Baroque Lecce

Lecce is completely different to the other towns and cities of Puglia. If churches and Baroque architecture are your thing then Lecce is absolutely top of your ‘must visit ‘ list. Established over 2,500 years ago, the city became an important Roman settlement and the theatre and the arena are well preserved today.

The main building surge occurred in the Baroque period of the early 17th century. Lecce had fallen into disrepair and wealthy land owners wanted to be part of the rejuvenation process. Not only did they set their grand, imposing homes here, they also funded the building of super impressive Houses of God. Existing churches got a makeover and new ones were built by ambitious young architects whose imaginations knew no bounds. There are too many to list and show, so I include only a few of them here.

Lecce is a masterpiece of Baroque constructions.

Built in the local soft creamy limestone it dazzles and inspires with a surprise around every corner. Its spider web of streets offer a kaleidoscopic mix of long-range vistas, glimpses of cherubs or bishops or saints or angels, the sight of carved animal heads or plants high up on a steeple or on the facade of a grand building or ornate gateway.

The old part of the city, entered by one of three arched gateways which mark the end of normality and the beginning of Byzantine flair and authority, is a core of stone crystals where wealthy landowners and bishops have tried to outdo each other in the buildings they have created.

Lecce Cathedral is one such attempt to grab all the attention that continues to this day – recently a lift was opened within the Bell Tower that whisks visitors to the top at a cost if 12 euros. The only way down is to use the same lift – no stairs!

As such the city is a magnet to large numbers of visitors and its arteries of narrow streets quickly get clogged up with flag-led groups of holidaymakers’ cholesterol.

Having taken photos one set of Baroque churches, which, I have to say, all begin to look very similar, I decide it is more fun looking at the people who make up these groups. So to end my tour of Puglia in general, and Lecce in particular here is a selection:

The story of Otranto – the furthest east of Italian cities

Otranto is Italy’s most easterly town and its position on the Adriatic coast has long made it strategically important in defending the narrow Strait of Otranto between Italy and Albania. The massive perimeter walls and tall, sturdy towers, an imposing sight by today’s standards, were constructed after the town was liberated from the Turks in the 15th century.

Today a number of wide promenades iced with cafe tables run along the top the walls that stretch high from the turquoise-clear waters of the Adriatic below. Narrow alleys dive up into the old town, cutting through vast turrets and stone-flat walls. In amongst the passageways and the hidden piazzas, small restaurants offer pizzas and fresh fish and pasta before breaking through to the main gates of the castle.

It is only a short distance through the shaded streets of the old town, lined with small shops selling classy cloths, local jewellery and the usual tourist tat, to reach the small piazzas at the heart of the old town. From the walls a large marina is revealed and at the other end of town a sandy beach provides opportunities for swimming and sun lounging.

One piazza is home to the 11th century duomo.

Inside two features stand out. One is a magnificent mosaic floor depicting hell.

The other is a collection of 100s of human skulls that are kept behind a sheet of glass. In 1480 the town was attacked by the Turks. The locals held out for two weeks but were eventually overcome. 800 took refuge in the cathedral. The Turks promised to let them go free if they renounced their faith but none did so and they were all taken out and beheaded. In 1771 a papal decree beatified them as martyrs and their skulls retrieved and displayed here.

Ostuni, the white city

From a distance, the hilltop town of Ostuni looks like the decorators have done only half a job. Called in to whitewash the walls, maybe they only brought the short ladders with them. While the lower levels gleam in the Adriatic sun, the upper storey, typified by the top spot of the duomo, remains in need of some touching up and paint work. Yet it works. Together they dominate the olive-studded plain below.

There is probably a local byelaw – you can paint your homes and walls whatever colour you like …. as long as it’s white.

Stepped and arched alleys nibble up and down and around, connecting curly, mule-wide passageways. Small bars and eateries hide around corners in alcoves and small, odd shaped courtyards. Tables/chairs balance precariously on uneven, cobbled pathways and staff step up with bottles & plates & platters, dishing up delicious food from tantalising menus.

Where does everyone go? Pre dinner the place is buzzing. Street bars fill the air with jazz and cocktails, lovers lounge on low cushions, tourist groups chat through their day.

As the evening progresses the bars empty and the restaurants in the backstreets fill. The burnished stones of the main streets are now exposed with no crowds to cover them up.

Ostuni is a great place with character and atmosphere. Meals and shopping may cost a bit more but it feels like a fun place to be with quirky bars and cafes, new eating experiences and some good places to while away some time before browsing the wide range of good quality shops.

Stulli and ancient olive trees

Locorotondo is a £1 train ride out of Alberobello through rich-earthed, countryside where olive trees are king and the wealthy have taken trulli architecture to create homes of affluence and style. No poverty here.

