Puglia Perfection: Our Lecce Top Ten
in the Beating Heart of the Salento
Apologies for the radio silence! We’ve been so ludicrously busy perfecting our Puglia Tour since we arrived in Italy, we’ve barely had time to sit down and pen a few words.
What have we been up to? What haven’t we been up to?
Once we touched down in Rome we pounded the streets of the capital, visiting dozens of hotels, guesthouses and B&Bs. We want to be able to ensure that International guests spending a few days in the Eternal City before or after joining us for their Puglia holiday receive the warm welcome they deserve. That’s why we toured dozens of Rome’s best-reviewed accommodation spots: so we can make personal recommendations having seen and sampled the welcome ourselves. Keep checking our blog as we’ll be unveiling a full post on Rome soon, revealing our ultimate Top Places to spend a night or two (or three or four) before making the trip South to Lecce and the Salento. Of course, if you’re thinking of making Rome part of your vacation in Italy, please don’t hesitate to drop us a line. We have recommendations at all price points across several sensational Roman neighbourhoods.
Things really kicked off once we reached our beloved Puglia. We’ve been posting photos of our adventures across social media. Hopefully you’re following us already, but if you don’t want to miss out on any of the fun you can like and subscribe to us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. We’ve been uploading shots as we’ve explored and researched the sights and cuisine of this remarkable region, and we’ll be posting some full galleries in the very near future too.
But to whet your appetite for what’s to come, here’s our selection of the Top Ten Vacation Experiences to have in our amazing home base of Lecce.
10. The Ultimate Puglia Passegiata
In these parts they often call the evening stroll la movida, literally, the movement. Like the great migrations of nature there’s something breathtaking about Lecce’s passegiata, when the city’s population descends on its cool evening streets for a leisurely stroll, fuelled by a drink or gelato, to enjoy the company of their fellow citizens and the gorgeousness that surrounds them. This is a procession that continues before, after and even during dinner. Kids are more than welcome. It’s perfectly common to see a toddler parked on a stool munching a treat long past midnight. La movida is also an excuse to see and be seen, which explains the high heels half the female population will be wearing. It’s important to look your best in a city this stunning. Which leads us onto…
9. Architecture: Baroque Beauty
You can thank geology for this visual feast. Leccese sandstone is so soft, it’s easy for skilled craftsmen and women to carve into spectacular shapes. And few were as skilled as Giuseppe Zimbalo, who left his mark on the city’s churches and palazzi throughout the 1600s. His baroque creations are so intricate, you can stare at one of his facades twenty times and still see something new. Countless buildings around the city have been inspired by his creativity, but Lecce is about more than just baroque. Stroll around for even a short while and you’ll spot Eastern, modern and even Art Nouveau influences. This is a city that likes its art on its streets.
8. Diners’ Paradise: Fantastic Food
Lecce is blessed by many, many fine restaurants. As Maurizio Ortona, who doubles as our pizza instructor when not running his own spectacular pizzeria, explains when discussing the food of the Salento, it’s not “cucina povera,” it’s “cucina poverissima!” The genius of this cuisine is its ability to create great flavours from humble ingredients. Fave e cicoria, orrecchiette and eggplant parmigiana are all consistently wonderful, but for us it doesn’t get more humble, or more magical, than the dish Cicera e Tria, a chickpea dish made with both boiled and fried pasta. Simultaneously smooth and crunchy, and barely known outside the Salento, this delicious masterpiece is at its best at the amazing Alle Due Corte, where we’ve yet to see a diner leave even a solitary drop of sauce on their plate at the course’s end.
What sets Lecce apart from many European vacation hubs is its ability to provide astonishingly tasty regional specialities at prices even the tightest wallets will be happy to open for. These gems include rustici, hot pastry pockets of tomato and béchamel, and puccia, a freshly baked roll packed with as many vegetables as you can stuff inside. Two must-visit locations for budget-conscious diners are Piadina Salentina where Antonio bakes the flatbread fresh for every delicious pocket of pleasure that’s ordered, and the astonishing Pizza&Co where Maurizio and his brother Paolo dish out world class pizza at prices that defy comprehension.
Our guests on our Puglia Tour will be doing more than sampling this wonderful culinary heritage. They’ll be learning to make it for themselves in cooking classes with our adorable and passionate instructor, Gianna Greco at Cooking Experience Lezioni di Cucina Salentina.
7. The Pasticciotto
Of course, no discussion of Leccese cuisine could be complete without mentioning the Salento’s unique contribution to the art of breakfast, Pasticciotto. On paper, it’s a simple pastry with custard on the inside. In reality, it’s a fun and filling way to start the day. For those seeking a break from tradition, chocolate and apple-filled pasticciotti are growing in popularity. Seek, and thee shall find!
6. Coffee! All day, every day!
In a city that takes its mid-afternoon sleep very seriously (how else can people be expected to stay out late every night?) it’s good to know that the only things that never close in Lecce are its spectacular bars and coffee shops. Any time is the right time for the two regional specialties, Espressino, a miniature cappuccino so great we named our company after it, and caffe in ghiaccio, espresso on the rocks, normally with a dash of sugar or latte di mandorla, sweet almond milk. Coffee is so good in this town we can’t choose just one bar. But these places deliver every time.
Avio is one for the purists. Don’t let its simple façade and interior deceive you. They take their caffeination very seriously here, creating a unique coffee foam for their delicious, cooling take on caffe in giaccio.
Caffe Alvino boasts a great location and great products, from gelato to baked goods through to its dynamite coffee. Enjoy the bustle at the busiest banco in the city, or relax outside with the ultimate view across Piazza Sant’Oronzo.
300 Mila Lounge is fancy and fabulous. This hidden gem was named as the best bar in Italy by the experts at Gambero Rosso in 2013. We’re not arguing.
Those are three must-visits for coffee aficionados, but every conversation with a local has the chance of revealing humble holes in walls that somehow produce nectar of the gods. Don’t be deceived by the informal look of locals’ bars like Sybar or Old House. They deliver on taste every time.
5. Shop until you Drop
As you’d expect from one of the South’s major cities, the brands that made Italian fashion world famous aren’t lacking in Lecce’s stores and boutiques. But there’s far more to the Leccese shopping experience than dropping small fortunes on Armani and Dolce & Gabbana. There’s also the rambunctious Piazza Libertini market, where you can emulate Italian street style in the shadow of Lecce’s spectacular 16th Century Castle.
This is a city of artisans, which means that if you’re looking for a special souvenir, there are countless wonderful options to choose from. Painters often work and sell their art on Via Libertini, while the city’s rich heritage of papier maché has produced a vibrant culture of affordable (and relatively transportable) sculpture. Whatever you’re looking for, be it antique or modern, you’ll find it somewhere in Lecce, along with the memory of the people you met tracking it down.
4. A City Looking to the Future
Lecce is a city with a rich and fascinating history. Its Roman monuments still stand proudly in its centre and its heritage stretches back to Magna Grecia centuries before that. However, this isn’t a city stuck in the past. June 2014’s #PugliaPride parade, when over 3,000 people (including the Espressino Travel team) danced through the streets was a glorious celebration of diversity and human rights. The Governor of Puglia, Nichi Vendola, is himself gay, and his moving speech on the day was a rousing confirmation that even though the Italian south is rooted in tradition, Lecce is a city that welcomes everyone. They know how to throw a good party too. Which is no surprise because Lecce is passionate about…
3. Music! Non-stop!
You’re never far from a song in Lecce. It’s in the blood. Pizzica is the traditional music of the Salento, up-tempo dance-folk equally popular with old and young. Maybe it’s due to the heat, but there’s also a huge Pugliese reggae scene, with groups like Sud Sound System vying with Bob Marley for airtime in bars across the city. Salentini reggae stars perform in local dialect to huge crowds (including shows in Lecce’s Roman amphitheatre). Things can get weird too. Our great friend Kimberley took us to an underground rock show to see a band that sounded like Mogwai if they’d grown up listening to Charles Mingus. Wild times!
2. Glorious Piazza del Duomo
One of Italy’s great public spaces fulfils two purposes. First, it’s a feast for the eyes, with one of Zimbalo’s greatest creations matched with the city’s mightiest campanile and palazzo. It’s also a wonderful public playground, with ragazzi calmly munching on pizza on the steps of the Duomo while toddlers run amok in front of them. The spacious piazza only has one narrow entrance, which means that it’s impossible for kids to get lost within it. Parents can relax with the knowledge that their children are confined to this huge but perfectly safe space. Kids understand that, which is why they start sprinting around this architectural masterpiece as soon as they arrive.
1. Power to the People!
If there’s been a revelation, it’s that our Puglia Tour’s home base of Lecce is even friendlier than we remembered. Reconnecting with our colleagues – our incredible cooking class instructors Gianna and Maurizio, our hosts at luxury guesthouse Mantatelure and making new friends like Truffle Hunter Giuseppe – has been a delight. They all love the name Espressino Travel (it shows them that we appreciate what makes their region unique) and they haven’t been shy telling us exactly that. Everywhere we’ve been in Lecce we’ve made new friends, all eager to meet more internationals guests and show them their magical corner of undiscovered Italy. We understand. We can’t wait to show it to you too.
PS. We have one more teaser for now. We were lucky enough to be joined in Puglia by our great friend, genius photographer Adam Blasberg who graciously took some amazing shots of the Espressino Travel extended family. We’ll be unveiling those incredible photos soon...
Ciao for now!
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