A beginner’s guide to Alberobello
Puglia is Italy’s heel, where a karst landscape makes its presence felt in the form of caves and sinkholes. Somewhere in the middle of all that is Alberobello, a town known for one thing: trulli. These simple circular dwellings are built without mortar and take their name from the Greek word “troullos” meaning dome.
The nearest airports to Alberobello are Brindisi and Bari. The latter’s the most convenient in terms of onward travel, served from London Gatwick, Stansted and Luton by easyJet, Ryanair and Wizz respectively. Flights can be had for a little under £50 return, excellent value for a flight that’s almost 3 hours long.
From Bari, a train takes you direct to Bari Centrale station, taking about 20 minutes. From there you can pick up the FSE train, tucked away on a far-flung platform – ask for assistance if you can’t find it. Even though it’s an FSE train, you can buy a ticket from the Trenitalia ticket machines (Trenitalia bought FSE in 2018). The fastest connection takes about 1 hour 15 minutes, but it’s more usually about an hour and a half. Tickets are cheap at just 5€ and can be used on any train without the need for a reservation. At the moment, until at least 2020, the stretch of track from Putignano to Martina Franca is being renovated, so there are no trains to Alberobello itself. Instead, you need to catch the connecting rail replacement bus – and fortunately it does connect, waiting for the train if the train is running late. It’s part of the same 5€ ticket, so just show the driver. The bus journey takes about half an hour.
On Sundays, things get a little more complicated. FSE trains don’t run at all. Instead there is a bus service that connects Alberobello to Bari Centrale. Though that might sound simple, the bus doesn’t start from the station. Instead, you’ll need to find the stop – tucked around the corner on Viale Bari near Hotel Astoria and the petrol station. Remember to buy your ticket online or at the petrol station; you can’t buy a ticket on the bus from the driver.
To explore the surrounding countryside, it’s most sensible to hire a car. Though public transport does exist, it radiates from Bari and other large towns and there are few cross-country connections. To visit Matera by public transport, for instance, would require a trip from Alberobello to Bari and then out again to Matera – a long detour.
However, it is possible to catch the train (or Sunday bus) to some of the nearby villages. I enjoyed Locorotondo, the next village along, which is a pleasant outing for the afternoon. There aren’t many sights as such, but the hilltop location affords fantastic views across the surrounding countryside and the pretty old town is compact as a result.
Things to see
The big draw when it comes to Alberobello is Rione Monti. This district is packed with trulli and straggles picturesquely up the hillside. One of the best views across from the town centre is at the Belvedere Santa Lucia. It’s also worth checking out the park beside the tourist information centre and, across in Rione Monti itself, several shops that offer free access to their upstairs terraces.
Close up, it’s not quite as quaint, largely because many of the trulli house souvenir shops – some of which is mass produced tat. A few stood out, including La Bottega dei Fischietti which sells not only the traditional ceramic whistles common to Puglia but also some rather lovely ceramic tableaux.
Nearby, Pasteca La Mandragora sells high quality linens and there’s also a store to delight art lovers called Forme e Colori di De Marco Vita crammed full of brightly painted pottery. Be warned, however, some places that purport to be museums house a minimum of exhibits which exist as a honey trap for unwary visitors.
But it’s also in Rione Monti that you’ll find a 20th century trulli church and where you’ll find the curious Trulli Siamesi. This double trulli has one roof. Legend has it that two brothers fell out over a woman but neither would give up the home they had inherited. Instead of moving out, the spurned sibling bricked up the wall and knocked through to make a separate front door.
You’ll also see plenty of trulli with symbols painted on their roofs. Some people will tell you that these symbols have an ancient spiritual or religious meaning. That’s probably true, but I also read on an exhibit tucked away in a corner of the town’s museum that when Mussolini came to visit in 1927 many of the villagers were asked to paint those symbols on their trulli to add a touch of mystery. This seems to be glossed over now in favour of the more politically correct religious imagery line.
Rione Aia Piccola
The only district to rival Rione Monti in terms of the sheer number of trulli is Rione Aia Piccola, which faces off against its nemesis across Largo Martellotta. In contrast to its touristy neighbour, it’s quieter than you’d expect from somewhere on the tour guide route. Many of the trulli here are private dwellings, though a significant number are let to visitors. You’ll see just how many if you wander through in between check out and check in, when they’re marked by vacuum cleaners and mops on their thresholds.
A tourist map I had been given implied that there was a kind of open air museum here, but there was no evidence of that during my stay – perhaps because it was still early in the season? If you are in Alberobello in the height of summer it would be worth checking out just in case.
In the main part of town, there are also more than a scattering of trulli, one of which is worth seeking out as it is two-storey. This is rare: Alberobello’s trulli were originally modelled on the agricultural buildings found across the Puglian countryside and the dry stone wall construction wasn’t strong enough to support an upper floor.
