Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Spending Quality Time in Lecce

This article also appears on our Italian Journal page.

The landscape of Lecce is mostly flat and dry, dotted with cactus plants taller than the average Italian. This can be a jolt to the system if you expect all of Italy to look like Tuscany; it doesn't. Although a small country, Italy offers a wide variety of landscape. Due to the drier southern climate, you won't see expanses of lush greenery, but it has other charms. Herbs grow wild along the sides of the road. If you're cooking, it's fun to pull over and pick fresh rosemary to add to your lunch or dinner. Luckily, there's an oasis of greenery in Lecce's public park.

It's a large space filled with palm trees, gardens, benches and a majestic gazebo with a gleaming, tiled dome. Open every day until sunset, it's where everyone brings kids, dogs and books to wile away the afternoon. Outside of the park, the houses and modern buildings tend to be low with flat roofs (except in the historic center, described below). This creates somewhat of a "barracks" feel as you look around.

Lecce is located just about dead center of the heel of the Italian boot; a peninsula within a peninsula. Consequently, there is easy access to beaches on the eastern coast of the heel (Adriatic Sea) and the western coast of the heel (Ionian Sea). On any given day, you can choose your coast depending upon which way the wind is blowing. I'm not kidding. When the wind is blowing due east, go to the Adriatic. When it blows to the west, go to the Ionian coast. When you have so much sandy, clear beachfront at your disposal, you can afford to be picky. The arid landscape changes dramatically as you head out of town toward the beaches. Believe me, what this area might lack in verdant hillsides it makes up for in stunning seascapes. The land gives way to a seemingly endless expanse of crystal blue sky and sea. You can reach a nearby beach, Torre di Chianca, by bus from several stops in Lecce. In August, the height of tourist season, this beach is full of playful people and structures brimming with food, cafes, changing rooms, rafts and various water toys. However, if you go off-season (I was there in October), you'll only hear the sound of the waves and seabirds. The structures remain on the beach, but they are empty and brightly painted in a style heavy with Greek and Arab influences. The sand is soft and the water is clean, clear and warm, even in October.

The historic center of Lecce (centro storico) is why the town is called The Florence of the South. Filled with churches constructed in Baroque style, it's easy to lose yourself and your way in the labyrinth of narrow streets. Eventually you'll reach the Piazza del Duomo, the architectural centerpiece of town. Splendid in daylight, it's especially beguiling at night. Indirect lighting installed throughout the Piazza illuminates the statuary, creating an ethereal atmosphere. Lecce is all about walking, and this is a great place to catch your breath.

The historic center is also the place to go for entertainment. Restaurants, bars, movie theaters and gelato abound. A great place for a light meal or tasty snack is Sybarite, whose doors open onto the Piazza del Duomo. It's open all day and well into the night. The atmosphere is casual, the service is friendly and the food, delicious and imaginative.

Another "don't miss" is Liberrima located at Corte dei Cicala, 1. Although it calls itself a bookstore, it is so much more. In addition to multi-language books ranging from the classics to art and travel, it offers books on tape, videos, DVDs and music CDs. I especially like the local music selection that lets me hear musicians and styles that are hard to find elsewhere. Just outside the front door is the Liberrima Cafe, where umbrelled tables lend a party atmosphere to the piazza. Films are sometimes shown against one wall of the piazza, so you can sip your drink and laugh along with Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, to name a few.

After you've eaten your fill, bought some books and seen a silent film, what to do next? Like so many other Italian cities, in Lecce you can walk out of anyplace directly onto an excavation of subterranean Roman structures. Now that's entertainment.

The historic center has great shopping. In addition to Italian clothes, shoes and artwork, you can find African and Indonesian jewelry and furniture. A famous local craft is Cartapesta. This is a centuries-old technique of fashioning lifelike figures out of straw and paper mache. The figures are then painted so skillfully that they seem to be carved out of stone. The artisans in Lecce excel in religious and nativity statues, many of them life-size.

The best designer shopping by far is just outside the historic center at Piazza Mazzini. Max Mara, Missoni and Valle Verde are at your disposal, just to name a few. The Piazza is also home to a small park with an imposing white stone fountain in the center. Perched throughout the fountain's structure are whimsical, impish figures that peek at you from under the streams of water and seem to be having great fun. At night the fountain is lit with a golden glow, adding a new dimension to its architecture.

As expected, Saturday night is party night in Lecce. Around midnight, everyone drives into the historic center, creating bumper to bumper traffic seldom seen outside of New York City. Eventually, everyone arrives and miraculously finds parking. Then it's off on foot to the bar of your choice. We chose Route 66, a noisy, crowded place with music videos playing from multiple screens, but no dancing. It's a place to sit, smoke, drink and speak loudly to the person next to you.

After the bar, there's always a party going on at somebody's apartment. That's a great opportunity to hear someone sing, watch someone else learn how to juggle, and try to find the bathroom. When you've had enough, what to do? Luckily, the answer lies at Leopardi, open 24 hours serving coffee, liquor and pastry. This place is very popular (especially around 3:00 a.m.) and there's always a line to get in. We wait patiently and our reward is cappuccino and flaky delights amid the music and neon. Even as we leave about an hour later, the line outside is just as long and the place is just as lively as when we arrived. It makes you wonder if anyone ever sleeps in this town on a Saturday night.

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