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Lecce’s architectural wonders

April 16, 2010 Leave a comment

by Guy Dinmore

Published: April 16 2010

A man drives his motorbike through a street in Lecce
Lecce’s old town

Even the “fast” train from Rome takes nearly six hours to get to Lecce, labouring over the Apennines before dipping across coastal flatlands and endless olive groves, past places like Monopoli, whose names recall the Greek heritage of Italy’s deep south.

In the baking summer heat it is a relief to enter the walled city of Lecce – the harsh light is absorbed by the famed limestone of its buildings. Spared the hordes of foreign tourists that cram the renaissance cities of Venice and Florence, Lecce has a provincial charm. The churches are quiet, but this is a university town, with a buzz in the bars, pastry shops and bookstores.

The city is a delight to explore on foot, each turning revealing another architectural treat. To understand the story behind the architecture, I hire a guide, Simona Melchiorre, a local historian, who is passionate about her home city. She tells me the stately grandeur of courtyard villas, some occupied by descendants of their original owners, and the refined elegance of the churches conceal a darker passage in Lecce’s history. Following the persecution of Jews in Spain, Charles V expelled the city’s Jewish population in 1541. Wanting space to build a castle, Charles V moved the church and local nobility into the former Jewish quarter. Read more…

Viterbo – Archaeology versus aircraft

March 27, 2010 Leave a comment

By Guy Dinmore

Published: March 27 2010

Skyline in Viterbo, Italy
Medieval towers dominate the skyline in Viterbo, Italy

Steam billows from the sulphurous hot springs of Le Masse di San Sisto and the conversation among languid bathers turns to politics and Silvio Berlusconi’s latest embarrassments as well as the more pressing matter of how best to prepare a wild fennel and tomato pasta.

With the sun setting over what might be the ruins of a nearby Roman temple, which no one has had the inclination to excavate, Mario Bracci, an architect who teaches archaeology, reflects on the deep and mostly unknown history of an undeveloped area that its conservative inhabitants, renowned for their inertia, would rather like to stay that way.

We are only 80km north of Rome, just outside the medieval walled city of Viterbo, but the Italian capital might as well be a lifetime away. Strolling over an unusually flat expanse of lawn, Bracci expounds on his theory of how this spot might have been the piazza of a vast Roman city at the crossroads of two ancient highways. Read more…

A toehold on change

October 25, 2008 Leave a comment

By Guy Dinmore Published: October 25 2008

The crowd blocking the piazza surged up the steps and heaved against the doors, held back by good-humoured police urging patience as ceremonial guards in pith helmets took up positions inside. Finally, 100 years after Reggio Calabria was reduced to rubble in the most devastating earthquake ever to strike Europe, this city perched at the toe of Italy was reopening its Pinacoteca Civica gallery, bringing its art collections together under one roof once more. The sun was shining and the sea was sparkling at the bottom of the arcaded hill, with Sicily and Mount Etna looming beyond. People were in a festive mood. Read more…

Escape to “Alcatraz”

July 5, 2008 Leave a comment

Small, flat and not much to see. That damning verdict on Ventotene by a travel guide – the author of which probably never bothered to check out that accepted piece of wisdom – is all the more reason to get on a boat and go.

Island-hopping does not feature prominently on Italy’s itineraries, but as a sedate alternative to dashing around packed piazzas, the state-run (but soon to be privatised) ferries servicing the west coast between Rome and Naples offer a safer and saner way to travel.

Not that Ventotene was ever famed as a must-see, unless you were in chains. From Roman until modern times, Ventotene and the nearby islet of Santo Stefano served as prison islands – Italy’s Alcatraz.

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The rediscovery of Rome

January 8, 2008 Leave a comment

By Guy Dinmore and Jennifer Grego

Published: January 8 2008

Italian archaeologists relish a good argument and they are being kept busy by some startling discoveries that could shed more light on the origins of Rome. These include the lost “lupercal”, the cave where, as legend tells it, the she-wolf suckled the city’s founders Romulus and Remus. Just outside the city, meanwhile, archaeologists are also pondering the significance of a new pattern of Etruscan tombs and its implications for the older civilisation’s erosion by encroaching Rome.

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