It’s all the rage in New York, at the Tribeca Film Festival, cofounded by Robert De Niro! The star is Lecce, the Salento peninsula and its architecture, featured in Ferzan Ozpetek’s brilliant comedy Loose Cannons, set on the beaches of Gallipoli, in the countryside and in the city of Lecce.
An honorary citizen of Lecce, he is not the only foreigner to represent the international flavour of the Salento. In 2010 Lonely Planet included Lecce in its list of the world’s top 10 cities, places everyone should visit at least once. And then there are the new “massari”: people like Helen Mirren, who won an Oscar in 2007 for her role as Elisabeth II in The Queen, and has now bought a sixteenth-century “masseria” in Otranto, or Lord Alistair McAlpine, Tory treasurer in the days of Margaret Thatcher, who has converted a “masseria” in Marittima di Diso into a very exclusive b&b, the Convento di Santa Maria di Costantinopoli. Or Police drummer Stewart Copeland, who is speaking up for the music of Salento all over the world. He was invited to be master of ceremonies at “La notte della taranta”, a festival focusing on rediscovery of ethnic music, and has become an expert at dancing the pizzica, a traditional local folk dance, as well as an honorary citizen of the town.
But how has public and private architecture changed in the Salento?
This itinerary starts in the Baroque city of Lecce and continues down to the end of the heel of the boot of Italy, Capo di Leuca, with its lighthouse and the Basilica of Santa Maria de Finibus Terrae. Lecce, both sacred and profane: visit the San Giovanni Battista parish complex by architects Franco Purini and Laura Thermes near the city’s stadium, designed to express a destabilisation of space which gives it a strong dynamic fragmentation even while preserving a strong unity.
And then there are two hotel conversion projects in an entirely different vein. Il Risorgimento Resort is the product of a restoration and preservation project by architect Bart Conterio in an area measuring about 4 thousand square metres. The architect paid special care to the principles of sustainability in the building, using, for example, the traditional bioclimatic construction technique known as the ”camere dello scirocco”(underground chambers created to ventilate the home with fresh air)which draws on the Islamic tradition which came to Italy in the 16th and 17th centuries. Luca Scacchetti’s interior design picks up on the distinctive colours of the Salento, beige like the stone of Lecce, green like the olive trees and brown like the grapevines. An alternative solution also offering quality hospitality in a beautiful architectural setting is Arco Vecchio b&b. It has a curious history: historically the headquarters of the communist party, the six rooms and the suite now available to guests are a little jewel for technology fans, starting with the entrance to the b&b. Minimalism in the midst of a Baroque triumph.
Only a few kilometres outside the city is the “Mediterranean green”, Acaya Golf Resort. A landmark for golf lovers, this 120 hectare golf course was designed by the American architectural studio Hurdzan-Fry. Travelling south along the back-bone of the peninsula, be sure to stop at the old Lamarque tannery in Maglie to see a permanent exhibition about traditional tanning with products of plant origin set up in a typical Salento home. Next to the museum, which features a hydraulic system for collection of rainwater which has been restored by owner Luigi Orione Amato, you can stay in one the six rooms in the “Corte dei Francesi “ where the tanners lived in the 1800s. The exhibition route through cisterns, tanks, canals and perfectly preserved artefacts is amazing.
But the sea is the main attraction. And from there you can see an important urban redevelopment project underway, the construction of the new harbour authority and passenger terminal in the port of Otranto designed by architect Mario Cucinella. And the triumph of Lecce stone completely covering the reinforced concrete of this building, extending the ramparts of the city out into the sea, of the Soleto stone used to pave the plaza behind it and the Apricena stone used in the wharves and passageways.
There have also been many major private restoration projects converting curious spaces into homes; for instance, the former tobacco manufactures which were the area’s main source of employment and income until the mid 20th century. But the Salento is also a land of spirit and matter. One place of the spirit is Club GibÃ², a disco and restaurant featuring local architecture, colours, fragrances and sounds. Perched on a promontory near Santa Maria di Leuca, the club goes by the motto “Just for special people”. And then there is a vast choice of places to eat: in an authentic country home, A Casa tu Martinu, to enjoy a vast selection of pittule and fritelline (traditional fritters), or at the Stanzie, near Supersano, a sixteenth-century “masseria” with a Byzantine crypt, where diners let themselves be carried away by twenty courses of dishes made from km zero ingredients, without neglecting l'Acchiatura di Racale, a restaurant offering traditional dishes of Puglia; the b&b and wellness centre in Palazzo Briganti features a cave with a swimming pool in it and terraces with a solarium. It is the focus on location and design that dominates the architecture of the Salento peninsula, avoiding the confusion of tastes characteristic of our contemporary media-influenced age.