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Lecce: Abbey of Santa Maria di Cerrate
Unlock the secrets of the Abbey of Santa Maria di Cerrate, a captivating Greek Orthodox monastery nestled in the heart of Lecce. Be mesmerized by the rich Puglian Romanesque architecture, stroll through the serenity of the gardens, and behold the majestic 13th-century Byzantine frescoes that adorn its ancient walls.
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Steeped in legend and shrouded in mystery, the Abbazia di Cerrate lies hidden among the rolling olive groves that blanket the countryside outside Lecce. According to local lore, the abbey's origins date back to Tancred, King of Sicily, who allegedly received a divine visitation from the Virgin Mary herself. However, historical records reveal that the abbey's true beginnings can be traced to the Norman prince Bohemond I of Antioch, who founded a monastery for Greek Orthodox monks of the Basilian order between the 11th and 12th centuries. This monastery flourished, becoming a beacon of culture in southern Italy, renowned for its impressive library and scriptorium, where monks painstakingly transcribed ancient texts. Over time, the abbey complex expanded, combining religious pursuits with agricultural activities. However, its prosperity was short-lived, as a brutal attack by Turkish pirates in 1711 left the abbey in ruins. It remained abandoned for centuries until the Province of Lecce intervened in 1965, commissioning a restoration project. In 2012, the Italian Environmental Fund (FAI) took over the project, working to open the property to the public. Today, despite ongoing restoration efforts, visitors can still marvel at this masterpiece of Puglian Romanesque architecture, replete with 13th-century Byzantine frescoes. The elegant 16th-century well and 13th-century loggia, adorned with intricate capitals carved from white Leccese stone, are a testament to the region's rich cultural heritage. The abbey's agricultural legacy is still evident in the ancient olive presses, underground mills, and rustic farmhouses, offering a glimpse into the daily lives of the monks who once called Cerrate home.