*photo credits: Lucia Otero & Vittorio Muratore
LECCE It’s not the first time that it happens to me to write about this city. I’ve written articles, whole pages of Word, I’ve written on pieces of paper sitting at the bar in the square waiting for an ice coffee with almond milk, I’ve written in a rotisserie in front of the freeway at 5 am with a rustic hot in hand, I’ve written and played words sipping a beer and listening to good reggae, true reggae. I’ve written in personal diaries at the first light of dawn, that light you can see only in Salento. But maybe more than Andrea, writer of this post, Lecce has written pages of life. Mine, without doubts.
It’s for so many years that I attend this land, natural crossroads of people and cultures. I still remember the first time when with my family “I popped down to Salento”. A scorching heat, as always of August, and a hundred of luggage to be loaded in a car crammed almost like a freight car, as if to say “just in case we do not find the Esselunga supermarket by there”. We didn’t know the concept of “sagra”, we didn’t know about the “windows” of the farms from the countryside of Salento, those small vans parked along the road and filled with local products. Here the famous “0 food miles” – so dear to Farinetti and his Eataly – exists since the time of Charlemagne.
Shortly, we didn’t know the true meaning of the word “hospitality”. A thousand miles of road and eight hours of driving time, more or less, separate me from “my second home.” Many, many, perhaps too many, know and have heard of this city for a similarity with the famous Medici’s city: “Ah, Lecce! The Florence of the South of Italy”. No doubt about it. But please don’t think I’m blasphemous if I say that Lecce maybe has even an older history.
The legend says that the city was founded around 1200 BC by Malennio – mythological character (descendant of King Minos and the first King of Salento) – after the destruction of Troy. In the third century BC, Rome conquered the whole Salento renaming the ancient settlement Sybar in Lupiae, from which also the origin of the name Lecce.
What is now as the capital of Salento will be, over the years, a land of conquest for the largest and most influential foreign domination: from the Byzantines to the Greeks, the Saracens, Lombards, Hungarians and the Slavs up to the Normans and the Aragonese, who literally transformed Lecce into one of the richest cities in the Mediterranean area.
This history was even sang by Sud Sound System in 2003: “Simu salentini dellu munnu cittadini, radicati alli messapi cu li greci e bizantini”. Oh, the language! That so beloved dialect. So little music at first listen but damn harmonious and irreplaceable after a few months of practice. In my CV, among the “speaking skills”, there is also the salentino language. Fluent, of course.
A beautiful city, from each point of view we can look at and analyze. A magnificent city where the weather goes hand in hand with its fantastic inhabitants: mild temperatures even in winter, among that splendor architectures. The baroque is the host, if you think that the city has even more than forty churches dating back to that movement of the mid-eighteenth century.
Those days when the wind blows hard on the beach, I love wandering into the town and getting lost in the narrow streets, looking at every corner of the neighborhood, admiring sculpted terraces among the clouds and windows that smell like heaven. Like me, thousands of tourists, among palaces built in the typical baroque, full of ornaments and decorations carved from local stone in a mix of styles that explode in a very special and specific declination; so personal to define the style of this architecture with the name of the city: Lecce’s Baroque.
The charm of this city goes far beyond the walls and gates of the old town. A province that is lost among endless fields and olive trees from the stems sturdy, firmly clinging to the red land literally burned by the sun. We often go nicely astray between paths outlined by famous stone walls, of which only experience and rough hands of country men are aware of the secret ingredient.
In less than a quarter of an hour, you can quickly switch from the Basilica of Santa Croce or the solemnity of Piazza Duomo (rare example of a closed square), to landscapes that seem grossed out by stories of the bucolic era of Virgil.
The charm of a crystalline sea with those reflections and colors that you carry in your mind for the next sad rainy winter, the white and dense light that you dazzle in the morning and you reconciled at sunset. A rural landscape, harsh and sensual that envelops your soul, the pine forests overlooking the sea which extends without an end by combining the incessant sound of cicadas while all the rest fall into the silent.
There are no motorways here. But only state highways that should be in the UNESCO list. This slow rhythm of daily life allows anyone to sit at a table in a bar in the country to have a cold espressino or delight the palate with a hazelnut spumone. Those villages with white plasters and old people sitting on the home door, always ready to give genuine smiles.
The spontaneous generosity of its inhabitants, the squares where children of the next generation still enjoy kicking a ball consumed by years of games and penalties kicked beyond the roof of the church. And those villages so calm and relaxed, dressing in fairy lights and pinches for the day of the Patron Saint: stands and local products, festivals and cold bottles of cold rosé next to crammed with nibbled celery. Spingituro for aficionados.
The world of Salento’s cuisine really deserves the Nobel Prize for gastronomy. Other than finger food and show cooking with liquid nitrogen. Here it’s serious! Here we are again in the midst of those parties of the country, between planks and wooden benches polished for the big event.
Ciceri e tria, orecchiette pomodorini e ricotta forte, sagne ‘ncannulate, municeddhe, pezzetti di cavallo, servole, pittule de Lu Podere, taieddhra de Lu Mauriziu, pasticciotti caldi di Ficile, torta crepè di Dentoni… and I could go on, without stopping until when the stomach does not beg me to go down to the first Family Mart to order a “baozi”. The shape is that of the country. The flavor just barely different.
It’s really difficult to explain in words the true beauty of this city and why whoever stops in these places falls in love with the spontaneous and warm hospitality of the locals who still call you “Sir”. A genuine hospitality made of simple fairness, perhaps built over the years thanks to the teachings of the people that moored their boats, coming from afar, helping to build one that is not a port, but a place where when God was distributing beauty has definitely exaggerated: the city of Otranto.
There are no secrets. The charm of these places is obvious to all, perhaps too many. A city centre that erupts in history, art and ancient civilization, the sea, the colors of the villages, the sounds of the “pizzica”, the rhythm of tambourines until late night, but also the silence of the rural land, the enchantment of the manor farms’ ruins that alone are worth the price of admission.
I have the feeling that life in those places is better, where you feel part of a world, a universe and situations that are not found elsewhere in Italy, and perhaps, widening horizons, in no else in the world.
P.S. If I’ll marry one day, on the pictures of my wedding there will certainly be olive trees, prickly pears, reggae and dry stone walls.
è il cielo dove
sui cornicioni corrono
angeli dalle dolci mammelle,
guerrieri saraceni e asini dotti
con le ricche gorgiere.
Un frenetico gioco
dell’anima che ha paura del tempo,
moltiplica figure, si difende
da un cielo troppo chiaro.
mite e senza fretta
s’intrattiene in quel regno
d’ingranaggi inservibili fra cui
il seme della noia
schiude i suoi fiori arcignamente arguti
e come per scommessa
un carnevale di pietra
simula in mille guise l’infinito.
LECCE – Vittorio Bodini
(sublime poet from Salento)