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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 20 August 2018

Well-heeled and hip in Lecce, Italy

My kind of place: It’s in a fashionable region with lots going on, yet is a little off the beaten track.
The centre of Lecce, which is characterised by cobbled streets and plenty of perfectly preserved Baroque architecture. Tips / Zumapress.com
The centre of Lecce, which is characterised by cobbled streets and plenty of perfectly preserved Baroque architecture. Tips / Zumapress.com

Why Lecce?

At the southern heel of Italy’s boot, Puglia is fast becoming Italy’s hot new destination, and the seductive capital, Lecce, is its underestimated centre. Guidebooks love to describe the city as the Florence of the South, but this is off the mark. Don’t expect the Renaissance splendour that draws crowds to Florence, as Lecce, after early influences by the Greeks, Romans and Normans, is one of Italy’s most perfectly preserved Baroque gems, unchanged since the 16th/17th centuries.

It’s still very undiscovered – there are no queues for museums or churches, nor masses of tourists jamming the city’s narrow cobbled streets, while the rip-off “menu turistico” doesn’t exist. The cuisine – hearty “cucina povera” (“peasant’s food”) – is a revelation with simple, fresh recipes that are influencing young chefs in chic bistros in London and Paris. And don’t expect Lecce to be a typical sleepy southern town – after dark, with a big student population, the city buzzes until well after midnight.

A comfortable bed

The top hotel is the sumptuous Risorgimento Resort (www.risorgimentoresort.it; 0039 0832 246311), housed in an opulent palazzo by the Roman amphitheatre, with a romantic rooftop terrace. Double rooms cost from €167.50 (Dh668), including taxes.

In a quiet nearby square, the frescoed, 18th-century Patria Palace (www.patriapalacelecce.com; 0039 0832 245111) has been brought to life again as part of Sofitel’s MGallery collection. Doubles cost from €152.50 (Dh608), including taxes.

The new trend in Lecce is luxurious bed and breakfasts opening up in the city’s ancient palaces, such as Palazzo Rollo (www.palazzorollo.it; 0039 0832 307152), housed in a 17th-century mansion, with a Mediterranean roof garden and rooms decorated with antiques. Suites cost from €127.50 (Dh508), including taxes.

Find your feet

This is the perfect walking city. The centre is Lecce’s sprawling Roman amphitheatre, which once held 20,000 spectators. From there, plunge into one of the narrow streets that form a Baroque maze of churches, mansions and palaces.

One street leads to the spectacular Piazza Duomo, a dramatic square dominated by a 17th-century cathedral. Another takes you to Santa Croce, whose extravagant facade of sculpted figures is an artwork that took 100 years to carve.

Via Ammirati leads to Must, Lecce’s municipal museum, a cool, contemporary modern-art venue. If you get lost, eventually every street comes out at one of the three imposing city gates that ring the historic centre.

Meet the locals

During the morning, pop into Lecce’s small covered market by the ornate city gate Porta Rudiae, where families do their shopping. The favourite early evening rendezvous is Natale (Via Trinchese 7), a pasticceria and gelateria famous for its chocolate-and-red-chilli ice cream. From there, the ritual sunset “passeggiata” begins, with chic signoras browsing the boutiques that line narrow Via Libertini, while students who look more like Dolce & Gabbana models congregate behind the Duomo at Via Paladini, which is packed until the early hours with cafes and clubs.

Book a table

The perfect introduction to Puglia’s remarkable traditional cuisine is the rustic Alle due Corti (www.alleduecorti.com; 0039 0832 242223), where Signora Rosalba produces a stream of unforgettable dishes in her kitchen. Don’t expect fancy, gourmet cuisine, as this is where you’ll discover cucina povera, usually with seasonal vegetables such as fava beans, turnip greens, peppers and aubergines, transformed into delicious recipes. Don’t miss ciceri e tria (crunchy fried tagliatelle with chickpeas); polpette di melanzane (fried aubergine balls with mint and basil); and a hearty fava-bean soup with chicory.

The atmosphere is more “cucina casalinga” at the popular Trattoria Cucina Casareccia (0039 0832 245178), known to everyone as “Li Zie”, where you ring a bell to enter and feel as if you’re eating in the family dining room. Reservations are a must.

Shopper’s paradise

While Lecce may not be the place for fashionistas to trawl exclusive haute-couture boutiques, its narrow backstreets are a mine of seductive artisan stores. Antonio Franco creates and cuts by hand slinky one-off silk outfits in his tiny atelier, Atika (Via Francesco Rubiche 13), while at Cartigiano (Via Giuseppe Libertini 54) choose between funky 1960s skirts, snakeskin stilettoes and vintage Gucci handbags. Sweet tooths can head either for Chocostore (19/E Via Andreotto), a paradise for chocolate-lovers, or the venerable Valentina (3 Via Petronelli), a bakery deli with everything from almond-stuffed figs to crunchy taralli biscuits with lethal peperoncini.

Don’t miss

The details. Lecce’s golden-yellow Baroque architecture will take your breath away, but keep looking up, as the real beauty is in the detailed carvings that adorn each building.

What to avoid

Like most of southern Italy, Lecce shuts down in the heat of the afternoon. From 2pm to 5pm, forget shopping, sightseeing and eating; do as the locals do and enjoy a long siesta.

Getting there

Etihad (www.etihad.com) flies direct from Abu Dhabi to Rome from Dh2,455 return, including taxes; connections to nearby Brindisi with Ryanair (www.ryanair.com) cost from $22 (Dh79).

weekend@thenational.ae

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