Living the Dream

Head Over Heels
8th July 2015

It was just after 7am and I was already pottering in the kitchen starting the breakfast routine.

"I can tell you're excited" mumbled Julie from underneath the pillow she held tightly over her ears trying to muffle the sound of my banging pots and pans.

She was right. Today we were in for a big day out to Lecce, a beautiful Baroque city known as the "Florence of the South". I was really excited.

Inside an hour we were both sat outside eating our toast and jam in the early morning sunshine. As soon as we packed our overnight bag we were ready to go.

It didn't take us long to get to Fasano where we joined the E55 motorway and then from there we had a straight run of 60 miles down the coast past Brindisi to Lecce. It probably only took us 90 minutes in total from leaving our little trullo in Alberobello to when we were parked opposite our hotel.

It was the first proper city we had driven into during this vacation and the volume of traffic came as a bit of a shock. We couldn't have done it without the SatNav which guided us carefully and accurately through the myriad of roads until we arrived at our destination. It all went according to plan especially when the busy little car park had one space left, just for us.

I put €2 into the parking meter and it gave us a ticket valid until 16:23 which confused me slightly as the information we received from the hotel said we would only have to pay €2 for the whole day.

Anyway, that still gave us 5 hours before we had to sort it out.

Our hotel was called Torre del Parco and the tower that it referred to was right next to the car park. It was connected to the hotel, a converted monastery, by a bridge spanning the four lane road.

 We couldn't check-in until 3pm so we had plenty of time to explore the city first.

The historical centre was a short 5 minute walk down Viale Don Giovanni Minzon, a tree lined palazzo filled avenue which hinted at Lecce's illustrious past.  The city reached the height of its powers during the 17th century, as the effect of the Florentine renaissance spread throughout Italy and Europe.

It must have been like London in the sixties, an explosion of creativity and inspiriation, the most exciting place in the world to be at that moment in time.

At the end of the road we came out from the shade of the trees into Piazza d'Italia an open space whose main purpose seemed to be a car park. Its focal point was the imposing Porta San Biagio one of three remaining gateways into the old centro historico.

The moment we walked through the arch we entered a completey different world, a much older medieval city of narrow streets and faded glory. There was a beauty to its honey stained walls and rusty balconies. The streets were surprisingly quiet. I had expected crowds but there were none.

With a small map in hand we followed the street futher into the city.

We couldn't work out exactly where we were until we reached Piazzetta Vittorio Emanuele II, a small square with a patch of green space in its centre.

To the left of us was the exceptionally ornate Chiesa di Santa Chiara. The detail carved into the sandstone façade was so incredible. It was actually a proper façade with the church having a very plain back and sides but the front was a completely separate impressive piece of work.

The elaborate Baroque design stopped me in my tracks and held my attention to the point where I almost got run over if wasn't for my ever vigilant sidekick. She always makes sure I don't walk into lampost, tread in dog dirt or walk out into oncoming traffic.

More aware of my surroundings I went to take a closer look at the lavish stonework. The church was built by architect and sculptor Giuseppe Cino and as with most of Lecce the construction of what is still spectacular today dates back to the 17th century.

The extravagant theatrical style even became known as its own substyle called Lecce Baroque. The carvings were very detailed. The winged cherubs were magnificent but the inricate design of all the fauna that surrounded it was incredible.

Whilst Julie sat outside a corner cafe sipping a lemon soda I went inside the Church of Santa Chiara.

If I thought the outside was ornate then what I saw inside was ridiculous. The nave was so richly decorated it was mind blowing. Carved from white marble the sheer intensity and oppulence was unbelievable. I imagined being part of the 16th century congregation. You would believe that God himself had carved heaven on the walls.

I rejoined Julie and we moved on to the next square.

Piazza Sant'Oronzo was built around what remained of a Roman amphitheatre. The Coloseum it was not but it was still fascinating. It did not rise above the street level instead it dropped fifteen rows down to the arena. There was one section of the upper level still intact but it literally was just a couple of ruined arches.

The amphitheatre itself wasn't complete either. Seventeenth century Lecce had swallowed up over half of it as it disappeared beneath a busy road. Rows of chairs filled the arena floor and a stage had been constructed at the far end. Either there had been or was going to be a performance here.

On the corner of the corner of the square we decided to stop and have something to eat at a cafe predictably called Cafe Antiteatro.

As they go this pavement cafe was quite trendy with its cubed seating behind a glass wall protecting you from the traffic.

Despite looking expensive the prices weren't too extortionate. We both ordered a panini. The toasted bread roll looked like a totroise shell filled with oozing melted cheese and a slice of ham for Julie's and a slice of griddled aubergine for me.

