A wonderful day in Alberobello, Puglia – Southern Italy
There’s a very special young woman who lives in Alberobello. She’s vibrant, dynamic and kind. She loves her home town, she loves her region, she loves Italy. Samantha works as a tour guide in Alberobello introducing the beauty of the town to visitors from far and wide.
Alberobello is a small town located in the south-eastern corner of Italy. If you imagine the boot shape of Italy on a map, then Alberobello is at the top of the heel, almost as far south as you can go before hitting the Mediterranean Sea. This part of Italy is known as Puglia, historically a remote and distant province of Italy. The people here are tough and hardy. They are olive-skinned and of stockier build than their Northern Italian compatriots. If anything the local people resemble the Greeks. This is unsurprising when you consider that the Greek Empire extended from Athens to North Africa, Sicily and most of Southern Italy in ancient times. We are talking 500 BC here – years before the Romans came along and established their empire.
When I first met Samantha she came bounding across the car park towards me. Tall and slim with an athletic build, wearing jeans, white shirt and trainers. Tres sportif as the French would say! She gave a huge radiant smile, tossed her shiny curly hair away from her eyes and started to talk in an animated fashion about Alberobello and its history. Samantha was born and raised in this area. She went to university in Bari (about an hour away) and studied Italian Literature and Art History. Her command of English is excellent. She introduces us to the region, the local characters and of course the typical local houses known as trulli. It wasn’t a tough sell – I’d only arrived minutes earlier and the town had already captured my heart. Even the cafe by the car park sold delicious and tiny espresso coffees for under a euro. That’s unheard of in Italy. In Venice or Milan you pay two euros!
When you first cast eyes on Alberobello you see hundreds, literally hundreds of small single storey dwellings with attractive conical roofs – these are the trulli houses of Alberobello. They give the impression of cottages in a children’s fairy tale. Something from a Hansel and Gretel story. The houses are built of limestone which is then white-washed. Windows are small to keep the fierce summer heat at bay. The roofs are made of locally quarried stone which is grey in appearance. The stones of the roof are balanced row upon row, layer upon layer, on top of one another. They are laid in ever decreasing circles until a top light or chimney space remains. Every house is built using the dry stone wall technique, no mortar, no glue.
Local legend has it that the aristocrat who owned all the land in these parts devised this building style so that he could claim the trulli were temporary dwellings and therefore avoid the local property taxes. Typically a trullo consists of a principle room downstairs and possibly a small upstairs bedroom area – effectively in the roof space. The trulli are perfect for this arid, hot region where summers can be dry and brutal. In August temperatures can exceed 45 degrees centigrade (110 degrees fahrenheit). We are fortunate to be visiting on a balmy September day when the mid-afternoon temperature is a pleasant 25 degrees.
Samantha leads us throught the different parts of the town, we see the ‘patriarchal trullo’ the largest trullo in town. It has three rooms downstairs, a magical private garden and several small bedrooms upstairs. The trullo is furnished in traditional style allowing us to appreciate how it would have been to live in such a building hundreds of years ago. Even the mattresses on the beds have been stuffed with straw to give a truly authentic look. Samantha’s enthusiasm for the town and it’s people is contagious. We head into the older part of town where the trulli are now shops, restaurants and holiday rentals. It is peak tourist season here in Puglia and the shops are doing a brisk trade.
Our guide has a surprise for us. We are welcomed into a small trullo which is now a souvenir shop selling the usual knick-knacks. In the back of the shop is a room lined with shelves. The shelves are literally groaning under the weight of hundreds of bottles of wine, olive oil, vinegar, chutney, sauces and various fruit liqueurs. There is a table set up in the middle of the room with small wooden stools surrounding it. It reminds me of the kitchen in ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’. Samantha’s friend Antonella will introduce us to the flavours and tastes of Southern Italy. The atmosphere is festive – Antonella too is passionate about her town, her region. She pours the wine, a delicious red. Antonella tells us about her life, her lazy ex-husband, her kids! We smile – it is the same all over the world! Salamis, cheeses and bread are served. Another glass of wine is poured. We try a selection of fine red wines from the ‘zona’ as the Italians call the local area. My favourite is Primitivo a delicious, rich, full-bodied red – said to be one of the finest in these parts. I buy a bottle to take home. We are also offered apricots, olives, peaches and even prickly pear. All grown nearby.
The tasting is so generous and our hostess so genial that it is like a private party. We are friends visiting a private home. For me this is the future of travel, authentic experiences, meeting the locals, enjoying the flavours of the local kitchen. Once again I feel privileged to be visiting this remote corner of Italy and enjoying the bounty of the region. At the end of the tasting there is time for shopping and we happily oblige – purchasing pasta, wine, olive oil and cheeses. As we are about to leave Antonella beckons us into the back of the shop and invites us to climb a tiny stone staircase. It takes us up a dark, narrow stair well. At the top we emerge onto a roof top bathed in brilliant sunshine. The view across the roof tops is spectacular. We can almost see the sea – some 50 kilometers to our east. You can appreciate the landscape, dry, sun-baked hillsides and the nuclear villages dotting the hill tops. I’m imagining that I can see Corfu, the nearest part of Greece – some 120 kilometers away across the sea – but of course I’m imagining things!
Our day is not over yet, Samantha has arranged for us to take a walk in the country. We head out of town and stop in a peaceful spot – here we walk amongst olive trees, ancient oaks and walnut trees. We even have a visit to Locorotondo a delightful medieval town with small white houses – it reminds me of the ‘pueblas blancas’ of Southern Spain. There’s a funeral going on in the parish church and the local dignitaries are out in force. Once again we are honoured and privileged to share this behind-the-scenes glimpse of village life in Southern Italy.
Samantha has recently left home and is renting a small house of her own. Her mother is outraged. Even though she is in her thirties, the idea that she wants to leave home and live alone is incomprehensible to the average Italian mamma! Our tour guide is an independent soul, ‘she’ll get over it’ she says, and shrugs her shoulders.
- If you’d like to learn more about Southern Italy, the people, customs, life today – feel free to direct any questions to me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Thank you for reading and don’t hesitate to get in touch with your comments and thoughts.
- You might enjoy Benvenuti al Sud an article I wrote about neighbouring Calabria.
- With special thanks to Belinda and Debbie – my delightful companions.
- If you’d like to join a small group tour to Southern Italy in October 2017 then follow this link: Southern Italy, Campania, Basilicata and Calabria