Alberobello: a quirky part of Italy with a difference

Travel writer Julia Hammond explains how she fell in love with the southern Italian town of Alberobello.

Image credit: Berthold Werner

The first time I saw a picture of a row of trulli—quirky round huts—it popped up on a Twitter feed during a weekly chat about #TheRoadLessTravelled. That turned out to be a bit wide of the mark.

In the town of Alberobello, where these trulli cluster, numerous tour guides bearing colourful umbrellas lead groups of camera-toting tourists on walking tours. Some describe it as a hobbit town, but it has its own distinct character. Judge for yourself, with these photos.

What’s going on with these huts?
These huts are found not just in Alberobello but are scattered across Puglia, the heel of Italy’s boot. They look like something out of a fantasy film set, but in fact were originally built for agricultural purposes, sheltering livestock from the elements. Stone in this karst limestone plateau was abundant, making these construction methods cheap. The trulli huts are as common a sight in the fields of the Valle d’Itria as dry stone walls are in the Yorkshire Dales. 

With no mortar holding the blocks in place, dismantling trulli when they were no longer needed was easy, a fact that caught the attention of the townsfolk of Alberobello, for a very sneaky reason.

Centuries ago, the area came under the rule of the distant Kings of Napoli, whose wealth was in part due to levies imposed on permanent dwellings. But if a dwelling could be taken down quickly, there’d be nothing to pay. It was the ultimate tax dodge, and one which served the people of Alberobello for a considerable period of time. Eventually, the political situation changed, and these temporary structures became as much a part of the urban landscape as they were the countryside that surrounded it. 

Learning the history
This, and more of the town’s long history, form the exhibits in the fascinating Museo del Territorio. Spread across fifteen interconnected trulli, visitors take a virtual walk through Alberobello’s colourful past.

Equally fascinating is Trulli Sovrano. It’s the only trullo in the town to have a second storey, as such a rudimentary form of architecture wasn’t usually sturdy enough to support an upper floor. It was once a warehouse, and a trapdoor in the upper floor is a clue to its former use. A spy hole from a bedroom near the front door would have been used to check who was visiting, and as the friendly staff will point out, it was wide enough to accommodate a rifle when they were deemed unwelcome!

Grander still is the 20th-century trulli church of Chiesa Sant’Antonio which stands on the edge of the Rione Monti district. It’s a good starting point to explore this hilly part of town, not least because the stroll along Via Monte Michele back to the main square is of the gentle downhill variety. 

While you’re in Rione Monti, worth seeking out is the Trulli Siamesi. A single dipped roof covers its two domes, and the place is thought to date from the 15th century. Legend has it that two brothers lived there, but came to blows when they fell for the same woman. Neither would give up the house they’d inherited, so the oddly shaped hut with its separate rooms and extra door became the tangible result of their stubbornness. 

Shopping for traditional goods
Many of Rione Monti’s trulli house souvenir shops sell artisan olive oil, hand-woven textiles, and bold ceramics, though you’ll need to weed out the tat! Something to look out for is the traditional Puglian whistle, which takes the form of a chicken. You’ll hear them too if there are any school groups in town. A few of these stores have panoramic terraces. They’re free to enter and offer superb views across the trulli tops which appear stranger still when viewed en masse. 

Facing off across the square is Rione Aia Piccola. In contrast to its touristy neighbour, this largely residential neighbourhood is sleepy, although the density of trulli is as great. Holiday lets festooned with brightly coloured flowers are the only clue to the town’s popularity with visitors. Once the day trippers have gone home, those lucky enough to be staying in one of these charming trulli have the place to themselves. That’s when the area’s unique character really makes itself felt. You’ll still experience the Italy of pasta and passeggiata—leisurely walks taken in the evening for socialising—but with a Puglian twist.

It’s not as hilly as it looks!
If you look at photos online, it looks like there are a few hills. But fear not! The district of Rione Monti is slightly hilly, but with large, broad steps in places and gentle slopes for the most part. If you’d like to see the most picturesque row of trulli without any uphill walk at all, it’s easy to park just along by the trulli church, and from there it’s a totally flat walk. Rione Aia Piccola is flatter and would be much easier to access; this area is actually more interesting and a lot less touristy.

So don’t be put off by the hills: Alberobello is one Italian town that you won’t want to miss.