Alberobello: The Surreal Made Twee

Trulli, trulli everywhere, and not one laughing gnome. This singular building with a dry-stone, conical roof is found only in and around Alberobello. Their origin story will differ slightly, depending on who you speak to, but we know that they began to appear some time around 1400. At the summit of the roof is a white stone plug of sorts. Pull this out, and it is said that the structure will collapse; a quick way of exempting the medieval residents from property taxes, any time the shout went up that the tax inspectors were coming into town.

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Lecce: la Città Gialla

The stone is a smooth, creamy pale yellow; somewhere between vanilla custard and the coat of the Andrex puppy. Short curving alleys are glued together by dozens of tiny triangular piazzettas, many of which serve as car parks. Every street corner has a small shrine, every third corner a baroque church; weather-beaten statues of saints perch on top, posed against the blue sky. Pillars are draped in carvings; details of leaves, animals, pieces of fruit, and -without fail- hundreds of cherubs playing together or propping up a set of columns. As hipsters are to gentrification, cherubs were to the Counter-Reformation. The decoration is furious in its intensity and concentration. It’s surprising how many of these lavish churches remain unfinished; half a dozen niches on the facade stand empty, waiting for saints that couldn’t make it. Sometimes it abruptly stops three-quarters of the way up, giving way to an empty rectangle where one would expect a crowning gable. Inside, the Spanish influence is strong. The many side chapels house painted statues of weeping virgins and bleeding, mutilated martyrs. Their altars are full-on rococo; sometimes the stone is left bare, sometimes painted gold, always housing scores of smiling cherubim.

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Harrow: Town & Gown

There are two Harrows, as different as chalk and cheese. During my years in Cambridge I noticed a strong segregation between the cloistered university, with all its wealth, expertise and fine things, and the small-to-medium fen market town that had to share its streets, shops and pubs. But compared to Harrow, Cambridge seems like one big happy family. Step out of Harrow-on-the-Hill station and you will stand at a crossroads; one exit leads to Windsor, another to Doncaster.

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