Puglia – Alberobello Part 2: Lecce and Nardo – The Florence of the South

“Signor, mio gattino si è nascosto sotto la yuan automobile ed è salito nel motore.” Roughly translated it means – Sir, my kitten ran under your car and is hiding in the engine! My racing imagination added, I will paint a pagan symbol on your car and you will be cursed for the rest of your life if she is hurt.  I exaggerate a little in jest just so you understand this was a crisis!

The night before we had agreed on an early start to Lecce to rendezvous with our friend Giulia for a day exploring her adopted city.  To help move the day along I offered to retrieve our rental car, which was parked a good distance away, uphill, across from the trullo-shaped Church of Saint Anthony of Padua which crowned the hill.

Donna is the designated linguist of the family. I on the other hand have been lovingly accused of slaughtering a fine romance language with just the utterance of a single word, on more than one occasion.

So, when I heard, “Signor, mio gattino si è nascosto sotto la yuan automobile ed è salito nel motore,” I smiled, as I really didn’t understand a word.  But two very worried young girls and their grandfather were standing next to the car and pointing at the engine.  They had placed a saucer of milk and some cat food near the front tire. I understood and joined the older girl who was on ground, looking under the car and meowing for her kitten, quite convincingly I might add. With no sign of a tail dangling from the undercarriage, I popped the engine hood expecting to find the kitten. Nothing.  I slammed the engine hood hoping the loud sound would jolt her from her hidden perch. Still nothing!  The way the car was parked close to an ivy-covered wall I wasn’t convinced that the kitten hadn’t scampered away unseen earlier.  They were signs of growing concern written on the girls’ faces and a growing crowd of onlookers.  Miming turning the ignition key, I conveyed that I needed to start the car and move it around the corner to jump the curb in order to get better access to the engine from below.  Hesitantly, I turned the starter and was deeply relieved when there weren’t any shrieks of horror from the girls or any fur flying. 

With my entourage trailing along, I drove the car around the corner and put two wheels up over the curb to give me just enough room to shimmy underneath for a closer look.  Fortunately, by this time Donna and Gary were rounding the corner in search of me. Much skinnier and a cat lover, Gary was enlisted to wiggle on his back underneath the car. “I don’t see anything. She’s not here.” I frowned, the girls frowned. “Keep looking.” Time passed. “I see her! she’s tucked up very high – let me have some food.” A few moments later, “I have her!” Beaming with joy, the girls and grandad took the kitten to the quiet sidewalk across the street and set her down on the ground.  Almost immediately, to everyone’s horror, the kitten dashed back across the road. The girls screamed and, oblivious to the traffic, dashed into the street in hot pursuit. The terrified kitten once again raced into her hiding place in the engine!  Mercifully, the second rescue was much faster, and with the kitten firmly in the hands of a local woman who assisted, we jumped into the car and sped away to Lecce.

After circling the port city of Brindisi, the highway (SS613) was a straight shot, past the Mura Urbiche architectural complex that highlights remnants of a once formidable city wall that encircled Lecce, to Giardini Pubblici Giuseppe Garibaldi pretty much in the center of the city.

Even though Lecce is located in the middle of the Salento Peninsular, that is often called the “heel of Italy,” the city has had a long bond with the sea.  Legend has it that the King of Crete, Idomene, was blown off course and shipwrecked here while returning home from the Trojan War.  He married the local Salento King’s daughter, Euippa, and named their newborn girl Lecce, after his Lycia homeland in the eight century BC.

