Inside a stunning Italian town just a few hours from the UK – and you can stay for £42 a night.
SOUTHERN ITALY Puglia is enjoying its moment in the sun with its small cone-shaped houses, known as trulli, attracting visitors from all over the world.
The UNESCO-protected city of Alberobello has the largest concentration, with over 1,400 whitewashed houses with conical roofs.
This is where I book the traditional stay which starts at just £42 per person per night.
My guide Mimmo Palmisan is the owner of Trulli e Puglia, a trullo rental company, and his family has lived in Alberobello – which means “beautiful tree” – for generations.
He insists that we meet at the top of the city at the church of San Antonio of Padua, and not at the foot of the hill, the usual tourist destination, where there are many souvenir shops.
He also insists that we start our walk before the buses with passengers from the cruise ships arrive.
I’m happy with it. Sunrise is a magical hour when the white limestone of the city is illuminated by soft pink light and you only hear the chatter of magpies.
“Look how beautiful the city is in the early morning,” sighs Mimmo, leading me to the church (or rather, to a giant trullo, since everything is under a conical roof here).
When it was built in the 1900s, it provided education for the children of Alberobello while their parents started growing the almond groves again.
The venture changed the fortunes of this impoverished community and explains the giant almond featured in the painting of Christ on the Cross hanging above the altar.
Outside, the sun reflects off the dazzling white buildings, and it’s hard not to get carried away by the city’s dreamlike qualities.
“The worst thing is when people call the trulli ‘houses of the smurfs,’” Mimmo grumbles as we walk past the Tholos wine bar, which serves a free breakfast included with my stay.
Ideal for sunsets
The main town is all white-cobbled streets and trulli with conical roofs painted with Christian symbols such as the sun, the cross and the heart of Mary, many of which now house small shops and cafes.
On the opposite hill, UNESCO banned all commercial use of the trulli except for a few bed and breakfasts.
As we explore, Mimmo tells me about the city’s colorful past.
Originally built in the Middle Ages as a secret to tax evasion, the locals made a living cutting down oak trees to supply the Italian shipbuilding industry while henchmen hid in the woods to deal with any unwanted spies.
“If the royal tax collectors come here to sniff it out, they’ll get this,” says Mimmo, slowly running his finger down his throat.
The conical roof was left with a small opening at the top so that taxes could not be levied on the unfinished house, and “secco” (no mortar) were built so that they could be quickly demolished in the event of a royal inspection.
We enter a trullo, untouched for a century, where sheep have been kept in an open stall next to a kitchen adorned with blackened cooking utensils and strings of garlic.
A small iron bed is neatly fitted into the arch, and a staircase leads to the roof, where the floor for children to sleep is laid on thick wooden beams.
“Don’t worry,” Mimmo jokes. “You won’t stay here.
We then look into a quaint trullo 5H (actually two nailed together) with a plunge pool and sauna, a sumptuous living room furnished with Apulian antiques, and a beautiful terrace perfect for sunsets.
I strike a balance between the two by choosing to stay in a newly refurbished trullo with modern amenities (wi-fi and a decent shower), but it’s simply furnished to let the honey-hued bricks speak for themselves.
Stone floors, eye-catching brick arches and a beam of light from the top of the dome. You will be hard pressed to find a more comfortable home.
In hot summers, these unique homes are also an oasis of cool calm.
As the sun goes down, I wander the lanes of Alberobello, now tourist-free and drenched in soft amber tones, to Trullo D’Oro for a plate of fettuccine pasta with wild boar stew and porcini mushrooms.
“Salute!” the waiter wishes me, and I raise my glass of local Verdeca wine, glad that for a while this beautiful town of trulli will be at my disposal.
GET THERE: Fly direct to Bari or Brindisa from many UK airports.
EasyJet flies to Bari from Gatwick from £34.99 one way. See easyJet.com.
ACCOMMODATION THERE: Trulli with Trulli e Puglia starts at €95 (£84) per night.
Bicycle rental, cooking lessons and wine tasting are also available. See trulliepuglia.com.