Lecce – “The Florence of the South”

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Lecce is located in the Puglia region in the heel of the boot in the Italian Peninsula where the Adriatic and Ionian seas are easily accessible. This city is over 2,000 years old and is one of the most important cities in Italy. Commonly known as “The Florence of the South” for its Baroque architecture. The town’s treasure is its architecture.

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There are 3 Baroque style gates into the historical city center and 2 centers: the central square of Lecce the Piazza Sant’Oronzo where the ruins of the Amphitheatre stand and the Piazza del Duomo (the Cathedral square). In the Piazza Sant’Oronzo is a statue of a bishop perched on a column.  This column is one of 2 which originally marked the end of the Roman Appian Way.  The other is in Brindisi. One gate, the Porta Napoli was built in 1548.

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Porto Napoli
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Porta Rudiae (rear)

This city existed at the time of the Trojan War and was conquered by the Romans in the 3rd century B.C.

The Baroque buildings built by the 17th century architects rival those in Florence. So distinctive is Lecce’s architecture is has acquired its own name “Lecce Baroque”.  It is now a casual university town with boutiques, restaurants and a strong tradition of Papier-mâché making.

As is common in Italy, the streets empty as the hottest part of the day passes and this was the case when we were in Lecce so of course if you can’t shop….the infamous gelato was enjoyed by everyone in our group! As evening approaches Italians get out and ‘stroll’ this is called “Passeggiata”.  This ritual evening stroll can be experienced all over Italy. We found it on the Amalfi Coast, in Rome and now in Puglia. It is just a leisurely time to walk and chat with neighbors.  See and be seen!

Some of the sights of Lecce:

Basilica di Santa Croce; Church of the Holy Cross begun in 1353 was completed in 1695 and features sculptures and a rose window (the church was under renovations so no great photos of the entire church). It is a Baroque church that is decorated on the facade with all manner of animals like sheep, cherubs and grotesque figures right out of Harry Potter and has a large rose window and Corinthian columns. Next door is the Government Palace which was a former convent.

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Piazza del Duomo- Lecce Cathedral and seat of the Archbishop of Lecce was originally built in 1144 and rebuilt later and finally restored by 1670.  The Duomo Square features a 5 story Bell Tower.

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Lecce Cathedral
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Lecce Cathedral

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Chiesa di San Matteo, a Baroque style Catholic church built in 1667 has 2 columns on its facade, one is decorated but the sculptor was killed before he could finish the work.

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Chiesa di San Matteo

Chiesa di Santa Chiara 1429-1438 – A Baroque church with twisting columns and ornate statuary and a ceiling of classic Leccese Papier-mâché.

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Chiesa di Santa Chiara

Chiesa di Sant’ Irene from 1591 has one of the largest altars in Lecce.  From the 17th century it contains a pair of mirror Baroque altar pieces facing each other.

Church of San Giovanni Battista.  There was a long traditional affinity with the Greek culture due to its proximity.

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Church of San Giovanni Battista

Limestone is one of the city’s main exports.  it is very soft and workable and very suitable for sculptures.

Olive oil and wine production are prominent in this area as well as ceramic production.

The Roman Amphitheatre was built in the 2nd century and is located near the Sant’Oronzo Square.  It once seated more than 25,000 people.  It is half buried now as other buildings and monuments were built above it over the centuries. You can feel the history when you stand here.

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Roman Amphitheatre

I was fascinated with all the doors in this historic city and I will do a separate photo blog of those but check out some of the ornate building details.

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I couldn’t let the opportunity pass without mentioning our guide Giuseppe who made our tour of Lecce extremely memorable! Thanks Giuseppe!  I guarantee we will not forget you 🙂 or to the Bride and Groom whose wedding arrival we interrupted for pictures!

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If you are considering a trip to Puglia I hope you have gotten a little taste of how fabulous this region can be.  It is becoming a more and more popular travel destination.  Where to stay?  We stayed at the Borgo Egnazia Resort and Spa in Savelletri di Fasano right on the coast.  Their slogan is NOWHERE ELSE and I can tell you I concur!  Madonna left just before we arrived. Bummer! This is a great spot for visiting all the sights in Puglia like Alberobello, Lecce, and Martina Franca.  I bought a case of Olive Oil!  This resort does not require my endorsement. Follow the blog (up next week) to see some of the many pictures I took trying to capture the magnificence of this resort. Borgo Egnazia, Puglia

If you missed the beginning of this series head back to the beginning: Puglia – an Undiscovered Gem in Italy.

MATERA: a UNESCO World Heritage Site

SASSI di MATERA- Ancient cave dwellings

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This is a true walk back in time but amazingly people inhabited these caves until the 1950’s. Before the Sassi (historical center) were abandoned this was one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world.

These natural caves dot the steep ravine and were first occupied back in the Paleolithic Age.

