Even a destination as well-trod as Italy can still turn up the occasional bona-fide revelation. One case in point, right now: Lecce. For those not well acquainted with Puglia – the region in the long and elegant heel of Italy’s boot – the walled city of Lecce, set between the Ionian and Adriatic seas, came into its current existence in the 16th century. After suffering under decades of martial Ottoman-Empire rule, Puglia experienced a sudden and fairly complete peace – which dovetailed with the flourishing of the baroque across the peninsula, resulting in a stunning confluence of ornate palaces and cathedrals frothing with carved and sculpted details in Lecce. Most were built within about 100 years of each other using the local pietra leccese, a soft stone that catches the light in spectacularly different ways, rendering the city bright white, shell pink or burnished gold, depending on the time of day.
These days, that glow is underscored by a new vibrancy, as expats and locals alike bring contemporary energy to its tiny, ancient streets. “It’s an exquisite city – when Italians refer to it as ‘The Firenze of the south’, it’s with a lot of pride.” So says Fouad Filali, the owner of La Fiermontina, Lecce’s knockout new boutique hotel at the edge of the centro storico. Though he was raised in Morocco and the US, Filali’s maternal roots are here (his grandmother’s surname, Fiermonte, inspired the hotel’s name). Eleven years in the making, the 16-room La Fiermontina takes aesthetic cues from Lecce’s architectural past – wood coffered ceilings, rib-vault arches, floors clad in the local Trani flagstones – and recasts them with a contemporary and discerning guest in mind. Old and new are equally represented and respected: patrician olive trees surrounding the pool were root-bagged and carefully transported and now shade sculptures by Fernand Léger from Filali’s own collection; and the locally born chef – who refined his skills for years at the Four Seasons in Milan – plays creatively with old cucina rustica recipes, rendering delicious results.
It’s barely a three-minute walk from La Fiermontina to the monolithic Porta Napoli and the Teatro Comunale, and 15 minutes in the other direction to reach Lecce’s venerable Roman amphitheatre – one of southern Italy’s best preserved, surrounded by the wide, sunny Piazza Sant’Oronzo. In truth, though, nothing in Lecce is very far from anything else; contained and eminently strollable, it’s a place in which to lose oneself completely: each narrow cobbled lane inevitably gives onto a bigger throughway, which itself eventually gives onto a monumental piazza or cathedral. Even the Duomo, at the far end of the old city, is an easy half an hour’s amble. Take it in the morning to score an alfresco table at DoppioZero, set just off the Duomo square, and an axis mundi of Lecce social life. The typical pugliesecoffee – poured over ice and doused with sweetened almond milk – won’t be to all tastes, but they do a pitch-perfect cappuccino, along with the densely filled apricot crostata that the region is famous for. Just across the way is Society, a Lecce retail institution stocking lavishly hued table- and bedlinens and accessories; the roomy market totes, cut from heavy cloth in gorgeous shades of turquoise and orange, double perfectly as stylish beach bags.
But Lecce’s far more famous take-home goods are the edible ones. Puglia has rich, distinct culinary traditions, and the foodstuffs here aren’t to be found so easily back home. Gastronomia La Lupa has a curated, quality selection of wines – with emphasis on the spicy, fruity Primitivo and salice salentino reds – as well as beautifully packaged grains and cheeses, including several variations of taralli, the local unleavened ring-shaped crackers.
Such casalingafood is the object of much esteem here. Simple sausages and escarole, or the bendy, mozzarella-like stracciatella cheese can elicit Proust’s madeleine reactions from the Leccesi, and the places that keep it simple tend to be much loved (and thus perennially rammed). Such is the story at Le Zie; the name translates as “the aunts”, referring to the three sisters who founded the trattoria some 50 years ago. Set just outside the old town walls, Le Zie affects not a shred of pretence to chic, which of course makes it very cool; there are the original patterned tiles on the floors, stained-glass panels above doorways, family portraits and the odd celebrity photo on the wall. The chickpea purée with escarole and croutons should not be missed.