Trulli Sovrano was built in the 17th century by the family of a priest, taking the name Corte di Papa Cataldo and is now a museum, its rooms recreated with antique furniture. In the front bedroom, a notice pinned to the wall states that the slit was useful for seeing who was at the door, or shooting them if they weren’t welcome. It was at one time a warehouse; if you climb the stairs, you’ll see a trapdoor in the floor used for passing goods down to the floor below. Over the years it’s had many uses, including a court, chapel, grocer’s, monastery and the HQ of the Brotherhood of the Holy Sacrament.
Museo del Territorio “Casa Pezzolla”
Much of the town’s history can be learned within the confines of this collection of fifteen or so trulli which now form a museum. It recounts the impact of the Prammatica De Baronibus, an edict of the 15th-century Kingdom of Naples. The Kings wished to impose a tax on permanent dwellings, so under the leadership of nobleman Gian Girolamo II, the residents of Alberobello were forced to live in trulli. Their dry stone construction made it easy to take them down if an inspection was imminent. The tax dodge worked, serving Alberobello well for many years but in the end, the political situation changed and thus these temporary structures became an enduring part of the urban landscape.
One of the sections of the museum explains the significance of the adornments on the roofs of the trulli. What’s called the “pinnacolo” is the only part of the trulli to be purely decorative, a kind of architect’s calling card. The more complex the design of this topper, the more talented was the master trullaro. It was also a good way of finding a particular trullo amongst so many similar constructions; think of it as the design equivalent of a postcode.
Where to stay
If you’re going to stay in Alberobello – and why wouldn’t you, since once the daytrippers have gone home it’s absolutely gorgeous – then I’d suggest you book Trulli Anti.
While there are plenty of trulli scattered across town that can be rented by visitors, many of them cluster in Rione Aia Piccola. Though that district isn’t as plagued by tour groups during the day as Rione Monti, it’s still on the tourist trail. Where Trulli Anti wins is that it’s close to the sights without being in the middle of them. Plus it’s on such a narrow road that it’s almost impossible for cars to drive past. I only saw one car try it and that was the local police.
That peace and quiet, coupled with its stylish and very contemporary design, gives it 10/10 in my books. If you’re thinking that I’m only saying that because I got a freebie, I didn’t. I paid my own way. It wasn’t cheap for a solo traveller, costing about 125€ a night – though it would be much better value if there are three of you. But oh was it worth it!
The trulli has been well thought out and owner Angelo is keen to ensure you have a great time. On a mezzanine, there’s a very inviting double bed under the domed roof. Lighting is good, and the stairs are pretty solid, which is reassuring as the bathroom is downstairs. That bathroom is chic – I especially loved the tiles and having a shower with some oomph to it. I also need to mention the comfortable sofa (so comfortable I fell asleep on it one evening) and that there’s a single room on the ground floor if you need a second bedroom or you’ve had so much vino you don’t trust yourself on the stairs.
If you plan to cook, there’s also a small but well-equipped kitchen with a dining table. When it comes to eating out, Angelo provides many recommendations and there are several excellent restaurants within staggering distance. Call ahead if you want to try La Cantina as it’s tiny and usually booked out. I had better luck geting into Trullo d’Oro and the food there was delicious. Make sure you try burata, a type of mozzarella that is moist and creamy. Breakfast comes in a box from a nearby cafe, with plenty of choice. You simply pick what you’d like off a menu, send it to Angelo via text message or What’s App and tell him what time you’d like it delivered. You can, if you prefer, eat at the same cafe, a ten minute stroll away.
Out back there is a courtyard garden. During my stay the weather was rarely sunny, but if it hadn’t been wet I’d have loved sitting out there. Angelo supplies bikes too and there’s even an outdoor shower. Pots of flowers add colour to the whitewashed trulli and fairylights create a magical feel. I’m probably gushing, but it was just delightful. Trulli delightful, in fact. Sorry, couldn’t resist.
I booked Trulli Anti via booking.com – here is the link if you want to check prices and availability: https://www.booking.com/hotel/it/trulli-anti.en-gb.html
Eating Italy food tour – the highlight of my time in Rome
When I was invited to join a Twilight Trastevere Tour in Rome last week, I had an inkling it was going to be good. I just didn’t know how good.
Having been to Rome before, I was keen to ditch the fake Roman centurions down by the Colosseum and the crowds of people sitting on the Spanish Steps. The former working-class neighbourhood of Trastevere, in English meaning “across the Tiber”, buzzes at night and has a restaurant almost on every corner. Knowing where to start was the problem, and with limited time, I was keen to join Eating Italy’s tour so they could show me around. The tour takes in around eight to ten stops in an eclectic mix of delis and eateries, rounded off with a lesson in how to identify real gelato from the fakes. It would be the perfect way to spend an evening, I decided.