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Sassi di Matera
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Notice the Belvedere Piazzetta Pascoli standing tall in the background

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There were approximately 1,500 Sassi and they were expanded into living spaces as these peasant dwellings were occupied. Many of the caves had their ceilings extended to make a vaulted ceiling to expand the available living space so it was not so cramped.  This was a typical Sassi that we were able to tour and is open to the public. The rooms were dug into the soft limestone.  These were very poor people sadly.

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Casa Grotta di vico Solitario – kitchen area
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Even the animals lived in the Sassi notice the Bread on the table

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To tour this ancient city is a fascinating experience.  We walked down into an underground area where deep cisterns collected rain water for drinking.  There were 8 deep interconnected cisterns throughout this ancient city.  This 16th century cistern complex is right under the main town Piazza surrounded by historic buildings!

Check out the water lines on the walls!

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Piazza  Vittorio Veneto – Palazzo dell’Annuziata

This is a popular city for shooting movies like the remake of Ben Hur  starring Morgan Freeman which began shooting in early 2015 (below) and Passion of The Christ.  It is one of the oldest living cities.

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Right out of the movie Ben Hur

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Chiesa dei Santi Pietro e Paolo
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Love the ancient doors

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The Matera Cathedral.   Magnificent!

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Pane di Matera

Bread is this city’s symbol.  It’s form and unique taste are symbolic of a tradition that is still strong today. The bread’s shape is reminiscent of the hills or a mountaintop range. Each family had a brand on their bread using a wooden stamp so they could recognize it in the shared ovens. It has a slightly salty taste with a crunchy crust.  This traditional bread goes back to the Kingdom of Naples in the 15th and 16th centuries.  The wheat which is grown in this area has a unique and distinct flavor and the preparation of the yeast uses fresh fruit!

Again, we had a wonderful guide who regaled us with all sorts of history and stories. Thanks Giovanni! Next up Lecce! Follow along as our journey continues!matera-18

Pompeii- a step back in time!

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The ancient city of Pompeii is located in the southern region of Italy called Campania near the coast of Naples and was an important port town.  This once great Roman city was buried under tons of ash and pumice when in 79 A.D. Mount Vesuvius erupted. This thriving city of 20,000 people that was built up with private and public establishments under both Emperors Augustus and Tiberius was destroyed.

After the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, Pompeii was rediscovered and is still undergoing extensive restoration and excavation.  There is an extraordinary collection of architecture, sculpture, paintings and mosaics.  The major artifacts were moved to Naples by the Emperor many, many years ago.

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Mount Vesuvius

We entered through the Marina Gate in Region VII (there are 9 Regions under excavation at Pompeii) where you are immediately greeted by the Suburban Baths.  These were private baths some with erotic paintings; others with extravagant decorations.

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Agostino- our fabulous guide in Capri and Pompeii

Our private guide, Agostino, regaled us with all sorts of racy stories!   Excavated in 1960; 1985-1988

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Marina Gate and Suburban Baths

The Marina Gate & Walls provide access to the west side of this city and is the most impressive of the 7 gates of Pompeii. It seems the name came from the fact that the route out led to the sea.  The gate has 2 barrel vault portals made of concrete and dates back to 80 B.C. The 2 portals provided entry for both horses and other pack animals and the smaller was for people. Excavated 1862-1863

Another highlight was the Temple of Genius Augusti (Vespasian) which was built at the request of the Priestess.  It consisted of a small courtyard, marble altar which depicts a bull being led to sacrifice and a small temple with 4 columns and exquisite marble decoration. Excavated in 1817

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The Bakery of Popidio Prisco: The mill and the bakery were adjacent to each other as they were part of the same production process. There are 5 large lava millstones that were used to grind the wheat. Bread was baked in a variety of shapes in the large central oven and sold to residents or to wholesalers. Excavation 20’s of the 19th century.

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The bakery of Popidio Prisco

 

The Sauna Room and public baths were a significant social scene where Romans would relax and be pampered after leaving the gymnasium. There was both a hot and cold bath here. Water was abundant in this city.

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The sauna room

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The Streets of Pompeii were established on a grid plan The streets have grooves for the horse carts. Since the streets often flooded there are footsteps that allow pedestrians to cross the road without getting their feet wet.

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Interior of home of a wealthy merchant with colorful frescoes and ornate decorations

 

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The Forum: this was a public space originally at the center of Pompeii’s commercial, religious and political life and is surrounded by many of the most significant buildings of the city. The Basilica was a public building where business and legal matters were conducted. It was at one end of the Forum.

 

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The Building of Eumanchia has an ornate carved marble frieze. Note the “key” which supports the gate without a central support. Eumanchia was a local priestess and a successful business woman to boot! Women rock!

 

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The ruins of Pompeii:

 

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This exploration of a time gone by is well worth the visit.  It is immense and you can easily fall into the trap of everything looking the same.  Take my advice and hire a private guide or you will miss the highlights here as following the map will have you wandering endlessly in circles! A word of warning: wear comfortable shoes!!! The streets are very uneven and you can easily lose your footing.

Now onto the Puglia Region.  Here is a link to Alberobello our next adventure.  Stay tuned for Matera, Lecce and the gorgeous Borgo Egnazia

 

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