I remember a couple of years ago, while strolling the streets of London, a bus drove past me plastered with an image of a sunny coastline and a voluptuous, bronzed, Latin-looking model in a bikini, with the word "Puglia" written in large letters at the top. I chuckled at the idea of the region of Puglia spending countless euros on an advertising campaign touting the charms of a region I would prefer remain a secret -- especially from the masses of tourists looking for, as it's often been deemed, "The Next Tuscany."No. No, no, and no! First of all, Puglia is nothing like Tuscany. I love Tuscany, and I love Puglia, but they're more dissimilar than they are alike. Tuscany is rolling hills and vineyards and farm land for miles, all central Italian greenery and picturesque landscape. Puglia is a different beast, more ancient Greek than Renaissance chic, more arid-by-the-sea than lush fecundity. Where Tuscany has diminutive olive trees planted alongside its grape vines, the land in Puglia is covered with large, old olive trees with craggy, knotty trunks that look like they've been around for millennia (and they likely have). The land is mostly flat, and you're never very far from the sea, whether it's the Adriatic on the east coast, or the Ionian on the west (interior) coast. So much depends on the wind for the weather, and locals are acutely attuned to it.
The locals, in fact, are a very interesting facet of daily life in Puglia. They are deeply entrenched in tradition, and speak a dialect closer to Greek than any recognizable Italian. They are reserved with strangers until they get to know you a bit, and then they treat you like family. They are religious and superstitious, they celebrate countless festivals and holidays. There is a sense of civic pride and the streets are clean. And though there is some organized crime here, they say it never really took hold in Puglia as in other regions in the south, because la gente parla: people talk, and so secrets can't be kept so well.
As for the local cuisine, much depends on the wild vegetation and aquatic resources of the "heel of the boot" -- where, incidentally, about 40% of Italy's olive oil is produced. And this oil is good. Very good. It's used to saute' vegetables and to make breads and pizzas. It's drizzled on pastas and seafood fresh from the turquoise waters of the nearby Mediterranean. It's stirred into soups and stews, and even churned into gelato. For the most part, this is cucina povera (cooking of the poor) at its most innovative. The local grains are turned into world-famous breads -- the "Pugliese" loaf is even hawked as far away as Citarella in the east end of Long Island. Even the burnt flour from the process of prepping wheat fields after the "good stuff" has been cultivated isn't wasted on the less fortunate here, who have traditionally turned this burnt grain ("grano arso") flour into a darker, chewier, slightly toasty-flavored pasta. As fate would have it, this has become the newest, dare I say 'hippest' pasta for in-the-know italophiles and restaurateurs, though it's still fairly hard to come by stateside. So take advantage if you see it on a menu in Puglia, and try it.
This Pugliese town is known, outside of Rome itself, as the capital of baroque in Italy. It's also the unofficial capital of the Salento. The local sandstone is soft and therefore more easily sculpted, and artists have taken advantage of this to create intricate, elaborate carvings in the architecture. The piazza del Duomo is a breathtaking example: accessed by a narrow entrance, you enter and as the piazza opens up, you're confronted with a cathedral (12th century), a palace (15th century), and a seminary (18th century) that seem to shine so brightly during the day that they reflect the sun, and at night, seem to glow from within. The basilica di Santa Croce is another baroque gem in Lecce's town center.
Also of interest is the 2nd century A.D. Roman Amphitheater in piazza Sant'Oronzo -- subterranean and excavated in the 1930's to expose a perfect horseshoe amphitheater with seating for 15,000. In the photo here, it's set up for a summer concert series, a unique experience if you happen to be in town. The city itself is a small, elegant, lively, laid-back university town with boutiques, bars, and restaurants aplenty.
There are a few elegant hotels in the historic center from which you can explore the area. The Patria Palace Hotel is a well-located traditional upscale Italian albergo with gorgeous green Murano glass chandeliers and a fabulous rooftop terrace overlooking the Santa Croce basilica. The Risorgimento Resort is a more modern and stylish spot with a restaurant, wine bar, and rooftop garden. Airbnb also offers a number of great options in and around Lecce, for those travelers who want to feel at home in an apartment or B and B without the services of a 4- or 5-star hotel. These lodgings can be a great value, too.
As for food in Lecce? There are plenty of great options, mostly for food that tends toward the casalinga (housewife) style. It's homey, it's hearty (pasta with beans, potatoes, and mussels is a delicious local specialty, but an Atkins nightmare), and it's often vegetarian-friendly. Both Alle Due Corti and Cucina Casareccia are restaurants that seem like a relative's home -- albeit a relative who's superb in the kitchen. Dishes like orecchiette (the Pugliese regional pasta, "little ears") with cime di rapa (turnip greens), and the vegetable dish of cicoria e fave (sauteed chicory greens and pureed fava beans) are classics of the area.
Seafood tends to be prepared very simply, either crudo (raw) as in a tartare or carpaccio, or a simple local fish like sarago, cooked in a salt crust and filleted and served with local, top-quality olive oil. For breakfast, try the deservedly-famous pasticciotto leccese, a sort of mini-pie with an almond-flour crust and a creamy filling, ranging from almond cream to Nutella.
BEYOND LECCE The small towns surrounding Lecce (many of which have "Lecce" in their names), range from charming hamlets to antique ghost towns, and many are worth exploring. Getting out of the city of Lecce allows you to see the countryside of the Salento, and out to the beaches -- both the dramatic, rocky eastern coastline and the western, interior Ionian coastline and its sandy beaches. I recently traveled to the Salento to attend the wedding of some dear friends of mine in Muro Leccese. They rented a few houses next to each other for their guests arriving from all over Europe, North America, and the Middle East. The houses felt more like they were plucked from a Greek island, or from the medina in Morocco, mazes of limestone and white stucco, narrow hallways and staircases, lemon trees and creeping bougainvillea. The wedding itself was held at the nearby Botanical Gardens, La Cutura, in Giugianello (province of Lecce). This gorgeous former estate is home to the largest collection of succulents in Italy, and was a truly enchanted setting for the wedding, with dinner and dancing afterwards.
The following day, I prepared a brunch for about 100 guests in the kitchen of those rented villas -- a task that was challenging, fun, and something I couldn't have done without the incredible help of my (mostly) willing help (grazie a tutti quanti)! We served both local dishes (orecchiette with sausage and turnip greens) and dishes from elsewhere in Italy and overseas. It was a sweltering, mostly-sunny, collaborative, memorable afternoon with my trusty crew/amore/dear amici. And of course, the days leading up to that afternoon in prep -- many market trips, searching, inquiring, schlepping, organizing, cooking, more schlepping...a true authentic experience in the mezzogiorno!
A note to travelers: renting a car is a must in Puglia to get around, unless you're planning on staying for only a few days in the center of Lecce. But that would be a shame. Rent a car, explore, see the coast, see the city, see the small towns and countryside. It's not Tuscany, it's different. It's Puglia. And it's still, for now, deliciously under-the-radar.
PATRIA PALACE HOTEL LECCE, www.patriapalacelecce.com
RISORGIMENTO RESORT, www.risorgimentoresort.it
SALINDIA Boutique Bed and Breakfast, Caprarica di Lecce.
** Alle Due Corti, Lecce. Via Prato 42. (0832) 24.22.23. www.alleduecorti.com
Cucina Casareccia, Lecce. Viale Costadura 19. (0832) 24.51.78 * Lecce restaurant*
Botanical Gardens "La Cutura", www.lacutura.it