It is Sunday afternoon and a priest with long, bushy hair and a full flowing beard is conducting a church service in the main chapel of the Rione Monti district of the little town of Alberobello, Italy.
As I watch the proceedings from a spot just outside the front door, I can’t help thinking how much he looks like a young Gandalf, the fictional wizard in J.R.R. Tolkein’s classic fantasy novels The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
In truth, this is not the first time I thought about hobbits during my visit to this quirky little spot in southern Puglia region. It only takes a few minutes of exploration to realize that a hobbit would be very happy here.
What makes Alberobello paradise for hobbits and non-hobbits alike are the conical-roofed ancient limestone dwellings that are abundant in the town and the region surrounding it.
The unique structures, which are clustered together like hobbit villages, are called trulli (trullo in the singular) and the first-known construction of this type of dwelling dates back to the mid-14th century. The historical and cultural significance of this type of architecture and the abundant number of trulli still standing and in use in Alberobello resulted in the town being declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996.
The principle tourist activity in Alberobello is wandering around the town examining the trulli. In the Rione Monti district of the town, there are more than 1,000 trulli and you can find hundreds more in other regions of the community.
The history behind trulli is as fascinating as the structures themselves. Legend has it that the first trullo was constructed as a method of tax evasion. During feudal times, a count paid taxes to the king based upon the number of buildings found to be on his property. Trulli were constructed without mortar from roughly worked limestone boulders found in local fields and utilized a keystone arch just above the front door. This construction method meant they could be assembled relatively rapidly and dismantled with even greater speed by simply pulling the keystone of the arch — causing the structure to fall in upon itself.
When the King of Naples would send his tax assessor to extract payment from feudal lords, the count would order the peasants to dismantle their homes so that no tax could be assessed. For some reason, the piles of rubble located on the hillsides did not cause the tax assessors to become suspicious or if they did become suspicious, they never fixed the loophole that allowed the counts to avoid paying their rightful share of the taxes.
As one might expect, after several generations of building, dismantling, and re-building their homes, the patient peasants became frustrated with the count and requested the king put an end to the feudal system of governance. The king responded and in 1797, the community was designated a royal town and feudal rule ended. From this time onward, the construction of new trulli quickly declined, but they are still a prominent feature of the old part of Alberobello.
As I wander around the Rione Monti district of the town observing the many different trulli, I soon realize that the rooftops are the most varied feature of these structures. Typically made in a conical or domed shape, they are built out of corbelled grey limestone slabs and decorated with painted symbols that had religious or superstitious significance to the original owners. Many of the roofs are decorated with spires — the ornate detailing of which was a testament to the builder’s skill as well as the owner’s financial status in the community.
In the Rione Monti district, the most popular tourist area of the town, many of the trulli serve as tourist shops. You don’t have to wander far to find a friendly shop owner who will invite you inside their trullo in the hopes you might purchase their wares. Each trullo is different on the inside, but whitewashed walls, wooden floors, and stone fireplaces are typical amenities. Some trulli have vaulted niches connected to the ground floor via wooden staircases. This type of feature was undoubtedly added after the end of feudal rule when the structures became more permanent.
I wander further down the cobblestone street popping in and out of shops and tasting samples of Italian food along the way. Many trulli have wine tasting bars inside them, too. The friendly owners seem eager to show me their trulli and at one point, I am led out on a panoramic rooftop terrace where the view is spectacular. The rooftops of the little pointy-topped structures seem to stretch across the entire hillside.
J.R.R. Tolkien may not have had Alberobello in mind when he wrote his classic fantasy novels, but there’s no doubt that these quirky habitations would appeal to hobbits, pixies, fairies and all other magical creatures.
Not to put myself in the same category as the aforementioned mythical creatures, but after exploring Alberobello I am pretty sure I could also be happy living in an Italian trullo — for a little while anyways.
Spend the night in a trullo
Trulli were once the principal residences of peasants, but today they have become a trendy form of accommodation in the Puglia region of Italy. Foreigners and Italians alike are purchasing trulli and using them as holiday homes. Renovated trulli are particularly popular with the British. Renovated trulli can be quite comfortable with modern kitchens, multiple bedrooms, central heat and air conditioning, swimming pools, sundecks, and patios.
If you would like to experience a trullo stay, you can rent one starting at about 450 Euros (about $600) per week. There are several websites you can visit for more information about renting or buying your own trullo: www.trullipuglia.com; www.trullishire.com; www.rentatrulli.com.
Recommended reading: Incontinent on the Continent by Jane Christmas. This travel memoir is about a woman who travels to Italy with her aging mother and rents a trullo in Alberobello.
If you go:
• Alberobello is located in the Puglia Region of southern Italy (near the heel of the boot, so to speak). The best way to get to Alberobello is to fly into either Bari or Brindisi airport. There are daily direct flights from Rome to either airport. From the airport, you can catch a shuttle bus to the railway station and then take a train to Alberobello. The other option is to rent a car. The journey takes about two hours from Bari to Alberobello.
• For more information about travelling in Italy and for valuable travel tips and free brochures, visit the official website of the Italian Government Tourist Board in North America at www.italiantourism.com. For additional information relating to Puglia, you can visit the official tourism website for the region at: www.regione.puglia.it (be sure to translate the page). Another great resource for information on packaged tours and travel to Puglia is the Canadian Travel Council Promoting Italy: www.ctcpi.ca.
Debbie Olsen is a Lacombe-based freelance writer. If you have a travel story you would like to share or know someone with an interesting travel story who we might interview, please email: DOGO@telusplanet.net or write to: Debbie Olsen, c/o Red Deer Advocate, 2950 Bremner Ave., Red Deer, Alta., T4R 1M9.