We’ve just returned – well rested and well fed – from a week’s vacation in Italy’s Trulli region.
What’s a “trulli?”
Well…if you want to know, then ask an Italian. A real Italian; not one of those crotch-scratching James Gandolfini-types that are found strutting about the US. Say the word “trulli” to a real Italian, and he will surely point his index fingers to the sky, touch the tips together so as to form an upside-down “V” and shout, “Ah! Alberobello!”
Still perplexed? Then let me clarify.
A trulli (or trullo, in its singular form) is a limestone dwelling constructed using an ancient building technique – still in use today – that was brought to Italy’s Puglia region by prehistoric tribes from the Middle East. The most prominent feature of a trullo is its cone-shaped roof. Trulli roofs are built by laying limestone blocks (found in abundance in this region) in concentric circles of diminishing diameters. The circles are stacked one on top of another until a vertical cone is formed. When the last circle of blocks has been laid, the aperture is plugged with a cylindrical stone that acts as a keystone by forcing downward pressure on the layers below and locking them into place. The cone is then “weather-proofed” by surrounding it with thin sheets of limestone stacked horizontally in fish scale fashion. Finally, the cone is capped with a pinnacle, looking very much like a huge, white chess pawn. In some cases, the owner will personalize his trullo by painting a whitewashed symbol, usually of Christian, pagan or zodiac significance, onto its side.
The trulli region is roughly bounded by the Pugliese towns of Martina-Franca, Locorotondo, Cisternino, Castellana and Alberobello; located midway between the more well-known cities of Bari and Brindisi in Italy’s heel, and an olive’s throw from the Adriatic Sea. This region is a popular destination for Italians, Japanese and German tourists, but remains largely unvisited by Americans. There are countless trulli scattered throughout this region. But the holy grail for trulli-philes is the town of Alberobello.
Alberobello is small town that is home to approximately 11,000 inhabitants and 1,400 trulli. It is also the town from which my great grandparents emigrated. Gazing upon Alberobello, with its dense and seemingly endless concentration of trulli, evokes images of a vast range of snow-capped mountain peaks. It is a bizarre and beautiful sight. The historical reasons why Alberobello sports such an amazing number and density of trulli are as surreal as its appearance.
The origins of Alberobello date back to the 15th century, when it was under the feudal domination of the Acquaviva family. The most significant period in Alberobello’s history, however, occurred while under the control of Count Gian Girolamo II Acquaviva (affectionately known as “Il Guercio”, or “man with a squint”). Il Guercio oversaw the influx of a great number of settlers and farmers to Alberobello. To his dismay, however, a law called the “Prammatica de Baronibus” was in force throughout the land.
This law required that a tax be paid to the royal court for each dwelling built in an urban area. Il Guercio, less than delighted with the prospect sharing his wealth with anyone (let alone the royal family), reacted by forbidding the use of mortar in the construction of homes and buildings in Alberobello. In the event of an impending royal inspection, he reasoned, all homes and buildings could be quickly disassembled so as to avoid imposition of the pesky tax.
The people of Alberobello, therefore, logically and overwhelmingly chose the trulli as the preferred method for building dwellings cheaply, easily and in compliance with Il Guercio’s orders. Over time, however, the people of Alberobello became fed up with such a ridiculous way of living and reputedly sought an audience with King Ferdinando IV of Bourbons. The King was sympathetic to their pleas and, on May 27, 1797, decreed that the town of Alberobello be freed from the Acquaviva family’s control. From that point on, Alberobello was free to construct its trulli with mortar.
Today, Alberobello sports two main trulli districts, both of which have been designated national monuments and UNESCO World Heritage sights. The larger district, named “Rione Monti,” is located on the southwest corner of town and has approximately 1,000 trulli. The smaller district, named “Rione Aia Piccola,” is located in the southeast corner of town and has approximately 400 trulli. Rione Aia Piccola is clearly the less touristy of the two districts, with most of its trulli still being used for residential purposes.
Alberobello may be the star of the trulli region, but there are plenty of other nearby towns that are well-worth exploring. A cursory list includes the following:
- Locorotondo: Located approximately five miles east of Alberobello, Locorotondo’s hilltop location offers a panoramic view of the Valle d’Itria. Historic sites within town include the Chiesa Madre (“Mother Church”) towering above Piazza Frá Rodio, and the Church of the Madonna della Greca, built in 1481 and located on Via Cavour. Locorotondo produces excellent white wines and hosts the Festival of the First Wine on the second Sunday of each November.
- Castellana Grotte: Located approximately nine miles northwest of Alberobello, Castellana Grotte is home to some of the world’s most celebrated and beautiful underground caves. The “grotte di Castellana,” discovered in 1938, offers both a fifty minute tour and a two-hour tour. The latter includes the site’s most famous attraction, the “grotta bianca” (“white cave”). No matter which tour you choose, heed this warning: Bring a jacket! For more information, consult www.grottedicastellana.it.
- Martina-Franca: Located approximately nine miles southeast of Alberobello, Martina-Franca is well-known for its baroque wrought iron balconies and elegant doorways. Stroll down Via Cavour, the main street of Martina-Franca’s old town, for a sampling. Visit the Basilica di San Martino (on Piazza Plebiscito), with its imposing carved façade and Palazzo Ducale (on Piazza Roma), a 17th century palace that now serves as the town hall. Martina-Franca hosts the Festival della Valle d’Itria at the end of each July.
- Cisternino: Located approximately eleven miles east Alberobello, Cisternino may not have any famous attractions but is, quite simply, a pleasant and well-kept little Italian village. A nice place to observe a slice of small-town Italian life while reflecting with a smirk on the hordes of people standing in line under Rome’s blazing sun to enter the Coliseum.