It is a 10 minute walk from the station to the shade of the gateway of this picturesque hilltop village.

Narrow streets, whitewashed houses and churches dominate the hilltop.

Outside the ramparts bars & eateries are set out to allow punters to gaze out over the vines & trulli-inspired farms and villas.

An hour south of the trulli capital there is an opportunity to understand a bit about why Puglians are so proud and obsessed by their olive trees. There are around 60 million Italians. In Puglia alone there are a similar number of olive trees and this traditional farm has been producing olive oil for centuries.

Many trees are over 2,000 years old

and this fella has been dated from around 3,000 years ago.

Local artists play a special game. They capture on film animal figures within the trunks of these ancient trees. Have a go.

The old wine press dates from this time.

The trees are spaced out with ample room between them to allow the root system of each to develop unhindered by the trees around them.

Nets have been laid under the trees as the last of the harvesting takes place. Soon workers will comb through the branches with rakes and the olives will be collected and pressed on the same day to prevent oxygenation taking place.

When all you’ve ever truely wanted was to spend a night in a trullo

Leaving Matera by bus, my route takes me eastwards to the Adriatic and into Puglia proper. Grape and olive production have shaped this landscape. The modern road cuts in a straight line through acres & alternating acres of hanging vineyards, ripening under ugly sheets of plastic, and centuries-old olive trees, voluptuous with heavy, spreading branches of foliage & fruit, their trunks prepared for harvest with a circular carpet of sack cloth ready to collect the results of this year’s Shake n Vac.

Polignano a Mare is a pretty fishing village clustered around a ravine, created where a small stream has cut into the land to meet the sea with a small beach of smooth stones & rocks. An attractive historic centre of narrow tangled streets and picturesque houses is in danger of being smothered by vast modern builds of holiday apartments, balconied flats and shoreline promenades that have been constructed around the edges, threatening to engulf it with 21st century holidaymaking.

Alberobello is back inland, back through the dark earthed fields of grapes and olives.

Dotted amongst the endless rows of waving vines and stump-solid trees are clues to the main act of the area – isolated stulli, small, stone huts, built in the fields without mortar to hold a farmer’s tools.

The town itself is unique, made up of stacks of tullis blocks of different shapes and sizes like a card tower spreading along a valley floor and the slopes that rise from it.

Trullis are dry-stoned dwellings designed to house an extended family, their belongings, crops and animals. The walls are whitewashed in an attempt to keep the trullo cool during the heat of the summer. It is said that in the 16th century property taxes were collected. When the locals heard of an upcoming visit by government collectors their homes, because they were constructed without mortar could be easily demolished thus reducing the amount that had to be paid. Once the tax collectors had departed the homes would be rebuilt and life would return to normal.

Wandering the narrow streets is a rather weird feeling particularly in the soft light of dawn before the gaggle of tourists arrive to clog the narrow lanes and ruin the atmosphere. It feels like Noddy & Big Ears are going to appear a door and friendly goblins will wander past waving greetings and welcomes. Sadly no – just crowds of visitors & holidaymakers buying the normal tourist tat from small trulli shops.

The place is fascinating and worth a visit. A goblinesque centre within a normal, everyday kind of town.

The majesty of Matera

Another Italian city, another jumble of dusty stone buildings, another tangle of burnished steps & cobbled alleys leading down to an ancient core but Madera is something so really special it takes your breath away. Like a dimmer switch dawn gently illuminates the soft hues of a staggered Jenga of rectangular blocks of houses, towers, steeples & churches. As the sun rises the glory of the place surrounds you.

It is like a giant scoop has been dipped in the landscape leaving a jewel-lined indentation to climb about and explore.

Rome is old, 3,000 years give or take a century or two, and Madera, in the south of Italy, predates Rome as an urban settlement by five millennia. Initially established by nomadic sheep herders who inhabited the water-formed caves that lined a deep ravine lying on their route through this flat, dry landscape prehistoric man developed elementary building skills that enabled them to expand their cave city across to the other side of the rocky gash.
For centuries homes were scraped out of the rock, inhabited by entire families and their livestock.

Byzantine monks created Rock Churches. These dated from the 12th century and at one point some 160 existed as places of worship and living accommodation. The ceilings were created from the rock and in some graves were dug into the rock of the roofs.

Water was always an issue. In the 16th century five huge underground cisterns were created to collect and store rainwater to feed the fountains during the dry summer months. This obe held 5 million litres of water.

This was an area of extreme poverty and disadvantage. It was only after WWII did the national government provide incentives for locals to buy and renovate properties in the old town. Today this higgledy piggledy stack of buildings and alleyways is absolutely stunning.