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Festa di Sant’Oronzo, the feast of the city’s founding Saint

Festa di Sant’Oronzo, the feast of the city’s founding Saint

Once a year between August 24th and August 26th, the city of Lecce celebrates la festa di Sant’Oronzo, the feast of the city’s founding Saint. This celebration literally shuts the city down, and allows its members, and any tourists that get caught up in the mix, to enjoy the festivities, including music, food and dozens of booths set up in the historic center.

During the months prior to the festa, strapping local men can be seen assembling huge light sculptures throughout the streets, stringing them down the main drags where everyone takes their passeggiata, or stroll, in the early evening hours. These lights are then used to illuminate the city and create a whimsical atmosphere, especially in Piazza Sant’Oronzo where most of the concerts take place.

Marco and I decided to spend our Saturday night wandering the streets and entertaining ourselves with sweets and live music on the streets, while we perused the vendors that sold everything from brooms to trinkets from Africa. We first bought a bright pink cotton candy from a vendor in Piazza Sant’Oronzo, we then made our way to one of the many crepe booths stationed near the square and picked up one of those as well. Marco’s love for all things spicy brought us to a booth that sold all kinds of sweets, (called caramelle), as well as crunchy snack items, from which we chose the one sprinkled with red pepper flakes.

We made our rounds at each of the booths, squeezing between the immense crowds of people, stopping to watch old Italian men with calloused hands, work warmed caramel, full of almonds, into bite sized shapes. Thankfully Marco and I share a passion for sweets, so we spent most of our time filling ourselves on licorice flavored candies and gummy worms, watching numerous demonstrations on useful household products.

When the crowds became too much we made our way back to Piazza Sant’Oronzo, and found a spot on a bench where we could relax and watch the parade march past, it was full of holy people chanting, all in honor of Sant’Oronzo. These types of festivals were once held at cities throughout all of southern Italy as each città has been given its own Saint, therefore each has its own Saint’s day. Most of the festivals were similar to Lecce’s, with the lights, food and music. I was fortunate enough to be crammed into Marco’s Fiat on trips to these kinds of feste. Events where bands would play and caramelle would always finish off the night.

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Festa di Sant’Oronzo

Once a year between August 24th and August 26th, the city of Lecce celebrates la festa di Sant’Oronzo, the feast of the city’s founding Saint. This celebration literally shuts the city down, and allows its members, and any tourists that get caught up in the mix, to enjoy the festivities, including music, food and dozens of booths set up in the historic center.
During the months prior to the festa, strapping local men can be seen assembling huge light sculptures throughout the streets, stringing them down the main drags where everyone takes their passeggiata, or stroll, in the early evening hours. These lights are then used to illuminate the city and create a whimsical atmosphere, especially in Piazza Sant’Oronzo where most of the concerts take place.
Marco and I decided to spend our Saturday night wandering the streets and entertaining ourselves with sweets and live music on the streets, while we perused the vendors that sold everything from brooms to trinkets from Africa. We first bought a bright pink cotton candy from a vendor in Piazza Sant’Oronzo, we then made our way to one of the many crepe booths stationed near the square and picked up one of those as well. Marco’s love for all things spicy brought us to a booth that sold all kinds of sweets, (called caramelle), as well as crunchy snack items, from which we chose the one sprinkled with red pepper flakes.
We made our rounds at each of the booths, squeezing between the immense crowds of people, stopping to watch old Italian men with calloused hands, work warmed caramel, full of almonds, into bite sized shapes. Thankfully Marco and I share a passion for sweets, so we spent most of our time filling ourselves on licorice flavored candies and gummy worms, watching numerous demonstrations on useful household products.
When the crowds became too much we made our way back to Piazza Sant’Oronzo, and found a spot on a bench where we could relax and watch the parade march past, it was full of holy people chanting, all in honor of Sant’Oronzo. These types of festivals were once held at cities throughout all of southern Italy as each città has been given its own Saint, therefore each has its own Saint’s day. Most of the festivals were similar to Lecce’s, with the lights, food and music. I was fortunate enough to be crammed into Marco’s Fiat on trips to these kinds of feste. Events where bands would play and caramelle would always finish off the night.

