Home > 2011 Posts, About Dave > Building Character in Lecce

Building Character in Lecce

Shoes as Art in Lecce

The town of Lecce is a lovely monument to Baroqueitude in the heel of Italy’s boot. Visiting there was a great experience, but also a character-building one, thanks to some clever teenagers with too much time on their hands and highway engineers apparently on a long break.

To reach Lecce, we’d driven south from Taranto along the rocky gulf coast, stopping at the ruins of Roman seaside villas, beautiful little fishing villages—each with their own sheltered cove, medieval defensive towers built 900 years ago to forestall Saracen invasion, and a few of Mussolini’s concrete pillboxes.

After exploring the interesting old island town of Gallipoli, we headed inland toward an afternoon of high-culture in 2,000+ year old Lecce. We were looking forward to seeing the ‘Florence of the South’, including, of course, its Roman amphitheater. We would be drummed out of the archaeo-geek fraternity if we missed one of those.

A WWII Pillbox on the Gulf of Taranto

It was an easy drive from Gallipoli, and parking near Piazza Sant’ Oronzo was a snap. By around sunset, even our Culture Vulture Meter had pegged at ‘Full’ and we’d finished yet another fantastic Italian dinner. Waddling back to the car, my bride and I were waxing blissfully content after a wonderful day.

Settling into the driver’s seat, I checked my copy of Atlante Stradale d’Italia – Sud, the Touring Club Italiano’s superb road atlas for the south. Happily, the main road back to Taranto was clearly marked with a thick red line, Highway 7. No problemo.

But… fifteen minutes later in the rapidly fading dusk, we finally noticed that we were passing the same set of buildings now for at least the third time. Grrrr! We were tired and it was a long drive back to Nova Siri. But soon, by the end of the fourth circuit and with us paying much closer attention, I’d figured out what must be going on.

Seems Like Every Baroque Structure in Lecce Was Being Restored

As you may know, Italy is quite sparing with road signage, except on the Autostradas. After all, their logic must go, ‘everyone’ already knows where to turn anyway. And, for some reason, when there are signs, they’re often in a cluster of a dozen or so that you must pass at too high a speed to read. But our problem in Lecce wasn’t with lazy local traffic engineers.

It seems that some clever lads with a relatively light-hearted grudge against visitors had carefully rearranged the five signs in this city of ~100,000 that should have led us to Highway 7. The new, creative arrangement now directed drivers into an endless loop leading back to Piazza Sant’ Oronzo. The kids were good; it all looked just as official as the other signs, but ‘right’ had become ‘left’, and ‘straight-ahead’ now ‘right’, and so on.

Ho, Ho. Very funny. By now it was a pitch dark, moonless night with thick storm clouds rolling in. Normally, I’m good with maps but had not yet learned to always bring my GPS unit. Not to worry, though, I must have thought, being a guy, I’m never lost. It’s just that I’m somehow always on the verge of making the correct turn at some vague point ‘up ahead’. So, rather than asking for directions, my vanity chewed up twenty more minutes using dead reckoning that finally did bring us out on the main road to Taranto just as the storm broke.

Lots of Lovely Homes in Lecce

By the way, my bride is an Angel. Even though she’d have a lot of trouble reading a TCI map, she always knows exactly whom to ask for directions. That night, she showed super-human restraint and remained quietly supportive throughout. 

Pesky kids (for who else would spend the time on such an elaborate prank?). Looking back, I’m guessing that there must not be much teen fun in Lecce if watching cars go around in a great loop several times is a major attraction. Or, maybe, in an unfortunately exported American tradition, it was a case of ‘sticking it to The Man’. I don’t know. But, we sure saw a lot more dark streets in Lecce than we’d intended.

After that little piece of character-building fun, we looked forward to the three hour drive back to our base in Nova Siri.

But… “Not so fast, mi amico!” said the Association of Italian Highway Engineers and Construction Inspectors. Their tender ministrations lasted five and a half hours, until we finally pulled over the ridge southeast of Taranto to see lights of the storm-shrouded city spead out below. We’d come about 45 miles as the crow flies from Lecce and were still more than an hour east of Nova Siri.

A Cove With Fishing Boats on the Way to Gallipoli

As I mentioned above, the TCI map shows government-designated main highways as thick, red lines. In real life, though, that can mean anything from four-lane, divided thoroughfares to 1½ lane, pot-holed tracks that run sign-free for 20 miles at a stretch (a future post will relate our adventure crossing the Apennines southeast of Salerno). 

Highway 7 was a red line that then included the full spectrum of government-designated possibilities. But the EU had decided to pour oodles of money into the under-developed south of Europe, especially Greece, Portugal and Southern Italy. And, detours are one thing that our friends at the Touring Club Italiano can’t anticipate. The whole highway was being upgraded fast, before the free German money ran out. There were four long detours between Lecce and Taranto that night.

One of them even had signs sort of leading back to Highway 7.

The storm finally did let up, just as I and my soundly asleep bride pulled into the hotel parking lot a little before 4:00 AM. Don’t’cha just love it when thoughtful folks work so hard to help build your character?

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This was a few years ago. Today, GPS and mapping software show you most of the detours. But there are still government engineers who take long breaks and forget to enter the data. All too often.

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