Meter parking was available near the Garibaldi Garden, but we opted to find a 24-hour garage so that we wouldn’t have to worry about time.  Lecce has a population of approximately 96,000 folks, 16,000 of which are students. Their presence was evident with in the jovial sidewalk café life we passed as we headed to meet Giula at the tourist information office on Piazza Sant’Oronzo.  We entered the pedestrian-only historic center through an arched gate that led through the 17th century Palazzo dei Celestini’s impressive, cloistered courtyard. Once the private retreat of nuns, it now seats the regional government. Next door stands the Basilica di Santa Croce with its elaborate façade of carved demons, ogres, gargoyles, and beasts.  It’s enough to send any parishioner questioning his faith inside to seek sanctuary.  Fortunately, our timing to visit Lecce was perfect, as just the month before the façade of the basilica was still under wrap from a multi-year renovation project to freshen the sculptures after centuries of erosion.  Its architect Giuseppe Zimbalo took full advantage of the abundant local rock, called Lecce Stone, with its warm color and malleable characteristics.  His opulent Baroque style along with the lavish designs of his contemporaries is credited with earning Lecce the distinction of being “The Florence of the South” during the 17th century.  The talents of the city’s stone carvers rivaled those in Firenze. 

We had a few minutes to view ruins of the 2nd century Roman Amphitheatre that was undiscovered until construction in 1900 unearthed it. Its full size wasn’t realized until further excavation in 1938 determined it could seat 24,000 spectators.  We think it’s wonderful that ancient archeological discoveries are still happening in cities that have been continuously lived in for over two thousand years.

After joyfully greeting Giulia and making introductions all around, we sat at an outdoor café on the edge of the piazza and relished hearing each other’s adventures over the past year.  “The best way to experience the ambience of historic Lecce is to just wander slowly, discover the small details, touch the walls, enjoy the brilliant light and the warmth of the buildings,” Giulia offered as she stood to lead us through the past glory of Lecce. We followed her along shaded lanes, nearly empty of tourists in late October, past Baroque churches and shops shuttered for the afternoon siesta, still a time-honored tradition in southern Italy. “It’s quiet now, but in the evenings the historic district is transformed into a spirited hot spot. The passegiata brings families into the streets, and later the university students keep it lively with their barhopping.”

Large palazzo, with their arched entrances wide enough for a horse drawn carriage, lined the larger streets. Above, stone buttresses carved with gargoyles and animals supported balconies over the street. Interesting antique door knockers beckoned passers-by to rap on ancient doors, some so covered with cobwebs we wondered how many decades ago they we last used. We resisted the temptation.

As we turned a corner, the large Piazza del Duomo spread out before us.  Unlike other piazza in Italy where there are multiple entrances and shops, this piazza only has one way in and out.  The Lecce stone facades of the Museo di Arte Sacra (once a seminary,) Palazzo Arcivescovile (formerly the Bishops’s residence,) and Cathedral of Maria Santissima Assunta with its belltower enclose the plaza on three sides, giving it the ambience of a tranquil cloister.  The first church on this site was built in 1144 and repaired several times over the next 500 years until 1659 when hometown master architect Giuseppe Zimbalo was commissioned to rebuild the cathedral and design the freestanding 230ft tall belltower in the “Baroque of Lecce” style he helped popularize.  His burial under the altar of the cathedral reflected the honor accorded him.

Sitting on the steps of the museum, we admired the warm glow of the late afternoon light as it lit the walls across the piazza. “I would love to live there,” Giulia said, as she pointed to a small, corner terrace brilliant in the sun on an old building at the entrance to the piazza. I think there was a collective “ah, yes;” we understood.

Later in the week Giulia invited us all to visit her in Nardo, her family’s hometown.  It would be our farthest point south on the “heel of Italy.” The GPS directions from Alberobello suggested the fastest route to Nardo through Lecce, but we chose an alternative route that gave us our first glimpse of the Ionian Sea. Following backroads, we drove through vineyards and olive orchards.  Many of the orchards, though, were suffering from a deadly olive tree disease caused by a bacteria, xylella fastidiosa, that is ravishing southern Puglia and its important olive oil industry.  To curb the bacterium’s further spread drastic measures have been implemented. Infected trees and those within 150ft of it are culled from the orchard. Unfortunately, it has radically changing the landscape and farmers’ lives.

