Puglia: Alberobello – Trulli, Troglodytes and the Sea

One of the characteristics we most appreciated about traveling through Europe was the ready availability of a cup of delicious coffee, even in the most unexpected of places. The bar on the ferry from Dubrovnik to Bari came through with two tasty cappuccinos the morning after our overnight passage in a windowless cabin. As a hazy sunrise dawned over the Adriatic Sea, we sipped our revitalizing espresso and milk while the ship docked in Bari, capping an otherwise uneventful crossing to the Puglia region – “the heel of Italy” or the “spur of the boot.” 

Behind the wheel of our rental car, we passed through verdant olive groves in the Valle d’Itria, alternately known as the Valle d’Trulli or the Valley of Ancient Olive Trees. Olives trees are celebrated for their age in the region, and several top two thousand years old.  One ancient millennarian called the Elephant is 3,000 years old. The orchards on either side of the road were busy with workers covering the ground under the trees with collection nets in preparation for the olive harvest.

A little aside – we are olive aficionados. All things olive we enjoy. We have even brined our own, ordering California olives, then scoring and soaking them for three months in salt water to remove the extremely bitter oleuropein.  As tasty as they are after this process, they are downright vile beforehand, which has always made me wonder how it was determined that they were edible.  Did a starving hunter-gatherer pluck a floating olive from a salt marsh and make the discovery of a lifetime?

Farther along we sped past a farmer selling yellow melons from the back of his three-wheeled Piaggio Ape, a small truck that is ubiquitous throughout the farmlands of Italy. We did a quick U-turn to buy two from him, and they were delicious.  Our progress slowed through another small town as a brass band led funeral mourners across the road ahead of us.

Our destination was Alberobello, to meet up with three of our sons and especially to live in a trullo for a week.  This was the culmination of a decades-long desire ever since becoming aware of these enchanting, whitewashed dwellings capped with conical-shaped stone roofs with a pinnacle at the top.

Trullo comes from the Greek word for circular domed construction, tholos.  But it is thought the “a secco” style, without mortar construction technique, was brought to Puglia by North African invaders when Sicily was under Arab rule in the mid-800s or even earlier. As the Valle d’Itria surrounding Alberobello was deforested (albero bello translates as “beautiful tree”) to make way for cultivated crops and olive orchards, the building material of choice was the abundant limestone rocks removed from the fields or the wells dug beneath their homes.  The flat stones, called chiancarelle, are precisely pitched so that rainwater runs off the roof and the interior remains dry.  Their local design was firmly entrenched in the 14th century when the King of Naples granted the desolate Alberobello region to the first Count of Conversano as reward for service during a crusade. 

In a ploy to recruit tenant farmers from neighboring regions the feudal landlord offered trulli with the caveat that when the king’s tax collector visited the area, homes would be destroyed by the count’s horsemen using a rope to pull the pinnacle, a key stone, from the roof, collapsing it.  The homes could then only be rebuilt when the tax collector was safely far away.

This miserliness inflicted upon the already hard lives of the peasant farmers was to avoid payment of “new settlement” taxes by the feudal lord.  No wonder there were constant peasant uprisings. This threat literally of “the roof coming down on your head” was used to intimidate or evict rabble rousers and farmers who didn’t pay their crop share to the landowner.  As peasants’ rights changed over the centuries the homes became more permanent, though tenant farming was common in Italy until the end of WWll.

Our Airbnb trullo was located on one of the narrow, steep lanes of the Monti district not far from the Church of Sant’Antonio with its steeples mimicking the stone roofs of the surrounding homes. It was a compact space with two small bedrooms and combo kitchen/living room area.  When the front door was closed it felt like a snug cave, but fortunately the entry had a classic beaded curtain over it as a privacy screen that let in plenty of light and air when the door was open. 

The charm here was a vertical ladder that led to a hatch which opened to a rooftop patio with a grapevine, chairs, a table, and a clothesline. It was delightful and we made daily use of it, bringing coffee up the ladder in the morning and then wine to enjoy while watching the sunset. Immersing ourselves totally in the local lifestyle, we flew our laundry from the clothesline, like a proud flag symbolizing our occupation. 

It took the better part of a day to coordinate the arrival of our tribe; Craig and Gary stayed with us, while Jack and his partner Brian stayed near Matera. The plan was to tour Alberobello, visit Matera in the neighboring Basilicata region together and then spend a day in Lecce with our friend Giulia, whom we met at the very beginning of our journey, fourteen months earlier in Ecuador.

Many visitors savor all of Alberobello’s magic in one day, but if you don’t like changing hotels frequently, like us, it was also the perfect spot to base further exploration of Puglia, which is what we intended to do.

There are over one thousand trulli in the Monti district spread across seven narrow streets that twist and turn in an enchantingly confusing way, yet the area was small enough that we were never really lost.  Early in the mornings or late in the day the neighborhood had a unique ambience, with its cobbled lanes, whitewashed walls and pointed stone roofs painted with various religious, astrological, or folkloric  symbols. The latter were meant to ward off evil or ensure a bountiful harvest. Similarly, there are different thoughts about the meaning of the various shapes of the pinnacles atop the roofs. I prefer the theory that they represent the ancient stone mason’s calling card. Most of the trulli have now been converted to shops, restaurants, small inns, and rental properties. 

