Nestled in the heel of Italy‘s boot, Lecce serves as a great base for exploring the Puglia region of the country. The city is small enough that it is easily explored on foot and has the added advantage of mostly maintaining the original layout that it had 2000+ years ago. This leads to many narrow alleys and walkways that are not particularly orthogonal to anything and which provide a sense of being lost in history. And, if you’re not particularly careful about navigating, you can be lost in Lecce, too.
Our hotel, the Casa dei Mercanti Townhouse, sat directly on the Piazzo Sant’Oronzo at the center of town. We paid a bit extra to be this central versus some of the other options but it was absolutely worth it. From that base we were no more than a 10-15 minute walk anywhere in town. Combine that with the incredibly friendly and welcoming host and the fact that it was a full one bedroom apartment and it simply couldn’t be beat.
A video version of the tour.
There are a few museums in town worth visiting, though it is worth noting that we were there off-season so the operating hours were more suggestions than hard and fast times. In two of the cases we were apparently the only visitors that day. They actually had to turn the power on for us to see the displays. They were worth it, however, as we got a guided tour (I’m not sure if that’s standard or if the docent was just bored) and we got to see some amazing art.
Starting at our hotel (A), we walked through the main Piazzo and past a few smaller churches until we arrived at the Duomo di Lecce (B). The church is rather impressive, as most old churches tend to be. Like many in the region the church has an incredibly ornate façade and interior based on the Baroque era. Somewhat surprising to me was that much of that detail was actually in paper maché rather than carved from stone. More on that later. Definitely worth a stop inside.
Just across the piazzo is the Museo di Arte Sacra. This is the gallery where we received a private guided tour. The art on display represents several hundred years worth of the collection of the church. Everything from portraits of the local gentry to the Cardinals to a rather impressive collection of the church’s vestments. They also have a few of the figures normally placed up in the chapels in the church out where they can be seen up close. Much like the incredibly detailed façades, these were made of paper maché to keep the weight down which is important since they are also carried through the streets during various processionals throughout the year.
After we wrapped up our visit to the Duomo we made our way to the Museo Teatro Romano di Lecce (C). The art collection here is virtually nil; that isn’t why you’re visiting. They have a nifty diorama showing the city as it existed several hundred years ago and, most significantly, they have the ancient theatre (hence the name). The theatre is actually still in good enough shape that it can be used for events. There is something pretty amazing about sitting on seats that were used a couple thousand years ago for pretty much the same purpose.
Wrapping up the museum circuit in Lecce, we stopped in to one of the newest, the Museo della Cartapesta (D). Also known as the Museum of Paper Maché, the Museo della Cartapesta is housed in the old castle just off the central square. This museum shows much of the history of paper maché in the region – they pretty much mastered it here – and has a number of incredibly ornate works representing many generations of artists who called the area home. From the early masters of the art who consolidated into a school and factory up through modern times, the museum traces the history and also happens to have the displays translated into English. Really quite nice.
From there it is a short walk back into the Piazzo Sant’Oronzo where the Amphitheatre is located. Despite the signs indicating the hours for the space it was not open during our visit. Still, worth looking down into from above and probably worth paying the Euro or two for admission, assuming it is open while you’re there.
Further up the road past the Duomo are several more churches, all incredibly Baroque in their façades. At the edge of the old city is the Gate of Saint Oronzo. He is widely credited with coordinating the city’s response to the Plague during the 17th century. Assuming you’ve got time (and unless you walk REALLY slowly, you still will even after the above circuit), it is worth wandering out that way to see.
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