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Lecce, the stunning Baroque city in the southern Italian region of Puglia, sometimes known as the Florence of the South, has a unique history, charm and cuisine to be discovered. From Roman ruins to elegant palazzi, streets full of flowers and beautiful gardens – there is so much to see and experience in this city, bursting with crazy Baroque architecture.
We talk to Paolo Maragliulo of Apulia Handmade, a local tour guide who has been working with visitors to his region for many years. Born and bred in Lecce, he shares his knowledge and enthusiasm for the wonders of his home city. With an old town un-loved and in disrepair until the early 1990s, Lecce’s beauty has been lovingly restored with such sympathy and love that it is a truly unique place to visit. It’s crazy Baroque architecture dominates and as you wander the cobbled streets, prepare for a surprise around every corner.
What you’ll learn in this episode
- The city of Lecce is located in the Puglia region, right at the bottom of Italy, in the heel of the boot
- Paolo was born and raised in Lecce. Unlike many who fled their home town, went to university in Lecce where he studied the Preservation of cultural heritage. Since 2000 Paolo has been keenily promoting Puglia and especially Lecce. He is now a tour guide all over the region, based in Matera, but still comes back to Lecce as often as he can
- Lecce’s position so far away from most of Italy, in the past, was a disadvantage, but now it is a good thing because people visiting Lecce have to do so purposely and go out of their way to reach it. Puglia, in general, is deservedly getting a lot more attention these days – particularly with English-speaking travelers
- Tourists to Italy are generally those who have visited Italy before and been to the more obvious tourist destinations and are looking for more local and authentic experiences
- Puglia is a big region yet still does not have mass tourism so it offers the possibility of mixing more with the locals – seeing real, everyday life
- There are lots of responsible tourism initiatives and people taking responsible tourism very seriously in Puglia, which is what is allowing it to retain its authenticity
- A lot of the best hotels in the area are historical buildings, – from farmhouses to the cave dwellings in Matera, these buildings have generally been renovated with good taste and care. So the accommodation options often have charm as well as history
- In the Puglian countryside, you are not allowed to build taller than an olive tree. You might not think this is very high but the olive trees in Puglia are a bit special – large, ancient ones, some even reaching a thousand years old
- There are other places in Italy where tourism in the 80s has destroyed the environment somewhat, but in Puglia because its resurgence happened much later and when people knew to take care, it has kept most of its beauty
- When Paolo talks about Lecce, he admits to being a little biased as he is from Lecce and thinks it is the best place in the world
- Lecce’s incredible old town belongs to a specific moment of history – from the 1500s into 1700s – the time of Baroque!
- You won’t find straight streets in Lecce. When you are standing at the beginning of a street, you can see the buildings sticking out from the side – like they want to be seen by you as you walk along. The facades aren’t aligned one with another. You can see the coat of arms of the families angled to be seen from different angles. The balconies are heavily decorated because people wanted their properties to be noticed by all the walkers
- There’s a surprise at every corner including a lot of illusions – buildings that look massive, then you turn around the corner and it’s just a great facade with nothing at the back
- There are lots of churches and buildings with crazy decorations and details – like fruits, plants and angels
- The city gates are a magnificent welcome. Lecce was only what is now the old town only until the 20s. There’s a massive difference between the architecture that you have inside the gates and outside. what’s outside is basically mostly from the 50s -70s then you go through the arches of the gates, and you jump back in the past with ancient buildings in yellow stone and cobblestones
- There are places in Italy where the architecture of the 1800s is more ordered – aligned, precise and classic but in Lecce it is definitely more decoration-filled, misaligned, and full of surprises
- Many of the buildings have a secret garden at the back. Most of the time the only way to see these is by sneaking in or having a peak into the courtyards. If you are there during the last Sunday in May, many of the old families, as a special event, open up their buildings as open houses. There’s a map for a trail of the house and there is music, flower decorations and celebrations of these usually secret gardens
- Lecce is positioned in the narrowest part of the peninsula. It was used as a place to be in control of the entire peninsula and keep at bay the main enemy of the Ottoman Empire. Along the coast, there are a lot of watchtowers, which would communicate with each other and also send a message to the main tower of Lecce – the bell tower of the cathedral. From the top of this tower, you can see both the Ionian side and the Adriatic side
