Steeply angled conical roofs litter the hillside as though they are an invasive species of mushroom. Cobbled streets wind across the horizon. Seemingly endless rows of white limestone dwellings are punctuated only by the occasional splash of colour from hanging baskets filled with blooming flowers. This fairytale setting is the site of the Trulli of Alberobello, Puglia; one of 54 UNESCO World Heritage Sites dotted across Italy.
The History of Alberobello’s Trulli
Unique to the Itria Valley region of Puglia in Italy, a Trullo is a unique drystone building typically whitewashed to dazzling effect, topped off with a conical roof. Many Trulli (the plural form of Trullo) have symbols painted onto their roofs. These symbols have religious or mystical significance intended to protect the inhabitants. Trulli were traditionally the homes of serfs and specifically (and ingeniously) designed to stay cool in the summer and retain their heat in the winter despite a complete absence of any mortar holding the entire structure together. Although their origins can be traced all the way back to the Bronze Age the real boom period of Alberobello’s Trullo construction lasted from the 14th to the 18th Century.
The historical background for the prevalence of Trulli in Alberobello appeals to modern day fiscal frugality and the simple desire to avoid the taxman! As the story goes, the construction of Trulli as homes and places of business was imposed on residents of the region by their 14th Century local feudal system rulers, the Counts of Conversano (the Acquaviva family), who themselves wished to avoid the taxes imposed on permanent urban structures by the King of Naples.
The fact that Trulli were built from simple limestone unbound by mortar meant that they could pass as temporary, unstable, structures that could be demolished at a moment’s notice. In fact, the very nature of Trulli construction ensures that the structure’s stability is dependent on a single ‘keystone’ which prevents a cave-in. Despite the obvious ‘edge-of-your-seat’ worries this may have imposed on Trulli owners it also had the benefit (if you can call it that) of allowing residents to completely demolish their houses with one swift tug of the keystone (let’s just hope nobody suffered from an escalating dispute that led to an unscrupulous neighbor pulling out a keystone!).
Of course, unstable houses – and the Acquaviva family’s insistence that residents destroy their houses every time the taxman visited – wasn’t exactly the ideal scenario for most residents. And so, after a mini revolution, several petitions and whole heap of disgruntlement Alberobello was, on May 27, 1797, granted ‘Royal Town’ status by the King; freeing it from the tyranny of its feudal Lords. This also meant a sharp decline in Trulli construction as mortar and wood were now permissible construction materials. The good news for us tourists is that 1,500 of them (in various states of renovation and modernization) remain today!
Visiting Alberobello’s Trulli
If you’re looking to visit Alberobello then you have two options; train and car. Train routes (the Ferrovie Sud Est (FSE)) link Alberobello to Bari (the nearest major city and international airport), Brindisi and Lecce. You can check out the latest timetables here.
Today’s Alberobello has become somewhat of a tourist hub and the 1,500 remaining ‘chocolate box’ Trulli attract visitors from far and wide. It’s not exactly difficult to see why; the whitewashed homes and quaint cobbled streets are a photographer’s paradise! Small souvenir shops, cafes and restaurants have sprung up and the cobbled streets can sometimes feel a little congested. If you’re looking to escape the crowds then here is my advice:
- Pick the Right ‘Zone’: Alberobello is split into two distinct zones. Rione Monti is the larger of the two and the more aesthetically photogenic if the postcard perfect white-walled Trulli are what you’re after. It’s in this area that most of the tourist infrastructure has developed and where most of the crowds congregate. On the opposite hillside (simply walk across the other side of the town’s main road, Largo Martellotta) is Rione Aia Piccola. Far fewer tourists make it to this area of the town and far fewer of the Trulli have been converted for tourist use. My advice is to start your visit in Rione Monti before heading over to Rione Aia Piccola for a more authentic look at real life in a Trulli village without the heaving crowds.
- Picking the Right Time of Day: Although Alberobello is one of Puglia’s most popular tourist ‘attractions’ most tourists actually chose to stay elsewhere and visit the town for the day. As a result you’ll find that the middle of day is when you can expect the vast majority of tour buses to clog up the town. The key to avoiding that congestion is to get up and out as early in the day as possible or to remain in the town as the sun begins to set (spending an evening sipping on a glass of wine as the setting sun bounces off of the white limestone walls in various shades of pink and orange is a treat in itself). What better way to achieve that than by staying in a Trullo! A few options you might want to check out include Trulli Holiday, Fascino Antico Trulli, Grandi Trulli Bed & Breakfast, or Astra Alberobello.
- Picking the Right Time of Year: Alberobello’s Trulli attract visitors year-round, particularly in July and August, when the town can get very crowded as the European school holidays bring tourists flocking to Italy. Although we aren’t talking about the same sorts of crowds you expect to see in Venice or Rome I’d still suggest avoiding these peak periods and visiting in the shoulder seasons between April and June or in September and October.
Zona Monumentale: The Zona Monumentale is the designation given to the area covering both Rione Aia Piccola and the Rione Monti which were declared National Monuments in 1930 and in 1910 respectively. As I mentioned above, the main tourist hub is Rione Monte and this is where you’ll find tourist-centric shops selling everything from olive oil and spices to pottery. Many of the Trulli owners will allow you into the Trulli to get views from their balconies (typically for a small fee) but if you’d prefer a view without a price then head on over to Rione Aia Piccola via the main staircase off of Largo Martellotta. The staircase leads to the Belvedere next to the Santa Lucia Church, from which it’s possible to enjoy panoramic views across the entirety of Rione dei Monti.
Chiesa Sant’Antonio da Padova: Climb the hill on which Rione Monte sits and you’ll eventually find your way to The Church of Sant’Antonio da Padova. From a religious the church is honestly nothing out of the ordinary. What makes the church of interest is that it was built in the Trulli style (with a little Romanesque influence and some modern constructions techniques thrown in for good measure).
Trullo Sovrano: Trullo Sovrano is the only Trullo to have a second floor and was among the first to be built using mortar; ushering in a profound shift in the construction methods used to build Trulli. Today the Trullo is a small museum with an equally small entrance fee of EUR 1.50 (at the time of writing).
Casa d’Amore: symbolic of the end of the reign of the Acquaviva family the two-story Casa d’Amore was built in 1797 straight after Alberobello was freed from their oversight, directly opposite the Count’s Palace and made with what were previously strictly prohibited construction materials (mortar in particular). It’s basically a big symbolic middle finger to the aristocracy and as such was declared a national monument in 1930. Today it also houses the Alberobello Department of Tourism.
Cantina Museo Albea: The Cantina Albea, founded at the turn of the last century, is one of the most ancient, and recognized, wineries of the area and its Museum of Wine pays tribute to the agricultural and vinicultural history and traditions of the area. The small but wide-ranging exhibits include photography and a review of historical agricultural techniques. If that doesn’t sound like your idea of fun then at least you can stay for a wine tasting session!
Alberobello Market: If,like me, you enjoy visiting local markets to get a sense of everyday life then be sure to visit Alberobello on a Thursday; when the open air market is open from 7.30am until 12.30pm. The main focus is on and around Via Barsento.
Go Euro Train Schedule Website: www.goeuro.co.uk/
Cantina Albea Winery Brochure: www.albeavini.com/albea-catalogo-2016.pdf
Trulli Accommodation Websites: