Thursday, March 29, 2012

Road Trip to Lecce - a City too Far

I got a gnome for Christmas! You know, one of those diminutive elfish creatures from the ‘under land’ of fantasy literature who, though harmless and very disinclined to interact with humans, can be mischievous little tykes. He was a gift from my daughter who knew I’d been looking for one. I like gnomes (and penguins if you must know). I’d been looking for one but could only find the 6-8 inch types with shovels and other implements in hand. I wanted something more substantial that could be seen from a distance in the forest surrounding us and not typecast by the kinds of tools and other implements in his hands. He was a pleasant surprise.

My particular species of gnome is neither of the city, lawn or garden variety. He is a roaming or better said, a travel gnome. You would recognize him for he is a pretty well know fella of TV fame due to his association with Travelocity. He sports a red conical hat (or maybe that’s the shape of his head too since I haven’t caught him yet with his hat off), a chubby white beard blended with long bushy white hair and an equally conical blue shaped suit-coat buckled high up on his waist with a belt. In his black boots he stands about two feet tall, which no doubt makes him a king of sorts among the little people. Hands in his pockets and sometimes sporting sunglasses, I imagine him clutching his passport tightly.

Legend says he will return unharmed even when thrown great distances by witches and wizards, truly the markings of a resilient traveler. We can identify with that since at times we catch flights not knowing where we’ll end up or how we’ll get home. We have managed to do it many times and thankfully remain yet unscathed. To be sure, he's eager to travel for it was not long after positioning him on a large flat rock some distance from the house that I first realized he definitely had itchy feet. A week or so later, it was apparent that he had shifted closer for I discovered him in the circle formed where our driveway turns back out again. Days later, he’d made his way closer still, to the birdbath, and by the following day to the kitchen window, staring inside at us from a new perch under the thermometer. When I found him in my bed that night, his cone head denting my pillow, I knew something mischievous was afoot but questioned whether it was totally his doing. Come to find out, my sister had had a hand in the mayhem but to this day I question who had initially put the thought in her to begin with. I don’t blame him, I mean her, or do I mean them, one iota. Thinking about away places certainly comes easy especially when a forecast of 10 inches of snow has come true and it has begun falling, as in right now. It's time like this to look forward to journeys not yet taken or recollect adventures gone by. One such road trip was an adventure to the city of Lecce and points further south deep in Puglia.

Lecce is a provincial capital, referred to as the ‘Florence of the South’ due primarily to its splendid architecture. It is, unfortunately, an utter stranger to foreign tourists, far distant from the familiar tourist haunts and hence an unappreciated destination still. To this day it remains a city too far, in the partial shadow of obscurity and hence undiscovered in an "out of sight, out of mind" way. Lucky for us an acquaintance in Calitri had urged us to visit Lecce so on the spur of the moment we headed off with plans to stay for a few days and see what we might discover way down in the interior of Italy’s heel. When we departed Calitri the weather was cool and grey but as we headed east toward Bari, the sun began to appear. Hours later on the coastal plains south of Bari, you’d think you were in Miami.

On a map, Lecce appears as a bulls-eye surrounded by a circumferential highway system. We had no problem finding it, but where to exit exactly we left to our trusty GPS companion, Margaret. We’d supplied Margaret with an address for what we thought was old town and she tried her best. After going around a few roundabouts (well named, aren’t they) and doubling back a few times, we eventually found the historic district. Besides the traffic, the difficult part, being strangers in a large city, was finding a place to park. We made a few hesitant attempts but reconsidered when we weren’t quite sure about such things as ... the color of the parking lines, where the pay meter might be hiding or frankly how official the space may have been. After all, why was the space empty to begin with? Finally settled on a seemingly legitimate spot and parked with the help of someone we thought was the lot’s attendant, we headed for Piazza Sant'Oronzo, site of a 1st century BC Roman amphitheater and a column which originally stood further away in coastal Brindisi to mark the end of the "Queen of Roads", the Appian Way. But not so fast. As we headed off, thinking about finding someplace to eat since it was already past noon, the presumed "attendant" called to us. Returning, we slowly began to decipher that he had told me to park in an unofficial space, apparently only temporarily, until something legitimate opened up. I'd been oblivious to all this. In fact, he didn't even work there, just a sort who hung around there sometimes. Later, when we returned, we discovered this was ostensibly all the time! Having not paid, I had assumed that I'd pay him when we returned. I was soooo wrong. I should have known better. My experience with parking in Italy, to this point, had been gained the hard way. Sometimes in life we are tested long before we take the lesson and this was yet another instance. I'd almost flubbed it. In a pandemic of hurried thought we quickly corrected. Now officially between white lines up against the walls to Castello Carlo V on the Viale XXV Luglio, a three hour paid parking meter receipt on my dash, we finally headed into the heart of old Lecce.

