Just to the south of Lecce is the town of Galatina, previously known as San Pietro in Galatina as it was founded in the 12th Century in the area where St. Peter stopped on his way to Rome from Antioch. It is one of the larger towns of the Salento (population 28,000). It is 20-30 minutes drive from Lecce, and is also easily reached from Lecce by train on the Ferrovaria Sud Est via Zollino, the station is five minutes walk from the centre.
The historical centre is pretty extraordinary It consists of interesting streets connecting a series of small squares, all containing hugely impressive buildings in a highly decorated baroque/rococo style, reflecting the wealth of the town in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It also contains the Basilica of Saint Catherine of Alexandria with its astounding internal decoration of fifteenth century frescoes.
The city council is clearly making a big effort to promote Galatina as a visitor destination. It is clean and well maintained, and has an excellent tourist information service. The town seems massively undervalued and underdeveloped as a tourism centre. It is inevitably overshadowed by nearby Lecce, Otranto and Gallipoli, but we would highly recommend a trip to Galatina and place it on a level with these other places as somewhere to spend time when in Puglia.
The high spot on a list of specific buildings to see is the Basilica di Santa Caterina d'Alessandria. This is the town's earliest church, built in the late 15th Century by the Orsini family's Count Raimondello, who had brought back a relic of Saint Catherine (her finger, which is preserved in the church) from the Holy Land.
The church occupies one side of the small Piazza Orsini. It is constructed in Gothic/Romanesque style. and is decidedly unimpressive externally for such a significant building, although it has some interesting details on the main frontage, and an attractive rose window. However, step inside and you will encounter an enormous and complicated interior, and every surface decorated with elaborate frescoes - a complete contrast to the baroque decorations usually encountered in this part of Puglia. The frescoes are like a picture gallery, and extend over the walls, pillars, arches, ceilings etc. They were commissioned by Maria d'Enghien, widow of Count Raimondello, in the first half of the sixteenth century soon after the church was built. They consist of a series of pictorial cycles: the Apocalypse; Genesis; the Sacraments; the Evangelists; the life of Christ; and the life of Santa Caterina. Painted by specialists who were students of Giotto, these frescoes are regarded as second only in quality and significance to those in the Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi.
The church is usually open 8.30am-12.30pm and 4.00pm-6.45pm. You will need 2 euros in euro coins to activate the illuminations, make sure you do this otherwise you will miss the impact of the frescoes. This website link gives a lot more information and some wonderful photographs of the frescoes.
The town walls date back to the 16th Century, as does the Castello Ducale. In the following two centuries, the town prospered and added many baroque-style buildings, in a similar fashion to the city of Lecce, which has resulted in the town, along with Nardo and Galatone being referred to as the 'minor baroque'.
Whilst the old town is not filled with cafes and restaurants, there are places you can get refreshment scattered around. We had a very decent and reasonably priced meal at Corte del Fuoco, located on Piazza S. Lorenzo, not far from Piazza Orsini and the Basilica. Just on the edge of the old town is the more recent tree filled Piazza Alighieri which contains a number of cafes.
The town celebrates it's patron saints, Peter and Paul, on the 28th - 30th June each year. The festival focuses around the myth of the 'tarantula' or 'tarantella' dance - that two women who went mad and consumed by a trance-like state after being bitten by a spider, made their way to the chapel of Saint Paul in order to be saved. They were followed by a procession of musicians playing pizzica music popular in the region - the victim's frenzied and spinning dancing to the fast paced music is said to have cured them of the spider's poison and returned them to health. The town is also involved in the series of events organised as part of La Notte Della Taranta Festival - www.lanottedellataranta.it - in 2015 this took place on the 13th August with a performance from the festival's own orchestra in the Piazza San Pietro.