The Land of Point & The White City

Apulia's Valle d'Itria, from the trulli of Alberobello to the wines of Locorotondo to the whitewashed alleyways of Ostuni

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The Valle d'Itria begs to be described in clichés—a storybook landscape of lush farmland divided into patchwork fields by low stone walls. But the details are just too darn weird to fit such standard brochure-speak, and nothing sums up the Itria's wonderful weirdness better than the trulli.

Trulli (singular: trullo) are tiny, cylindrical homes of whitewashed limestone, the conical roofs made from stacking flat, dark gray stones in a diminishing spiral of concentric circles, often painted with a large Paleo-Christian magical symbol for luck, and capped by a stone point or ball.

Apulia Article Sections
Introduction
The Phantom City & the Culture of the Caves
    » (Matera, Mottola)
The Land of Point & The White City
    » (Alberobello, Locorotondo, Ostuni)
The Wild Art of Apulia's Deep South
    » (Lecce, Otranto)
Some say trulli were built that way so that shrewd peasants could pluck out a single key stone and cave in the whole roof whenever they saw the King's men coming, for "unfinished" structures couldn’t be taxed. Many academics simply point out that this construction is the best way to put a stone roof over your head without mortar, and trace the trulli's origins across Egypt, Greece, and Turkey back to the archaic Mycenaean civilization.

Whatever the case, the thick stone walls and heavy whitewash are eminently practical: cool during Apulia's baking summers and, with the help of a fireplace (or, these days, a space heater), cozy in the winter. Like the outside walls, the stone-floored interiors are thickly slathered in layers of whitewash—even on the inside of the cone-like roof, though that is usually blocked off by a ceiling of wooden planks, which serves to keep the heat down in the living area. (There's also usually a ladder up through a rough hole in that ceiling so the space above can be used as a storage loft.) Trulli are, by design, single-room structures. If you want a larger house, you just build a second trullo hard against the first and cut a doorway through the connecting wall. Build whole strings of trulli in a row like this, and suddenly you've got the town of Alberobello.

Alberobello: The Original Land of Point

Four hundred trulli survive in the largely residential Aia Piccola district of Alberobello's otherwise more modern center. Another 1,000 make up the commercial/tourist zone called Monti, separated from the town center by a shallow fold in the landscape, down which runs the main road out of town. Monti was largely derelict a decade ago when local entrepreneur Guido Antionetta had a brilliantly simple idea to help preserve the neighborhood's unique vernacular architecture.

He bought up a few dozen abandoned trulli, installed modern kitchenettes, a few pieces of chunky wooden furnishings, and cast-iron bed frames, and formed a company called Trullidea to rent them out as mini-apartments for $98 to $115 per night—less than rooms cost at the local hotels (Via Monte Nero 18, tel. 011-39-080-432-3860, www.trullidea.com, €86–€142, from €86 online Reserve it ).

Guido even revived the ancient custom of painting one of several magical Paleo-Christian good luck symbols on the roof of each. "I was always a bit different," admits Guido, a self-proclaimed Native American aficionado who fondly recalls playing a spaghetti-western edition of "Cowboys and Indians" as a kid. His friends invariably all wanted to be cowboys, forming a posse that would chase the Savage Indian Hordes—consisting entirely of Guido—through Alberobello's streets.

Though the streets of the Monti district are increasingly given over to souvenir shops, restaurants, and cafes to serve the town's slow trickle of tourists, you can still see timeless slices of Apulian life. Old habits have a way of hanging on in these small, Southern Italian towns, where the streets and stores were traditionally the province of men, and the home was the domain of the women. In fact, until recently many older women rarely ventured beyond their open front doors, except to apply a new coat of whitewash to the trullo walls or scrub the white flagstones on the section of street in front of their house.

To this day, when older men want to chat, they congregate at the local bar or on a bench by the main road or on the piazza. But up and down Alberobello's steep streets, you'll see women sitting in their doorways, perched on cane-bottomed chairs and carrying on conversations with their neighbors across the street while engaged in some form of domestic industry—shelling peas, knitting woolen slips, mending dresses, or crafting tiny souvenir trulli for their son's souvenir shop.

Take your hint from them and take a few hours off from sightseeing and snapping photographs. Move into your trullo and make it homey. Open the shutters on the tiny, deep-set window to let some light into the dark and cozy room. Stow your clothes into the simple dresser. Shop for groceries on the main road a block or two away, and make yourself lunch in your kitchen. Dump your guidebook on the kitchen table, drag a chair into the open doorway, and while away an afternoon reading and soaking up the sun. You may not be fluent enough to join in the neighborhood conversation, but you're guaranteed to make any passing tourist intensely jealous.

A back dirt road into yesteryear

Although trulli are still sprinkled all throughout the Valle d'Itria, the majority of architecture outside Alberobello has become boringly modern. There's one exception: an unnamed back road linking Alberobello with Martina Franca (lovely whitewashed little city). The area seems frozen in the Apulia of ages past, blanketed with olive groves and vineyards and dotted with hundreds of countryside trulli.

The road is a devil to find, though: do not follow the signs toward "Martina Franca" from Alberobello's center. Instead, follow signs towards Locorotondo and, as you're leaving Alberobello behind, look on the right, just after a curve, for a white sign pointing to "Agriturismo Greek Park." That's the road: exceedingly narrow and fenced in by stone walls—a bit scary when you meet the rare oncoming car—and cutting right through the hidden heart of the Valle d'Itria.

