(image by Paolo Margari on Flickr)

It is an Italian tradition to take an evening stroll, known as the passeggiata. It is far less about getting fresh air than seeing and being seen. This country is all about the outward appearance. Strange, then, that clothes, toiletries and make-up should be so criminally expensive, but that’s another blog for another time …

It is Friday night, at the end of my second or third week in Italy, and a friend of Alex’s, G, arrives at the flat, suggesting we go to a local festa. Annoyingly, he is drop-dead gorgeous – I say annoyingly because I have no make-up on, and am red-faced and sweaty after having been cooking all afternoon. I beat a hasty retreat to my room and put some slap on, hoping that I’m not being too obvious. Not that it would matter if I were – this is Italy after all. They don’t do subtlety. I return to the sitting room with a smile. Andiamo? We troop downstairs and into G’s car. He speaks minimal English, so Alex is in interpreter mode for the evening, which is quite hard on him, but we manage to work it out. Indeed, there is one point when G is talking about ‘gamberetti’ and I have to translate the word for Alex. Hehehe. I may be a failure at the language of lurve, but by god I know how to speak foodie.

There is some banter in the car as to whether we should really go to this festa. G shrugs and says it will probably be boring. Alex and I are just happy not to be either teaching or sitting in the flat, knackered. There is a moment of indecision and then G swings the car around dramatically – we go to Lecce! This is exciting. Alex relates the story of me driving there pointlessly the day before to G. I hadn’t realised that, unlike my town, it’s actually quite a big place. I managed to get there OK in the car, but then couldn’t find anywhere to park. I am quite pleased to find that they think me brave for attempting it, rather than being a bit of an idiot for not succeeding. Clearly even Italians think that their driving is nightmarish! Going with someone who knows where they are going is therefore a FAR better idea, and I acquiesce happily to this plan.

We arrive in Lecce and immediately get snarled up in traffic. Light by London standards, but still not inconsiderable. I gaze out of the window at the hundreds of people walking about – this is passegiata time. Most of the people walking around are young – under 40. There are families with pushchairs, teenagers, men and women, all dressed to impress and keeping a close eye on everyone else. They all look very much the same. With the worrying over outward appearances comes conformity. They are all beautifully turned out, but individuality seems not to be a concept that is embraced here.

We park up and walk along the street to the main square. The sheer number of people in the street is amazing. Even so, I stand out in my blue boyfriend jeans. Even the plainest jeans here are dark, fitted and feature at least a diamante pattern on the back pocket. I feel dowdy up against the Italians. This thought doesn’t occupy me for long, however, as G, Alex and I start a conversation about cameras. We are all keen photographers, although from the sound of it G is in a slightly different league to Alex and me. He waxes lyrical about his new SLR and gently teases Alex about his Samsung compact. My Canon comes in for some slightly surprised approval – yes, machismo is alive and well here. Still, at least from him it’s done in a friendly fashion.

Suddenly, conversation is cut short as we round a corner into a large piazza. “Sant’Oronzo!” cries G, as he gestures dramatically towards the column in the centre of the square, which features said Saint. We go to take a closer look, and come across a Roman amphitheatre right next to it. This place is brilliant! G is fairly laissez-faire about the amphitheatre, which is clearly part of an archaeological excavation. Most of it is still hidden underneath the piazza in which we’re standing, but there’s a good quarter of it on show. I hang excitedly over the edge of the bridge, looking at the way the amphitheatre has been designed with areas for the animals underneath the seating for the crowds. Fantastic stuff.

Noticing my excitement at the architecture, G leads on, and I begin to understand his nonchalance. This is but the tip of the iceberg. Every corner we round seems to have an ornate baroque building or statue, each more impressive than the last. Not for nothing is Lecce known as the Florence of the South. This despite Lecce being an older city. Ah well – we are but peasants down here, after all …

We wander happily for an hour or so. Somewhat ridiculously, we end up in an Irish pub – it seems they get everywhere. It’s a little different to the Irish pubs in England, though, as it is crammed full of teenagers. So far, so similar. However, these teenagers are drinking coke, eating the most delicious-looking pizzas and chatting at full volume. Apparently not so similar as it would first appear.

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About Kate Bailward

Kate Bailward is a cat-loving, trifle-hating, maniac driver. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+
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