After days exploring the gentle slopes of the Itria Valley and tasting seafood in the small coastal towns on the Adriatic in Italy’s “heel” province of Puglia, it’s time for a little bustle and retail therapy in a city. Lecce is the next stop.
Our hotel, The Eos, is a new block of dazzling white stone on the edge of town. But it’s only a 15-minute walk to the old center, and we need the exercise after all the food we’ve had.
Lecce itself is a feast of another kind—for the eyes. From the ancient castle, the city gates, the Roman amphitheater in one of the most chic shopping squares I’ve seen, to the heart-stopping Santa Croce basilica, it’s an unending delight to explore. Even outside the main center, I spied an Arabian Nights-style mansion with sentinel palm trees on either side. And keeping the amphitheater and castelo as landmarks, it’s easy to find your way around.
Lecce is Baroque heaven—at every corner you see ornate doorways and ochre facades where endless stone cherubs, birds, flowers, and monsters sprout. Wrought-iron balconies spill over with plants, and through half-open gates I glimpse vast courtyards; where once carriages and horses stopped, now are gleaming cars and SUVs, all washed and waxed.
Most of the old streets are free of cars and the best time to explore is in the evening when the distracting modern shop windows are dark, and the dramatic splendor of the Duomo is even more stunning. I saw few tourists, but in the past month I’ve come across three travel articles about Lecce, and I feel sure that it won’t be so quiet for long.
For such a magnificent city, prices are low. One realtor offers a 700-square-foot, two-bedroom apartment for $241,000 in the historic center near the San Anna Music Conservatory, with a sunny terrace to go with it. I saw a one-bedroom property also within the old city walls, near via Vittorio Emanuele (the road that leads to the Piazza Duomo), $210,000, fully restored.
Prices are even lower if you want an apartment or house in the “new” part of town, that is, outside the old walls. You can find a three-bedroom, 1,000-square-foot apartment in need of a little fixing up, with a sun area for $79,000, or a two-bedroom, 968-square-foot home in a classic 19th-century building for $100,000. I also found a two-bedroom 1,076-square-foot apartment close to the center with two typical wrought iron balconies, ready to move into for $148,000.
And eating out is not expensive, either—it was hard to spend more than $30 on a full gourmet meal of three courses with a liter of wine and liqueurs.
One place to try is Le Zie, a homey restaurant run entirely by women. Le zie means “aunties,” and it is indeed like stepping into your favorite relative’s dining room. You ring the doorbell and give your name before sitting down at one of the dozen or so tables in the simple room. Take a look at the walls—grateful gourmet diners have left their business cards or sent postcards, and they make original wallpaper. Don’t be put off by the hand-scrawled menu with no prices; again, you won’t be able to spend more than $30 per person here. The food is Italian home cooking like you’ve never had before. The presentation isn’t artistic, but the freshness of the ingredients and the taste of each dish are worth the trip.
Europe Editor, International Living
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