An authentic, albeit somewhat surprising, cultural experience in Lecce
Despite having lived in Lecce for nearly three years now, this weekend I had my very first taste of the famous festival celebrating Lecce’s patron saint, Sant’Oronzo.
People from all around the province flooded the streets of Lecce for the annual, three-day festival, dedicated to Sant’Oronzo (or Saint Orontius, if you want the English version), held the last weekend in August.
In case you’ve never heard of him, he was Lecce’s first bishop and lived during the 1st century A.D.
That is, until he got on the Emperor Nero’s nerves for continuing to preach Christianity and was eventually beheaded, along with his nephew, Fortunato (who unfortunately didn’t get to live up to his name, “Lucky”) and friend Giusto, who was a disciple of St. Paul.
How a patron saint feast goes down in Southern Italy
So even though the party gets named after Oronzo, Lecce actually has two other patron saints, St. Giusto and St. Fortunato, and they all get celebrated with three days of lights, music and microphoned salespeople lined up and down Lecce’s main streets, hawking everything from vacuum cleaners and handheld juicers, to costume jewelry and push-up bras.
I myself was a little surprised at the logic of selling kitchen appliances amidst the cotton candy stands and balloon sellers, but people were very attentive to the catchy sales pitches, which were as mesmerizing as a late-night infomercial.
Maybe that’s the idea, catch people after they’ve eaten dinner and aren’t as hesitant to buy a new set of nonstick pots and pans.
Aside from the commercial bonanza however, the celebration actually does start off with a solemn procession, which, as per Italian custom, includes statues of the three saints being carried around the city by resident Catholics.
Alternating amidst the prayers and hymns, the local marching band provides musical accompaniment, as the statues make their way around the city. After that, a mass is held by the bishop in their honor.
Like most patron saint festivals in the area, one can’t miss the breathtaking luminarie, geometric configurations of colorful lights that decorate Piazza Sant’Oronzo, Lecce’s main square, as well as surrounding areas.
Traditional food from Salento
Another important feature is of course the food, which, aside from your typical crepe with Nutella, includes special items only sold during le feste: salty lupini beans, scapece (small fried fish in vinegar with breadcrumbs and saffron), and cupeta (rectangles of crunchy, caramelized almonds).
Others snacks include slices of fresh coconut, baggies of moist almonds in water, and more varieties of olives (I swear, there were at least 15 different kinds) then you can shake a stick at.
I wasn’t able to check out the bandstand outside of Porta Rudiae (which, together with Porta Napoli and Porta San Biagio, comprise the city’s ancient, arched entrances), although I did get to watch energetic local performers singing in both Italian and Leccese dialect from the main stage set up in Piazza Sant’Oronzo.
The numerous acts, some accompanied by typical pizzica dancers twirling onstage, got everyone from toddlers to nonnas shaking their booty, and after the final act, a beautiful fireworks display lit up the sky.
The Heart of Southern Italy, your insider tour guide for experience in Lecce, Puglia and beyond
When you travel to Puglia with The Heart of Southern Italy, we give you tasty bites of culture you won’t see or experience anywhere else. We want you to live that local festival; try those typical dishes; interact with local folk; and experience the sights, sounds and tastes that make Puglia so one of a kind.