Sebastiana, our knowledgeable and very entertaining guide, half Italian and half American, had the cultural knowledge and understanding to bridge both the places we were visiting and the largely American clientele who made up the tour group. She was effervescent, bubbling away (in a good way) like a chilled glass of Prosecco and just as welcome a companion on a sunny evening. Our first stop was to a tiny trattoria called Da Enzo al 29. Getting a table here is difficult, but we beat the crowd for a glass of Prosecco accompanied by a delicious starter of prosciutto, melon and a delicious cheese called burata. Here we were introduced to “aperitivo” – an Italian ritual firmly based around the understanding that one should never consume alcohol without food, something I should bring back to the UK with me, I felt.
The second stop on the tour took us underground and back in time. The Ristorante Spirito di Vino was once a synagogue, as evidenced by the Hebrew lettering on its stonework. There, in a wine cellar dating from the first century BC, we tried taster portions of three scrummy local favourites: frittata, a kind of spaghetti omelette (far tastier than that sounds), followed by Maiale di Mazio, a slow-roasted pork dish and favourite of Caesar, no less, and finally a whipped cauliflower and cheese dish. Iliana, the chef, clearly knew her stuff and if I hadn’t have been leaving on that evening’s night train, I’d have begged her for a table for dinner.
Afterwards, we strolled through the backstreets to a family-run biscotti place so local that it didn’t even have to have a sign outside. I’m not a nut fan, so passed on the hazelnut brutti ma buoni (it means “ugly but good”), but judging by the reactions of the rest of the group, I’d say I missed out on something good. The Innocenti family have run this place for years, with recipes little changed in half a century, and sell by weight. If you have a sweet tooth, this would be the place to hang out. Another neighbourhood “celebrity” was Signore Roberto who ran the nearby Antica Caciara, a cheese and meat deli that was our next port of call. Over a century of trading makes this a real gem of a place to sample the deliciously salty Pecorino Romano cheese made in the traditional way by Roberto’s uncle. Sebastiana taught us how to order: un etto being 100g and due etto, 200g. Now what was half a kilo, again?
From there, we moved on to meat, porchetta to be precise, at La Norcinera, named after Norcia, an Umbrian town where this pork comes from. This wasn’t like the tough, dry supermarket pork that we are forced to endure in the UK, its goodness sucked out by the healthy eating do-gooders. This was juicy, fatty, melt in the mouth pork, hung from hooks on racks on the ceiling to tempt even the most fastidious of dieters to fall off the wagon. Served on pizza bianca, I didn’t stand a chance.
When Sebastiana described suppli’, our next offering, I have to admit, it didn’t sound as good. It was nothing to do with her skills as a host, but more to do with the fact that suppli’ are deep-fried and, despite skipping lunch, I was beginning to feel very full indeed. These fast food treats of rice cooked in tomato sauce and stuffed with cheese are to Roman nights out what a kebab is back home – except that they taste amazing! In spite of myself, I wolfed mine down in record time and could quite happily have gone back for seconds.
The penultimate stop was at Enoteca Ferrara. An enoteca is an Italian wine bar but remember, Italians never drink without food; here we had a private table in the al fresco dining area out back, where we prized delicious ravioli away from Sebastiana (it’s her favourite) and feasted on gnocchi and cacio e pepe, a kind of square-ish spaghetti, literally translating as “cheese and pepper”. Rich but not overpowering, it was a lesson in how pasta should be served, and utterly more-ish.
But there was one place left to visit, and the one for which no one wanted to be too full. Fatamorgana makes real gelato – not the fake stuff – but with an originality of flavours that sets it apart from its competitors. I couldn’t resist the zabaglione flavour, a dessert that Mum used to serve us years ago, while the more adventurous could opt for flavours such as rosebud and black sesame, pear and Gorgonzola cheese and even pink grapefruit with ginger, horseradish and preserved lemon peel.
And how to tell the real thing from the imposter? Well, you’ll just have to take the tour yourself to find out…
To find out more and to book a tour online, head to Eating Italy Food Tours in Rome here: http://www.eatingitalyfoodtours.com/
An unexpected trip up Mount Vesuvius
Its top shrouded in cloud, the great hulk of Mount Vesuvius looms over the Bay of Naples, an ever present reminder that the residents of this area could one day face an unimaginable disaster. But the last significant eruption of Vesuvius was way back in 1944, and of course, its most famous eruption in AD79 wiped out Pompeii and Herculaneum before they knew what had happened.
I’d come to Ercolano Scavi station on the Circumvesuviana train from Naples’ Garibaldi station, itself buried under Napoli Centrale, to see for myself what Herculaneum looked like. As I exited the station, a sign advertising Vesuvius trips by bus caught my eye. Having spoken to the charming and very helpful Agostino, I was invited to join them as a guest on the next tour and I jumped at the chance to step onto a volcano I’d previously only read about.
