Lecce: Go on! Dip a toe into the heel of Italy

In the deep south of Puglia is a sun-soaked city with a rich heritage and Baroque splendour, says Kate Simon

Halfway up the heel of Italy's boot sits Lecce, capital of Salento, the southernmost flatlands of Puglia. Travellers who delve this deep into Italy will be well rewarded. It was first settled by the Greeks, then conquered by the Romans, and later held by the Normans. They all left their mark. But today's visitor will be most aware of Lecce's 17th-century heyday, when it was transformed from a garrison into a showcase of Baroque architectural feats. The extravagantly decorated buildings are a treat to behold, yet this is no open-air museum.

Tourists are thin on the ground and English isn't widely spoken. This is a city buzzing with everyday life, southern Italian style – so don't expect to find any attractions open between 1pm and 4pm.

Start your walk at Porta Rudiae, the extravagant Baroque gateway (one of three) at the south-west corner of the old city, topped by a statue of Lecce's patron saint, Oronzo. As you pass beneath the arch, note the framed scene on the right-hand wall, showing the saint in his robes; it's made of papier mâché, a craft for which the city is renowned.

Continue forward on to Via Giuseppe Libertini. This narrow street cuts through Lecce's ancient heart and is lined with gently crumbling buildings created from the creamy tufa limestone of the region. Just a few steps will bring you to the ornate edifices of Basilica del Rosario, then Chiesa di Santa Elisabetta and Chiesa di Santa Teresa. Explore the cool gloom of their hallowed interiors.

Opposite the soaring Corinthian columns of Santa Teresa is a slick modern enoteca, La Bottega del Corso (00 39 0832 249 866; labottegadelcorso.it), shelves bulging with delicacies from the area, including frise di orzo, bone-dry slices of barley bread made moist with savoury toppings. Next door, at No 54, Re Mida (00 39 327 693 3028) champions local cheese and wines.

A short walk ahead, you'll arrive at one of Lecce's major sights, the Piazza del Duomo, bounded by the Duomo dell' Assunta (00 39 0832 308 557), the Bishop's Palace, the Seminary – which houses the Diocesan Museum (00 39 0832 244 764; admission €4/£3.50) – and a 70m-high five-storey campanile.

The position of the square is inspired. Set back from the main street and entered via an alley, the vast piazza is awesome. The white light of the Adriatic sun bouncing off the tufo is almost out-dazzled by the lavish work of the sculptors of the 16th and 17th centuries, notably Giuseppe Zimbalo, who restored the cathedral and bell tower.

Enter the cathedral (admission free, crypt €1) through the main door to see the three naves, admire the wooden coffered ceiling and visit the crypt, which dates from medieval times. The Diocesan Museum (00 39 0832 244 764; admission €4) displays liturgical treasures such as sculptures, silverware and vestments.

At the rear of the square are two intriguing studios: one is home to an artist working on sacred paintings; the other is the Laboratorio della Cartapesta di Marco Epicochi (00 39 339 224 8589). Here you can watch Signore Epicochi shaping his papier mâché figures of saints and swains. (Adorn your mantelpiece at €100/£87 a pop.) Outside he has provided a visual guide to his art – on a board hangs a brush, a wire frame of a human body, a yet-to-be-painted clay head.

Return to the main street, and take the next right into Via Arcivescovo Petronelli. A few metres along you'll find Doppiozero (00 39 0832 521 052), a deli and restaurant that's a good choice for lunch. Diners feast on artisan cheeses, salumi and breads (dishes from €9/£7.80) at long rustic tables or outside in the shadow of the cathedral's rear walls.

Now turn down the side of Doppiozero into Via Degli Ammirati to the Museum of the Roman Theatre (00 39 0832 279 196; admission €3/£2.60; open 9.30am-1.30 Mon-Sat), dedicated to the performance space excavated here in the 1930s, and also displaying a collection of nine theatrical masks from Hadrian's Villa in Tivoli.

Continue past Piazzetta Orsini, to Must – the Historical Museum of the City of Lecce (00 39 0832 682 988; mustlecce.it; admission €3/£2.60). Beneath the white vaulted ceilings of the former Convento delle Clarisse, the city's history is remembered alongside exhibitions of contemporary art, including a collection of work created between the 1950s and 80s by Salentine artist Cosimo Carlucci.

From Must, pass through Piazza Vittorio Emanuele, past another Baroque gem, the Chiesa di Santa Chiara, making a note of Via Federico d'Aragona, on your right, which leads to a good bar-hopping neighbourhood for night-time. Cross to the opposite corner of the square and exit left to behold the remains of a Roman Amphitheatre (00 39 0832 249 195; admission €2/£1.75) on Piazza Sant'Oronzo. Still used today for performances, the amphitheatre dates from the second century. The horseshoe of seating would have accommodated 25,000 souls, although only part of the structure remains.

Back in the piazza, Oronzo sits on top of one of the columns that once stood on the Appian Way. On the floor of the square, a mosaic of a wolf beneath an oak tree reveals the symbol of the city – an attractive diversion from the ugly fascist architecture that is another feature of this space.

Exit north into Vico dei Fedele to Piazzetta Sigismondo Castromediano and onwards into Piazzetta Gabriele Riccardi. Leave via the top right-hand corner for a full frontal of the front of the city's fabulous Basilica di Santa Croce (00 39 0832 279 962; admission free), a huge rose window at its centre, festooned with intricate stone carvings. Dip inside for more eye-boggling detail.

Turn right out of the church along Via Umberto I, then right again, through a courtyard, for a break in the airy spaces of the public gardens, the Villa Comunale. Then continue south along the Viale XXV Luglio and wander around the grounds of the 16th-century Castello di Carlo V (castellolecce.unile.it; admission free), also the home of the city's papier mâché museum.

Fresh cuts

Check out Must in Song, a summer programme of music centring on Lecce's newest venue, Must. It's part of a Puglia-wide festival, Open Days, which focuses on the natural and cultural heritage of the region, championing food, the arts and the local landscape. On 6 August, an evening of music dedicated to the composer Richard Wagner will take place at Must to celebrate the centenary of his birth, featuring the soprano Anna Aurigi. On 13 August, at the Roman Theatre, the Faber Ensemble will perform a tribute concert to the late Italian singer-songwriter Fabrizio de Andrè. And on 30 August, Liszt's version of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony for two pianos will be played at Must. Tickets €12. For further information go to mustlecce.it and download a programme at opendays.viaggiareinpuglia.

Travel essentials

Getting there

There are no flights between the UK and Lecce. Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) flies from Stansted to Brindisi; returns start at £234 in August.

Pugliairbus (00 39 080 579 0216; pugliairbus.aeroportidipuglia.it) runs between Brindisi airport and Lecce. The 40-minute journey costs €7 (£6) each way.

Staying there

Santa Chiara Suite Hotel, Lecce (00 39 0832 304998; santachiaralecce.it). Doubles start at €125 (£108), including breakfast.

More information

Puglia Tourist Board: viaggiareinpuglia.it

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