The morning after the firework testing plant welcomed us with such enthusiasm to Puglia, we decided to spend the day exploring Lecce. But first we would need to get a car.
The Sailor Man and Agnese, his devoted daughter who appears to be a genetically-perfect copy of her mother, kindly give us a lift into town and to the hire place. The children love being in a car with new people – it must feel like a real adventure – but poor Roo is frequently disappointed when I say, “We’re getting a lift”, and an elevator fails to appear. Oh, ’tis a hardship being a small boy, having to grasp the nuances of the English language in a foreign country.
The Sailor Man helps us to arrange borrowing a small black runaround for an extortionate sum, as it appears that the figures we were going with (read: plucked out of the air) when we had factored in hiring cars during our budget planning, were stuck somewhere around the 1970s. It had to be done, though, because Puglia is notoriously difficult to explore on public transport, and The Husband and I don’t much like the idea of standing under an olive tree in the middle of nowhere with two children for six hours, waiting for the once-daily bus to arrive.
We strap the children into their newly acquired car seats, which unfortunately do look like they have been knocking round the back of the hire place since the 1970s, and follow The Sailor Man around the ring road. He turns off at Viale Gallipoli towards home, and we continue to the Giardini Pubblici where we find a pretty side street with an empty space and free parking.
We bundle out of the car and walk the short distance to the gardens, which are a lovely example of a small, well-looked-after, and much-loved public space. There are people of all ages and states of sobriety out enjoying the fountains, avenues of pine trees, and two small playgrounds (and yet again, we have to test them out), as well as a bandstand and a landscaped walkway lined with the bronze busts of a variety of famous local patriarchs. We walk through the boulevard of heads, over Viale XXV Luglio, and cut through the exquisite, peaceful courtyard of the 17th century Celestine Monastery.
Out the other side and we are in the old town, which is almost completely golden with pietra di Lecce, the local soft sandstone being washed in the light of day. Immediately to our left is the utterly gob-smacking Basilica di Santa Croce, Lecce’s most famous and most embellished church. Covered inch-by-inch and top-to-toe with cherubs, monsters, dragons, angels, griffins, gods and mortals cavorting in a stoney forest bursting with flowers, foliage and the signature Baroque scroll. It is this sort of fantastical animated treat that makes sightseeing extremely fun and easy with children.
Hunger will soon be settling in (there are shrieks for shoulder-rides and complaints about tired legs) and we have yet to try the local food, so we adhere to the guidebook and head to one of its recommended lunch spots through the narrow streets and archways that join up the asymmetrical piazzettas (small squares). It is quiet and there are very few tourists, some locals, and the occasional nippy moped or van squeezing itself past us. The children make noises in the small stone tunnels, listening for their voices to call back.
At the open doorway of a small building on one side of a lane whose name escapes me, we watch a man in his seventies carve wood as if his arm were a branch and he too was once part of the same tree. He welcomes us into his tiny, dark workshop, illuminated only by a perfect strip of sunlight struggling to get in through the narrow street and a small lamp attached to his workbench. The place is stuffed full of metal tools, his beautiful work, and a small black and white photograph of a man who looks just like him working at the very same table – this is his father. He humbly shows us the ornate mirror frames, barley-twist table legs, and church decorations swirling with floral motifs that he has curved and chipped away at slowly and lovingly, and we leave as he begins to turn a block of walnut into a picture frame. The Husband and I could watch him for hours; the children have done well sticking around for minutes.
At midday we arrive at Alle Due Corte, recommended for its traditional local fare. We are seated at a small table and drink water and delicious deep red wine, made using a local variety of grape called negroamaro, grown almost exclusively in Puglia. We share orecchiette with a mildly bitter but moreish pesto of turnip tops, anchovies and the famous local cheese, ricotta forte, spaghetti in a sweet tomato, garlic and chilli sauce, and a plate of salty, seasonal deep-fried market vegetables.
After lunch we make a short stop at the church of Santa Chiara to look up at its 18th century papier maché, and walk past the sunken Roman amphitheatre, discovered in 1901 whilst workers were digging foundations for a new bank. Now used throughout the summer for concerts and plays, today it is inhabited by cats – some of whom are on stage mewing to the remaining furry layabouts lazing in the audience.
Tonight we have been invited to dine on the terrace with Giuliana and The Sailor Man. Once the children are asleep, we head over and sit down looking out across the dark land. The Sailor Man pours us wine and we share aperitivo of fried aubergine and courgette that Giuliana has cooked in her mother-in-law’s kitchen. When she sits down to join us over a delicious pasta and tomato dish, we discover that her mother-in-law never enjoyed cooking (like mine) and that Giuliana herself has little interest in food. It also seems that we have found the only woman in Italy whose favourite cheese is ‘Laughing Cow’, whose preferred coffee is instant and granulated, and who profoundly dislikes garlic, onions and tomatoes (unless cooked in her own pasta sauce).
Whilst we dine, The Sailor Man feeds Ucho from a huge bucket of congealed cooked pasta that they keep for him in a small, humming outdoor fridge. Clearly this is an Italian dog, and the sweetest I have ever met; I have never heard him bark or beg, and he sits patiently waiting for food and affection. Tonight, however, I also notice him limping and that his legs are covered in sores. Giuliana says he has arthritis and that he was locked away for seven years by her mother-in-law, and it shows: his passive, slow and gentle nature, and saintly doe eyes, remind me of the faces that shine through the stained glass of Lecce’s church windows.
We end the night drinking glasses of Giuliana’s mother’s incredible homemade chocolate liqueur, and scraping out a tub of tiramisu from Lidl. And it wasn’t half bad.