We had set our minds on spending the night on the coast of the Ionion Sea whose waters also wash ashore in Greece and places like Albania. Our objective, therefore, off farther to the southwest, was Gallipoli. If we were going to get there at a reasonable hour, in time to find a place for the night, our time in Lecce would need be limited. With this in mind, we set out to bisect the historic center of Lecce, which on the map looked doable by walking the length of Corso Vittorio Emanuele I and then continuing along Via Guiseppe Libertini when they merged. A short street away from where we parked, we got our first glimpse of Piazza Sant'Oronzo. Completely surrounded by busy bustling streets, the majority of its space is taken up by a remarkably intact, 25,000 seat, Roman amphitheater. Lacking high walls like the Coliseum, it sits in latent stillness sunken from street level, only partially excavated. Something less than a quarter of it is plopped in the center of this square, or I should say, the city like a weed has grown to its measure, surrounding what remains of it, reclaiming far more. It is doubtful the remainder will ever see the light of day since it extends well beneath these hectic streets in turn bordered by multi-story office, apartment buildings and the Church of Santa Maria della Grazia. If only the ghosts of the souls who once occupied its stone seats could have imagined the amazing sights they would behold if they could have remained in their seats just a few millennia longer. Well worth the price of admission! I'd tried that once myself as a kid by staying to see a movie over again at the Cameo Theater in my hometown, only to realize I was in trouble at home when my name, scrawled on a piece of paper, appeared at the bottom of the screen. Instead, we excavated the past ourselves by imagining their day in the arena. I was especially taken by the stone entryways, oppressive with history, their arching wedge-shaped blocks and locking keystones having withstood the onslaught of time. As with downtown Rome's Largo di Torre Argentina, where Caesar met his untimely end on the steps of Pompey's Theater, the place is today home to feral tabby-cats sunning themselves amongst the warm-pink tinged, sandstone bleachers. Near our vantage point, beside the towering end-of-the-road marker from Brindisi capped now by a statue of Lecce's patron saint, Saint Oronzo (reputed to have cured the plague in Brindisi), a solitary wizened olive tree stands in symbolic guard over the arena. Clearly ancient (see photo album), its trunk takes on the appearance of many trees, like cables, twined together to form a mighty girth as they climb skyward into a canopy of emerald-silver limbs. I never discovered its meaning. Moving on, having basically ventured only a short distance into the old city, we wondered if sights like this where typical of this jewel called Lecce.

The founding of Lecce, known as Lupiae in Ceasar's day, was an offshoot of the dispersion of Greeks, some of whom colonized southern Italy beginning about the 8th century BC and referred to as Magna Graecia (Greater Greece). Fast forwarding to today, it is a city of 95,000 energetic inhabitants. Many of them on that warm afternoon were converged in the streets, commuting to and fro to shop, eat, work, meet with friends, sit on the many benches available and chat. Others preferring to stand, parcels in hand, hesitating just long enough to exchange pleasantries in mini-passeggiata fashion before moving on. As interesting as the people were, the buildings and church fronts were also fascinating. Above us on just about every edifice, ornate shuttered doors crested with carved sandstone embellishments opened onto second story balconies enclosed by ornamental wrought-iron railings. Many added a welcoming touch of cheerfulness with flowers, decorative grasses, potted palms, and hanging or climbing vines. Down at street level, as though in celebration of their comings and goings, we found doorways carved in equally intricate almost theatrical style known locally as barocco leccese, due to its reliance on complex embellishments, once again of baroque extravagance.

Our discovery jaunt through Lecce was punctuated by multiple historic places of worship that practically served as markers along our route. First came Chiesa San Irene del Teatini, essentially jutting out into Corso Vittorio Emanuele I, next only a block away rose the 17th century Lecce Duomo with its surrounding Piazza del Duomo, then came the worn and eroded facade of Chiesa San Teresa and at the very end of our stroll, where we decided to turn back, the Basilica of San Giovanni Battista with pine cones much like torches atop its facade. Here again in each case, these monuments to Catholicism employed the dynamic rhythm of baroque design to their front exteriors - pediments supported by protruding ornamental half-columns thrust from the flat wall surfaces, many sheltering saintly statuary. The addition of gargoyles, opulent filigree, cherubs, lofty spires and oval insets each in its own way adding to an illusion of complexity while maintaining structural rigor and proclaiming "Here you will find God".

