Lecce (Italian: Provincia di Lecce) is the southernmost province in Apulia, the easternmost one in Italy. It is called "the Heel of Italy" due to its location on the Salento peninsula, of which it represents the southern half. The territory is bathed by the Ionian Sea to the west and the Adriatic on the east.
- 1 Lecce — Nicknamed "The Florence of the South" due to the vast amount of historic and artistic treasures, such as dozens of Baroque churches and palaces, a majestic 16th century castle, Roman theatre and amphitheatre. A triumph of elaborate architectures at every turn is definitely worth a complete tour.
- 2 Gallipoli — Fishing port city renowned for its seafood restaurants, a large old town on a walled island, miles of beaches and vibrant nightlife.
- 3 Nardò — Cultural centre of Salento during the Renaissance it is a true pearl of the Baroque architecture, also rich of museums, seaside villages and Nature Reserves such as Porto Selvaggio.
- 4 Otranto — The easternmost town of Italy boasts a well preserved old city with an imposing castle, several coves and a high cliff coastal road with a stunning view.
- 5 Salve — Small picturesque town surrounded by a pleasant countryside, with miles of sea resorts including the "Maldives of Salento".
- 6 Specchia — Small inland town with several noble palaces and churches to visit and lively festivals.
- 1 Santa Maria di Leuca — Southern extremity of the region, it is a relevant religious tourism centre and is full of 18th-19th centuries villas built in eclectic style and sea caves to explore.
- 2 Torre Vado — Lively village on the Ionian Sea rich of activities you can do related to sea and a promenade very vibrant at night.
The province is rich of megalithic monuments ― the highest concentration in Italy ― that prove the presence of human settlements since prehistoric ages. All of actual Apulia territory experienced an immigration wave from the Balkans, and in Salento peninsula this resulted in the develop of the Messapian people and the whole peninsula was then called Messapia, literally meaning "Land between the seas". This proud population founded several cities whose remains can still be admired today in few cases and left us also examples of pottery and ancient weapons stored in various museums.
In 8th century BC Greek people started to settle in Southern Italy founding cities ― including Gallipoli ― and fighting against the Messapians that were subdued and started to adopt Greek culture and alphabet. During the 3rd century BC the Romans conquered the area leaving notable traces in Lecce with majestic architechtures that last still today. In later centuries the zone remained firmly part of the Byzantine Empire, preserving a strong part of its Greek heritage, including the use of the Greek Rite for the Mass, until the arrive of the Normans that unified all southern Italy under the Kingdom of Sicily in 1130 and started to latinize it again.
The actual province was part of the justiciarate ― later renamed province ― of Land of Otranto (Terra d'Otranto) together with the provinces of Brindisi and Taranto, that separated during 1920s and until that moment shared their fate. To Normans succeeded Swabians, Angevins, Aragonese and later Spaniards, that started to build dozens of coastal watchtowers as a defense against the Ottoman and Saracen pirate raids that frequently ravaged villages. During the two centuries of rule Spaniards contribute to the develop of the Baroque architecture in particular in the city of Lecce, that became the 2nd most important and rich town beside Naples ― capital city of the namesake kingdom.
After the Bourbon rule the Savoy dynasty created the Kingdom of Italy in 1860 and the area continued to stay under a condition of general poverty and marginality, with the loss of interest for its peculiar culture and tradictions until the process of revival started during the 1990s, including the rediscovery and valorization of its typical folk dance: the Pizzica, a variety of Tarantella. This province has experienced an incredible growth of tourism in the latest years, but it still remain an authentical land far from the discomforts caused by the international mass tourism, that is now beginning to discover its cuisine, music, tradictions and stunning landscapes.
The western Ionian coast is almost completely low, with the relevant exception of Porto Selvaggio close to Nardò, with bock rocks and fine sand beaches. The eastern coast from Santa Maria di Leuca to Otranto presents impressive high cliffs full of caves while north of Otranto it's again low and usually sandy. Just south of Otranto is located Capo d'Otranto (or Punta Palascìa) which is the most easterly point of Italy, just 72 km (45 mi) away from the coasts of Albania. According to nautical conventions this cape marks the point where the Ionian Sea and the Adriatic Sea meet, while others argue that Santa Maria di Leuca, the southernmost tip of Apulia, marks the point. The province can be divided lengthwise in two areas with an imaginary line running from Gallipoli to Otranto. Above this line the territory is almost completely flat while below, in the area known as lower Salento (basso Salento) the landscape is slightly hilly, with crests ― called serre ― never higher than 200 m (655 ft). The typical landscape consists in vast stretches of red soil with thousands of olive trees, with fields bounded by miles of dry-stone walls, the whole thing with the continuous chirping of cicadas.
