The Puglia region of Italy has some really amazing towns and villages. I’ve already explored the ‘White City’ of Ostuni and the circular medieval streets of Locorotondo. Now I’m in search of some more unusual dwellings in the popular tourist town of Alberobello.
I’ve already seen plenty of trullo houses while driving through the area. They are a cylindrical structure, made from loose stones with a conical, pointed, stone roof which occasionally features magical symbols and nearly always has a symbolic pinnacle on the top. However, the town of Alberobello has three large areas consisting of about 1500 trulli and it feels like I’m entering into the world of Tolkien as I stroll around the streets and peer through the low doors.
Some are open to the public and look like they were furnished a century ago with dark wood cabinets and bedsteads. However, I do notice a 20th century bathroom plumbed in behind a privacy curtain. It’s possible to stay the night in a trullo house for about €100, but I’m happy to just have a stroll around the streets for a few hours.
The Rione Monti zone is a lot more commercial with most of the trulli being used as shops where eager sales assistants entice you inside with offers of free biscuits and wine tasting but then persist in trying to sell you some tacky souvenir or overpriced local produce. Luckily, I find Giuseppe who runs a shop off of the main drag and seems more interested in educating me about the history of his family home and the village as well as showing me the views from his terrace. Aromatic smells waft up from somewhere below and he explains that his mother is preparing lunch.
100kms to the south, the city of Matera was once within the Puglia region but is now part of Basilicata. I’m keen to see the sassi, cave dwellings used since the middle ages and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. My first view is from the opposite side of the deep gorge where I stop in a viewpoint car park for lunch. There’s a storm going on outside so taking photos proves a challenge and I don’t stay long for fear of being blown away by the strong winds. I take shelter in a small residential car park in the modern city centre and wait until the next day when the weather promises to be better.
The next morning, before climbing down to the sassi district, I decide to visit Casa Noha. Close to the Duomo and run by the FAI (Fondo Ambiente Italiano), the €4 visit includes a series of videos projected onto the white walls which explain the origins of the sassi and how they became a health hazard in the early 20th century resulting in the forcible removal of the inhabitants from the squalid cave houses that they shared with their animals. They were moved to new apartment blocks on the edge of the new city or to the purpose-built village of La Martella, some 7 kms away. Although the relocation seemed like such a good idea, it sadly failed and ultimately many of the families left to live and work elsewhere.
The sassi were abandoned for many decades but now they are being reborn and used as luxury visitor accommodation, souvenir shops, living museums, cafes and bars. The locals and the city have also realised the commercial opportunities to be had and, where it was previously possible to visit cave churches and houses for free, it is now necessary to pay for the privilege. Since Matera has been named City of Culture for 2019 this can only get worse.
I choose to limit my spending by visiting one cave house (€2) which uses original furniture and amusing dummies to illustrate life in the sassi before the 1950s. There is an audio recording explaining the relevance of the items and the roles of the family members and the young but knowledgeable staff provide me with additional information.
Rather than spend another €5 or €6 visiting the chiese rupestri (cave churches) where photos are forbidden, I decide to see the Sant Antonio monastery instead. It is a large complex of four 13th century cave churches with large cellars that were used by the monks for making and storing wine. There are still some fragments of frescos on the walls and the limping guardian who stalks me as I visit is fine with me taking snaps of them.