Bello Alberobello

Monday, June 14, 2010

Today was Alberobello day. This town has been on my list of must-sees for a very long time, and finally we were going to see it. We scuttled over to Annamaria’s bar for our morning cappuccino and cornetto. There, I was also able to dash off an email to the hotel in Matera to ask if they had found my jacket. Then, I turned my thoughts to the trulli.

Back in the car, we headed down into the Itria Valley. I couldn’t wait to get to Alberobello, famous for its trulli. Trulli are the ultimate in architectural whimsy: rounded sugar-white houses, curiously constructed with stones and rocks gathered from nearby fields and topped with comical domed roofs. Their thick limestone walls keep the houses cool in summer and cozy in winter.

Although the roofs of new trulli are still built in the ancient technique of drywall construction, the old trulli were built completely without mortar or cement. This enabled their owners to dismantle them at a moment’s notice if word came along that the taxman was on his way. Then, after the taxman left after seeing their poverty-stricken plight, the houses would be put right back up. Or at least that’s the common story.

Trulli dot the entire Itria Valley

The Itria Valley, which stretches across parts of three Puglian provinces, is dotted with trulli. While driving through the rolling hills of this area, you can see them sprout up like white wizard huts among the olive trees and grapes. But the town of Alberobello is trulli central. Spread over two gentle hills, the town boasts 1500 of these mystical dwellings.

Welcome to Alberobello!

It wasn’t a long drive from Ostuni; we arrived mid-morning. The trulli were everywhere. We just wandered, taking pictures and surveying the otherworldly scene from the town’s high point and then losing ourselves among the blindingly white streets.

Gino doesn't think he's in Greece anymore.

I know exactly where I am.

Gino, positively enchanted

Two men were hard at work on the front of one house, splashing white lime over the walls with rollers on long poles. We stopped to watch awhile, fascinated, before continuing down the white, curving lane.


The Restaurant of Lost Time

Although you can easily get lost amongst the twists and turns of the historic center, this area is not so large that you can’t eventually find what you’re looking for. And we found what we had been seeking: Osteria del Tempo Perso (Restaurant of Lost Time). It was an odd name name for an eating establishment, but when we stepped inside we understood why.

The entrance to Osteria del Tempo Perso

The exterior of the restaurant reminded me of the Minerva formations at Yellowstone Park in Wyoming: rounded terraces of marshmallowy travertine. The entrance to the Osteria seemed to have been scooped up from Minerva and plopped here.

Restaurant of Lost Time

Inside, the restaurant is separated into two main rooms: the grotto and the museum room. You can dine in the museum room while admiring walls now adorned with tools and items once used in daily Ostuni life. Or you can dine in the grotto, a cozy enclosure with curved ceilings, stony arches and alcoves.

Truly a grotto, this cave once served as a huge bakery dating back to 1500. The honey-colored walls are still rough-hewn, but the atmosphere is anything but rustic. Large terra cotta urns sit inside niches carved into the walls. Stone shelves are lined with rows of Pugliese wine. Soft lighting casts a golden glow over the room, creating an elegant, intimate atmosphere. You want to come in, sit down, and never leave.

From the menu, we chose dishes typical to this region, wanting to taste Puglia as well as see it. I couldn’t help but order a side dish of that fabulous fave e cicorie that I had enjoyed in Matera. We stuffed ourselves, all the way from antipasto to dessert. (I learned later that this restaurant is recommended by the Slow Food Association, and they are not wrong.)

During the meal, a table of boisterous Italians were seated nearby, obviously in vacanza like us. Their merry-making was infectious, and we lifted our glasses to each other more than once.

Well sated (more like stuffed), we lumbered back to the piazza. By now we could hear loud music and the swell of applause emanating from that direction. Crowds of people blocked our view until we weaseled our way closer. On the portable stage, a local talent show of sorts was in full swing.

Enthralled, we watched as modern dancers, two ballerinas, a hip-hop posse, a group of young fencers, and even a lone body-builder entertained us and the rest of Ostuni late into the evening. We stayed until the last wisps from the fog machine drifted away. Then we did, too.

Piazza della Liberta’

The heart of Ostuni is Piazza della Libertá. Sitting at the cusp of the old historic center and the “new” town, this square serves as the community living room where Ostuni’s inhabitants gather for events or just hang out, day or night.

A towering obelisk overlooks the piazza. Created by sculptor Giuseppe Creco in 1771, this column looks more like an elongated Baroque pyramid, sporting winged putti and topped by St. Oronzo, the patron saint of Ostuni. From his bird’s eye view, he can see everything in the piazza. And here is where all the action happens.

From the piazza, our apartment was but a five-minute walk. Back in our little hobbit house, we uncorked the chilled Prosecco and sat on the rooftop balcony, enjoying a glass or two of this Italian version of Champagne. The sun was sinking and we were getting hungry. We had seen plenty of restaurants to choose from during our walkabout.

The air was still warm. I wouldn’t need a coat tonight, I thought to myself. But where was my coat? Then I remembered. It was still tucked deep into the far corner of that armadio in our previous hotel…back in Matera. I was crestfallen. It was my favorite jacket! Oh well, too late now. I would email the hotel later and see if they could send it back to California for me.

From our rooftop terrace,
a view of the buildings that border the piazza

Ready for dinner, we wandered back towards the historic center, passing through Piazza della Libertá on our way. One end of the piazza was fenced off. Curious, we veered over to have a look. A few feet below, the crumbling remains of an ancient stone structure was slowly coming to light. What other treasures lie below, we wondered, just waiting for archaeologists to dig their way down and reveal them?