We met Giulia and her family at their winery on Via A. Volta, located just outside the historic district. Giulia’s grandfather started Cantine Bonsegna in 1964. Today her father and uncle continue vinting wines in a 1930’s era industrial building on one of the main thoroughfares of Nardo.  Wines from their vineyards in the countryside are brought into town, then pressed and fermented at the rear of the building, where they cork about 150,000 bottles of wine a year, while the front serves as a retail store.  On the second floor a wine bar is open in the evenings and specializes in small plate fare.  Their Danze della Contessa, Dances of the Countess, label was inspired by Giulia’s love of ballet. We might be slightly prejudiced, but we thought their wines were very enjoyable and definitely worth a visit to taste some fine regional wines and buy a case or two, maybe three. We purchased several bottles to enjoy during our trip, and were disappointed to learn that the Bonsegna label was unavailable in the US.

Heading into the historic district we were treated to a festive lunch at the Hostaria Corte Santa Lucia, a local favorite that specializes in “the forgotten recipes of the Salento region.” Plate after plate of mouthwatering local specialties were placed before us; our young men did justice to the platters, but were soon groaning for mercy as more and more food appeared. Mr. Bonsegna wouldn’t hear of us paying the bill, and afterward our boys marveled at the warmth and hospitality our host showed to us. “It is the Italian way,” Donna explained. “This is how I grew up – family and friends are lovingly embraced, and everyone is fed!”

We followed Giulia’s father into the old town, hugging the shade to avoid the intense sun still strong in late October.  The colors of the buildings were softer here, pastel colors chosen to reflect the nearby sea and surrounding farmlands.  Being close to Lecce, Nardo shared a similar history and the Baroque style adorns many of the town’s ancient churches.  The façade of the Church of Saint Dominic is the best example of that opulent exterior decoration, and was the only wall to remain standing after a 1746 earthquake.  

The Cattedrale di Nardo was our destination.  Partially damaged in the upheaval that shook the region, half of the 11th century church needed to be rebuilt.  Interestingly the effects of this could be seen as we looked down the center nave of the church.  The arches on either side reflected different styles.  The surviving arches were slightly pointed at their apex, while the newer ones are completely curved, a fine detail that Mr. Bonsegna enthusiastically revealed.  Farther inside, original medieval frescoes survived, untouched from the catastrophe, while along the outer wall 19th century murals replaced ones lost to the earthquake. 

Nearby the Guglia dell’Immacolata, a 100ft tall ornately carved baroque spire dedicated to the Virgin Mary, centers Piazza Antonio Salandra. “The piazza is jammed with people every December 8th to watch a fireman climb to the top and place a wreath of flowers on Mary’s head, to honor the Immaculate Conception,” Giulia shared as we crossed the piazza to a still-flowing, ancient public water fountain decorated with a relief carving of a bull. 

Legend says the fountain marks the spot where 3000 years ago settlers watched a large wild bull scuff the earth and uncover a natural spring.  Behind us stood the small Church of San Trifone, built in the 1700’s to honor the martyr who saved Nardo from an infestation of caterpillars. We were disappointed that an explanation of this odd plague was not provided.  Most likely it was an infestation of oak processionary caterpillars. Contact with their toxic hairs can trigger an asthma attack, but most often results in a severe, blistering rash that lasts for weeks. “We have it all here and yet we are still far off the tourist track,” Giula happily joked. “We get very few foreign visitors, and rarely, if ever, Americans.”

Heading back to the car we stepped through the heavy wooden door of the Aragonese Castle of Nardo. Formerly the private residence of the 15th century Acquaviva family, rulers of the fief of Nardò, a reward from King Ferdinand II of Naples.  Today the once moated fortification serves as the city’s town hall.

A very enjoyable day was celebrated and “till next time” was said over coffee before we said our farewells and drove to the seashore to find one of the numerous watch towers that were built along the Ionian coast to warn the country of imminent invasion. 

The sun was setting as we came to a stop behind a car about to turn onto the coast road. A car on the opposite side of the road turned the corner and stopped to wave at the person in front of us. Quickly both parties were out of their cars, hugging and chatting away, oblivious to us. I rolled down my window and photographed the dark silhouette of a square “Nardo tower” against an orange sky. No impatient honking, just enjoying life in Nardo.

Fino alla prossima volta – till next time,

Craig & Donna

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