Lecce, Puglia, I kept hearing, was the Florence of the south, but I was skeptical. Every couple of years, another overlooked pocket of Italy is anointed the new Tuscany, or Amalfi, and it’s easy to be wary. Italy has been running out of regional “It Girls” lately and Puglia — the heel of the country’s boot, hugging the Adriatic coast — just seemed like the last possible undiscovered discovery for the travel sites to hawk.
But when I entered Lecce on a recent fall day, after a quick drive from the Brindisi airport, my cynicism thawed.
The city is a little baroque timepiece — all golden stone and beautiful ruins — and what it didn’t have it didn’t need. There was a trickle of tour groups but nothing matching the trampling Florentine hordes. There were a number of must-see landmarks, but the list wasn’t overwhelming and none were already too familiar or bound to disappoint (like David, Michelangelo’s sculpture in Florence, whose chunky head looks way too big, in person, for his stunted body). And while the culinary hit list of Lecce was punier than those of Italy’s top capitals, it was also a lot more authentic, devoid of the spongy focaccia and glutinous pastas of Tuscany’s tourist dives. Lecce, it was clear, was no Florence. In some ways it was better.
My accommodations, in fact, were something I could never top for the price farther north, and one of the reasons Puglia has suddenly started drawing style-hungry travelers and influencers. Situated in a renovated 17-century manor house, La Fiermontina is the kind of rustic resort that feels timeless. The high vaulted ceilings and limestone walls of my room, one of 16, felt like an organic embrace. There was a sculpture garden lush with olive trees, a spa, and a restaurant. Running through the public spaces, a curated collection of contemporary art echoed the elegance of the palazzos’ arched bones.
The hotel’s best amenity, though, was its location — right on the edge of Lecce’s compact, walkable historic center.
Lecce’s baroque beauty
The largely baroque town is a maze of narrow side streets, guarding their own private secrets, that suddenly break out into big, public, operatic plazas. What distinguishes the old manor houses and small palazzos — built of local, golden shaded calcareous stone — are the sculpted brackets that support the buildings’ balconies. Look up and you see a whole world of cherubs and galloping horses, saints and gargoyles. None, though, equal the caryatids of the Palazzo Marrese. A long row of angels hoist the terrace up with their brawny arms, their expressive faces running the gamut from ethereal to bored. My favorite: one flat-out cranky seraph, looking ready to let that heavy portico finally drop.
The only thing matching that display is Lecce’s own central Duomo — take that, Florence — which brings high baroque over the top with its marble and bronze altar.
If you want to take some of that spiritual fervor home with you, you can. In another sign of its backwater authenticity, Lecce features more artisanal workshops than souvenir stands or chains, and a whole complement of studios still produce the papier-mâché crèche angels, saints and folk figures that are a local tradition Some of the figures have devolved into kitsch but at La Cartapesta di Claudio Riso, the hand-produced Virgin Marys and angels, their faces modeled after Botticelli paintings, were artful enough to turn me into a haggler.
Mostly my spiritual moments in Lecce, though, were had at the town’s web of trattorias, which are another reason Puglia has suddenly popped as a prime destination. The Puglian kitchen produces its own signature dishes and the Osteria Poeta Contadino, where I ended up claiming an al fresco table every noon, features most of them. There were fava beans puréed with wild chicory and fried codfish, and orecchiette tossed variously with chickpeas, turnips and thumb-sized, sweet shrimp. There was sweet and sour aubergine, grilled wild boar sausages, and pasticciotto, a flaky pastry wrapped around custard and black cherries. And then there was the patriotic dish of sagne ’ncannulate — long, corkscrew pasta mimicking Lecce’s spiraling baroque stonework. Everything here, in the end, is coherent.
But then that’s true of Puglia as a whole.
Puglia’s White City
Toward the end of my week in Lecce, I drove north — past olive groves and lemon trees, the blur of blue sea sometimes breaking through — into a landscape with bleached, hilltop villages for which the region is famous.
Ostuni, dubbed the White City, is one of the most celebrated, and I could see why when I drove up its steep streets, hugging the side of a high hill, to the crown of the old quarter. The whole fortified village, falling in tiers of whitewashed houses, can be blinding at noon. The only flash of color comes courtesy of the cathedral’s central rose window. But at dusk, the pale facades turn softer and everyone comes out to promenade.
From the terrace of my Relais La Sommita hotel, a renovated 16th-century manor perched on top of the town, I could look down over the flat, scrubby Puglian fields, their reddish tint a counterpoint to Ostuni’s monochromatic mound. The landscape, despite its recent fame, still looked ancient and indifferent.
In the morning, Ostuni’s souvenir shops opened and the town, a more self-conscious tourist hub than Lecce, was hawking its own stock of tackier crèche figures and candy-colored ceramic pine cones, representing good luck, that are the symbol of Puglia.
That was reason enough to drive the 35 miles inland to Alberobello, a town that proves Puglia is still enough of an outlier to hug its own enduring mysteries. That’s because Alberobello is thick with trulli — squat, whitewashed houses capped by signature cone-shaped roofs made of stacked limestone. There are a lot of theories, and stories, regarding the trulli. Some historians think the domed silhouette was brought to Puglia by tribes from Asia Minor, who imported the tradition of sepulchral tombs. The trulli’s spiritual roots, though, ultimately proved practical. According to my local guide, wily inhabitants could dismantle the layered stone domes when tax collectors came calling, since a roofless house couldn’t qualify as taxable property. All of this sounded a bit fantastic but then the trulli deserve their whimsical theories.
Spread out over two hilltops, the rows of cones look like something from primordial folklore, a maze of hobbit houses. And the townspeople, as practical as ever, still turned their legacy to good functional use. At least half of the trulli are now rented out, available for the night or week, to the recent trail of curious tourists.
I debated booking one after a veg-centric meal of whole wheat pasta tossed with grilled zucchini, mint and cacioricotta cheese at the local mom and pop Terra Madre, but then decided to continue heading north, through more olive groves, to the stop I had originally planned. This was Borgo Egnazia, another Puglian fantasia, but a more recent and pivotal one.
If there was one place that put Puglia on the traveler’s map, Borgo Egnazia was it, and if there was one moment, it was when Justin Timberlake held his flamboyant wedding here in 2012, suddenly turning the region into the next big thing.
That’s a lot of weight to put on one hotel, but Egnazia lives up to the billing. A fresh-built, full-blown miniature town opened in 2011, the property was designed as the dream of a Puglian village, and its sprawl of plazas and whitewashed villas, jasmine-decked lanes and courtyards look genuine, in a glossy kind of way. My room, a version of artisanal authenticity that tried too hard, was anchored by a bed sitting under a white billowing canopy and its walls were hung with clusters of rusty keys, some inexplicable garden tools and batches of dried wildflowers. Call it a theatrical, Marie Antoinette take on a Puglian cottage, bordering on comical and fun. Add the resort’s big toy box of amenities — the four pools, the spa, the six restaurants, the 18-hole golf course — and you can live a stylized, Snapchat-able version of a charmed Puglian life for a tranquil weekend. Just don’t forget to drive out to some of the surrounding coastal villages, ancient stone canyons rising up above the sea, to get some sense of Puglia before it becomes, like the Borgo, a caricature of itself.
Food and travel journalist Raphael Kadushin regularly writes for Condé Nast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler and other publications. In the Star Tribune, he last wrote about Jaffa, Israel.