Martina Franca

Trulli Picturesque

22nd March 2019

Deborah Mulhearn explores the characterful villages of southern Italy…

Puglia runs down the ‘boot’ of southern Italy from the spur to the heel. Inhabited since Neolithic times, its five hundred miles of coastline have long attracted invaders. Balkan tribes, Ottomans, Byzantines, Greeks, Normans, Spaniards and just about everyone with ambitions to impose themselves on another country have all stamped their mark, reflected in a profusion of architectural styles and cultural traditions.

Today’s invaders are generally more benign, wanting to capture Puglia only on their cameras and phones. Its fortified towns and farms, crusader-style castles and Baroque and Romanesque cathedrals, churches, crypts, convents and cloisters are built in local limestone: there is a riot of styles, but a soothing consistency of texture and creamy white colour.

There are also fascinating prehistoric caves and grottoes, and the distinctive stone ‘trulli’, the traditional conical houses of the Itria Valley. The trulli are scattered everywhere here, ranging from single cones to clusters of ten or twelve, but all with the same simple conical roofs, weathered to a crisp grey and topped with white pinnacles.

As we are staying in a trullo, we can admire the cones close up. They were built as homes and for practical agricultural uses – it’s said that some are five hundred years old, and were influenced by the Ottomans who invaded in the late 15th century.

But no one really knows the true ages of the trulli, as there are very few records. One story is that the roof cones were built this way so that they could be quickly dismantled when the taxman called. They were easily extended as the family grew, but nowadays many have modern extensions and others, like ours, have been turned into holiday villas.

It takes a while, in hot climes, to unfurl and fully inhabit the outdoors. But soon we acclimatise to breakfast on the verandah and to the evening barbecues. We stop being fazed by the tiny lizards that scurry along the low dry stone walls, the big yellow-bellied crickets that chirp their presence, and the stately fox that strolls by, ignoring us.

In the morning the only sounds are the distant whirr of farm machinery, the much closer drone of fat bees, and the birdsong. The morning birds are busy – long-tailed magpies congregate on telegraph wires like nosy neighbours, swallows swoop and smaller birds flit purposefully between the trees. A solitary bird of prey that looks like a kestrel patrols high above this activity.

The only other sound is the warm swish of wind through the pale gold wheat. I fish an unfortunate cricket from the bottom of the pool and place it on the side, and wait to see if the swallows claim it. Later, in the early evening sun, around teatime, we watch as they dive-bomb down to scoop the insects off the surface of the pool. They don’t take the cricket, but next morning it’s gone.

We zigzag through the dense wooded hillside of pines, prickly pear, poplar and silvery green olive groves to visit the nearby hilltop towns of Cisternino, Martina Franca, Locorotundo and Ostuni. The impression as these whitewashed towns come into view is of a series of shimmering white mirages. The fortifying walls are solid though, made from karst, a local limestone that looks white but on closer inspection reveals ice cream colours of pale pink, apricot, honey, cream, even a rusty orange. The reddish tinges come from the iron oxide-enriched earth.

These seductive places offer the pleasure of getting lazily lost down winding lanes and blind alleys, and slipping into cool cathedrals and shady cloisters. We peep into dark but richly decorated churches packed with mawkish saints and dolorous Madonnas. When we emerge into the blinding light of sunny sagrati – church squares – and spacious piazzas, it’s with a sense of relief.

Sleepy during siesta, these white-walled towns burst into life for the evening passeggiata or promenade, when families, couples and old folk stroll, greet their friends and stop to browse in shops, enjoy a gelato, a beer or an aperitif.

Climbing steps worn smooth over centuries in Ostuni, another white-walled city and perhaps the prettiest we’ve seen so far, I wonder what the residents think of us tourists now flocking to their ancient towns. Few concessions are made, and rightly so. Washing flaps above us from balconies and barred windows, and black-clad women sit out to peel vegetables or while away the time and gossip in the age-old way.