Touristless Torre Chianca

Marco hated the beach near his family’s summer home. He claimed that Torre Chianca, the beaches name, was schifo, loosely translated as “gross”, so when he took me there as one of our first outings as a couple, I didn’t know what to expect. Growing up in California I had seen my share of beautiful beaches, but I had also experienced those riddled with cigarette butts and covered in seaweed and sand flies, so I readied myself for the worst.
When we arrived we stepped from his tiny green Fiat, which he parked for free only feet from the sand, onto a pristine white sand beach, with calm and clear water, a far cry from the freezing and choppy waves I was used to in Santa Cruz. Marco had grown up on this beach, running around all summer with friends, all getting freakishly tanned as they played in the warm salt water and ate ice cream sold at stands that dot the coastline. I was instantly jealous.
We set up our towels not far from the water, about twenty feet away, and as I am a fish at heart, I tossed the shorts and tank top I was wearing onto my pile of things and dragged Marco into the sea. He stood there shaking, complaining of the cold water while I frolicked and splashed him, until finally he dove in and swam out to a deeper area with me. After we had our fill, we walked back to our asciugamani, or towels, and dozed beneath a warm, but not intense, heat from the afternoon sun.
In California, at any beach, you will be forced to squeeze in between tourists from all over the world, and fight for a bit of sun between the enormous umbrellas they all insist on bringing with them. Southern Italy is not much different with their destination spots, such as Castro and Gallipoli, being over crowded with locals and visitors alike, but the lesser known beaches near the smaller towns are never crowded, even during August when most of the country goes on holiday.
Torre Chianca did have its random tourists from northern Italy, who would play soccer and speak in strange dialects, but for the most parts it was just locals like Marco, and we would often see his friends strolling along down the beach.
Because Marco grew up on this stretch of beach it doesn’t surprise me that Torre Chianca isn’t his favorite spot, but it definitely became mine. With room to spare, stunning views and a cold beer in the afternoon, what other beach experience would you ever want?

Crepe Masters

For Katie’s 22nd birthday, she had organized a dinner with a blend of Italians and Americans alike, which included the newest au pairs from the states and their smitten Italian boyfriends. My own ragazzo, or boyfriend, Marco was there and we had a great time chattering in both languages, speaking of wine, parties and life, while making the most noise this little pizzeria had ever seen. We ordered calamari fritti, pizza with spicy salami, known as diavola, and of course, French fries.
After four carafes of red wine and enough French fries to clog an artery, we headed over to Le Dolci Crepes, a creperia just down the street from Piazza Sant’Oronzo. This was Katie’s favorite crepe place in all of Lecce, and there were plenty to choose from. The appeal lay in its owner, Oronzino, whose endless energy and obsession with Michael Jackson endeared him to her almost instantly. The second we entered, woozy from wine and unsure how we were going to fit in these handmade delicacies, Oronzino practically leapt from behind his counter to greet us. He presented Katie with a bottle of champagne for her birthday and gave her tanti baci, many kisses, to help her ring in the new beginning. Michael Jackson was played as Katie acted as DJ, and the rest of us settled into the somewhat uncomfortable chairs that provided the only seating in this tiny place.
After each of us were given a nutella filled crepe, Oronzino let Katie try her hand at making them for some of his regular customers. We all sipped champagne as we watched her fumble with the wrist movement necessary to create the perfectly shaped crepe. She had a blast and Oronzino smiled affectionately whenever she would curse in her lovely English accent.
Around three in the morning we all decided it was time for bed, and began to leave, Katie hauling the half finished champagne bottle along with her to finish off with her own boyfriend, who had just arrived from work. Oronzino made Marco and I a miniature nutella and cocco, or coconut, filled crepe for the road and, as we walked through the historic center of Lecce towards his car, we licked our fingers and agreed, we could live off crepes for life; that and diavola style pizza.

Gyro Madness

In order to pay my rent while I stayed in Lecce, I began working for a restaurant close to Porta San Biagio called Sapori di Grecia, which sold Greek food, obviously. This meant Gyros, Moussakas and Baklavas. During the summer there was a modest cobblestone outdoor dining area which I, along with the other female workers, (as only women worked there as servers), set up and took down each night. With a beautiful flowering vine inching along wires strung over the eating area, it was a lovely spot to have a quick bite and escape from the overwhelming heat.
Since my Italian was still a bit shaky, I was asked to run food out to the tables, and prepare the salads and appetizers for the restaurant. Having worked in a kitchen before, I found this job most enjoyable and took pride in my sampler platters with involtini, feta and olives.
At times I was sent out to assist an English-speaking table because the other waitresses were unable to communicate with them. I would chat with them about the nearby beaches, and pointed them in the direction of the best spots to get cioccolato caldo (hot chocolate) and nutella filled cornetti, the Italian version of a croissant, for their breakfasts in the morning.