We were grateful to sit in the shade for a moment. It was a really warm day. Below a green cross of a pharmacy sign it displayed a temperature of 39C. (I'm sure that's the hottest temperature we've experienced.)

There wasn't much shade to be found as we crossed the large Piazza towards Saint Orontius' column.

Known as the first bishop of Lecce he stood on top of the column in full regalia pointing North. Legend has it that Orontius was converted to Christianity by Saint Paul when the apostle was shipwrecked off the coast of the Salento peninsula whilst on his way to Rome. Orontius lead the Christian underground movement until he was arrested and executed during the persecution of Christians by Roman Emperor Nero.

From Piazza Sant'Oronzo we followed the bishop's finger and headed North up Via Templari and then the narrow Via Umberto.

The street then widened out but not by much. Here we came across the stunning Basilica di Santa Croce.

Wow. It was breathtaking. A masterpiece.

I had never seen such a concentration of carvings on a façade before. It made the Church of Santa Chiara we saw earlier look like a Quakers meeting house.

It was all too much to take in at once.

You could only concentrate at one aspect at a time. Taken as a whole it became overwhelming.

It was a fantasy set in stone, like an entire season of Games of Thrones displayed in all its Baroque glory.

There was a menagerie of mythical creatures like a Dragon, a Griffon, there was even a mermaid and a merman and a flock of cherubs.

The theme behind all of this is said to represent the victory of the Holy League against the Ottoman Empire at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571.

The many creatures holding up the balustrade represented some of the members of the Christian alliance.

The dragon is said to be the symbol of the Boncompagni family, the Griffon was the emblem of the Republic of Genoa, the Lion was Venice, Hercules was the Grand Duchy of Tuscany ans so on.

It took a 150 years to complete from 1549 to 1699 during which time a collective of Lecce's finest craftsmen were responsible for the exquisite work.

Names like Gabriele Riccardi, Cesare Penna, Francesco Zimbalo and his grandson Guiseppe Zimbalo live on.

I stood in awe as the facade continued to reveal itself.

It was unrelenting. The more I looked the more I could see. Sections where I thought I had covered I noticed something new at the second glance.

"Close your mouth" said Julie.

I couldn't help it. It was seriously jaw-dropping.

Not only that but the physical fact that most of the action took place quite high up in the middle section meant I was cricking my neck to see it, which naturally leads to that gormless open-mouth look.

Having satisfied myself that I had seen all there was to see of the facade we went inside. After the exhuberance of the outisde the interior was far more subdued. I guess it suffered in comparisson.

We didn't stay for long and left through the attached Celestine Convent which was an even more sober affair.

I couldn't wait to get back outisde on the street to admire once again the divine and the glory of the facade.

We finally tore ourselves away, walking slowly down Via Matteo di Lecce, turning around every few steps to have another last look.

The street turned the corner and Basilica Santa Croce disappered from view. At least I could move on with my day.

We came to Piazzetta Sigismondo Castromediano a small square with what looked at first glance to be a statue stood in the middle of a skating park but the several ramps weren't for skating on but were in fact the lids for windows into archaelogical Iron Age remains that hid beneath the surface.

On the corner of this square was a pasticceria (or a bakery) called Bar Prato.

Julie was a little confused by my exaggerated excitement at coming across a pastry shop but there was one thing I wanted to do whilst in Lecce and that was to try a pasticciotto, a speciality custard pie of the area.

This seemed the perfect opportunity.

It didn't seem that popular. There was no one else around but regardless of this ... I stepped inside.

"Now, don't make a prato of yourself" said Julie.

The place was empty. They had a selection of pastries on display, none of them had any labels to tell me which one was which. Thankfully an old lady appeared from behind the counter. I could hardly see her over the display.

She was most charming. When I fluffed my lines and mispronounced pasticciotto she smiled and pointed to a small oval pie.

"Si." I nodded "Grazie"

We sat outside to eat this Leccese delicasy. The shortcrust pastry, although slightly burnt, crumbled nicely as I bit into it but I found the custard filling to be verging on tastless.

I was expecting it to ooze with a yellow sweet tasting custard but what I got was gloopy grey paste. I was glad it was only a small thing, two bites and it was gone.

We stayed for a while, enjoying the sit down. Off to the left was another church but after what we had just seen Chiesa del Gesł was plain and uninteresting in comparrison.

Moving on, we soon came across the city's main shopping street in Via Vittorio Emanuele II. This is where most of the people were hiding.

We strolled down browsing shop windows heading towards another church, Chiesa di Sant'Irene. There seemed to be a church around every corner.

