The fantastical shapes of the ancient olive trees are not the only elements that border on the unreal in Puglia. A short drive inland will take you to a valley filled with sights that seem lifted right out of a fairy tale. Only these ones are made not by Nature, but by man. They’re called trulli. Like ‘truly’ in English if you linger a while on the ‘l’.
The first time I saw them was on a cold December day.
The word may have originated with the Greek tholoi, the Greek word for dome-shaped tombs in vogue during the Mycenaean period (1600–1100 BC). Or maybe from trulla, one of several variations on the Latin turris, meaning tower. When you’re talking about structures that date back to the Stone Age there is bound to be plenty of theories. I had first seen similar structures years before in southern France, where they’re called bories.
On the outskirts of Gordes, one of those charming, Provençal villages that are such a magnet to us tourists, there is a remarkable collection of the dry stone huts.
There must have been something about the design because similar structures have also been found in disparate places around the world – Syria, Libya, South Africa, the Canary Islands, Spain, Brittany, Ireland, Scotland, Sweden and Iceland.
Before you get all worked up about what kind of Mom would use her child this way, keep in mind that the child not only lived to tell the tale, but recently asked her Mom to take her on another trip. We leave soon for the Amalfi Coast. Which is why this will be the last post for a while.
There are more and better preserved trulli here than anywhere else in the world. Since their origins are lost in prehistoric times, it is impossible to know if more were built here or if they simply have survived longer than in other places. Certainly the landscape favoured the unusual design. As we saw in ‘It Doesn’t Exist!’, July 17, 2016, Puglia is covered in limestone, which when it comes to house-building, has a convenient habit of splitting off into large, thinnish slabs. By the time the early settlers had cleared enough land to plant their crops they had more than enough rocks to build themselves a place to live. The construction was fairly simple, even if it did require a good eye and a lot of muscle. All they had to do was angle the slabs slightly inward and the structure would support itself, without the need of mortar, which, in a region where water was, and still is a scarce resource, made the design a no-brainer. (For those of you who have never yet had the occasion to build or think about the finer points of building yourself a rock house, you need lots of water to make mortar.)
A happy, but probably unforeseen advantage to the design had to do with comfort. On one of the sites I looked at there was a statement that initially had me puzzled – ‘The trullo was the first example of isolated construction.’ What about all the prehistoric cave men and religious hermits and various other types throughout the ages who out of necessity or desire have lived ‘isolated’ lives. Then it dawned on me. The translator had stumbled on one of those wretched faux amis. There are probably some exceptions, but all the words that I can think of that begin with ‘ins’ in English drop the ‘n’ in Italian. So inspection becomes ispezione, instruction becomes istruzione and insulated becomes isolato. Working backwards however, and this is where the translator got led astray, isolato can also mean ‘isolated’. In any event, the air spaces between the rocks in the walls and the roof created a type of primitive insulation that kept temperatures inside slightly warmer in winter and cooler in summer.
As the centuries passed, more advantages to the mortar-less trullo were discovered. Puglia may have been far from the courts of the Kingdom of Naples, but eventually it too got dragged into the wars between the Aragonese, and later, Spanish kings and rival factions vying for power. The whole region was splintered into tiny impoverished, totally unsustainable fiefdoms. The poor wretches whose misfortune it was to live in the area never knew from one battle to the next who would end up their lord, although they probably didn’t spend much energy worrying about this. No matter who the victor was, their subsidence existence was guaranteed to continue as before.
Occasionally one of the peasants would rebel. Whoever was king at the time would offer a huge reward for his capture. And this is when it was discovered that an abandoned trullo made for a great hideout. If the bounty-hunters got too close, the trullo – remember, there was no mortar – could be obliterated in a matter of minutes. While the mercenaries rummaged in frustration through the debris the outlaws would bide their time in an old well. As anyone who has ever been midway through a jigsaw puzzle and has had to start over knows – maybe a rambunctious child jiggled the table – reassembling the pieces goes a lot faster. Once the bounty hunters had gone it was (not quite) child’s play to reassemble the hideout.
