From Baroque Exuberance to Enchanting Trulli...While shopping with my travel partner we were attracted by a poster of architectural photographs promoting ‘Puglia’ located in the southern Salentine peninsula of Italy. We were curious about the name and discovered it was one of those areas where tourism appeared more affordable than in the north. We were also impressed by the number of towns available for day tripping such as Lecce, Castellana, Matera, Locorotondo and the lovely Alberobello. With great expectation we began to plan our vacation to Puglia.
Our trip began in the baroque city of Lecce often referred to as ‘the Florence of the South’ with its soft lighting and warm honey-coloured stone. The old city is like a stage set on the grand scale, with a visual and harmonious architectural symmetry beginning in the centre with the Piazza Sant ‘Oronzo and Roman amphitheatre that would become our orientation point.
The city’s Basilica di Santa Croce north of the piazza is one of the most celebrated ‘over-the-top’ examples of the ‘Barocco Leccese’ architecture constructed in the local limestone called pietra leccese. The three tiered façade is an allegorical layer upon layer of carved symbolism and lavish decoration in the Renaissance style. The first level comprises of six classical columns while the second level features a rose window considered the greatest example of Barocco Leccese carving .Centered at the top is a depiction of the Triumph of the Cross. The Renaissance interior plan is equally lavish with a gilded and coffered nave ceiling, intarsia marble floors and at least 24 ornate carved chapels.
Across from the Basilica we discovered the papier Mâché shops with sculpted and hand painted nativity crèches and historical figures approximately 24” in height and priced from €30.00 and up according to size and complexity. The art form has been handed down from generation to generation; antique examples can be admired at the Museo della Cartapesta (papier mâchè).
West of the Piazza Sant’Oronzo we strolled along Via Vittorio Emanuele ll to the Chiesa Dei Teatini, the first of many baroque churches on this pedestrian- only street. Our attention was drawn to a variety of scenes - street musicians and artists, galleries, cafés, cookie shops - Biscottificio, pastry shops-patisserie, pasta shops-pastiticio, gelato-gelateria and limoncello shops. We continued to a set of imposing gates topped with sculptural Saints marking the entrance of the Piazza Del Duomo. Within is the cathedral set well back for a sweeping vista of its ornate façade and Italy’s highest campanile. Completing this ensemble is the Bishop’s Palace and 18th century Seminary where in the evening they are lite as though they were some grand theatrical production. Bravo! Among the many restaurants here we chose ‘Syrbar’ for its view of the Cathedral and a light meal of pastas and salads for about €10.00.
Closeby is the Museo Del Theatre Romano with its contemporary exhibition galleries with a second level view behind the museum of a small Roman stone amphitheatre in remarkably fine condition. A real gem! Further discoveries unfolded among the labyrinth of streets with the imposing stone fortress, art gallery and tourist information centre with the botanical garden oasis beckoning beyond. Returning to the Piazza Sant' Oronzo we relaxed in a café as we prepared to depart by train for Alberobello. This two hour excursion was both exciting and somewhat a ‘déjà vu’ as we saw a few of the white circular houses with conical roofs that were pictured in the aforementioned poster. As we progressed they became more frequent and then almost on mass as we approached this universally known ‘city of the ‘trulli’. The word ‘trullo’ derives from the Greek word ‘Tholos' meaning dome.
These curious ‘hobit’ houses were originally constructed 'a secco' meaning built from the local limestone without mortar one stone on top of the other. The stones composing the conical roofs are called ‘chiancole’ topped by a decorative pinnacle of different shapes along with mysterious primitive symbols painted with white wash. From the town’s belvedere there is a sweeping panorama of hundreds of these enchanting fairy-tale houses with their pointed grey cones - recognized as world heritage by UNESCO in 1996. There are bed and breakfast trulli, cafes, gift shops and even a church among the picturesque winding streets. Expatriates from both Europe and England are now purchasing and restoring many trulli but local agents also list rentals both here and in the nearby Valle d’itria.
One of our side trips included the white hill town of Locorotondo a short distance by train with an outstanding panoramic view of the rustic rolling country side and valley, its vineyards, orchards and dry-stone walls and trulli. Also the town of Matera with its jumble of former peasant stone houses and cathedral hugging the hillside which became the setting for Mel Gibson’s film ‘The Passion of Christ’.
Our vacation had been a snapshot not only of 18th century architecture but the energy of the trulli houses as well as the ancient stones that continue to live on.
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