We were on or way to Piazza dei Duomo to see the largest church of them all, the city's cathedral.


The square was huge and virtually empty. There were no cafes spilling out into it, no shops. Apparently this was a by-law stipulated by the church.

Having said that much of the buildings on the square were connected to the church in one way or another, such as the Bishop's Palace and the Seminary

The cathedral itself stood majestically in one corner. It was massive although most of its Baroque embelishments were concentrated around an impressive facade surrounding the doorway.

The cathedral originated from the 12th century but what's there today was from the 17th century, Lecce's golden period. It was completed in 1659 under the tuttelage of the master architect Guiseppe Zimbalo.

There was also a campanile, a belltower which was clearly built as a seperate structure but has since been joined to the cathedral. We decided to go inside, if only for some shade from the blistering hot sun.

The sheer scale of the cathedral made for an impressive space. It was quite dark in there. Once our eyes adjusted to the dim light they were drawn to the stained glass window above the nave, one of the few sources of light.

We took a pew, sat down and took a moment to contemplate how fortunate we were.

Moving on we wandered around a few shady back streets not really knowing where we were but that was part of the fun.

Somehow we ended up almost coming full circle as we came to the small Parrocchia San Matteo church on the narrow street from Porta San Biagio.

It wasn't quite time to check-in to our hotel yet so we returned back into the city, returning to Piazza Vittorio Emanuele and the the Church of Santa Chiara. I wanted to show Julie the incredible carved marble inside but unfortunately the doors were now closed shut.

Instead we returned to the cafe on the corner of the square. It was called Profumo di Pane, the "smell of bread". Despite the name it was more than just a bakery.

They had large trays of food laid out tempting us as we had a look inside. We couldn't resist and ordered ourselves a second lunch

"Why not?" I asked out loud and nobody answered with a good enough reason so I went for some orrechiette with tomatoes and olives.

For such a simple dish it packed in a lot of flavour.

Julie was adventurous. It usually backfires and she ends up struggling to eat whatever she ordered but this time she was rewarded for her choice.

She went for a Tiella Pugliese, a regional dish of rice, mussels and potatoes. She couldn't believe how tasty the combination was and was groaning with delight all the way until her small plastic plate was licked clean.

With sufficient fuel in the tank we walked back towards the hotel. We were grateful for the shade from the trees along Viale Don Giovanni Minzon. It was sweltering out in the direct sunlight.

We arrived at Dimora Storica Torre del Parco half an hour early for our check-in but decided to go inside regardless.

The entrance to the hotel was through a secure gate at which we had to press a buzzer and announce our arrival. The grounds were impressive. They had retained that medieval renaissance charm very well. The tower itself was orinally a fortress dating back to 1419; whereas the main hotel was once the Prince's Palace.

Over the centuries it had several uses, from a prison to a Royal Mint, to a monastery. Now it was a luxury hotel specialising as a wedding venue.

The reception hall had this dramatic cast iron candleabra hovering above the desk, a banner featuring the coat of arms of the Orsini del Balzo family hung on the wall behind.

The receptionist checked us in and showed us to our room through a door that lead directly from the entrance hall, up a few steps to another door and into our room. "Wow, what a room." gasped Julie.

"I didn't remember booking the honeymoon suite" I said in jest but apparently I must have as this room was stunning and enormous.

The bed was an antique four poster. In each corner was a carved wooden pole that looked centries old. They held aloft an ivory drape. It looked like the medieval prince himself could have once slept in it.

After five nights on a sofa bed it looked so inviting.

On the wall behind was a crucifix in case we required an emergency exorcism, then slightly to the right, hidden behind a curtain was the drinks cabinet.

On the other side of the room some steps led up to the bathroom which was behind a wall of glass. It was one of the most luxurious bathrooms we had ever seen.

It had a whirlpool bath large enough for four people, a huge double walk-in shower; even the basin and the toilet were very stylish.

We decided to catch a few hours sleep so that we could be rested enough for a second sorte into the city later in the evening.

Before the siesta however I popped back to the car to get our luggage and replace the parking ticket as it was about to run out. I asked at reception about the €2 for all day parking and they directed me to the parking meters just the other side of the arches..

I didn't move the car but walked instead to the ticket machine. I was concerned that I would lose my parking space. anyway I got my all day ticket.

When I got to the car I was stunned at the temperature on the dashboard. It was registering 47C Granted it had been in direct sunlight all day but that was a ridiculous temperature to reach.

Four hours later after a lovely deep sleep we woke up and returned into the centro storico. Eating at the hotel was not an option as it did not have a restaurant . They did recommend a few places. One of them I recognised as we had walked past it earlier in the day. It was called Trattoria Nonna Tetti.

