“Florence, Venice, and Rome?[…] Forget about it! If you have a passion for Baroque architecture and/or a sweet tooth, head for Galatina, about one-half hour south of the city of Lecce in the province of Puglia.”
With these words, a few weeks ago, Forbes invited its readers to take a trip to discover Galatina, my home town.
Momondo asked its Open World Travelers Ambassador to write a guide to their home town, to discover all the best views, restaurants, pubs and other hidden gems.
Galatina is a small town in the Province of Lecce in Apulia, in southern Italy, located approximately 20km south of the city of Lecce. With its around 30,000 inhabitants, growing up there very often felt limiting for all my dreams and ambitions and I couldn’t wait to finish school and leave this place.
It took me several years living abroad to truly understand the beauty of this town. Now, eight years later, I cannot wait for my holidays to go back home to finally be able to admire its simple elegant and keep finding hidden spots.
Wondering what to see and do if you happen to find yourself in the so-called bellybutton of Salento? Here’s some ideas!
Get lost through its timeless alleys
The old town of Galatina is a real open sky museum, with its stone paved streets, huge houses and old buildings with elegant doors and baroque decorations, courts full of flowers and arches and much more.
Simply get lost through the small alleys and try to find all the hidden gems yourself, like the doors to the old city or the faces carved into the walls. Take your time to slowly walk through the small streets and just admire the details in every single decorations.
Old town alleys. Photo Credit: Andrea Bardoscia
You can see the St. Peter’s church, or Chiesa Madre, dominating the main square or the Chiesa delle Anime del Purgatorio, with an octagonal shape. But there are many more churches, such as San Biagio, Chiesa dei Battenti, San Luigi, Chiesa del Collegio, Madonna del Carmine and many more crypts outside of the town. You could easily spend a day trying to discover them all and notice the different decorative styles.
Top: Chiesa di San Biagio, Chiesa dei Battenti. Bottom: Fresco details, Chiesa Madre. Photo Credit Andrea Bardoscia.
Other iconic spots in the town is the Clock Tower, Torre dell’Orologio – local people like to think of it as our own version of the London’s Big Ben – and Piazza Dante Alighieri, the town main square and heart of Galatina, meeting point for people of all ages and where most of the nightlife happens.
Feeling a bit peckish? Try a pasticciotto!
The number one reason to visit Galatina is trying the world famous pasticiotto. Although, by now, you will be able to find this delicious custard filled sweet almost everywhere in Italy – and sometimes even abroad –Galatina is its true birth place, where its recipe was created in 1745 by Nicola Ascalone.
For this reason, the most famous place to try this food is Pasticceria Ascalone, run directly by the family of the pasticciotto creator. Situated right in the heart of the town, get ready to make a trip back in time, from the vintage furniture to the newspaper articles on the walls, full of reviews and praises to this amazing sweet.
In some bars and pastry shops, you will be able to find other variants of the pasticcioto, from the chocolate to the pistachio one. However, if a true local experience is what you are looking for, try the traditional plain one. But be careful – pasticciottos are known to cause addiction!
A feast for the eyes: Basilica di Santa Caterina d’Alessandria
Another thing people from Galatina are particularly proud of – and with a reason! – is the Santa Caterina d’Alessandria Basilica. Recently renovated, this basilica has been declared a national monument at the end of the 19th century.
The white stone outside walls and the huge central rose window give this place an elegant and timeless look, but the best part is inside. Simply walk in and look up and around you! The basilica is filled with bright coloured frescoes that offer a unique visual experience. As if this wasn’t enough, you can take a walk in the adjacent cloister to enjoy some peace and quiet.
Dance to pizzica until your feet hurt and visit St. Paul’s church
Dance and a church: a funny combination, right? Pizzica is the traditional form of dance and music from Salento. The origins and the legend behind this tradition are extremely fascinating. The story my grandmother would tell me is that women who used to work in the fields were often bitten by a poisonous spider, or taranta, which caused them to go insane. This state would last until when, every June 29th – the date we celebrate St. Peter and Paul’s day – they were brought to the St. Paul’s chapel and were cured by a sort of magic ceremony. These women would drink water from a well – apparently full of snakes – and while listening to musicians playing their tambourines, harmonics and violins, they would give in to the rhythm and notes of pizzica and dance to it until they were finally cured from their insanity.
The real story behind it is that women were probably the victim of repression in the past and, just for one day, they used music and dance to express all the felt. Kind of what today would be called musicotherapy.
Over the summer months, no matter where you go, you will hear pizzica playing in every single town. The Notte della Taranta festival, the main music festival dedicated to this traditional music, has been getting so much popularity that is has expanded not all to all of Italy, but even abroad.
For an authentic experience, take part to the St. Peter and Paul’s celebrations: listen to music playing at night, dance, try to play the tamburello yourself – local people would be happy to show you how – and admire the luminarie, the traditional light decorations, very popular across Salento for town celebrations and festivals.
On the early morning of June 29th, go to the main square and to St. Paul church and watch people perform pizzica in the traditional costumes. Watch out for the sign entering the church that kindly asks visitors not to dance on the altar!
Catch a movie at Cinema Tartaro or a play at Cavallino Bianco
Both recently renovated, these two theatres are an important part in the cultural history of the town.
The Tartaro theatre has been standing since the ’30 and now hosts a cinema and a small shopping centre. While inside it looks like a traditional cinema and they usually only show one movie at the time, it’s a nice way of spending a rainy evening.
The Cavallino Bianco Theatre used to be both a cinema and a theatre where local dance and music schools used to hold their shows. Now it is used mainly to show plays and music events, even some with well-known artists. For example, I managed to catch the Nicola Piovani’s concert in this cosy theatre.
Nightlife and more…
If you decide to go out in Galatina, there might be a few options for you. Head to main square to find a selection of bars or walk thought the small alleys and pass the Clock Tower to have a few drinks at La Staffa. This small pub might not be easy to find, but it’s full of character and good rock music, very popular among young and older people too. It is also set in one of the best secret spots in town, surrounded by old and picturesque houses.
If you need a quick snack before the party starts, look for places who sell pizza slices and calzoni, but of a local experience, try a rustico, a round puff pastry snack filled with cheese and tomato sauce.
If going out and party isn’t for you, no worries! You won’t always be able to find information about other activities advertised on the internet, unless you know where to look for, but young people in Galatina are particularly active and a lot of cultural events are often organised. Make sure to check the Palazzo della Cultura – where you will also find a library – and Museo Pietro Cavoti for events like book readings, exhibitions and dance shows.
Other bits and pieces
If you need a quick escape, take a walk in the countryside and enjoy the peaceful landscape, warm colours of the nature around and sound of the crickets. Walk through the old olive trees and try to discover the old dry stone walls and little houses.
Finally, thanks to its central position in the Salento region, Galatina makes the perfect starting point for a day trip to discover the rest Salento.