The company, Vesuvio Express, usually operate tours on a very comfortable coach, but as there was extra demand, the company laid on an eight-seater minibus for some of us. It’s worth asking if you are a large party whether they might be able to do this for you. The 15km trip up to the ticketing area, about a kilometre below the crater, took less than half an hour and our accommodating driver paused for us to get some photos of the Bay of Naples, pointing out the island of Capri and lava flows from 1944.
At the top, it was a moderately tough climb for someone who lives in flat Essex, but manageable. Some people found it easier to hike up with the aid of a wooden stick, bought from someone about to finish their hike for a going rate of a Euro. Don’t be afraid to ask someone to sell one on! Fitter souls would manage the hike in around 15-20 minutes, but it took me just under half an hour to reach the crater rim, having stopped countless times to take photos.
The cloud was low, good hiking weather, though not great for the views back down to the bay, though that made me focus on the closer scenery, such as hardy flowering shrubs and a huge lava bomb by the side of the path.
The volcano is impressive, with a large crater that puffs sulphury smoke. You’ll notice the smell of rotten eggs if you get downwind, but it wasn’t too strong.
The gravel path alongside the crater leads to some steps; go up these and follow the trail to a second crater for a wow factor end to your climb. Coming down was faster, though I did skid a few times on the gravel. The trouble with a surprise hike is that you aren’t wearing your hiking boots!
Vesuvio Express charges just 20 Euros for this fascinating trip, half for the ride up and half for the ticket onto Vesuvius’ high trail. School groups receive a discount. They allow a generous 90 minutes at the top, which is ample time for even slow walkers to have plenty of time to absorb the views. Pre-booking isn’t essential. Tours begin around 9.30am daily and depart approximately every forty minutes. They’ll even store your bags in their office if you need them to. I definitely recommend this as a trip if you’re in the area.
Rome under wraps
If you’re planning a first visit to the Eternal City, you should be aware that a number of Rome’s main tourist sights are currently under renovation. You can still visit, of course, but you’ll need to rely on your guidebook or a postcard vendor to see the view you’ve missed out on. Here’s what it looked like when I visited at the end of May 2015:
Know of any other tourist attractions currently undergoing repair? Add a comment and let us all know, thanks.
To Florence, for some sunshine!
Beautiful Florence never looks more charming than it does when the sun is shining. Here are some of my favourite shots from this trip. The sun was reluctant to make an appearance at first, but when it did, wow, what a show!
The Cinque Terre
Today’s visit to the Cinque Terre was tinged with disappointment as much of the Sientero Azzurro was closed and the weather, though mostly dry, remained resolutely cloudy pretty much all day. Even this early in the season, crowds are building, so I’m not sure I’d want to risk a later visit to improve my chances of sunshine. Trains saved the day for speedy transfers between villages, but for wow factor views I was glad I took to the sea.
A day out on Lake Como
An easy half hour train ride from Milan, Lake Como is worth seeing for a day out if, like me, you don’t have time in your schedule for a longer visit. EuroCity and Regionale trains arrive at Como San Giovanni station and from there it’s a short stroll down to the lake shore.
From there, you can take a boat ride onto Lago di Como. If you only have a day, an express boat will save you time. I took one to Bellagio, paying just under 15 Euros; there’s a supplement for the fast boat which bumps up the price by about half. The vessel makes a few stops as it heads for this pretty village, passing George Clooney’s Villa Oleandra in Laglio on the way.
On a sunny day, with the snowcapped peaks of the Alps in the background, it’s a beautiful ride. Sit on the left hand side of the boat to get the best views as you aren’t supposed to switch seats once underway.
In Bellagio itself, there’s an attractive waterfront with gardens overlooking the lake and the Alps. Cafes line the street behind. You’ll pay a premium to sit and look at this view, but prices aren’t exorbitant.
I wanted something a little different, and had lunch at Cava Turacciolo. It’s a bar serving food, crammed full of bottles of wine from all over Italy. I’m not a wine connoisseur but they indulged my inappropriate choice of spumante without making me feel it wasn’t suitable. I didn’t care – it was like drinking alcoholic honey – and I really couldn’t resist a second glass.
To walk off lunch, I climbed the steps up to the main street, not as tough as it looked as the steps were shallow. At the top, there were plenty of shops to browse, including several selling silk, which is a speciality of Como. There’s also a church and tower.
On account of the extended window shopping, I didn’t have time for the gardens for which Bellagio is known, such as the Villa Melzi D’Eril. I caught a glimpse of it on the bus back to Como, a much cheaper option than the boat at less than 4 Euros. Sit on the right hand side when you return to Como for the best views as it hugs the lakeshore most of the way back.