"Doesn't 'tetti' mean tit?" I asked Julie.

She looked at me as if I had just asked her to explain the theory of relativity.

"I'm sure that means 'Grandmother's tits' " I continued "like the Ponte di Tette, the Bridge of Tits in Venice?"

It was busy which is always a good sign. We hadn't made a reservation but fortunately they had a table free for us. It had a lovely welcoming atmosphere. It felt cosy as if we were in the cellar with its arched stone ceiling and no windows.

The menu arrived and we studied it intently.

First we ordered the wine. Half a carafe of white and a half of red.

At only €4 each we we weren't expecting much but in fact they weren't half bad.

The wine came in chunky ceramic jugs, the same crockery as everything else was served, the majority of which were chipped.

We ordered two starters but they were both my choices.

The first first course was burrata. It came served on a bed of shredded carrot and lettuce salad which was totally superfluous but it was the full heart sized ball of cream and cheese and tasted divine. I ate it all to myself.

Next came my other "first course" which was fave e cicorie another traditional dish from the Salento region. It was wild chicory on a broad bean puree. The two ingredients really worked well together.

It came with pieces of fried bread to scoop up and make little bruschettas which I really liked. I do enjoy eating with my hands where possible.

Then on to the main course.

I surprisingly didn't have much in the way of choice and had to have more cheese. It came in the form of a deep-fried breadcrumbed smoked scamorza. It was topped with wild rocket and more cheese.

It tasted amazing but it was incredibly greasy.

Julie ordered the Angus Argento Enrocote, a huge beast of a steak on the plate served with french fries.

When the waiter came around to ask if we wanted dessert I was going to say "No" but somehow I ended up ordering a tiramisu.

I was full but the old adage "there's always room for pudding" was proven to be true.

The bill came to €58 for all that food and wine which we felt was great value.

We left Nonna Tette and walked towards the centre of the city. The empty streets along which we walked earlier in the day were now transformed. Restaurants spilled out their tables to feed the crowds of hungry diners.

We were surprised how busy it was. The entire city had come alive in the cool evening air.

It was gone 10pm and Piazza Sant'Oronzo was buzzing with activity, even small children were up playing and laughing, throwing these frisbee/boomerangs which lit up like fireflies when thrown.

We checked out the amphitheatre but there was no performance there tonight. It looked quite eery in the half light and shadows.

Much of the city's monutments were lit up giving it a very different atmosphere. There was an excitement in the air.

It was quite magical.

We returned to Basilica di Santa Croce to stand and stare at the baroque masterpiece once more. It looked even more beautiful washed in the warm glow of the subtle lighting.

We could never tire from looking at it.

There were other areas of the city which we hadn't seen yet such as the Castle of Charles V and a Palazzo or two but we didn't seek them out.

Instead we followed the same path we tread earlier in the day. On our way towards Piazzetta Sigismondo Castromediano we stopped at cafe called Cinema.

We asked if it was ok to just have some drinks, some restaurants could be funny like that. The young waitress who clearly couldn't make the decision on her own disappeared briefly before returning, giving us the nod.

Sitting outside sipping our beverages and tucking into a box of salted popcorn we felt like we were at the cinema watching a film of Lecce's street life.

People came and went keeping us very entertained, enough for us to order another round of drinks. It was like watching a play unfold.

Eventually the curtains came down and we moved on.

Once again we followed the same route walking down Via Vittorio Emanuele II. To our surprise all the shops were still open. How did they do it? Didn't they all have work or school in the morning?

We even went shopping ourselves buying a bottle of prosecco and a Salento red wine. We didn't have work in the morning.

Piazza Duomo was just as quiet as this afternoon. Other than a small crowd sat outside on the cathedral steps the vast square was empty.

It was all lit up in a whie light which made it look very etheral.

After Piazza Duomo we made our way slowly back to the hotel.

Outside the city walls the place seemed desserted. There was nobody else around, not even in the way of traffic. The party was still going on and we seemed the first to leave.

We reached the hotel and buzzed for the gate to be opened. Thankfully it was answered and we stepped inside the grounds.

It didn't have anything like a lounge bar for a nightcap so we returned to our room and opened a bottle of fizz.

It was now midnight. I began to fill the large whirlpool bath. It would have been a shame to leave having not tried it.

Half an hour later (it felt like) and the water was still pouring into the tub. Whilst we waited I played with the light settings which coloured up the water from one end of the rainbow the other, settling on a warm purple glow.

We were both getting very tired. In the end we only dipped ourselves into the water, turned on the jets for a minute then switched it all off.

It was time for bed.

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