The following is an excerpt from the upcoming book, “Romancing Through Italy”
© 2015 Robert J. Connors All rights reserved
Getting lost in Italy is not really very hard to do, we found, especially in the southern regions, which seemed to have less useful signage. Ready to delve into the mysteries of Puglia, we drove eastward along the Mare Ionio on the Strada Littorale.
We passed onto the tangle of roads that is the industrial port city of Taranto. Our immediate goal was to get through the city as efficiently as possible. Thanks to poor signage at a major rotunda, or traffic circle, we soon found ourselves off north-bound instead of south-east bound.
We reversed course, re-navigating the confusing series of roundabouts, and got on the right road, only to miss the subsequent and immediate exit because, once again, there was a lack of signage. Susan, acting as navigator, was increasingly frustrated, and not without cause.
Our goal, Lecce, is a significant city, but it was a case of “you can’t get there from here, you have to go somewhere else first.” The highway system engineers were apparently determined that one could only go to Lecce by going first through Brindisi, good distance farther northeast.
We decided to press on, hoping to cut across to our correct road at the next opportunity. Call that opportunity missed, because, once again, the sign gave references to other towns, some back along our track, but none of Lecce. As the highway headed still farther from our goal, we finally took the plunge, and the next exit.
There were no signs to anyplace that we recognized. The flat countryside offered no overviews that might provide any encouragement, but we forged ahead. The midday glare washed out the colors of the landscape.
Following my nose, I drove southeast across remote farms as the road narrowed, eventually reaching the width of a single car, although still paved. I pressed on, fearful that we would run out of asphalt, but confident that the country lane would eventually reach a secondary road, at least.
After about twenty kilometers, we found a road which clearly turned south, although still lacking signage of any sort. Amid thousands of acres of other, more modest farms we passed a magnificent estate surrounded by alberi di ulivi, the ancient, gnarled, olive trees thick with fruit ready to be harvested and crushed for oil or pickled in their curing brine.
The countryside of Puglia remained as sere and dry as that of the coastal Basilicata we had left behind, but here we crossed no rivers to offer cool refreshment to the eye as we passed. Nor there were mountains to sweep the clouds of their moisture, to pull that liquid bounty down upon the baking earth below. Only the silver-leaved olives seemed to thrive in the harsher climate and baking sun.
At last, we found a wider roadway that seemed full of promise, and a few kilometers southeast, we came across a sign pointing toward the town of Oria, shown on our map as an intermediate point, but only a relatively short distance from the highway we had left far behind. We took comfort in the fact that we were creeping in the right direction, and had no time restrictions. We would get there eventually.
At last at Oria we found an organized and logical by-pass loop with sequential roundabout exits leading to each of the surrounding towns. We continued south toward Manduria, where we finally re-connected to the SS7ter, the road that we had once been on, and had lost way back in Taranto.
We stopped once more when a large sign indicating the exit to Lecce led instead to the town of Campi Salentina. We passed through an industrial park, spotted a bar, and took the time to absorb a couple of cappuccini and the details of our road map.
We stopped again during the remaining fifteen kilometers to picnic in the shade of ancient olive and pine trees flanking the gate of a sprawling estate. No sign marked the property, and the ornate iron gate stood invitingly ajar. Two rows of trees flanked the straight entrance drive beyond, which ended before the imposing facade of the seemingly-abandoned building. Although tempted to explore, we resisted, and satisfied ourselves with pictures of the imposing entryway taken through the bars of the gate.
Onward at last we passed into the city of Lecce, and drove an orienting loop around the centro, the old city within the modern. Here the Baroque of the late Renaissance mingles with the ancient architecture of the Roman Empire.
We checked in at our quiet apartment just inside the walls, delighted to see the ceiling of tufa stone arching over each room, and the delightful, shaded terrace on the roof, set amidst large pots filled with flowering shrubbery and palms. “The building is fairly new, only two hundred years old,” our kind hostess informed us. “The city is much older.” Indeed, the walls that encircled us were built in the 13th Century.
We set off on foot to explore the city center, walking through narrow streets festooned with more balconies than a New Orleans dream. Richly-decorated churches and the venerable Duomo drip Baroque decorative motifs. The fronts of most of the private buildings echo the city’s love affair with the style. Gargoyles leer from high walls, and elaborate details dazzle and delight the eye.
We wandered along the narrow streets through a busy stream of local residents and a scattering of tourists. A tram pulled by a tractor offered tours of the old town, complete with multi-lingual narration from ear-buds worn by the passengers, for a fee of ten euros. We preferred to walk and rely upon our own guide maps and the wealth of information we could readily access on the Internet. The churches and the impressive Duomo offered interpretive signs as well.
We eventually reached the Roman Amphitheatre at the heart of the city. Rediscovered in 1901 during a construction project, subsequent excavation revealed the horsehoe-shaped amphitheatre, which originally might have seated 15,000. Here, playwrights from Rome, Lecce, and elsewhere across the empire once staged their dramas and comedies, and today’s audiences expect no less. Although the tall galleries that once surrounded it are now reduced to low arches and fallen stones, the well of the theatre is still the scene of many productions. Workmen busily load and unload the scaffolding, lights, and sets for each, offering a romantic setting for a relatively small number of guests for an evening’s entertainment.
We strolled away from the busy corso of Via Giuseppe Libertini and onto the side streets, away from the bustle of the crowds. There we found a small square, called the Piazza Carlo V, with an eponymous pizzeria. The small space was quiet but still busy enough to enjoy people-watching as we sampled excellent wood-oven pizze and local red wine. The southern varieties of Primitivo Salentino and Pinot Nero are rich and delicious, with flavors concentrated by the warm Puglian sun.
As we lingered we studied the doorways and facades of the buildings facing the small piazza. I’ve become a fan of the unique and strangely-formed doorways that decorate thousands of Italian homes and buildings, so I was especially struck by one that instantly became my favorite. Off-center above the peculiar doors, a lop-sided pediment carried a small balcony. The entire facade of the building had been twisted and distorted, as though designed by some mad architect
Overhead, hundreds of rondini, the tiny swifts, swirled and whistled in the evening light to play their mysterious circle games of aerial tag, dipping low into the tiny piazzale along the cobblestone streets. We were charmed.