Lecce boasts approximately 40 churches and, as I find it hard to pass by a church without popping inside, I could be in for a very long day. The first has a lovely little nativity set up in a side chapel, the second is hosting an art exhibition and the third turns out to be Greek Orthodox with a service underway, so I beat a hasty retreat and head for the cathedral. There are already quite a few Italian tour groups outside taking photos while their guides try to educate them about Lecce history. The interior of the Duomo turns out to be rather disappointing so I have plenty of time for a coffee and croissant before searching for the Basilica di Santa Croce.
The outside is obscured by scaffolding and I have to sneak past a persistent beggar at the door, but once inside I’m enthralled. Santa Croce is a baroque masterpiece with 16 beautifully carved side altars and a grand wooden ceiling. It was finally completed in 1692 after 150 years in the making. I guess a lot of faith was required.
In Piazza Sant Oronzo, I find the first evidence of the Roman city. In fact the huge main square is named after a 1st Century bishop who was fed to the lions by Emperor Nero. The Roman amphitheatre, which takes up a large portion of the piazza, would have seated 20,000 spectators, entertained by such blood sports. Now it is hosting a life-sized nativity scene. The depth of the Roman remains beneath the level of the square is an indication of how history has been buried by modern living.
Back in 2001, the Faggiano family had been renting their house in the old town but wanted to convert it into a restaurant so that Mr Faggiano (a chef) and his sons (culinary students) could put their skills to good use. Little did they know when they began an investigation into some damp what they would uncover. 7 years and a lot of money later, the family opened the house as a museum. A maze of underground tunnels and chambers that date back to the 5th century BC, adorned with Templar symbols and littered with centuries of pottery, can now be explored by the public. Sadly, most of the objects discovered beneath the house are sitting in boxes in the Lecce Museum or Castle, waiting to be examined and catalogued by archaeologists.
I’m greeted by Mr and Mrs Faggiano who provide me with an English language sheet which guides me around the many rooms and points out key features. When I climb down a narrow, spiral staircase into the depths of the cellar to explore some of the ancient water cisterns and tombs, I find that it is difficult to see due to a malfunctioning spotlight which flickers on intermittently. However, from the room above, as I peer down through one of the many glass-covered viewing holes, the light is working perfectly. Spooky!
Before I leave, I mention this to Andrea, one of the sons, who accompanies me back down to check. The light is working fine and he shrugs it off and blames it on the damp air. He then tells me about some recent excavating that he’s been conducting and offers to take me through a small hole in the wall to another series of chambers. I politely decline, but it does make me wonder just how much more history lies undiscovered beneath the streets and houses of Lecce.