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As it was a restaurant in Europe, we did not expect any tips, and when we did divide up the euro or two left on the tables at the end of the night, it added up to four or five Euros each, tops. I didn’t care, I wasn’t there for the money, but rather to immerse myself that much further into the culture, and also, of course, for the free food.
Odissea, the cook, was Greek himself and could put together the most delicious Gyros in under two minutes flat. There was tiny window attached to the kitchen where people could order `food to go`, and when the restaurant was full, Odissea was slammed with orders from all sides, his tiny bald head producing fat beads of sweat which he wiped off constantly with a huge roll of paper towels. He was forever yelling out table numbers in Italian, and I would drop whatever I was doing to take as many plates as I could to the hungry diners seated outside.
I became more comfortable with the Italian and eventually was able to take tables on my own, answering questions about my origins after the locals saw that I was not a native speaker. “Sono della California”, I would say and suddenly we were best friends and joked about our lagging economy.
Overall, it was one of the more challenging experiences, but with many rewards. I learned how hard Italians work, and how little they are paid for it, and also that they are always happy to accommodate you, no matter what time you come in to eat, whether it be five in the afternoon or midnight. It is just the Italian way.

Beach Dancing

Katie, Marco and I were stuffed into his tiny green Fiat, blasting Jamiriquoi as we sped along the dark roads towards the sea, to a club called Buenaventura. This club was where all of the local kids from Lecce would end up every Saturday night, dancing and drinking until the sun came up. Situated on the beach, Buenaventura greeted its guests with a long wooden plank leading to the main dance area and the two bars where you could get the Italian versions of your favorite American cocktails. `Sex on the Beach` was our personal favorite, and as we sipped from the tiny plastic cups we grooved to a blend of classic rock, soul, alternative and punk, thanks to Tobia, the resident DJ.

When you wanted a break from dancing there were dozens of beach chairs set up along the sand where couples could catch a few private moments under the canopies, or those who had drunk too much could sleep it off before returning to the party. If I needed a break from the often-packed club, I would wander alone to one of these lounging chairs and stare up at the stars, they seemed closer and much brighter here on the Mediterranean coast.

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Be Rude and Eat Nothing

My best mate Katie and I were sitting down at one of the nicest restaurants in Lecce, situated at the heart of its historic center. With the warm summer weather, we had requested a table outside, and were soon seated near the entrance of Torre di Merlino, menus in hand, already scanning their wine selections.

It was a bittersweet meal, as I was planning on leaving Lecce soon and heading to New York, my tourist visa was almost expired, and I was also out of funds. We picked this place because their outside seating area was always filled with beautiful locals, dining on lobster and sipping on their third bottle of Salento wine.

After ordering a bottle for ourselves, and an appetizer of grilled portabello, on top of buffalo mozzarella, on top of vine tomatoes, and finished off with a balsamic reduction. We began to relax into our evening, talking of people we had met, people we missed, and the incredible memories we had collected over the summer.

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The City Sleeps

It is 1:30pm in the afternoon in Lecce and the temperature has reached the ungodly extreme of 38 degrees Celsius (roughly 100 Fahrenheit), it is accompanied by the kind of humidity usually associated with the deep south of Louisiana. All of Lecce is at home, lying in their beds with a fan propped close to their faces as they sleep away the afternoon’s most intense hours of sunshine. As for myself, this is the Lecce that I find most enjoyable, a sleeping city, where I could roam the streets alone, seeing only a stray tourist in search of an open farmacia, not knowing that for 3 to 4 hours in the afternoon, all of the local shopkeepers leave their businesses, lock the doors, and go home for a leisurely lunch and a little nap, before heading back to work for the night.

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There was one spot that I found was always open, and no matter what time of day it was, I could always count on this small bar tucked behind Piazza Sant’Oronzo to serve delicious iced espresso, or caffé in ghiaccio (a southern specialty), along with a cup of fresh fragola (strawberry) gelato, my summer favorite. When I found myself wandering the streets during these quiet afternoon hours, I would always sit here and read whichever book I had brought with me, for I always had a book in my bag. I ordered a caffé and sat for an hour reading, watching the locals jabber on in dialect, not understanding a word.

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Palio, I Heart You

Allison and I, along with a half dozen of our American friends from the Summer Abroad Program, had finally found the party for Bruco, or caterpillar, one of the Contrade (neighborhoods) competing in this year’s Palio in Siena. We had big plans to partake of the cheap wine and beer, dancing and general merriment that surrounds this type of festa. We stuck out like sore thumbs with our loud behavior and strange dance moves, but the Italians adored our outgoing spirits and would let us play along in the festivity, which they take so seriously.

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This historic event has been a staple during the summer months for over 700 years, stopping only during the era of the Plague when three fourths of Siena’s population passed away from the disease, the rest simply fled the city. For the past thirty years, the city has been thriving, and the Palio fever is stronger than ever. Each Contrada has been like an extremely close family that you have to be born into or could join later, only if you were baptized into the community. There have been songs, bitter rivalries and alliances that have stemmed from centuries of bad blood and family ties between ancient members.

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