Baroque and Roll baby!

There are loads of cities and countries in the world with stray cat issues. They thrive around the fishing ports on the Greek Islands; on the streets of Bangkok; and the parks of Buenos Aires; kept fat on restaurant left-overs and doting nonnas/abuelas. They sleep on doorsteps, on car roofs or under trees, and relieve themselves in local gardens. But what if there are no gardens or parks. Just pavements, rock and concrete? And what if they’re roaming, all scrawny and dust-covered in a city that gets around 300 days of sunshine a year, and so roads are only washed clean the other 65?

Unfortunately, my main memory of Lecce in Puglia will be of the stench of cat crap in the streets. That and the manic driving shenanigans of Italy’s southerners, which included kids climbing through cars as their parents cruised the freeways with mobile in one hand, smoke in the other (the parents, not the kids…although I wouldn’t be surprised); jaw-dropping over-takes on back streets at 100k, with little Fiat 500s boldly crossing double unbroken lines bang into the path of oncoming cars/trucks/buses without a care in the world; the parking across zebra crossings and over driveways, or double parking on both sides of the road on busy shopping strips. Initially, it was semi-amusing, but after a few terrifying near-death experiences, it was just dangerous and selfish. And I’m not even behind the wheel! I’ll get Cam to write more about it soon.

Oh, and the graffiti! Covering everything (except the churches). Walls, schools and even the town’s university were sprayed with a mix of angry political rants and naff “Mario ti amo” messages. And the rubbish! Thrown from car windows and oozing from bins. Cigarette butts crammed between bricks and cobble stones. And then there’s the under-5-foot, old folk gathered on piazza benches, as they do across Europe, but staring blankly at un-naturally tall Cam, with a “you ain’t from round here is ya” type grimace.

But if you can look past the general lack of respect for people and property; the stench and filth; the terrible driving; and shops opening whenever it suits the shop owners; there were beautiful buildings, well-dressed 50-somethings and some delicious food in Lecce.

One of the yummiest sweets I’ve had so far in Italy has been a typical breakfast/snack/after-dinner treat from the Salento – the “pasticciotto”. They look like little short-crust pies, but instead of being filled with fruit or meat, they ooze with creamy custard. My favourite was the lemon cream. 100% yum! And finally, a sweet dairy-free Cam could eat! “Mustaccioli” biscuits contain lard instead of butter, and have almonds, cocoa, sugar or jam, and are coated in a cocoa glaze. He was into them big time!

Lecce is most famous for their own style of Baroque architecture, with ornate facades on their churches, such as the Duomo and Santa Croce (which took around 300 years to complete…that’s a lot of smoko’s!) They’re festooned with opulent details such as fruits, flowers, garlands, cherubs and mythological beasts.

There is also a Roman Amphitheatre (which is used as a massive garbage bin by many), and loads of shops selling the town’s traditional wares of “carta pesta” (papier mache), and “pietra leccese” (lecce stone, an easy-to carve light coloured rock). Some of the papier mache examples were pretty amazing – whole towns made from paper with little people wearing flowing painted robes and what not. But apart from a nativity set adorning a church at Christmas time, I was unsure what you were supposed to do with it. The girls were pretty happy with their big purchase (at about 7 euro each) of a grembiule each – the smock-type coat kids here wear over their normal clothes for school.

Our apartment was in a great location, with the centre of town an easy (dodging cat crap, and African guys selling blankets…on a 30degree day) 10 minute stroll. Giovanni, the owner of the flat, was a lovely guy, and invited us out for a drink one night. Night time, out of the day’s heat, is when Lecce is at its most beautiful. People tended to be well dressed, a little more formal than in other places we’ve been, with men in smart jackets and women with scarves draped over their shoulders in a way only Europeans know how. Young people hang out with their friends and Vespas having a drink (we’re still yet to see a drunk here though), and families with kids wandering their “passegiata” till late into the night.

Lecce was a great place to explore the Salento’s great beaches to the East and West, which were an easy (albeit nail-biting) drive away. With lovely old churches it’s known as “The Florence of the South”, but with the bonus of having barely any tourists. People were friendly, and there was never a feeling of fear that some Northerners had warned us about. Nobody looked scared or nervous, and walking the streets at night with the Baroque churches all lit up was lovely.

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