One of the highlights of our trip to Puglia in the south of Italy was our stop in Lecce. The city is over 2000 years old and is nicknamed the "Florence of the south" because of the number of baroque buildings it boasts in the historical center. It also contains some impressive Roman historical sites, including a sunken Roman amphitheatre.
We drove into the city and parked outside the historical walls across from a large park. Of course, whenever there is a park our kids insist on stopping to play, so we began our journey into the historical city with a stop at a very large, modern park. After walking through the provincial "palace," we found ourselves directly in front of the Church of the Holy Cross, or Chiesa di Santa Croce. The facade of the church is decorated with carvings of animals, plants, and more. To the right was an interesting underground Jewish museum that leads visitors through some of the underground tunnels of the city. We didn't get a chance to do that because it was closed when we arrived, but it sounded fascinating.
Lecce is a walkable city, even for those with limited mobility or families with small children. We wandered through much of it in one day, although I would suggest two days if you plan on going into most of the historical museums and such. The buildings are absolutely gorgeous, built with the golden Leccese stone that is said to be so soft it can be carved with a spoon. I read that after being carved, the stone was soaked in milk to help it harden enough to be used for building. What struck me is how ornate almost every surface is, regardless of whether the building is an important historical monument or just a regular apartment building!
After grabbing a bite to eat, we wandered around the old part of town, ducking into churches and admiring statues and columns. When afternoon arrived, most people flocked to the many cafes and restaurants to escape the heat of the sun, and we found ourselves occupying huge piazzas almost all to ourselves. It's nice to wander through attractions without being jostled about by others! We sought out the Lecce Cathedral, with a double facade and large bell tower with an octagonal loggia. My husband and I enjoyed the church, and our boys enjoyed running around the piazza outside the church.
While I was happy to simply wander around, my husband was looking forward to seeing the Roman amphitheater and surrounding ruins that sit smack in the middle of one of the busier parts of the city. Unlike most amphitheaters, what makes this one unique is that it is sunken into the ground. I guess over the years the city was built on top of earlier monuments, as is so often the case. Built in the 2nd century, it could originally hold over 25,000 spectators and is still used for certain activities today.
On a different note, Lecce was one of the best cities for gluten free food. We saw several restaurants advertising special gluten free menus, and when we questioned a few waiters about their offerings they were all very knowledgeable about cross-contamination and proper food handling. I also noticed that Lecce offers a wide variety of vegetarian and vegan offerings with clearly marked menus, which was a change from the meat and fish heavy menus in some of the other towns we visited. On a less gourmet note, Lecce is also the first city where we found the Schar gluten free burger at McDonald's. It comes pre-wrapped to avoid cross-contamination, which I thought was great. My son was just happy that the bun was nice and soft! While my husband and I preferred the local cuisine, our seven year old was excited to be able to eat at McDonald's, so we gave in.
For us, a daytrip to Lecce was the perfect amount of time to wander the town, see the majority of the sights, and even spend some time browsing a bookstore and a few souvenir shops before heading back to our farm stay. It would be the perfect place for a romantic weekend getaway or to catch one of the shows hosted in the ancient amphitheater. It has history, culture, great architecture, friendly people, and a ton of charm. A must-see when in southern Puglia