Apulia’s White City
14 Nov – It’s sunny and windy and cloudy all mixed with a little rain; it’s Winter in Southern Italy. A short hour and a half train ride from Bari and we arrived in the White City of Lecce. We elected not to spend a night or two in Brindisi as it didn’t look much different from what we’ve already seen. But Lecce, holds and entirely different set of charms. Lecce appears to be the largest City in Southern Italy, half way down the heel of the boot. It’s connected to the eastern coast by a 20 km road. It guess its early occupants, tired of coastal raids, and built further inland for better defense against pirates.
Not aging gracefully
All went well with the train ride, except for my back giving out, again as we arrived at the station. It was so bad I couldn’t stand, couldn’t sit and couldn’t walk, all I could do was just hover there and make silly looking, distorted faces. I guess hauling the heavy backpack and overweight luggage was just too much for my recovering lower back. Ursula had to carry my backpack into the station as we desperately looked for an elevator. Hauling two 50 pound bags down a flight of stairs and back up to the station platform was not an option. When the train arrived, an old man (much older than I) had to help me lift one of our bags up 20 inches so I could skootch it over onto the train door. This was the height of my humiliation.
During the ride, I stood most of the trip. When I tried to sit the back muscles spasmed and triggered me into frenzied, excruciating maneuvers to get out of the pain. Somehow we made it to our next apartment. Some of the journey was a blur to me, but I distinctly recall Ursula asking the staff to carry my bag up the stairs as I could not. For a guy who prides himself on having always carried his own weight and usually helped others with theirs, this was humiliating, degrading and embarrassing. Ursula had to help me get my shoes off. This is not a pleasant prospect for aging gracefully.
Impressions of the ‘White City’ of Lecce
Our first view of most of the places we’ve visited usually start with the main train station, Station Centrali. Like most, Lecce’s was navigable, functional, clean, and we passed through quickly. The streets leading to the train station, like in most cities, is a major boulevard, but this one was populated with car traffic, not a promenade zone as with other cities. Walking into the old town, it becomes clear why Lecce is called the White City. Most of the buildings are constructed from light brown sandstone, and the streets and ally’s (like Bari) are of gleaming soapstone. It is, indeed, a very bright colored, elegant looking city.
As one traverses the alleys and streets, it’s hard not to be impressed by the size and grandeur of the baroque facades on most of the more exquisite residences within the town. The myriad of churches is richly decorated and ornamented with statues, carved animals, geometric designs, and all manner of symbols. All are designed to elicit the ‘aaahhh’ or ‘wow’ reaction. One hears that many people find the churches grotesquely over-decorated, but I thought they were pretty impressive. I used the term ‘church,’ but the structures actually form churches, a cathedral, a duomo, basilicas, abbeys, and other ecclesiastic buildings of many variants and branches of the Christian faith. At one count, I was up to 23 of them on just one small map of the Old town.
Italy, in dire need of a paint job….but not here in this White City
In the past, I’ve written that Italy is a country in dire need of a paint job and a little renovation. This description fails when it comes to Lecce. Apparently, there must have been an infusion of renovation and restoration funds as most of the facades visible from the major streets look like they were built last year, in spite of their several hundred years of age. This is the most immaculate looking, most well preserved, Old Town we’ve come across. Bari had the cleanest streets and alleys, but most of the buildings looked antiquated. Lecce, on the other hand, resembles a Hollywood movie set designed from the fertile imaginations of architects, illustrating what thought an extravagantly ornate Baroque city would have looked like in its heyday.
That’s another thing with this White City of Lecce, it looks almost deserted, it doesn’t appear like a ‘lived-in’ town. Granted, we are here in the off season, but there is a noticeable lack of people roaming the streets. Most of the shops are closed, and few restaurants seem to be lively, or open. Walking the streets around 1030 one morning, there were a couple of tourists, a few token shopkeepers, and few if any windows or shutters open above the ground floor. Other than the shops below, most of the buildings look deserted, clean, and functional, just empty. On some streets, it was just me, the pidgins and cats roaming around – how strange. I have the impression that the people you do see walking the streets are movie props set about to con us into thinking this is a real city.
The White Vampire Town?
It’s ominous, there’s a foreboding sense of something not quite right. It doesn’t fit that a city this big, this beautiful is populated with a tenth of what you’d expect to see on the streets at any time. Granted, Ursula and I are usually out and about during their siesta hours and long to bed before the locals come out to dinner.
My theory (and I always have a few) is that this may be a vampire town, populated by night creatures who only come out to feast in the very late hours. To prove my theory, Ursula and I tried to dine at a normal Italian time (2100) and to see if there were any more people on the streets, other than a tourist. We found a few, but not many, not like the other towns we’ve visited. A few more stores were open, and you could see signs of life coming to a few more restaurants. But, as usual, our stomachs and patience were not up to the task of late-night diners. We were in and out of the restaurant by 2030 and back in the apartment by 2100. By then, the streets were only marginally a little more crowded.
I’m now convinced that all the noise and ruckus we hear coming from the pizzeria across the street, (yeah another one) is only a recording. It’s used by the city as part of their deception plan to keep the tourist calm and settled until needed by the local vampire population as a source of nutrition. I don’t know, it’s a crazy theory, but these empty streets are beginning to worry me. All this Elegance, this grandeur just seems to be wasted on so few people. It doesn’t pass the ‘smell-right’ test to me.
Oh well, we only have to continue to enjoy the sights and survive until Monday, then were off by car to the hilltopp village of Matera and the white stone, thatched roofs of Trulli.
(17 Nov). Ok, so the Vampire theory is a bit ridiculous. Tonight, we discovered that people actually populate the city in the evening. It is Saturday night, the masses flocked to the inner city for a bit of walking, eating and socializing. The formally vacant streets filled with elegantly, stylish people of all ages, shapes, and social classes.
Apparently, the Old Town, this White City of Lecce, is just too expensive for normal (not holidaymakers) to live in. Presumably, they only visit on their nights off to enjoy the restaurants and meet up with friends….just like every other town we’ve visited. So much for my vampire theory…..unless the more elegant of them were out on the hunt. One noticeable oddity was the surprising number of very tall, blue-eyed, swarthy Southern Italians who looked too beautiful to be real! Perhaps I’ve watched too many dark fantasy movies and my imagination is effected by the pain meds for my back!
One more night and were off on a car road trip across the sole of the Italian boot.