The trullo also lent itself rather easily to tax evasion. Amongst the myriad taxes thought up by the Aragonese kings was one on all dwellings. In a rare gesture of generosity, the tax was not imposed until the dwelling was complete. The wretched peasants may not have had any knowledge of accounting practices but they obviously had an instinct for tax avoidance. They kept an eye on the movements of the king’s tax collectors and when a visit seemed imminent, they would take out some of the slabs in the roofs of their homes. One can only imagine the show they put on for the tax collector. And the laughs that were had at his expense as the peasants reassembled the roofs after he’d left.
In the 14th century one of the Aragonese kings decided to reward a local count for his service during the Crusades. He gave him a fiefdom. But the count was not as loyal a subject as the king had imagined. Not content with the tiny fiefdom he had been granted, Count Giangirolamo of Aragon, aka Il Guercio proceeded to enlarge the territory under his control. With promises of land and, at the time, an extremely generous tax – they would get to keep a full 90% of their crops, the ‘Cross-Eyed One’ enticed 40 of the peasant families in his fiefdom to relocate to a previously uninhabited area nearby. The king may have got wind of something for he came up with a new edict which prohibited the creation of any new settlement without his express permission. It was a blatant power move on the king’s part, but once again the mortar-less trullo provided a handy solution. When the king’s inspectors arrived, there was no settlement, just a pile of rubble. Under the wily Guercio‘s supervision, each of the peasants had attached a rope to the small decoration on top of his trullo, the pinnacle, and then, no doubt with heavy heart, coaxed his horse to pull on the rope until the trullo collapsed.
I was eager to return in spring. How different would the trulli look like under clear, blue skies? As it turned out, quite a lot. And although some of the other-worldly feel was definitely lost, it seemed to me that the trullo was made for hot, dry weather and blue skies.
In time the trulli in the new settlement had to be torn down less frequently and it became a thriving community known as Alberobello. Today it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with over 400 trulli, the greatest concentration in the world. So why is it called Alberobello ? Why not Trullio? Or Trulliopolis? What has ‘Beautiful Tree’ got to do with anything?
I had to dig around a bit for the answer. Not surprisingly, I suppose, given the centuries of history and history writers involved, there is no shortage of theories, but the one that seems most likely has to do with an oak tree. Centuries ago there were many small groves of a rare type of oak tree in the region. It was a very large tree and this is the only part of Italy where it has been found. Right by the settlement was a particularly large and beautiful specimen that locals called arbor belli. Not ‘beautiful tree’, but ‘tree of war’. Given the history of the region, it is surely as fitting a name as anything to do with the trullo.
I wandered up and down the lanes until I was trulli satisfied, and the sun was starting its evening descent. Although the distance to the B&B wasn’t great, I knew that it would take a while on the narrow, country roads. But I wasn’t worried. According to the directions I’d been given it was very straightforward. Just follow the SP16 towards Ostuni and turn off at the sign for the B&B.
There was a wide range of trulli along the SP16, all of which struck me as uncomfortably close to the edge of the road. There was no shoulder to speak of and the other drivers had a rather alarming sense of where the middle of the road was. Especially when they whipped around the curves. I suppose those thick, stone walls aren’t just for privacy.
I was almost all the way back to Ostuni and still no sign of the sign. I saw someone hacking at some bushes by the side of the road and stopped to ask. He knew the place. And yes, there was a sign. But only on the Ostuni side of the post.
Many of the trulli along the dirt road to the B&B were beautifully restored, if not brand new. The signora at the B&B told me that many French citizens, attracted by the comparatively reasonable prices compared to those of Provence, have started building trulli inspired holiday homes in the valley.
Some stretches of the road were barely a lane and a half wide, with rough stone walls where I thought a shoulder would have been nice, so I had plenty of time to think about why I’d decided to stay in this particular B&B.
Although I never did get used to the road in, the B&B was wonderful, although I could see why some travellers have found them claustrophobic. It was quite private, so I opened the door shutters as wide as decency permitted.