Italian is the official language and it's known by everyone, but if you walk along the streets of every city and village you will probably ear that most of inhabitants born before 1990 normally speak the Salentino dialect (salentinu), which is a variety of Sicilian language. In nine towns located south of Lecce people speak the Griko, a local variety of Greek language that is a residue of the Magna Graecia age. Today about 40,000 people know this language and they represent an ethnic and linguistic minority officially recognised and protected.
- From Northern Italy/Adriatic coast: take the A14 motorway (Autostrada) until the exit of Bari Nord, keep on the SS16 expressway (Strada Statale) and reached Fasano continue on SS379 towards Brindisi, here take the SS613 to Lecce. The route from Bari requires 1½ hr and it's really comfortable since it's a quite straightline path despite the name changes of the expressways.
- From Taranto: to reach Lecce the best option is to take the SS7 to Brindisi, then keep SS613 to arrive in just under 1 hr. To reach the southern part of the province you can eventually take the SS7ter until Manduria and here SP359 (Strada Provinciale) to reach Nardò in a bit more than 1 hr.
- From Naples: you can take the A16 motorway until Canosa di Puglia where it merges with the A14 and then drive southward following the route above reaching Lecce in a bit less than 4 hr. As an alternative you can take the A3 to Salerno, then continue on the A2 until the branch to Potenza and crossing Basilicata through RA5, SS407 and SS106 until Taranto and the SS7 to Brindisi. This second route will take about 20-30 min more but you will save €15 of toll and you could enjoy the stunning landscape of Basilicata.
- From Calabria: take the A2 motorway northward until the branch SS534 to Sibari, here take the SS106 until Taranto.
- Marino provides links from major Italian cities and some localities of France, Germany, Luxembourg, Switzerland to Lecce, Gallipoli, Maglie and Otranto.
- Miccolis connects main localities of Campania, Basilicata and central Apulia to Lecce, Gallipoli, Maglie and Otranto. The Naples-Lecce route takes 6 hr for a cost of €36.40.
Lecce is quite good connected with towns on the Adriatic coast, with direct trains everyday from Bologna and Rimini. Travel times from Rome and beyond can be long instead. Night trains with sleeping couches are available, and often they're a better bet. Check the site of the national rail operator Trenitalia for detailed info.
The province is served by five major expressways that provides fast links between main cities and tourist localities, while other important roads sometimes pass through inland towns and villages reducing themselves to urban streets with one lane for each direction. The SS613 runs from Brindisi to Lecce and represents the main road gateway for the area. Lecce is surrounded by a ring road called Tangenziale from which two other expressways branch off: the SS16 to Maglie and Otranto and the SS101 to Nardò and Gallipoli, it then merges into SS274 towards Santa Maria di Leuca. Here also ends the SS275 starting in Maglie that has features of a dual carriageway road for part of its length. Other main routes are SP359 from Manduria ― province of Taranto ― to Nardò and the coastal road from Santa Maria di Leuca to Otranto, with a truly stunning view.
LecceTaxi links several destinations in the whole Salento area to/from the capital city.
During summer the province manages the service Salentoinbus with 12 lines connecting the most relevant destinations on the coast and inland. This helpful service is managed from June to September but in 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, its duration has been reduced only to the months of July and August. Detailed info about 2021 summer season still have to be confirmed.
Several castles and fortresses are spread over this peripheral land of the ancient Kingdom of Sicily (and later of Naples) since the high Middle Ages, and many of this period structures have been converted into noble palaces over the years. Most of castles were built between 15th and 16th centuries, period of general militarisation of this area and features imposing bastions and internal courtyards. The most majestic ones are: Aragonese castle of Otranto, Acaya Castle (part of a fortified village), Copertino Castle, Gallipoli Angevin Castle, Castle of Charles V in Lecce and De' Monti Castle in Corigliano d'Otranto. Other relevant structures can be admired or visited in Andrano, Acquarica del Capo, Caprarica del Capo, Castro, Felline, Melendugno, Nardò (Acquaviva Castle), Salice Salentino (Monaci Castle), as well as several other minor ones.
Since early Middle Ages the coasts of this province frequently suffered pirate raids first by Saracens and then by Ottoman corsairs, that tried to take slaves from the local population and in few cases completely destroyed entire villages. Under the rule of Emperor Charles V of Habsburg the construction of a new defense system was ordered and about 60 watchtowers were built in the actual province. Unfortunately many of them are in poor condition while others have been restored and can be admired from the outside, since most of them are private properties and are open to public quite rarely. They're all built in local limestone bricks with a circular or square plan and usually they present two levels with an external string course. Nowadays most of seaside localities are named "tower something" since coastal villages expanded around them.