Corte dei Pandolfi, on the other hand, bucks the Lecce trend, matching its slick, urbane interiors with a menu that references global food trends (quinoa and curry both make memorable appearances); come here to make the scene and be charmed by clever and original presentation. One of the best pizzas in town (go for the salsiccia e cima di rape, if your cholesterol count can take it) can be had at La Scarpetta, where the dining room is also quite elegant – though it’s the lovely back garden, bougainvillea trailing fetchingly over its walls and an ancient well set at its centre, that’s the place to be. And whereas Puglians like their actual meals rustic and savoury, sweets are a different story – from the variations on fruit tarts that grace breakfast tables, to the elaborate confections of marzipan that fill shop windows to, of course (because this is Italy), gelato. The place to indulge is the delightfully ornate Pasticceria Natale, just off the Piazza Sant’Oronzo – a bit of a candy-spun delightfulness itself, with its pistachio-painted walls, vast vitrines filled with tarts iced in lemon yellow and pastel pink, and dozens of flavours of house-churned gelati and sorbetti.
But such attention to beauty suffuses everything here. One only has to look up at the fantastical façades to appreciate how established, and revered, its traditions of craftsmanship are. Artisans of all stripes still thrive, from those who produce charming graphic designs – printed on correspondence cards and in framed lithograph series – and sweet ceramic collections championed by Artègo, on Via Palmieri, to the outrageously beautiful affiches reproduced at the Tipografia Commercio Alberto Buttazzo, whose studio is an Aladdin’s cave of midcentury type faces, archival political announcements and beautifully packaged and bound monograms. At Atika, local designer Antonio Franco sells his small seasonal production of vintage-inspired smock blouses, skirts and dresses in graphic duchesse-silk prints amid a trove of genuine vintage one-offs that might include statement necklaces fashioned out of Bakelite beads, chic Panamas or back issues of Vogue Italia. And at Tonda Design – just down the road from Artègo – owner-designers Melinda Massaro and Tonio Pede showcase a rather unusual combination: directional contemporary jewellery and directional contemporary furniture (a few pieces of which grace the public spaces of La Fiermontina).
In the evenings, as everywhere in Italy, the city comes alive – locals and visitors alike indulging in the passeggiata, a slow stroll for seeing, being seen and generally engaging with civic life. MUST, the Historic Museum of the City of Lecce, keeps evening hours – and now hosts a vibrant contemporary gallery on the ground floor of the 600-year-old former monastery. If a late-night snack and glass are in order, turn down the Via Umberto 1, where a row of sweet little wine bars offer outdoor tables and varying takes on the postprandial lounging experience; La Barrique is one of the best. At the south end of the adjacent piazza, below the Basilica di Santa Croce, you can just spot the Palazzo Personè. It’s home to a few charming rooms – the largest and most atmospheric of which is the Santa Croce suite – whose spare old-meets-new decor (think antique tables graced with Noguchi lights) is a tasteful counter-note to the high ceilings and tall French doors.
The most recent addition to Lecce’s hotel scene, however, actually requires a 10-minute drive out into the olive groves surrounding the city. Masseria Trapanà, which opened last month, is the labour of love of Rob Potter-Sanders, a transplanted Australian with a longtime passion for southern Italy and the dedication required to see through renovating a masseria with foundations dating back 1,300 years. But the result more than compensates for the trials and tribulations: Trapanà’s nine suites are enormous, their rib-vault ceilings soaring, the huge fireplaces restored, the gardens elegantly planted. While less urbane than La Fiermontina, it’s no less charming – or beautiful: the tall iron canopy beds were custom-designed; the central courtyard is a riot of planted and trellised blooms, and the huge, open, glass-walled kitchen invites guests right in (even when there’s not a cooking class in session, of which there will be plenty when the hotel opens fully next spring). The view Trapanà’s guests gaze onto is its 148 acres, thick with hundreds of olive, apricot, mandarin and peach trees, wildflowers painting great streaks of colour between them. It’s timeless Puglia, just minutes away from a now utterly of-the-moment Lecce.