Across the main road at the bottom of the hill we climbed a shallow slope to a second, smaller borghi, or neighborhood, equally charming but with a more residential flavor than the Monti. The Aja Piccola is comprised of about four hundred trulli.

Farther afield on the outskirts of town we walked through Alberbello’s central cemetery.  Spanning centuries with classic tombs and modern mausoleums, the graveyard architecture presented a strikingly distinct dichotomy to the rustic trulli.

It was backroads through farmland most of the way to Matera, past larger trullo with multiple rooms, each represented by its conical roof. Some along the way were abandoned or used as barns, while others were pristinely refurbished and doubled as the farmer’s home or agrotourism business.

Matera sprang to notoriety in 1945, at the end of WWII, with the publication of Carlo Levi’s novel about his political exile to the region, Christ Stopped at Eboli, when Mussolini was in power.  He described the squalid conditions in which peasants lived together their farm animals: they inhabited caves, without electricity or running water, and diseases ran rampant.  The Italian government was internationally embarrassed by the neglect the sassi of Matera received, and in a restitution effort, relocated the entire population of some 16,000 cave dwellers from 1,500 sassi, small caverns, to a new town built on the plateau above the honeycomb of caves.

Archaeologists have determined through excavations that Matera grew from a series of water-eroded caves along the walls of the Gravina River canyon, which were first inhabited sporadically 9,000 years ago during the Stone Age.  Permanent populations have existed here since 3,000 BC, making it one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in Europe. 

The Romans declared Matera a town in 251 BC. Centuries later the safety of cave dwellings appealed to many during the turbulent dark ages and the populace grew as folks expanded the natural caves and randomly dug new sassi, above and below their neighbors, from the soft rock of the canyon walls.  During the Middle Ages the prosperity of the city supported many churches and convents.

In the 1200s the Cathedral of Saint Mary ‘della Bruna,’ Saint Eustace, and the Church of Saint John the Baptist were built on opposite sides of the ravine.  Prosperity continued in this area into the early renaissance.  The exterior of the some of the sassi were squared off and ornately carved with columns, while others were expanded with additional rooms and vaulted ceilings.   

Political intrigue over the centuries put Matera on the losing side of several rebellions against the various Kings of Naples. The coup de grace came in 1860 after unification with the Kingdom of Italy, when many of the lands and properties owned by the church in the Basilicata region were confiscated and sold off to wealthy aristocratic families. With support from the church, peasant opposition to the broken promises of the new Italian government grew and soon the countryside was controlled by roaming bands of brigands.  The province was too dangerous to travel through, further isolating Matera even though it was the capital of Basilicata.  Many decades of governmental neglect followed and pushed Matera into major decline.

For three decades the sassi were an abandoned no-man’s-land, the caves used as drug dens and warehouses for smugglers until the first gentrifications began with several small boutique hotels in the 1980s.  During years of renovation and exploration, 150 cave churches, 90 wine cellars and numerous cisterns have been rediscovered after the removal of debris and muck from their last use as barns and stables.

The uniqueness of Matera’s “spontaneous architecture” as it is officially called was recognized in 1993 when UNESCO named it a World Heritage site.  Further interest followed, after Matera was used as a film location to double for ancient Jerusalem in several movies: The Passion of the Christ (2004), King David (2005), and The Nativity Story (2006.) Even some scenes from the 2017 Wonder Woman were filmed there. In 2019 Matera received distinction as a European City Capital of Culture.  Today sixty percent of the sassi of Matera have been restored into small hotels, shops, galleries, and digital workspaces.  

When we arrived in Matera the historic area was hidden from our view by the buildings of the new town on the plateau above the Sassi district. We made our way to Piazza Vittorio Veneto while searching for stairs down into the ancient district. There was a tremendous WOW! factor when we emerged from a narrow alley onto a scenic panorama above the old town, the city’s silhouette frozen in time.

Around the city large surrealist sculptures by Salvador Dali stood in wonderful, whimsical juxtaposition to the surrounding monochromatic walls of the city. One day was not enough to uncover all the mystery that Matera had to offer. Hopefully, we will return in the future. 

A day at the beach, more like a day on the cliff above the beach, drew us to Polignano a Mare on Puglia’s Adriatic coast.  It’s a picturesque town known for its dramatic buildings balanced on a cliff edge that follows the sea, thirty feet below. 

The rock face is incredibly soft and over time sections have fallen into the sea creating grottos, under the homes above, that can be toured by boat.  White-pebbled Lama Monachile is a classic, small Italian beach nestled between cliffs, from which the brave dive into the calm turquoise waters of the cove. 

The quaint historic district is relatively small, and homes are painted in cooling colors which echo the sea. Alleys meander to small piazzas above the water, each with a unique view of the cliff and just large enough to support a small café with a few outside tables.  It was a brilliant sunny day, pleasantly uncrowded, and the weather was gentle enough that we could dine outside in a sunny spot during our November visit. 

Till next time, Craig & Donna

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