When we asked Gianna Greco, Sommelier, Chef and founder of Cooking Experience – Lezioni di Cucina Salentina, to summarise Lecce down to three things, she said “Pietra Leccese, Cartapesta (papier mâché) and Rustico”. So we begin the journey around the city and feel immediately mesmerised by opulent, sumptuous baroque architecture and honey coloured limestone façades; in fact, when you visit Lecce ensure to admire the wrought-iron balconies sustained by “mensoline” or ornamental stone shelves whose opulence defines the importance of the palazzo. Walk down Via Umberto I and pop into the courtyard of Palazzo Adorno, a 17th century palazzo and former noble home that showcases the exceptional craftsmanship of the city. Along this street you will also walk past the most important church architecturally speaking in the city: Basilica di Santa Croce, the emblem of baroque style. A few steps further and you’ll walk past a restaurant worth popping in for lunch: Vico dei Bolognesi, with a sharing-style menu that changes every day. As you reach the end of Via Umberto I, the street opens up to the central Piazza Sant’Oronzo, home to the Roman Amphitheatre, Caffè Alvino (where you must taste the caffè Leccese) and Pasticceria Natale, with exquisite, creamy, vanilla flavoured pasticciotti (also available gluten free and lactose free).
Another place worth mentioning from an architectural point of view is Palazzo Tamborino Cezzi, an aristocratic dwelling rebuilt in the 19th century in an Art Nouveau style (you must book online to visit). This is only a few minutes away from Gianna Greco’s cooking school, which you can book for the ultimate gastronomic experience that begins with a trip to the local market in Porta Rudiae to select fresh ingredients to cook a three-course meal. As a certified sommelier rest assured that Gianna will pair some exceptional local wines to accompany the evening.
As you walk back toward Via Vittorio Emanuele on the search for local artisans, you’ll pass by one of the most renowned cocktail bars in the city: Quanto Basta. Cartapesta, or papier mâché, is a traditional craft born in Lecce in the 18th century in which artisans made out of paper and natural glue (flour and water) religious statues used in churches and for presepi. Today this art has evolved with more contemporary figures and homeware. You can find some of these crafts at Cartapesta Riso.
Salento is deeply associated with its craftsmanship. On the outskirts of Lecce in San Cesareo, Isabella Faggiano and her partner Emilio open their doors to a small wonderland that is both their home and the workshop of Radicenomade, their jewellery brand. Isabella, with a background in architecture, styling and set design has combined her three know-hows to create this world that you can visit upon request.
If you continue down south from Lecce you will reach Cutrofiano, the birthplace of terracotta tableware such as La Pignata, a traditional cooking pot used for slow cooking techniques. Here you can visit Fratelli Colì whose skills have been passed down from generation to generation since 1650.
If you visit Puglia and especially Salento, you know you’re visiting a very rich, gastronomic scene where you won’t past the d in diet before someone says “Scià mmangiamu?” or let’s go and eat. On Via Vito Fazzi you’ll find Golosità del Salento – Salumeria del 1922, a paradise for foodies that sells all the typical products of Salento such as ricotta forte, finocchietti di mare, rape and cicoria, friselle, taralli and maritati, a type of pasta that combines both orecchiette and maccheroni traditionally cooked at weddings. For “Merenna”, snack in Salentino dialect, you have the choice between savoury and sweet. For the best rustico leccese, a puff pastry filled with béchamel, mozzarella, tomato and pepper, head to Pasticceria La Fornarina dal 1989 just outside Porta Napoli and, for the best (and we mean the best) pasticciotto leccese you may need to take a quick trip to Galatina, just under half an hour from Lecce, to taste this sweet delight from Ascalone.
Galatina is worth spending half a day just to gaze at the sublime gothic-romanesque Basilica di Santa Caterina di Alessandria. It was built in the 14th century and today conserves an entity of frescoes that represent different religious eras – some, painted by students of Giotto. If you begin to feel peckish stop at Staglio, a contemporary bakery with a mouthwatering display of Focacce Baresi, Rustici Leccesi and Pizzi Salentini.
Another place worth the journey is Masseria le Stanzie near Maglie, one of the very few masserie that have retained entirely their authenticity. No rooms, no events – just candle lit coves, rustic tables and a scent of the past left behind by the loom, the oil mill in the underground ipogeo and lack of menu which means yes, everybody eats what the hosts prepare on that day and rest assured you won’t be disappointed.
Where to stay
Naturalis bio resort & Spa, Martano
Located in Martano, the official city of Aloe Vera (and the largest in Europe), Naturalis is a wellness sanctuary. The history began over two decades ago when Domenico Scordari, through his passion for ancient herbal remedies, founded N&B Natural is Better, a brand that uses pure aloe gel to create a line of natural cosmetics. It is here, at Naturalis, where over 12 thousand aloe vera plants are treasured among the twenty hectares of olive groves, vineyards, tobacco plants, herbs and mediterranean shrubs. The Resort & Spa was purchased by Domenico and his wife Marinella. Here, you can take meditate under the oldest olive tree (800 years old) or a yoga flow (mats and blocks are taken to your rooms upon request), you can release some steam at the spa. An intimate, candlelight cove that smells of essential oils and inspires absolute tranquility – try an aloe vera relaxing massage – you’ll feel shiny and new when you walk out. Try the Aloe Vera experience in which you learn how to extract the active principles from the plant and create your own DIY gel or scrub.
Palazzo BN, Lecce
A profound history lies the foundations for Palazzo BN, the former headquarters of the Banco di Napoli in the 19th century. Fast forward eighty years and the bank shut down until 2019 when Renè De Picciotto, a Swiss businessman, purchased the 14th century palace to offer a different approach to hospitality. It’s a townhouse whose grand architecture has been preserved (you’ll still find security grilles and safes). It’s fun, it’s contemporary but it’s also luxury – the thirteen suites are very spacious, each with a kitchen and a living room and the most beautiful contemporary design by architect Lucia Bianco, who has maintained a very clean, neutral coloured palette. The ground floor houses the food court: two restaurants and lounge bar with their own unique identities whereas on the top floor, a literal rooftop garden with trees (they were brought up with a crane) to sprawl picnic style on the grass and savour an aperitif under the warm, Salento sun. Underground is the gym, probably way better than your local gym – a four roomed space filled with the latest equipment.
To note: some of the experiences were organised by the dmc Southern Visions, handy for those who wish to immerse themselves in everything the region has to offer, learning about the cultures of Southern Italy and experience out-of-the-box activities with high-level service. The team is a mix of Apulian natives and American and British experts in event management and bespoke travel.