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.
As Christ stopped at Eboli, so Trenitalia stop at Lecce. In the Salento heel, to travel east, west or south of the largest town you will be diving off the national map and depending on small, regional, private train providers. We’re travelling east into the Valle d’Itria, on Ferrovie Sud Est. I’ve been briefed that nothing irritates staff more than being asked for tickets to a train run by a different service, so first job is to work out where Lecce’s FSE station is in relation to the main Trenitalia station. Answer: it is the main station. A subway only takes you as far as Platform 5; to reach the FSE platforms, 6 and 7, you have to walk across the train tracks. There are no boards or screens, to work out which train is which your only option is to find a member of staff and ask.
Our train is a cobwebbed, unelectrified, single carriage job that looks like a minor character from Thomas The Tank Engine. Never quite nearing the speed of a modern train, it coughs and splutters its way across Puglia until it eventually brings us to the valley’s principal town, Martina Franca, where we need to change. The journey to Lecce was taken after dark, so it’s nice to see what Puglia is made of. The land is flat fields with scores of wispy, stumpy olive trees everywhere you look. As we near Martina Franca, you start to see the odd trullo; at first isolated, ancient-looking ones, hiding out in the trees, then in clusters of five or six as you get deeper into trullo country and they grow bolder. I’m pleased that we go past the coastal city of Ostuni, which I had wanted to visit but had to drop from the itinerary. Martina Franca station has a similar absence of information and we catch the Alberobello train with seconds to spare. Overturning all my assumptions, as Italy tends to do, this second FSE train (running from Bari to Taranto) is a brand new, hi-tech double-decker train, as swish as a Eurostar.
Trulli apart, Alberobello was something different for us, because this is firstly a tourist resort and secondly a town to live in. I’m a city boy but it was good to have a couple of days at the slower pace of a town that is geared towards leisure, rather than the working week, and is set up to make things easy for the visitor. We are used to our Airbnb hosts being stressed urbanites, probably stealing half an hour to nip away from the office and show us the flat; our Alberobello host is an old pro who is waiting for us when the train pulls into town, takes our suitcases and drives us straight to our trullo, pointing out all the sites and facilities as we go.
What to say about the trullo? The scattered rural trulli are more likely to consist entirely of stacked stones, and look like a makeshift place of shelter for shepherds and contadino types tilling the fields. In the towns they have solid walls. The urban myth implies that the collapsing roof was an ingenious dodge, the little man getting one over on a remote and punitive despot; such a good story that it is almost certainly a fairytale.
Our verbose guide in Lecce’s Sant’ Irene had prepared his own brief history of Alberobello, offered up once I’d given him a sufficient offerta (I may have got some of this wrong as he spoke fairly rapidly). He stressed that Alberobello had always been bare, unpopulated land until one of the Counts of Acquaviva developed expansionist ideas. He gathered people to live in this new town and forced them to put up with the collapsing roof gag because he would have been liable for the property taxes, and he was quarrelling with the King of Spain. The first two times that the King’s taxmen came into town to conduct a survey, the Count knew they were coming and had everyone on standby to pull out their plugs- RIP town. The third time, the taxmen took greater pains to travel incognito and sprung a surprise on the town. Alberobello did not have time to self-destruct, and this is the only reason that it still exists to this day.
To orient oneself around Alberobello is not an onerous task. The road from the station brings you to the Corso, as always a favourite for walking the dog, strolling with a gelato, or conducting complex adolescent mating rituals. At one end of the Corso is the Cathedral, and around it the odd smattering of trulli hidden within the modern housing. At the other end is the trulli zone. They are congregated on two slopes that face each other, with the valley between acting as a long piazza/boulevard called Largo Martellotta. The Monti area contains around 1,000 trulli and it feels as if 900 of these are souvenir shops. The Aia Piccola area contains around 400 trulli, almost entirely residential. Mercifully, we are staying in the Aia Piccola.
These unique, pygmie-style houses are a lot of fun to stay in. The centre of the home is, aptly, the kitchen table, whilst other amenities are tucked into the alcoves; bed, kitchenette, fireplace, storage, TV. The inside toilet (something of a novelty) is where the kitchen used to be. Behind a pane of glass you can still see the little chimney for cooking fumes. Our host apologies about the very small boiler for the shower, muttering something about UNESCO restrictions.
For all this, my most memorable moments in Alberobello were experienced at night. My girlfriend was poorly and had an early night, leaving me to drink a bottle of prosecco on my own and go out exploring the Monti area. It was only in my cups and on a quiet, dark night that the cute little trulli took on a startling, baffling, and mildly threatening appearance. I trudged up and down these trulli streets, past the occasional trullo pizza joint that was just closing up or the odd trullo family watching a film at home. I really fancied a nightcap somewhere, but the only bar on Largo Martellotta showing any sign of life had a live band belting out ‘Man In The Mirror’. Partly like walking into the alternate world of a Dali painting, Drunk Alberobello is just close enough to a recognisable world that it’s quite a headfuck. I could be Harry Nilsson, on the acid trip that gave birth to The Point!.
The next morning, of course, the tourists are out and about and the gift shops are open, and it turns out that it was all a bad dream. Walk the trullo streets with the school field trips and the German tour groups. Buy a trullo keyring and a trullo fridge magnet. Check out the siamese trullo built for two twins, the two-storey trullo with an internal staircase that was built for the doctor, or priest, or nobleman, or all three, the tall trullo-roofed Chiesa di San Antonio (should I be giving the impression that the whole place is a tourist trap without merit, I’ll mention that the food there was magnificent).
More rustic trulli on the fringes, and certainly in the Aia Piccola, look as if they are being renovated or about to be.
Having ruled out Ostuni and Martina Franca, I found myself incapable of sitting still and so we spent a couple of hours at Alberobello’s nearest neighbour. Locorotondo is five miles off and five minutes by train, its centro storico having been recognised as one of Italy’s most beautiful villages. Interestingly, they have gone for an entirely different model of housing from Alberobello. Like many an Italian village, it is perched on a hilltop and the twisting street plan appears to reflect the ridges of the hill.
The style here is whitewashed limestone and lots of it. Ostuni is known as ‘The White City’, and I was pleased to see a place which gave me a sense of it. When the Ottoman fleet carried out raids, they brought with them diseases and the whitewash was decreed compulsory to control its spread. One thing I saw all over Locorotondo, without explanation, was large dolls of old ladies suspended on wire above the streets, as if hanging at the gallows. March is probably a bit late in the year for La Befana, but it may have had something to do with Lent.
It may have been folly to turn up in the siesta hours of the afternoon when everything is shut, but during our visit Locorotondo’s old town was such a dead city that it bordered on eerie. Every inch of the church was covered in scaffold, and it was of course locked up. A few lads gathered in the gardens looking onto the valley below. In the courtyard that passes for the main piazza, one bar was open and a waiter carried spritzes to a mirthful group of Indian women. Nothing else was going on. It was just us, the occasional old man walking past and the sound of televisions from inside old ladies’ homes.
The one thing that did bring unalloyed delight was a small chapel with a gate you could look right through, with a good ceiling fresco of celestial musicians. A sign informed us that they would be holding an Orthodox mass at 5pm.
We passed through the newer halves of both towns without doing much or looking too carefully, with the exception of Alberobello cathedral. Its twin gothic spires will from time to time stick out like horns as you pick your way through the Monti area. Incredibly for Italy this is a C19th church. The interior was interesting; one chapel displayed the text of a suggested Prayer for Italy, the twin patron saints Cosimo and Damiano are represented by effigy, and there’s a set of Stations of the Cross that could have been ripped from the pages of a graphic novel.