In the southeastern part of Italy's southeastern-most region, there lies a most astounding valley. To get there, you drive through golden fields of grain, past gently undulating hills whose terracotta dirt gives life to lone olive trees, low herbal scrub, and not much else. Often it looks like the semi-barren landscape through which Hopalong Cassidy and John Wayne raced their valiant white steeds - gnarled trees and thorn bushes lining a creek that runs dry 360 days of the year. You breeze through little towns whose plainness places them in the recesses of your memory even before you leave them behind. This is the Italian Outback, a semi-deserted desolate land that truly looks as far from the capital as it actually is.
And then you come to the Murge Valley. All of a sudden a vibrant green washes across the landscape, thanks to small groves of an oversized oak tree that grows only here and in the Balkans (no one seems to know how it got here). You will also see tropical vegetation - palm trees and bougainvilleas and gigantic hibiscus - as well as larger and healthier olive groves. And interspersed among all this verdant beauty, you will see the strange conical houses that exist only here. At first they appear one by one, like solitary mirages cowering amidst the olive trees. Gradually, as you drive on, they grow taller, and their whitewashed bases make them more visible. Soon you are spotting them in clusters of up to a dozen all attached to each other to make one larger dwelling. And then you drive into the little town of Alberobello, where they cover four entire hillsides, seeming for all the world like a cheerful white nativity scene recreated to true human dimensions. If this were California, Mr. Disney's name would be visible on a neon sign. But it's Apulia, and these houses were first built many centuries ago by the local inhabitants.
The local people say it was inevitable that the trulli should originate (and remain) here, because the Murge Valley sits atop a thin layer of gray stone that tends to split horizontally into neatly stacked layers only 3 or 4 inches thick. These strata are fragile, so they also split vertically. As a consequence, the abundant rains that fall in the region sink immediately to very great depths, without soaking into the surface, so that by a cruel irony, water is extremely scarce. Many centuries ago, the residents realized that they could use these flat square rocks to build houses with conical roofs that required no mortar (which of course requires water). These miraculous domes could also be erected without the aid of wooden scaffolding or skeletons, and by angling the stones slightly inward, the resulting structure would literally support itself. A classic trullo style evolved, which began with the digging of a very deep well, then continued with the nearby construction of four stonewalls that were eventually whitewashed. Resting on this square foundation was the conical roof, which culminated in a small hole that was covered by one last flat rock.
The Alberobellesi lived in these totally unique dwellings for many, many centuries, isolated in their valley, far away from the political strife that rampaged through southern Italy for over a millennium. Eventually, Apulia became a collection of fiefdoms first of the Anjous and then of the Spanish kings, countless tiny parcels of relatively insignificant land that were tossed back and forth from one small-time noble family to another. During these chivalrous times of battling armies, abject serfdom and impossible taxes, the all-but-forgotten trulli became a perfect hiding place for anyone who opposed the powerful rulers. It was at this time that another miraculous characteristic was discovered: if the lord's mercenaries came hurtling into the valley, searching for the outlaws upon whose heads sat a very appealing bounty, the trulli could be knocked down and obliterated in a matter of minutes, leaving nothing but a heap of old gray stones in their place. The fugitives could hide (often in those legendary deep wells), and when the danger was past, the little beehive homes could be rebuilt in hours, once again providing safe refuge until the next raid occurred.
Thanks to their incredibly sturdy design, hundreds of the trulli survive throughout the Murge Valley. There are at least 400 only in the little town of Alberobello itself. Many are still private residences, but there are dozens that you can visit, because they house souvenir shops or artisan workshops. There are a few "trulli tipici," which are recreations of what an inhabited one looks like. There are even a few guesthouses that allow you to stay overnight in a beehive room! Mainly you come here to stroll the pristine cobblestone alleys and admire the immaculate structures. Be sure to look for the various hex signs (mysterious figures, whitewashed on the grey stone roofs, that were thought to ward off evil and protect the inhabitants) as well as the many different pinnacles that top the domes. If you really like this place, you can buy a miniature trullo to take home with you. When your friends spy it on the mantelpiece, they may think it's the home of Dopey, Sneezy and Doc, but you will know it has a far more ancient and illustrious story.
by Kristin Jarratt
Click here if you'd like to stay in a trullo.
Alberobello can be easily reached off the autostrada that links Bari and Taranto. We recommend coming here in spring or fall, because summer temperatures can be brutal, and it often snows in winter, thanks to inexplicable winds that swoop down from the Austrian Alps, missing the entire Adriatic coast and slamming into the Murge Valley. There are several delightful restaurants in town. Our favorite is Il Pinnacolo at Via Monte Nero 30. Prices are reasonable, you can pay by credit card, and sit on the charming terrace that overlooks the rooftops. We suggest you try the local pasta, orecchiette, "little ears" made from the delicious wheat you drove past to get here. The specialty in this area is orecchiette served with bitter broccoli, but Il Pinnacolo also serves it with tiny tomatoes, rucola and cheese. As an appetizer, try mozzarella al forno: the cheese gets cooked in the oven and comes to the table in a delicious, gooey mess.