Trulli magic in Alberobello and epic Matera
26 Apr 2017
|My jaw was aching in Alberobello as I was constantly smiling, delighted by the whimsy of the trulli - the cone shaped stone buildings that are only found in this part of Puglia. Think of trulli as 'homes for gnomes' - tiny round buildings with cones that would perfectly fit the peaked hats of gnomes.
I definitely made the right decision to splurge here on my boutique accommodation - a tiny hotel where each room was in its own trullo (the singular of trulli). My room was the smallest of all the trulli - in bed, I could touch the stone walls on either side and gaze up at night into the cone-shaped dome. It felt incredibly comforting, being cocooned in this tiny stone room. There was also a very luxurious bathroom with softly polished stone floors and both the bedroom and bathroom had underfloor heating, so it was very cosy.
So, why did the trulli get built in this region of Puglia? The history is that there was a particularly ruthless Duke ruling over this area in the early 1600s who ordered that the local stone houses of his peasant farmers be built without mortar. He wanted to avoid paying taxes to the King and these houses, built without windows, could quickly be pulled apart if there were tax inspectors in the region. Another fascinating aspect of the trulli is that the cone shaped rooves are either topped with pinnacles or painted with symbols that were meant to bring luck or had religious meaning.
Alberobello is the town with the greatest concentration of trulli. There are two districts that have received UNESCO World Heritage recognition - in one district, many of the trulli have been turned into souvenir shops and provide panoramic roof tops on which you can take in the view, while the other district tends to be lived in by locals and also hosts some bed and breakfast places. Given that Alberobello was already inundated with tourists in April, I can't imagine how busy it is in July and August. I somewhat avoided the tour groups, enjoying some very peaceful early morning and late evening walks through the trulli districts. However Alberobello has definitely been among the most popular tourist destinations I have visited in southern Italy.
From Alberobello, I caught two trains to reach Matera which is actually in the province of Basilicata. Very different geography to Puglia - much greener, some striking mountain ranges including the continuation of the Appenines. This province is quite isolated and poor - my guidebook says that in the 1930s Basilicata was used as a kind of open air prison by the fascists who sent political dissidents down here (so perhaps like the Siberian gulags?).
Matera is spectacular, although very different to Alberobello. It is a town that has been continuously inhabited for about 7000 years and it includes two major districts of sassi (stone buildings often carved into caves) in which people live. Has anyone seen the 2002 Mel Gibson film, The Passion of Christ'? (I confess I haven't yet but might track it down in the future). If you have seen the film, you have seen Matera. Mel Gibson made this film in Matera as much of the town looks as if people are still living in biblical times, so he didn't need to construct a film set!
Living conditions in Matera were pretty grim until quite recently. Until the 1950s about half the population lived in caves, without running water or electricity. Malaria was rife and about half of all newborn children died. Eventually, the government forcibly moved people out of this substandard housing into new public housing. Then, Hollywood (actually Italian movie makers) came to Matera in the 1960s, recognising its potential for filming movies set in ancient times. UNESCO World Heritage status followed, while Matera is also now benefiting from significant regional development investment by the European Union. As a result, some of the previously unliveable caves have been transformed into more modern housing, including the apartment in which I stayed. In 2019 Matera will be the European Capital of Culture - an annual award meant to foster urban regeneration and celebrate the diversity of European cities.
While I had seen photos of Matera in planning this trip, I did not know that the town is surrounded by vast gorges and ravines. If you look very closely at one of the photos with the old housing perched on the ravine's edge, you might spot a swinging bridge suspended over a canyon, way below the town. In the distance, I could see tiny figures who had crossed the swinging bridge and were trekking up the other side of the ravine to take photos of Matera from the other side of the canyon. Not for me!! Instead, I paid for a 45 minute ride in an Ape Calessino (the blue and white, 3 wheeled vehicle in one of the photos). It was a fun way to get a good orientation around the sprawling districts that make up Matera's sassi districts. I did this ride on April 25 - ANZAC day in Australia and Liberation Day in Italy - a national holiday. My Ape Calessino driver had to wend his way through streets that were crowded with thousands of people. They were enjoying the public holiday after having earlier attended a procession and speeches (including a bugler playing The Last Post) to commemorate the end of WW2.
Tonight I'm in Bari, Puglia's capital, where I briefly visited the Basilica of San Nicola. Like many Italian churches, it houses relics (bones) of dead saints. If you haven't guessed, this one is particularly famous as the bones are from Saint Nicholas, namely 'Santa Claus' - the third century Turkish bishop whose generosity became revered by Christians. In about 1100 AD, some Italian fishermen stole Saint Nicholas's bones from Turkey and took them to Bari. The community of Bari built a magnificent cathedral to house these bones which has become an important pilgrimage site for Christians. Speaking of saints, an unusual and typically Italian 'souvenir' I acquired from my Rome hotel was a business card size calendar that lists the saint days for every day of the year.
Tomorrow I fly to Palermo to begin the Sicilian leg of my trip.