We ventured only into the Duomo, reportedly one of the most significant cathedrals in Italy. It sits off to the side of a warren of equally alluring streets worthy of exploration where Corso Vittorio Emanuele I ends and Via Guiseppe Libertini picks up. To the left of the square stands an imposing 217 foot tapered bell tower, much like a narrow wedding cake, at the base of which two teenagers, seated on its steps, embraced as though it was the end of the world, oxygen was in short supply and they might never again see each other! It was an amazing performance in entangled passion. Trying my best to take my eyes from them, I finally became conscious of the imposing Duomo rising in the center of the piazza. Continuing my scan clockwise, farther to the right of the Duomo stood the Palazzo del Vescovado (Bishop's Palace), while at an angle to its right, completing the square, was the Palazzo del Seminario (Seminary Palace). Not to dilute my story, I wondered for a moment if the young man entangled with his love there below the campanile had escaped the seminary for a few moments, or on second thought, may have been about to enter. Wandering imaginings on my part indeed but surely torment to those possible voyeurs just across the piazza in the seminary windows who daily passed a test of their passion for God but may yet still struggle over a love for His creations.

This layout denotes Piazza Duomo as one of the loveliest piazzas in Europe and a rare example of an "enclosed square" since only a single opening between buildings, protected by massive chains, allows you access. A religious space in its entirety, it was void of even the smallest cafe salted and peppered with a few beckoning outside tables and chairs. This place was reserved for God with the only seating available located inside the Duomo. Entering the massive Duomo, I stopped counting at twelve altars! Above its black and white checkerboard floor its walls and ceilings were sheathed with paintings, many from local artists and a long list of others. The scope of its decoration was beyond immediate comprehension, difficult to take in and fully appreciate without study. We were short on time but then it got shortened still. Maria Elena, always my consigliere (adviser), was able to kneel before the main altar beneath a wooden ceiling illustrating the Martyrdom of Saint Orontius for only a few moments before Philistine custodians began shooing us toward the exit. It seemed the afternoon closing time was upon us and everybody, including God, needed rest. Amidst the artwork and stylized carvings surrounding us the one thing I noted for its pagan, almost bewitching, appearance were the towering cathedral entry doors. They were closed; we had entered through a lesser side door. The doors themselves were made of what appeared to be bronze, uniquely branded with an Λ (Alpha) and an Ω (Omega) about midway-up on either side, in any case well above your head. Oriented to the west, they trapped the afternoon sun in glassed circular portals; the one above the Alpha a crescent yellow moon on a bluish orb that seemed to complete the absent sphere as a child might color it in; the other above the Omega, a striking bright red solar prominence exaggerating the yellow star itself. A 'Beginning' in the cold moonlit night of space, an 'Ending' in a luminous climax of energy, or was that not "In the Beginning"? Any meaning lost in an enigma.

Headed back toward our car now, we got serious about finding someplace to relax over a much overdue lunch. Thankfully the restaurants stay open during the afternoon closing. We had noted many along our path. We settled on "Re Idomeneo" (King of Crete) named after an Italian opera by the same name right there on Via Vittorio Emanuele. Tourist trap with its net ready to ensnare us? Most likely, but we were limited on time to explore further into the back streets, beyond our chosen route. We chose to sit in a street-side corral of sorts opposite the restaurant. Mare chose a "white pizza" with pignoli (pine) nuts and chopped fresh tomatoes along with an insalata misti (mixed salad). Along with a generous sample of her pizza I chose the local specialty orecchiette al la lecce, (little ears of Lecce) pasta resembling small button-size saucers on your plate. Yummy for sure but the 'food-fix' we really enjoyed and can't get enough of was an oozing, white snowball of buffalo mozzarella! All together, along with an excellent bottle Salento wine with 'PEPE' scrawled in magic marker on the label, we had to fight off a post-lunch food coma!

In proper gnome fashion (and the press of a few GPS buttons for added insurance) we found our way out of Lecce and on to Gallipoli and the sea. Always fascinated with the concept of time, I found Lecce, this city too far, full of it. A pedestrian friendly city, easily navigable on foot or bicycle, flaunting Baroque style buildings crowded with unrestrained decoration even on the everyday portals of private residences, alive with street life by day and I can only imagine at night as well, still yet inexpensive with its own unique cuisine, and historically rich with the remains of antiquity, it awaits the intrepid traveler. It remains even now, waiting for you, an unknown place of forgotten magnificence. Our little secret at least for a while, why not magically dispose of the 21st century and visit Lecce yourself? We will again soon.

From that Rogue Tourist, Paolo

For related photos, click here on Eyes Over Italy. Then look for and click on a photo album entitled “Lecce”.