Some annual events are really not to be missed, the most relevant one is without doubt:
- Notte della Taranta (Night of Tarantula), ☏ , ✉ email@example.com. A large itinerant festival of popular Salento music (Pizzica and Taranta) that takes place in the first half of August, culminating in a final open-air concert in the municipality of Melpignano. The night of the great concert (concertone) has each year a different national-famous music director and involves more than 100.000 spectators.
A large number of minor local festivals (sagre) take place in villages, especially during the summer season, representing a truly immersive way to discover food and music. Another opportunity to live local tradictions are the patronal feasts (feste patronali), strongly felt and awaited by inhabitants. In these occasions even the smallest village has its streets decorated with luminaries (parazioni) and numerous stands to buy local handicraft items and dishes. The greatest patronal feast in Southern Italy is held in Scorrano ― halfway between Gallipoli and Otranto ― from 6 to 8 July and it's a unique example of elaborated luminaries, fireworks and music.
Salento cuisine would merit a dedicated page and its most famous dishes are native of the Lecce area.
Pasta and chickpeas (ciceri e tria) has become the symbol of Salento cuisine, consisting in wide noodles similar to tagliatelle fried in olive oil and boiled in a pot with chickpeas and vegetables soup. Taste the puccia, a bread made of durum wheat flour and popular bread-based snacks including the uliata (sticks filled with black olives) and the pizzu (filled with olives, tomato and eventually onions and slices of pepper), with different possible varieties. An appreciated street food is the rustico, a savory pastry of circular shape made of puff pastry sheets filled with tomato sauce, mozzarella and béchamel sauce. Another typical dish are the bulbs of tassel hyacinth, called lampascioni and usually enjoyed in oil. Another popular street food are the pittule, yeast dough fried in oil, sometimes filled with onions, tomatoes, capers, black olives, salted anchovies, and hot red pepper (alla pizzaiola) or tasted hot with splash of nutella cream.
Native of this land is the Lecce cake (pasticciotto leccese), a small pastry made of sweet crust and filled with custard, also if new varieties have developed in latest years, two above all: nutella and pistachio cream. This traditional pastry was invented in the 18th century and it's commonly eaten at breakfast, better if warm. Common to other coastal Italian regions is the cupeta, a crunchy dessert consisting in bars of caramel toasted almonds resembling a nougat. A popular semifreddo dessert is the spumone, a dome-shaped ice-cream flavoured with hazelnut and chocolate, filled with sponge fingers or sponge cake soaked in various liquors. A typical Christmas specialty are the purceddhruzzi (literally meaning piglets) that are almost identical to Neapolitan struffoli.
All of these specialties can be tasted not only in restaurants — sometimes sold at an excessively high price — but also at the various festivals held around the province in particular during summer.
The northwestern area of the province is home to production of Negroamaro wine, literally meaning "black [and] bitter", one of the most renowned red wines of Apulia characterised by a deep color, medium-full tannins and dark berryfruit flavors. One of its finest variety is the Salice Salentino DOC, which is blended with the highly scented Malvasia Nera for a 15% that weakens the typical bitterness of the Negroamaro dominant component.
Among alcoholic beverages is also common the famous Limoncello, not produced on industrial scale but instead widespread realized homemade by many people equipped just with few lemon trees.
To be tried is also the Lecce coffee (caffè leccese), an iced coffee consisting in a common espresso coffee served still hot in a wide glass with ice cubes and 2/3 spoons of almond milk, that replace sugar. This beverage can be tasted in every single bar of the province and beyond and it has become a true ritual to refresh during hot summer afternoons.
This area has experienced an enormous growth in tourism, especially linked to sea and therefore concentrated in summer months, when most of events and festivals take place. A large amount of Bed and Breakfast accomodations were created ranging from studios, in particular in seaside resorts, to magnificent noble palaces in inland old towns as well as the numerous masserie completely renovated at this aim. Selection of overnight accommodation is large. You can take a look at the main B&B in the area here.
Discover the neighbouring provinces of Brindisi and Taranto to complete the tour of Salento peninsula. The enchanting villages of Itria valley, including the world-famous Alberobello, are at about 1 hr by car from Lecce, while the dramatic landscapes of Matera can be admired in less then 2 hr of drive from Lecce.