BAROQUE AND ROLL; Lavish Architecture, Delectable Cake and a Cult of the Spider ... Lecce Is Italy's Star Turn
FOR MOST people, Lecce is an Italian city too far. To get to it you need to fly three hours to Brindisi or Bari on the east coast, then hire a car and brave the autostrada bedlam.
But perhaps that's half the secret of this delightfully tourist-free town.
Lecce sits at the bottom of the boot (the Salento peninsula), in the Puglia region. You won't find many natives speaking English. And the only celebrities who have properties here are Helen Mirren, who has a castle nearby, and Lord McAlpine, who owns a former convent. Lecce is absurdly unsung despite being known as 'the pearl of the Baroque'.
Built largely in the 16th and 17th centuries, clearly no one said 'when' as the architects piled on the decorations. Buzzards, putti, wolves, Saracens in turbans -- it's ornamental mayhem.
The Leccese stone, from which the town is built, is so soft you can carve it with a spoon -- the masons soaked it with milk to set it hard. The result is a city of golden honey hues.
If you stay, as I did, at the comfortably plush Patria Palace Hotel, you are bang opposite the spectacular facade and rose window of the church of Santa Croce. It was finally completed in 1695 after centuries of work. It's a stunning example of Baroque excess at its dottiest.
The cobbled streets of the city are much the same as they would have been 300 years ago. Via Palmieri -- a long gallery of ancient doorways and crumbling balconies -- is wonderful for an evening stroll.
In St Oronzo square, the heart of the old town, there's a halfburied Roman amphitheatre. The one blemish here is a McDonald's and a brutal Thirties development. But it's a good spot for a coffee -- and a delicious local cake. Lecce is the place to be greedy. They say the abundant olive oil from the area used to light the street lamps of London. Nowadays, it goes into the cooking.
Le Zie (The Aunts) is a delightful venue for supper. We rang the bell for ages and were about to leave when a waiter opened the door and welcomed us in to what felt like a private house. There are no menus and the food just keeps coming.
This is humble cooking (cucina povera) reflecting the region's once-grinding poverty. A buttonpopping dinner with lashings of soft, local red wine will cost you around [pounds sterling]17 a head. …