Few things excite me as much as getting off the beaten path to discover outlandish places that look as if they only belong in the spreads of high-end travel magazines. But to arrive at the location and find only a handful of visitors is the greatest reward any traveller can ask for and this was precisely the case during my recent visit to the Puglia region in southern Italy.
Hundreds of miles away from the catwalks of Milan and the bustle of Rome, southern Italy has its own distinct identity. Life moves at a much slower pace and feels richer in terms of quality. Those who choose to observe more carefully discover something very interesting in the city located in southern Italy, known as the ‘heel of Italy’.
I simply couldn’t resist a last-minute deal on a flight to Barium (Bari), a port city on the Adriatic Sea and the capital of the Puglia region. Dating back to ancient times, the city has a vibrant past. In fact, Bari was a strategic port responsible for eastward trade during the Roman period. The city also served as the landing for many invading foreign armies that have left a lasting impression on the history, culture and traditions of southern Italy.
Italians left an undeniable mark on the world, especially during the peak of the Roman empire. Roman history is intricately intertwined with that of the local story everywhere from Europe to northern Africa, all the way to western Asia. From Jerash in Jordan to the Capitoline Temple in Morocco, a Roman site is always on a traveller's itinerary in these parts of the world. However, it is here in southern Italy, where I finally had the opportunity to see how the outside world intervened in the Italian story.
About 60km south-east of Bari lies the town of Alberobello (meaning: beautiful tree), home to the mysterious trulli. A trullo (singular) is a whitewashed, dry stone hut with a conical roof built using an ancient technique. Alberobello and the surrounding area in the Puglia region are the only places in Italy where a trulli can be seen, raising the questions: Why just here? Who built it and for what purpose? Though I found some answers through UNESCO, locals in Alberobello had far more interesting and compelling stories about these fairytale-like structures.
The ‘official’ narrative seems to be that the first trulli were built in the 16th century after a local lord forced farmers to settle in the area and work the land. The farmers built their homes using the stones they found in the area. An extension of that story states the trulli were constructed in a specific manner so that the lords could evade property taxes. When the king’s inspectors were in the area, the lords would order farmers to dismantle their homes to save themselves a few shiny scudi (coins used in Italy until the 19th century) on their tax bill.
While the theory sounds plausible, I began to wonder why this style of dwellings didn’t spread to other areas if they were indeed so effective. Fortunately, I found another explanation. It turns out the people in south-eastern Anatolia (present-day Turkey) had been building the trulli before they started appearing in Puglia. Local sources told the story of how the trulli were first built by Ottoman soldiers who stayed or were left behind after their army was defeated. Soldiers offered to work the land for local lords in exchange for their life and freedom. Over time the descendants of the Ottomans adopted Italian identities. While most of us aren’t aware of Turkish history in Italy, the trulli have stood as the test of time. Today they still serve as homes, hotels, places of worship, shops and sheds in and around Alberobello.
There was still one thing that puzzled me: the primitive symbols painted on the conical rooftops of a few trulli. Some came across as ET markings while others were a bit more familiar, such as an arrow across the shape of a heart. Current residents of the trulli claim they found these symbols inside the dwelling in the form of a figurine or a mark on a wall. They consider them lucky charms and use them as protective symbols. While the origins of some symbols date back to 1200 BC, since the first wave of Indo-European colonisation of the Italian peninsula, others are rooted in Christianity.
Walking through the streets of Alberobello is a truly enchanting experience. Constructed on a hilly terrain, the conical rooftops and their decorative pinnacolos (pinnacles) crop out of the landscape like fictional Martian rockets or the homes of Santa’s elves. Visitors can get a glimpse of the interior by stepping into one of the converted souvenir shops or a bed-and-breakfast. You can also knock on the door of a residence to experience the warm southern Italian hospitality. Who knows, you might just find yourself in the company of a local politician or celebrity as many have invested in owning a private trullo in recent years.
The trulli are just one of the many great examples of marks left by foreigners that can be seen in southern Italy. The region’s connection to the sea and near proximity to Balkan and African shores have brought in many visitors for over hundreds of years. Yet in present day, southern Italy is less frequently visited in comparison to Rome or other cities in the north. This means there’s plenty of space to explore with fewer tourists to compete with and the locals are extremely welcoming and hospitable. Plus, food and accommodation is much more reasonably priced than other more frequently visited parts of the country.
My week in Puglia was far too short to uncover many great stories waiting to be told. But then again, it’s not difficult to spend a short time in this part of the world and still come up with experiences to enjoy.
Urooj Qureshi is an international explorer who loves to tell stories about little known places around the world. He tweets @uroojqureshi