Locorotondo and that fine Pugliese wine

At some point, do continue down the main road to Locorotondo, a circular city of concentric streets lined by whitewashed buildings. Locorotondo is called "the balcony on the Valle d'Itria" for its vertiginous (960-foot) views over the surrounding valley. Within Italy, Locorotondo is even better known for its wine, which you can sample for free (and buy cheaply) at the edge of town in the modern Cantina Sociale, a wine cooperative made up of some 900 local vintners. (Via Madonna della Catena 99, Locorotondo, tel. 011-39-080-431-1644, www.locorotondodoc.com.)

Hearty Apulian wine should be more famous than it is. The ancient poet Horace sang the praises of Apulian wine, and the region is still Italy's most prolific, churning out 17 percent of the national total. For centuries, it was just the local grapes that interested the world's wine industries—Turin imported them to make Vermouth, and France used to sneak them into their presses during bad harvest years at home.

But Apulian wine is beginning to trade on its own merits, getting press in the international culinary magazines, and showing up on wine store shelves in the States. Though some vines are left to grow into traditional bush-like alborelli, most vines are forced into a sharp bend after a foot or two. The dusty, deep purple globes of their grapes dangle close to the ground, soaking up a raw earthiness that gives even young Apulian reds amazing structure and body.

This is a boom time for the Apulian wine industry. Oenological giants like the Antinori empire are snapping up local real estate—and with prime Apulian land going for 1/6 the price in Tuscany, the wines themselves can be astoundingly cheap. Apulia's most robust and structured reds, like Primitivo and Salice Salentino, are as rich and complex as anything you'll find in Tuscany—but, starting around $7 per bottle, at a fraction of the price. Local table wines can ring in at less than $3. Even bottles of Big Reds ring in at under $15, including the local Primitivo, named for an ancient local grape that, oddly enough, was recently proven to be DNA-identical to California Zinfandel, and the blood-black Salice Salentino, made from Negro Amaro grapes that grow in the region around Lecce, in Apulia's Deep South.

The raw earthiness and hearty structure of even Apulia's younger reds partner perfectly with the strong flavors of local peasant cooking, where stewed meats are a staple. You can put that theory to the test in Locorotondo's homey Trattoria Centro Storico, the cozy lunch spot preferred by locals and kept cool during the Apulian summer by its thick stone walls (Via Eroi di Dogali, tel. 011-39-080-431-5473).

Ostuni: The White City

For a more memorable meal, drive 15 miles east to Ostuni, "The White City"—a low spiral of white houses atop a 7,200-foot hill—to eat at the Osteria del Tempo Perso, a restaurant with a split décor personality (Via G. Tanzarella Vitale 47, tel. 011-39-0831-303-320, www.osteriadeltempoperso.com). The back dining room is a low-ceilinged cave carved out of the bedrock of Ostuni's hilltop nearly 500 years ago and softly lit by scones and the candles set on the patterned tablecloths alongside hand-painted plates from the Apulian ceramics capital, Grottaglie. A colorful cornucopia of fruits and vegetables surrounds the central column in stacks and baskets, and the chef occasionally scurries out of the kitchen to select a few for his recipes.

The high-ceilinged front dining room, on the other hand, is an archetype of the rustic trattoria: framed watercolors of Ostuni scenes and portraits share wall space with dozens of strange, often homemade farm implements and tools—there's even an antique bicycle hanging in an alcove. In one corner of the room, under pendulums of cured meats and cheeses hanging from the edge of a wooden shelf and garlands of garlic and hot red peppers nailed to the walls, a long table groans under the weight of more stacked veggies and dozens of antipasto delicacies.

As soon as you sit down, before you can even open your mouth to ask for a menu, tiny plates start arriving laden with those antipasti: stuffed mushroom caps and frittata wedges, falafel and steamed tripe, roasted vegetables in olive oil and cheeses stuffed with other cheeses. Once you do get your hands on a menu, try Apulia's thick, Frisbee-shaped orecchiette  ("little ears") pasta under a tomato sauce speckled with salty sharp cacioricotta cheese, or topped with bitter turnip greens kissed with spicy peperoncini. If there's still room, plump for the arrosto misto—a platter piled with roast sausage, lamb, and liver—with some pureed fava beans and wild chicory on the side.

Apulia Article Sections
Introduction
The Phantom City & the Culture of the Caves
    » (Matera, Mottola)
The Land of Point & The White City
    » (Alberobello, Locorotondo, Ostuni)
The Wild Art of Apulia's Deep South
    » (Lecce, Otranto)
Work off the feast with a wander through The White City's maze of alleys that are far too narrow for even Italy's miniscule cars. The edges and corners of Ostuni's buildings have been softened and rounded by so many centuries worth of whitewash layers that parts of the town look sculpted from meringue.

Some streets are so steep they become outdoor staircases, creating gaps between the buildings that reveal peek-a-boo views over the terraced vineyards and olive groves ringing this hilltop city and out to the Adriatic Sea less than three miles away.

» On to: The wild art of Apulia's deep south

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This article was written by Reid Bramblett and was last updated in January 2009. All information was accurate at the time.

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