Lecce: The Star of Puglia

Positano, Amalfi Coast, Italy
Positano, Amalfi Coast, Italy // Photo by Freeartist/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

The Altavilla Roof Garden at the Risorgimento Resort overlooks the square and the Duomo Bell Tower.Pictured: The Altavilla Roof Garden at the Risorgimento Resort overlooks the square and the Duomo Bell Tower.

The heel of Italy’s boot, the Salento Peninsula, is a magical place that appears on the itineraries of ever more luxury travelers. Not the easiest place to get to in the past, hoteliers in the region of Puglia (Apulia) and its star city, Lecce, are now finding that upscale properties are attracting intrepid non-Italians. 

Called the “Florence of the South,” Lecce offers a stunning combination of Baroque architecture and the local cream-colored stone. This is an Italy different from Rome or Milan, and that is especially evident in the food, olive oil, wine, nearby beaches, and slow moving ambiance.

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We found the Risorgimento Resort in the historic center of town near Piazza Sant’Oronzo—a glimpse of the Altavilla Roof Garden from the street drew us to the main entrance and into a stylized Pompeii-red lobby, reflecting the sophisticated taste of owners Andrea and Luisa Montinari, who opened the completely renovated hotel in 2007.

The Risorgimento (Italian for Renaissance) is a 47-room, five-star deluxe hotel housed in a limestone villa inhabited by a ducal family from about 1800 until 1880, when the railroad came to town. A fine hotel was necessary to house visitors to Lecce and the first transformation of the property was made. 

There are six suites in the hotel, including two penthouse suites with Jacuzzis and private terraces. The Tito Schipa Presidential Suite has its own large terrace, as well as a light-filled living room. The elegant bedroom has a second door to the outside and the suite is adjacent to the Salus per Aquam Spa. The spa is well designed, and treatments with olive oil and maquis add a Mediterranean flavor to the experience.

The bedrooms are decorated with intriguing photogenic headboards, featuring distinctive architectural details from historic buildings. We saw two deluxe doubles; Room No. 301 is large and light-filled, done in natural colors, while Room No. 310 is decorated in greens and has a small balcony overlooking a quiet courtyard. Room No. 303 is a superior twin with Baroque touches. All rooms feature custom rugs and bedspreads with Baroque designs, as well as both a tub and shower. (Note: There are two rooms with only a shower.)

Lecce offers a stunning combination of Baroque architecture and locally sourced cream-colored stone.Pictured: Lecce offers a stunning combination of Baroque architecture and locally sourced cream-colored stone.

Back to the alluring Altavilla Roof Garden, which overlooks the square and the Duomo Bell Tower. From here the romance of Baroque buildings and local stone is taken to another level when the sun goes down and the floodlights come on across the piazza. The roof garden is available for private dining and definitely captures the essence of old Lecce.

The chic main ristorante, Le Quattro Spezierie, is ruled by Chef Donato Episcopo and focuses on both culinary innovation and tradition. There is also the stone-walled bistro, Dogana Vecchia, for informal dining or private groups. Down a flight of stairs is the evocative wine cellar, where wine tastings and small dinners can be held.

Reach out to GM Giuseppe Mariano and his staff ([email protected]; 011-39-0832-246311, fax: 011-39-0832-245976) with requests. The hotel is a part of the Vestas Hotel Group and reservations can be made at [email protected] or 011-39-0832-452447. The hotel street address is Via Augusto Imperatore, 19 73100 Lecce, Italy.

Transportation: First-time travelers to Italy generally stop in Rome, Florence and Venice. For the trips that follow they range further afield, to Tuscany, Umbria, Milan, and the Amalfi Coast. Going south to Puglia requires less effort than in the past and the destination is well worth the trip.

The Presidential Suite bedroom at Risorgimento has unique photogenic headboards with distinctive architectural details.Pictured: The Presidential Suite bedroom at Risorgimento has unique photogenic headboards with distinctive architectural details.

Airports serving Lecce are Bari (90 minute drive) and Brindisi (40 minutes). From these towns, there are ferries to Greece and other Adriatic ports for continuing travel. From New York to Brindisi, a typical itinerary is via Rome (1.5 hour layover). To Bari, the route is through Munich or Rome. 

Pick up a car or hire a driver to get to Lecce and other Puglian cities, such as Martina Franca, Otranto, Alberobello, or other coastal towns. Train service is good from Brindisi and Bari, though the stations must be reached by taxi.

Why go? This part of Italy was in Magna Grecia, a colony of ancient Greece, as well as an important Roman trade route. In fact, the ancient Via Appia (Appian Way) ends right at the water in Brindisi. For history lovers, the area is fascinating and, except for the beaches in high summer, the crowds are less than in Rome, Florence or Venice. Outdoor sports opportunities are many and the passeggiata (evening stroll) is an art form. The landscape is spectacular.

Shopping: For typical goodies to enjoy on the spot or take back, we loved La Gusto Liberrima in the historic center in Corte dei Cicala. The shelves are lined with wines, olive oils, tasty sauces and Puglian specialties that can be sold separately or included with a cookbook or photography book in a unique gift basket called Il Cesto Letterario (literary chest).

Lecce is also known for papier mache, especially statues and nativity scenes. The Laboratorio della Cartapesta di Marco Epicocchi in Piazza Duomo 18 has an excellent selection.

Patrizia Elia sells wonderful handmade purses in Milan and Paris, but her antique shop in Lecce, Vivantiqua di Patrizia Elia (Via Libertini 61) is home. The purses are made in whimsical designs of varying fabrics and are perfect for summer travel. 

Food: Seafood, orecchiette pasta made from “burned” wheat, olives and olive oil, wine—actually the entire Mediterranean Diet is the standard fare in Puglia. In addition to the restaurants at Risorgimento Resort, try the Osteria della Divina Provvidenza, a small place at Via Rubichi 4c in Lecce (011-39-0832-1792078).

About 15 miles outside of town in Cutrofiano is Il Chiostro, on the provincial highway that runs between Noha and Collepasso. The architecture is interesting, as are the regional foods. Book in advance at 011-39-0836-562848 because the restaurant is small.


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