Life among the trulli of Alberobello, Puglia

The garden at Trullo Sovrano

Puglia is famous for its strange, conical-roofed trulli. They pepper the landscape, peeking out from olive groves or standing lonely in the fields. But Alberobello is the place to see them.

In the heart of the town, nestled on both sides of a shallow valley, they pack the streets and alleys. They give the place the feel of a toy town or a film set from a hobbit movie. It’s quite unreal, a townscape unlike any I’ve seen before.

As we drove into Alberobello – a UNESCO World Heritage site – the day-trippers were out in force under deep blue skies.

We were staying in a trullo, one of a collection dotted around town under the umbrella of the Tipico Resort. It was on a quiet street in one of the two principal trulli districts – the Aia Piccola, which is smaller and more residential, away from the mass of tourists. Our home consisted of a sitting room, a bedroom and a bathroom, each of which had the famous conical roof.

Trulli in the Aia Piccola district
Trulli in the Aia Piccola district

But why is that Alberobello has so many of these dinky buildings? The story goes that the local lord moved his peasants to the town to clear woodland and cultivate the land. To get around laws and taxes, he didn’t want Alberobello classed as an inhabited settlement so until 1797, when it was finally given town status, the people were made to live in trulli, which were originally intended as agricultural buildings and which could be dismantled in a hurry partly as a result of their dry stone walls.

Today, much of the town outside of the UNESCO area is composed of more conventional buildings but wherever you go, there’s invariably a trullo or two parked between the conventional.

The larger trulli district, Rione Monti, is more commercial, where the crowds gather and where one after another has been turned into a cafe, a bar, a restaurant or souvenir shop. Many of the latter sell the same old kitsch rubbish, from fridge magnets to toy trulli, but it was nice to spot a few artists holding out amid the tat when we went out for a walk.

The basilica
The basilica

During the evening, with most of the crowds gone, the sun setting and casting a golden glow over the conical rooftops, Alberobello looked even more magical. Roaming the streets, climbing to the rooftops, was a great way to appreciate the trulli. Around us, swifts darted and danced.

On our first evening we dined excellently at the posh Il Poeta Contadino, where I ate the finest red snapper with a mint vinaigrette and where we met a couple of local waitresses who’d lived and gone to school where we reside in south London. It’s a small world…

The next day we explored another side of town, walking up busy and handsome Corso Vittorio Emanuele, through pleasant piazzas, to the Basilica Santi Medici Cosma e Damiano. Its towers dominate the town and inside is light and airy, with some 60s touches, but it’s still full of the usual Catholic ghastliness.

The conical-roofed trulli of Alberobello
The conical-roofed trulli of Alberobello

The picturesque Trullo Sovrano was a very different experience. A former seminary building just a short walk away from the church, it was converted into a family home in the 19th century. It’s now a museum that shows how people lived in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Full of the family’s old furnishings and belongings, and with a beautiful garden, the trullo is unique in having two floors.

It was all very quaint, ludicrously cheap to enter compared to British museums, but doubtless somewhat grander than the trulli that most of Alberobello’s residents would’ve called home.

Back in the touristy part of town we stopped for drinks and lunch in the cafes lining the main road, watched the world go by, and wandered along streets and alleys overflowing with pungent jasmine.

The trulli church
The trulli church

Later, we visited one of the world’s most curious churches, the small but perfectly formed Trulli Church Chiesa di Sant’Antonio.

By then we’d pretty much exhausted what Alberobello had to offer. Because, as a tourist attraction, it’s a bit of a one-trick pony. Two nights is more than enough, however pretty it may be.

Our last night saw us recklessly mixing wine, beer and limoncello in the bars and dining at Casa Nova.

So it’s no surprise that I had a hangover next morning as we tucked into breakfast and left town for our next stop in Puglia…