LECCE IS SO PLEASANT THAT EVEN THIS LION SHOULD SMILE

This lion has a face like Bert Lahr, the Cowardly Lion in “The Wizard of Oz.” Insecure, melancholy, timid, weary. Just a big old ‘fraidy cat.

 

His stony countenance appears to whimper, “How long is this going on anyway? I want out; I want to go hide.” No chance. Bert, as I call him, is stuck in this pleasant southeastern Italian city, Lecce, soaring but not roaring above Via Umberto I. He’s a hold-up guy: one of 12 figures in human and animal form balancing the frontal balcony of the handsome baroque church of Santa Croce on their backs. There they are, just below the ornate rose window and above the main entry.

Theirs is obviously a noble, starring occupation, with more than three centuries of job security, and no end in sight. But they don’t look happy. From the way they peer down at you, Bert and his companions are straining candidates for hernia. Their 17th-century creator, sculptor Giuseppe Zimbalo, has given “What the hell am I doing here?” expressions to his cast of weight-lifters: six muscle men plus Bert, a griffin, an eagle, a horse, a weasel, and the historic wolf with maternal attachment to Romulus and Remus.

Zimbalo humanized his scenes. Adorning a column on one side of the front door are buxom ladies; on the other, chesty gentlemen. Cheesecake and beefcake: so near . . . and yet sharing only longing glances.

“Alas, dearies . . . you’ll never get together, and I’ll never escape,” a sympathetic Bert may be whispering.

Earlier in the day, on a misty inland plain in the neighborhood of the Salentine Coast, Rotundo d’Bonato had materialized amid his congregation of about 150 black-faced golden sheep. Slender, deeply bronzed, and weathered, 73-year-old d’Bonato, a shepherd all his life, said this somber, lonely, and rumpled countryside agrees with him.

Bert, the Lecce lion, might feel the same, especially surrounded by all those racks of lamb on the hoof.

D’Bonato pointed to a house in the distance, his home, not far from the village of Uggano la Chiesa. He said his sons had grown and moved to cities, none interested in chaperoning the family sheep. He pretty much stays away from cities himself, but recommended Lecce, about 50 miles from the bottom of Italy’s heel. He smiled, saying Zimbalo’s work on the facade of Santa Croce was amusing.

With her fluent Spanish, and enough Italian, my friend Aurelio had a good time conversing with him, and asked if he ever hired part-time assistants. She likes outdoor work. He shook his head, a polite no thanks. He didn’t think his wife would understand.

So it was off to Lecce, along the jumbly, rocky Salentine Coast, punctuated with sandy beaches. It is a rugged tan and gray strip of Puglia, washed aqua by the Adriatic Sea, that furnishes much building stone, some of it a limestone that is agreeable to work with and has been favored by sculptors whose work decorates Lecce. Rock-and-rolling wheelbarrows are seen everywhere, pushed by men with sledgehammers who have been knocking away portions of hillsides where pine, olive, and cactus fight for footholds.

Ancient fortifications, testimony to the value of the local quarries, now deteriorate gracefully. In such seaside towns as Castro and Marina Guardiola, ingenious (seemingly foolhardy) contractors and masons have somehow plastered villas against hostile cliffs. Along the road were small memorials to drivers like 20-year-old Elio Seri in 1968 who didn’t take the curves seriously enough.

A left turn took us away from the sea and soon, in eight miles, into Lecce, crisp and clean, where the fun-and-flowing (sometimes overflowing) style of baroque architecture catches your fancy in numerous splendid churches, palaces, and other public buildings.

“You will like the view from your room, 102,” says Cosimo Rosato, a proper and well-turned-out, yet cordial, manager at the small, excellent Patria Palace hotel.

Well, the half-view. Terrific nonetheless, around a building, revealing Zingarello’s balcony-bearers of Santa Croce, but only 50 percent of them. Enough of a reminder that the entire platoon is only a minute-or-so distant.

Looming above the city at 231 feet is the bell tower of the duomo. “You can see far, to the Adriatic and Ionian seas, from the top,” Rosato says, “but it’s a long climb, and today it’s too cloudy.” That’s good news here, although dismaying to ascent-happy Aurelio. But the golden snowflaked ceiling of the duomo cheers her.

Not as high up but more meaningful is the town’s patron, St. Oronzo, installed as the bishop of Lecce in 57 by St. Paul. Arms beckoning a welcome to visitors, he tops a column in Piazza St. Oronzo, ironically overseeing a small Roman amphitheater from the first century BC. It was a Roman emperor, Nero, who ordered him put to death.

Out front of the church of Santa Rosaria is another delightful Zimbalo facade strewn with angels and horticulture: pretty faces and flowers. All is sweetness and light, not like his vision of hard labor and the boy-can’t-meet-girl frustration of Santa Croce.

“I’m glad you like Lecce, and hope you’ll come back,” says Rosato at checkout time. “But you must not leave until you have had our traditional delicacy, a granita at Caffee Alvino. Not as old as St. Croce or Zingallo’s artistry, but you might say a baroque treat. You can get a granita many places, but Alvino is the home.”

It has been since 1910, a restful coffee and pastry joint. (Isn’t that too recent to be a tradition in this country?) Nevertheless, that’s when the Alvino family started concocting their specialty, heavily iced coffee with a thick cream (something like a smoothie), to be eaten with a spoon and accompanied by nifty little cookies. So explains the fourth-generation proprietor, Fabio Guglielmi, who married into the tasty business.

Yum. Good enough to put a smile on the face of a neighbor, Bert the forlorn lion.

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