- In 1480 the Ottomans attacked and conquered Otranto, which is the furthermost east village of Italy. They killed a lot of people including kids. In the Church of Otranto, there is a chapel with all the bones of these people who were considered martyrs because they sacrificed their lives not to convert to Islam. That episode shocked not only the area but all of Europe. When they got into Otrano they only stayed just over a year before the Spanish sent them back to nearby Albania (only 15 nautical miles between Otrano to Albania), but they didn’t want to have an episode like Otrano happen again and it incentivized those in power – the Spanish, Venice and the Pope to make Lecce the center of defense. It was considered very important to be in control of the area
- Going back to the Romans, the most important place in the region was Brindisi, a city just north of Lecce. This is where the Appian Way (the major road from Rome to the Adriatic) used to end. During the Roman Empire, people came to Lecce more for entertainment, like the Roman amphitheater
- The Baroque town is basically built over the Roman one. All the sites like the Amphitheater have been discovered relatively recently. They had to destroy the buildings that were on top in order to carve out and restore as much as possible
- The Faggiano Museum actually came about from the Faggiano family wanting to open a restaurant. They had a plumbing problem in one of the bathrooms but then when the contractors opened up the floor, they started to find bones, relics, pieces of ceramics, etc. As they kept carving they found so many layers – even going back to the pre-Roman age. After many discussions (i.e. arguments) with the local council, in charge of controlling this kind of excavation, the family basically gave up on the idea of the restaurant and created a museum
- A lot of what has been found is now sealed and packed somewhere in a cellar, which may seem a shame, but they find so many things in Italy, like vases or swords, thousands are uncovered all the time. In a museum, you can’t show all of it, you have always to make a selection of what to display. You only want to see the most valuable or interesting as you can get pretty bored after the 10th example, but the rest is still important so it needs to be preserved
- The majority of the buildings are from the Baroque era. They wanted Lecce to have new city walls, and a nice new hospital and they invited a lot of families from all over, especially Venice, Genoa, a big Jewish community and Spanish Albanians for trading
- If you love churches, Lecce is your place. There are churches everywhere. There are also lots of private buildings that were owned by important families from all over. These buildings are decorated to basically show off. It’s like a showcase of families that are challenging each other on who looks the best
- The word Baroque basically means a pearl that is not precise. It’s a word that was used to insult this style because of its craziness, crookedness and elaborateness. But the reason is that they wanted to make things is to catch your attention. Perfection works, but if you walk into a room full of paintings, if there is one that is a little bit off-center, that will immediately draw your attention. There are a lot of details, a lot of balconies, a lot of buildings that are not precisely aligned to catch your attention and surprise you
- Up until the 90’s the old town was totally abandoned. Paolo used to be part of an association that performed in the main square of Lecce to try to focus people’s attention on the importance of the old town which was literally in ruins. The buildings were covered in lichen with plants growing all over and there was asphalt everywhere. The square of the cathedral was a place where people just parked their cars
- Towards the end of the 90s and thanks to the university and a variety of projects, they slowly were able to bring the old town back to life. It was re-generated and nice cafes and interesting shops began to open
- Lecce is famous, particularly for one specific local art – paper machete. this is not the simple paper machete you might think of doing as a child, gluing layers of paper onto balloons. There are a lot of local craftsmen. In the churches, most of the statues are made out of paper machetes. The statues often look like wood or even bronze or marble. There are workshops you can go and visit. It’s a very beautiful and refined art and pieces get shipped all around the world
- Paolo’s dad’s generation was not proud of being from southern Italy. In the past, there was some racism between northern Italians and southern Italians. The southerners were considered peasants. Paolo’s dad was always encouraging him not to speak with the local dialect or accent. He also encouraged him to go study and live somewhere else in Northern Italy
- Nowadays the Puglians feel really proud of their region. When people come and visit, they are proud of sharing not only the art and the architecture but also the way they live – what they like to eat and drink and how they have fun. It’s all very different to other parts of Italy
- When you visit this beautiful city now, it is difficult to imagine it abandoned and covered in asphalt. It is now so full of life and it is now mostly pedestrianized
- There’s a lot of pride all over Puglia, not just in Lecce. You go to restaurants and people are keen to explain where specific ingredients come from – a nearby farm and how they are made in traditional ways that is specific to Puglia.
- The food in Puglia is delicious – very fresh, with lots of vegetables and seafood
- Katy is a seafood fan and had some of the best seafood she’s had in her life last year in Puglia.
