Puglia’s remarkable length means it is a region of great architectural, natural and cultural variety. The southern tip, now so popular with tourists, boasts Baroque architectural fantasies and heavenly beaches, while the north’s castles immerse you in tales of Medieval knights and battles. But central Puglia, home to the Valle d’Itria, is a Garden of Eden peppered with olive groves, cool white towns, and poetry-inspiring seaside gems.
The village of ostentatious wrought-iron balconies adorned with flowers, Cisternino forms a grand balcony overlooking the mosaic of olive groves, dry stone walls and rustic stone dwellings that characterises the Valle d’Itria. The town is said to have been founded by a survivor of the Trojan War, and the village has an air of indestructibility, with echoes of Paleolithic hunters, Romans, monks, hermits and priests that have walked the soulful streets over the centuries. In fact, Cisternino is a surprising interreligious haven, with an Indian centre of spirituality located in its streets.
Wander around the streets on a late summer afternoon when life has stilled, retiring into cool interiors to avoid the powerful sun. Enjoy the playful light and shadow of the curved streets, sottopassi and archways. Visit the church of San Nicola, the chiesa Madre, which was built in the 12th century on the remains of an 8th century Basilica. The current facade is an 1848 Neoclassical replacement, but traces of the church’s distant history can be found inside. A primitive church of 1000 has recently been discovered beneath.
As the sun sets join the ubiquitous old men on the ‘balcony’, a long promenade with a mesmerising view of the gold washed Valle d’Itria below.
This is one of the more popular towns due to its clusters of trulli, the idiosyncratic conical houses with removable roofs. Alberobello seems like a village out of a Grimm’s fairytale; one could imagine gnomes and pixies peeping out from the little round dwellings. In fact their history is a little more prosaic. My preferred explanation for their form is from local legend, recounted to me by a local bar owner. As the charming story goes, the roofs were constructed without cement so that when the landowner visited to collect taxes for the houses the occupants simply pulled down the roof so it could not longer be classified as a house, and then rebuilt it once he’d left. Not particularly practical but at least more creative than our current forms of tax evasion. Another equally dubious explanation is that easily removable roofs allowed for swift expulsion of unwanted tenants.
Since around the 14th century these dwellings have been constructed in the Itria Valley, occasionally as individual structures acting as agricultural shelters, but more often as little huddles of four or five trulli, each a single room with a conical roof. Although now they are the delight of tourists, relished in all their quaint miniaturism, their original residents found them uncomfortably cold and damp in winter. Due to their design they are difficult to heat, and condensation from cooking and even breathing generated moisture dulling the warmth from the fire.
Alberobello’s trulli are now predictably romanticised, bedecked with flowers and decorations. You can visit inside a couple though be prepared to be badgered to buy little souvenirs of mini trulli! Much of the integrity of these residences has been sacrificed to tourism, but one thing to note is the arcane symbols painted in white on the roofs.
A delightfully disorienting circular labyrinth with white houses and streets glinting in the sun, Locorotondo (the name deriving from ’round place’) can be found deep in the Valle d’Itria, surrounded by vineyards. On arrival there is a postcard view of gleaming white facades, elegant, clean and joyous with geraniums in summer.
Locorotondo is home to the Trullo of the Marziolla contrada, the oldest trullo in Puglia, with the inscription 1559 over the entrance. A chameleon construction emerging seamlessly out of the flanking dry stone wall and obscured by trees, it is easily missed on the road leading from Locorotondo to San Marco. You can visit inside and see the remnants of a trough and shelving. The trullo is on private land but you can request a guided tour by calling this number: 329-3824187.
Aside from the oldest trullo, the main points of interest are within the city itself. It doesn’t have any particularly outstanding buildings in terms of architectural interest, but as a composite the borgo is simply delightful. Like a settlement of a Greek island, narrow streets twist between simple, white washed houses. The traditional house has a particular roof design called ‘cummerse’, formed in a high peak and constructed without cement. The peak gives the houses an almost nordic appearance, but it is very much local. For more information on what to see and where to stay follow this link.
Polignano a Mare
First a word of caution: unless you own a Fiat Panda or Cinquecento do not attempt to drive into the old town! These narrow streets were built before Land Rovers could dictate their width, and you’re sure to lose a wing mirror or two if you’re not careful turning a corner. Furthermore, if you do venture forth into the labyrinth, be aware that nearly all streets are one way!
However, it is more than worth the driving trials to stay in the old town. Our apartment had a wonderful vaulted ceiling, an old stove and pretty decorative tiles.
Polignano a Mare’s real attraction is its relationship with the sea. Wander to the sea, particularly at sunset, and admire the ever-changing shades of turquoise and dark blue as the water flows in and out of the caves. These caves, which among the most beautiful in Italy, can be visited by boat in the summer. The cove beach of the town is a delightfully fortuitous amalgamation of nature and architecture, with houses growing up organically from the cliffs that cup the beach in giant hands.
Then stroll into the old town and lose yourself in the white marble streets. Even when it’s dark there is a slight luminosity created by all the white stone. As you wander round, look out for the poems and quotations that are inked on doors, staircases and walls, all signed ‘The Flaneur’. This man is now somewhat famous locally for his poetic graffiti. When you get peckish, the sea food is a must. I recommend Ristorante Antiche Mura, where we gorged on never-ending primi piatti of pesce crudo (raw fish), little fried fish, tuna carpaccio, oysters and scallops (for an astonishingly reasonable price). There is, of course, the now widely acclaimed Ristorante Grotta Palazzese, an exclusive restaurant with a terrace hewn out from the rock of Polignano’s iconic bay. The view is unarguably exceptional, but at 300 euros a head for dinner it wants thinking about!