April-May 2005 in Italy and Malta
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April 24-27 Capri
May 6-7 Sicily, Scilla and Charybdis
May 7-8 Tropea (Capo Vaticano)
May 10-12 Abruzzi National Park
May 12 Tivoli, Villa Adriana
The Trulli of Alberobello
The second Michelin three-star site we visited on our drive around Puglia was the area of "trulli" houses centred around the town of Alberobello. It is not far from Castellana, and as we drove through the farming country between Castellana and Alberobello, we began to see first one or two trulli used as farm sheds, and then more, some groups of them being used as farm houses.
What is a "trullo"? It is a circular stone building perhaps 5m in diameter, with what appears to be a drystone conical roof, topped with a symbolic ornamental spire. The roof isn't actually drystone, as we found out later, but it looks as if it is, with the flat stones corbelled to form the "conical dome". A trulli house is formed by a group of trulli joined together so that the roof between two individual trulli forms a saddle shape. The picture shows two such houses, to judge from the street doors. The saddles are somewhat hidden by the perspective and by the chimneys, but you can get a hint of it in the full-sized picture.
In this area of Italy, the trulli house was the common form in the old days, but in recent years, most of them have been pulled down, except that in a couple of regions in the town of Alberobello, they are protected. Outside Alberobello, there may possibly be other protected regions, and there are towns with quite a few trulli in addition to those in the surrounding countryside, but in Alberobello itself, there remain about 1400 of them (whether this refers to trulli houses or individual trulli, I don't know). It's a pair of towns within the modern town. The two regions are divided only by a modern city street, so one might actually call it one large trulli region.
Having found a place to park on a road beside farm fields close to the "Historic Area" of the trulli, we wandered down into it. The area, apart from the houses being trulli, is like most old towns in being built around a maze of small streets. The northern section has one straight main street leading downhill to a modern town square, from which one goes directly into the southern section, on another hill. Now, many of the houses are shops oriented to the tourists, and we did buy some local liqueur in a trulli-shaped bottle. The shops give an opportunity to see what the interior of a well-kept trulli house is like, which is not much different from any other small stone house.
Shortly after we arrived in the southern section, we found we were frequently encountering a group of people in cycling clothes, who were being guided by an English-speaking woman. Eventually, we tagged along with the group. The guide didn't seem to mind, and was pleasantly surprised when we gave her 5 Euros at the end of the tour.
On the part of the tour we joined, the guide debunked a popular myth that the stone buildings were good to live in, being warm in winter and cool in summer. She was brought up living in a trulli house, and said they were cold and drafty in winter, and stuffy in summer. The only reasons people still live in them is that they are too poor to move out, or that they entertain tourists as hosts of a trulli B&B. People like to come and look at the trulli — they are indeed a Michelin three-star attraction — but sensible people don't want to live in them.
The guide debunked another myth, that the conical roofs are made of dry stone. She showed us a broken one and explained the three-layer construction. An inner corbelled supporting layer you can see in the picture is covered by a thick soft layer like cement or clay, into which the outer roof stones are set to keep off the rain. You can take away outer roof stones without compromising the stability of the rest, which would not be true if they were load-bearing.
The trulli houses are mostly topped by a spike that holds a mystical symbol. The guide said that some were Christian, but many of them were much older. These are called "Magic Symbols". I recognized several "Old European" symbols among them. These symbols date back to before 4000 BC in the Balkans, and are distributed throughout the East Mediterranean islands by around 2000 BC. You can see a few of these symbol-topped spikes in the large versions of the pictures.
When we finally left Alberobello to return by a roundabout route to Matera, we passed the cycling group who had been our accidental guides to the trulli on the way to Locorotondo (i.e. "the round place"), named because of the circular design of some of its street plan — but not the part we saw. The countryside was again green rolling farmland, with quite a few trulli used as sheds or barns scattered among the fields.
Just because of the name, we decided to go home by way of Taranto (we come from Toronto, but it's pronounced almost the same). As we approached Taranto, it seemed to be something of an industrial wasteland with a major harbour, so when it came to it, we didn't actually go into the city, but took a north-bound highway to bypass it.
In Matera, we went down to the Sassi area to look for a good dinner, having found nothing really in the new town the previous evening. Some advertised places were shuttered, and we went into a small place that advertised local lamb, but after a long wait for service, we found that in fact there was no lamb, and there wasn't much of anything else, either. So we left, by that time rather tired and a bit irritable. Nearby, we found an upscale place that was almost empty. They asked if we had a reservation, which of course we didn't, but they found us a table anyway. After a long wait, we got menus and ordered a dish of local lamb and one of goat kid from across the gorge. The order taker said we would have to wait 20 minutes, but we actually waited 40 for the meat, though the vegetables appeared after only 15 minutes. The goat was delicious, but the lamb was tough and almost inedible, confirming Ina's opinion that the Italians are unable to roast meat.
The next day, we left on the longest single leg of the trip, from Matera in the heel of the Italian "boot" to the Abruzzi National Park, east of Rome.