside the city, in the direction of Casalabate port. It was built by Basilian monks during the 12th century. A Renaissance well can be admired next to the finely-sculpted porch. The interior boasts a canopy from 1269 and numerous frescoes painted between the 13th and 14th centuries.
Church of Santa Maria d'Aurìo
Located at the border with the town of Surbo, the Church of Santa Maria d'Aurio is a Romanesque building from the 12th-13th centuries. The church is all that remains of an ancient farm house abandoned between the 15th and 16th centuries.
Church of San Giovanni Evangelista
The Church of San Giovanni Evangelista is a medieval building built in 1133 by the Benedictine nuns and Anacletus II.
It is located in the city’s historic centre, in Corte Accardo, and was expanded and renovated over the centuries. The stark, austere exterior offers a luxurious interior, heavily influenced by the Baroque style of Lecce during the 1600s. The square belfry dates from the first half of the 1500s.
Church of Santi Niccolò e Cataldo
Located inside the city’s cemetery, the Church of Santi Niccolò e Cataldo was built in 1180 by the penultimate Norman king, Tancredi. The facade was renovated by Giuseppe Cino in 1716 who added numerous statues while maintaining the two portals, rosette, dome and some other decorative features. The three-nave interior offers lancet arches and a dome in the middle of the middle nave. The frescoes on the walls date from the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. During the 16th century, the Leccese architect, Gabriele Riccardi renovated the convent where an artistic sixteenth-century well is on display in the cloister.
Located in the vicinity of the cemetery, next to the Church of Santi Nicolò e Cataldo, the Olivetan monastery is an architectural complex dating back to the 14th century. Now home to the University of Salento’s Faculty of Cultural Heritage and Historical Studies Library, the building features a distinctive cloister designed by Gabriele Riccardi and inspired by medieval models, with coupled columns and a well with a typically Baroque aedicule.
Torre di Belloluogo
Torre di Belloluogo is a medieval tower built in the 14th century. Commissioned by Gualtiero di Brienne, it is an important example of Angevin military architecture. The round tower is still enclosed by the original water moat. It was the residence of Mary of Enghien and where she spent the last years of her life. A small chapel frescoed with scenes of the life of St. Mary Magdalene is of specific interest.
Torre del Parco
Torre del Parco, located in the centre of Lecce, represents one of the city’s symbolic monuments of the medieval and Renaissance periods.
The monument was built in 1410, commissioned by the eighteen-year old Giovanni Antonio Orsini Del Balzo, Prince of Taranto, son of Raimondello and Mary of Enghien who, at that time, boasted the titles of Countess of Lecce and Queen of the Kingdom of Naples having taken as her second husband, King Ladislao of Durazzo.
The tower stands more than 23 metres tall and is built on three levels. It is surrounded by a moat used in the past to rear bears, the heraldic symbol of the Orsini del Balzo family. The parkland around the tower stretched out for more than 40 hectares and was distributed over public and private areas: the 'Parco di Dentro', a fenced citadel containing the Tower and the Prince’s Rooms, and the 'Parco di Fuori' which stretched out as far as the city walls and was used to hold fairs, markets and for public passage. In 1434, a wing of the monument became the seat of the Concistorium Principis, a medieval court chaired by Giovanni Antonio Orsini Del Balzo. The building also housed the mint where the so-called silver and gold 'mali carlini’ were coined.
The tower was turned into a prison from 1458-1461 during which time some prisoners engraved their complaints (still visible) on the splays of the arrow-heads of the fort’s lower level. Following the death of Giovanni Antonio, the monument became the residence of various Spanish viceroys that ruled Lecce over the years, from Ferrante Loffredo to Ferrante Caracciolo.
Castle of Charles V
Tradition has it that the castle was built at the request of Charles V to ward off Turkish invasions, the most damaging of which for the Otranto region was that of 1480 which ended in the Sack of Otranto.
If the truth be told, Charles V expended and renovated an existing manor house which, according to excavations and studies carried out by Salento University, dated back to the 13th-14th centuries. One of the parts dating back to said times would seem to be the quadrangular turret known as the Accardo Keep. The extension dating from the 16th century lent the castle a quadrilateral layout formed of four bulwarked walls and a moat that was filled-in in 1870.
The fort has two gates, one point north-westwards towards the city, and the other on the opposite side which in the past led to the countryside. The second gate bears the coat-of-arms of the Hapsburg emperor which was also to be found on the first gate, but was then removed and placed on a wall within the courtyard. The inside of the castle features spacious rooms that are currently used to host cultural events.
The countryside around the city of Lecce includes several natural areas and protected areas of considerable environmental interest.
The Bosco regional park and Rauccio marshes, occupying a total area of 625 hectares, are extremely varied from an environmental viewpoint. The park is located in the vicinity of the ports of Torre Chianca and Torre Rinalda.
The Idume Basin represents an extremely important environmental area. The basin, which is artificial, collects the waters of some streams and features interesting salt steppe vegetation and is home to samphire plants.
The Bacino Costiero Acquatina nature reserve is a wet coastal area with a surface area of 100 metres located in Frigole port. The salty basin covers an area of 45 hectares and runs for 2 km behind the dunes.
San Cataldo Biogenetic Nature Reserve, set up in 1977, occupies approximately 28 hectares and include an Aleppo pinewood.