- The weather gets very hot in the summer, so they don’t have rich recipes like stuffed pasta or really strong, aged cheeses
- Everything is based on simple ingredients. This means those ingredients have to be fresh and good. If you get a bruschetta, if you don’t use good bread and good tomatoes, you basically don’t taste anything. They don’t have very complicated and elaborate recipes, but everything is based on fresh things that are always in season
- Paolo’s mum used to be ashamed of him saying that she couldn’t afford to buy meat for pasta dishes, and so she would make meatballs with no meat, with eggplants. Now, she proudly tells people she cooks vegetarian-friendly food
- Puglia is a model for the rest of the country because they eat whatever is in season. Food is fresh and respectful of the environment
- A famous pasta of Lecce is Ciceri e tria which is pasta cooked with chickpeas. Some pieces of the pasta are deep fried, which adds a crunchy effect delicious
- Puglia is famous for Orecchietti, the little round pasta in the shape of an ear
- They make Orecchiette along with macaroni and call it the newlyweds (Maritati) because they represent the bride and groom. It’s usually cooked in a very simple way with tomato sauce or with a salty risotto cheese that they grate on pasta
- There’s another, fermented ricotta that you can buy in jars that is very pungent. A little bit of it with tomato sauce gives a very nice flavor
- Pignate is another dish of the region, though being horsemeat, is not really one for tourists. The meat is slow-cooked in tomato sauce
- There are snails that are eaten in Lecce which are a special variety that go dormant in the soil and gets protected with a brown with a white veil – so they call them the nuns. They are cooked with olive oil, a lot of onion, bay leaf and chili pepper
- There are many rusticos if you travel around Italy, but Rustico Leccese has puff pastry and the filling of bechamel sauce, mozzarella, tomatoes and black pepper. Unlike lots of food there it is very rich. It’s almost like a meal rather than a snack. It goes very well in the afternoon with a nice drink
- The local bread is flat and made with onion, olives and tomatoes. The olives have the pit left in it to give more flavor. We encourage you to try it, as it is very tasty, but be careful to remember the pit, so you don’t have to make an emergency dental appointment!
- A very typical sweet in Lecce is Pasticciotto. Pasticciotto is made with shortbread pastry and filled with lemon custard
- Paolo always has Pasticciotto with what’s now known as Lecce coffee, which is basically an espresso poured on ice with a little bit of almond syrup. To say it like a local it is “Caffè con ghiaccio con latte di mandorle.” A refreshing drink in the Puglian summer heat
- July and August can get unbearably hot. This July has been so hot that it was hard even to walk around – reaching 43 degrees Celsius, though it is usually around the mid-30s which is more doable for the locals, but often not for visitors from cooler climates
- In September it starts cooling off and October is a really nice time, or earlier, around April is nice
- If you come to Puglia Lecce makes a great base to go and explore some of these different villages and explore the countryside
- It is very well connected – it’s close to both coasts of Puglia – the Adriatic side or to the Ionian side both being half an hour away
- If the wind is from the north, the locals go on one side but if the wind is from the south, they go to the other side – to ensure a calm sea. You can get to experience both the sandy beaches, but also cliffs
- You can also visit the surrounding villages and towns. If you go north, in less than an hour you get to Ostuni. In the Val d’Itria, if you go south you have places like Otranto, which is the most eastern town. On the west, there is the beautiful coastal town of Gallipoli
- Just south of Lecce, there are twelve villages where the dialect is actually old Greek. There’s even a town called Calimera – which in Greek means good morning. There’s also a town called Castrignano de’ Greci – de Greci meaning of of the Greeks
- There’s a which Paolo loves called Galatina, where there’s a famous pastry shop, Pasticceria Andrea Ascalone, dating back to the 1700s. There’s a church full of frescoes and it is the capital of an ancient local folk dance called Pizzica. This dance was basically developed to cure people bitten by spiders. Historically they believed that spider bites can cause mental issues – things like Bulimia, depression, and Epilepsy. Their idea was to dance to sweat out the poison. There would be a person wearing a white vest lying down on a blanket with a band of four playing instruments and the music and the rhythm would scare away this evil possession
- Galatina has a little chapel dedicated to Saint Paul, which is where Paolo’s name came from. People used to go to the square and chapel to celebrate the day of Saint Paul. There are so many events in the villages where you’ll find stalls, street food and always this folk music where people are happy to dance because it was also the courting dance for my parents.