Nowadays, there are boutique shops and smart bars with cushions and beanbags arranged artfully on the steps. We stop at Evo, a quirky cave cellar bar built into the rock with a glass floor to expose the pitted rock from which it is built.

Alberobella is different, because it’s a whole town of trulli. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996, it’s now a major tourist attraction, with the trulli converted into giftshops and restaurants and prettified with honeysuckle and petunias.

We cross into the much harsher landscape of the neighbouring province of Basilicata to visit the fascinating town of Matera, 2019 European Capital of Culture. Matera is famous for its cave dwellings, known as the Sassi – Italian for stones – that are carved, squeezed and moulded into the ‘tufo’ rock below the modern city on either side of a deep ravine. The Sassi are also now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Families lived in these stony homes from ancient times until the 1950s. Other caves form rupestri, or rock-hewn churches decorated with faded frescoes. There’s also a 16th century reservoir complex beneath the town’s main square, and more as yet unexplored caves reaching deep into the rock. But without the signs, you’d barely know this subterranean city existed.

Matera was described in Christ Stopped at Eboli, the memoir of Italian writer and painter Carlo Levi, as a schoolboy’s idea of Dante’s Inferno, and there is indeed something hellish about descending the slippery steps and steep paths into this strange, primeval place.

Levi was exiled here in the 1930s for his opposition to Mussolini’s Fascist government, at a time when thirty thousand people were living in the Sassi in appalling conditions and high child mortality rates. His book later prompted the authorities to start clearing the cave dwellings, but one is restored as a museum, and visitors can see how families lived, sharing the cramped spaces with animals, foodstores and farm equipment.

But the caves are gradually being reinhabited and converted to restaurants and hotels for tourists, and as premises for local businesses. Matera, once known as ‘the shame of Italy’ for its abject poverty, is well on its way to being thoroughly gentrified.

Back in Puglia, we head for Lecce, one of Italy’s southernmost cities, described in all the guidebooks as a Baroque extravaganza. However, its most elaborate façade, that of the cathedral, is covered up – a familiar hazard in Italy, where restoration projects can last for decades. It makes the Baroque effect less overpowering, and we can concentrate on its interior, which has a beautiful tiled floor and marbled pillars with each capital depicting a different saint.

Lecce’s wildly elaborate Baroque churches are carved and decorated inside and out, not only with saints and angels, but also animals, birds, flora and fauna, grotesques and gargoyles and mysterious ‘illuminati’ symbols like the Eye of Providence.

Yes, there is Baroque swagger but there are also cool crypts, secretive cloisters and shady squares to be found. A sudden sharp shower sends us in retreat to Mamma Elvira, a friendly enoteca or wine bar, that serves regional wines and local produce in hearty peasant sandwiches; mashed fava beans and chicory are a local speciality. We order a Prosecco but the waitress gently corrects us, explaining that here it’s Spumante – Prosecco is from the Veneto, way up north. We follow with a coffee and pasticciotto, a local pastry filled with a vanilla cream.

There’s a surprise in store the day we head for Monopoli, a tiny town on the Adriatic coast. It’s exceptionally busy, and soon we find out why. It’s the feast day of the local saints, and the townspeople are converging, in colour-coded processions, on the cathedral square. A brass band is playing and the massive cathedral doors creak open. Three statues of (almost) lifesize saints are brought out on wooden platters, hoisted on the shoulders of clerics, whose vestments are swirling around them in the wind.

First to emerge are the twins Cosmos and Damian. Are these the only twin saints in Christendom, I wonder, and make a note to look this up. (Turns out there are several pairs, so not that unusual). Saint Cataldo follows, in the much fancier garb of a bishop. He turns out to be Cathal, a sixth century Irish monk, washed ashore in Puglia after a shipwreck and adopted as the patron saint of the nearby port of Taranto. Everyone claps and smiles with delight to see their saints getting their annual airing. Even I, an incorrigibly lapsed Catholic, feel a frisson of fervour. Just for a nano-second.

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