- Scorrano is a town south of Lecce where three of the biggest families, who create the decorations used all over Italy for celebrations and festivals, come from. In the first week of July, these families invite other companies to participate and they decorate this tiny village with tons of lights and decorations. The streets are not covered just on the side, but also over the top, they turn on the lights with music to accompany them and there are fireworks too. It works like a showcase for all the other towns and villages of Italy and then when you go to these places in the new year or during religious festivals, they will use these decorations. You can find lots of videos on YouTube but if you visit Scorrano you can see them in person
- When they organize a religious event, particularly in Southern Italy, there is always a procession, lights, fireworks and a marching band. It’s typical of southern Italy and also in the Spanish world, so wherever was part of the Spanish reign
- If you stay in Lecce, after you are done exploring the surrounding area for the day, you are then back in the city which is full of restaurants, cafes and bistros
- Paolo recommends staying at least three days. Three to five days is a great amount. There are so many villages to explore and Matera is not far so you can do a lot of exploring
- Staying in Lecce gives you the chance to experience a visit at a good pace. You have to relax in Lecce as it has a slowed-down vibe. They still have siesta in the afternoon to chill out before you go out in the evening to see what the locals do
- If you want something totally unique in the souvenir department, it’s the perfect place. You will definitely find something special in Lecce. The local small craftsmen can sign up and be part of a list of craftsmen who are allowed to work along the main street. So just walking down the main street, there’s a lot of small craftsmen that work there, you can buy from. There is beautiful jewelry as well as other unique and interesting crafts
Want to discover Puglia with us? For a deeper local connection, why not join one of our Puglia small group tours. You can see what our guests think about our Untold Italy tours in Puglia by watching the video below.
About our guest – Paolo Maragliulo
Paolo is originally from Lecce, but now lives in Matera.
He has studied “Conservazione dei Beni Culturali” which is basically art history, history and restoration; when he started his area (Puglia and Basilicata) were far from being as popular as they are now.
His dream was to tell everybody the beauty of his region and he bet everything on that. Paolo now works as a tour guide for European and overseas companies.
Paolo does food tours, cultural and archeological tours, hiking and cycling tours, and also works as a trip designer and consultant for individuals and companies. He has also worked for 5 years for a British theatre company so he has millions of stories to tell you with his theatrical style and it is there where he made plenty of experience leading groups of people on a multi-day tour
He has lived almost all his life in Lecce, but I am an addicted traveler; no matter what means of transport – his aim is to explore and that is the way of living my life.
He is now based in Matera, an amazing UNESCO site, and a perfect location to go exploring Southern Italy.
You can find Paolo on these channels:
Places mentioned in the show
- Otranto – a coastal and harbor town south of Lecce
- Brindisi – on the coast of the Adriatic Sea. Historically, this Puglian city played an important role in trade and culture
- Museo Faggiano – museum in Lecce
- Ostuni – gorgeous town famous for the white-washed houses so known as the white city – la Città Bianca
- Gallipoli – town is located by the Ionian Sea, on the west coast of the Salento Peninsula
- Calimera – small town In the Salento Peninsula where the inhabitants, alongside Italian, also speak the Greek dialect Griko
- Castrignano de’ Greci – one of the nine towns of Grecìa Salentina
- Galatina – home to Pasticceria Andrea Ascalone the famous pastry shop dating back to the 1700s
- Scorrano – Puglian town where the main manufacturers of celebration lights and decorations come from and has the amazing Festival of Lights in July
Food & Drink
- Ciceri e tria – a dish of pasta and chickpeas
- Orecchiette – famous pasta from Puglia that is said to be in the shape of an ear
- Rustico Leccese – puff pastry with tomato and cheese
- Pasticciotto Leccese – sweet pastry found in Lecce
- Pizzica – a popular Italian folk dance from Puglia
Resources from Untold Italy
- Read more in our Puglia guide, Best places to stay in Puglia, Best Agriturismo in Puglia and about the wonders of Southern Italy and other lesser-known areas of Italy in Hidden Gems in Italy
- Listen to our other episodes on Puglia in Episode #135 Ancient connections along Puglia’s pilgrim trails, Episode #080 Picturesque towns of Puglia and Episode #046 Foodie adventures in Puglia and on nearby Basilicata in Episode #097 Magical Matera – the cave city and Episode #047 Basilicata – Ancient southern region of tradition and history
- How to plan a trip to Italy – our article that takes you step by step through trip planning so you can avoid our mistakes
- Italy Travel Planning – our FREE online community where you can ask questions and get inspiration for planning your trip
- Travel shop where you’ll find items mentioned in the show
Prefer to read along as you listen? You can download a PDF version of the full transcript of this episode.