An archaeological excavation at the edge of Piazza della Liberta'

You just never know what lies beneath your feet!

Piazza della Liberta’ is dominated by the facade of the municipio
which is decorated with rows of statues such as this one

You can have a crepe while you people-watch

Piazza della Liberta' -- Ostuni's open-air living room

The action in the piazza was already picking up. A large stage was set up at one end with huge speakers off to the sides and lights pointing downward from tall poles. Something was definitely happening here tonight. And we had no intention of turning in early.

Doors of Ostuni: Inside and Out

After our tour with Tim, we understood the layout of the town and struck out on our own. One narrow passageway led to another, so we simply wandered, letting the spiraling streets unfold without any particular plan. I’ve mentioned before that I love quirky doors. In Ostuni, there were plenty and they came in all colors.

Down one of the alleys, we came upon a man sitting on a step, a smoldering cigarette dangling from his mouth. He wore bright red shorts and no shirt or shoes. “Buona sera,” we said to each other as we strolled past. But then he called us back. After we chatted a few minutes, he asked if we’d like to peek inside his home a few steps away to read about his famous mother. Of course, we said yes.

This was where he lived

An old newspaper article hung from the wall. It told how his then 87-year old mother had landed a bit part as an actress in a movie that had been filmed in Ostuni thirteen years ago: I Figli di Annibale — The Children of Hannibal. Words painted above the doorway stated that this was where the locally-famous “Nonna Vita” had lived.

Our impromptu host put his fingers to his lips. “Shh…” With an impish grin, he motioned for us to peer further into the home. Through a pretty archway was a bed, and in the bed, a sleeping woman — at least until she sensed someone was present.

Poking her head out from the covers, she realized the joke her husband was playing on her. As she started yelling indignantly at him, we quickly ducked back outside, our new friend right behind us, giggling.

His sleepy wife was not amused by her husband's practical joke

Stifling laughs and wishing him luck, we waved goodbye and hastened further down the alley, searching for more doors to admire. Feast your eyes.

Keep in mind I'm 4'11"

The door knockers were cool, too

Gino was still thinking he was in Mykonos

Ostuni — The White City

Tim, the owner of our Casa Esmeralda, arrived promptly at 4:00 to give us an orientation tour of the town.  First he walked us around the “new” part. Developed in the 18th and 19th century, the newer section has incorporated the architectural style of the older part, but with straighter streets. The houses and steps up to the houses were all white. I felt I was in Greece rather than Italy.

This arched alley led the way to our little street

A street in the "new" part of town

After showing us a couple of his favorite restaurants in this neighborhood, Tim led us around the outer edge of town, fortified by ancient stone walls. This vantage point offered a dramatic and sweeping vista onto the valley below. We learned this entire area had been home to a prehistoric population 50,000 years ago.

Then came the crowning jewel of this enchanting city: the atmospheric centro storico — the old historic center. By comparison, this part of town was really old. It had been established by the Greeks, which explains its Cycladic-style architecture. It was in the first century, B.C.E. that the Greeks gave this place its name. Ironically, they christened this old part of town astu-neon — “new city” — now pronounced Ostuni.

Although this area of town was anything but new, it was pristine. I saw little peeling paint and few crumbling facades, although I admit I find the delicate decay that I see in some parts of Italy quite enchanting. These walls, however, were well kept.

We followed Tim into a tangle of labyrinthine paths, curling alleys of dazzling white, punctuated by doors and windows in colors of Easter eggs and Greek-blue. Marshmallow stairways melted around corners, leading us up and down. Graceful arches curved overhead, shadowing the sun. I was breathless — and not from the walk.


For a minute, Gino thought he was in Mykonos.

I’ll have a Campari and soda with that view, please

Tim led us down one tucked-away alley strewn with plump plastic beanbag seats in lime green. “This is one of the happening bars,” he explained. Techno music was already wafting from the darkened interior, dimly lit by pinpoints of light. We walked in to get a better look. This would be a cool place to spend an evening.  But right now, there was too much to see outside.

Casa Esmeralda

Continuing eastward, the towns clicked off, and before long we were heading up a small pinnacle upon which perches the town known as La Bianca Cittá — The White City. In the distance, we could see the glittering Adriatic. If we were to keep continuing across the water, we’d land in Albania, just north of Greece.

This was Ostuni, situated majestically above the plain where the geographical stiletto heel of Italia’s fashionable boot begins its point. From its hillside throne, the town holds court over silvery green groves of ancient olive trees in one direction and stretches of sand lining the sea in the other. From a distance, its rounded buildings appear splashed with caramel and white, like a delicious dessert you can’t wait to dig into.

As we drove closer, I could readily see why it is called the White City. Whitewashed walls contrasted against the skies, gauzy blue from the humidity. It was stunning.

Driving to the top of the citadel, we followed the signs to Centro. We were anxious to find Casa Esmeralda, the little apartment we had rented for the next three days, and we knew it was somewhere in the city center.

It was mid-day and luckily the streets were near deserted for the afternoon pausa. This allowed me to drive around and around in circles unhindered by pressing traffic. None of the signs or landmarks we had been told to look for materialized. Worse, we were looking for a specific bar in which we were to find a woman who had the keys.

In exasperation, I parked on the edge of town in a large dirt parking lot. No one was about. After stashing our bags in the trunk, we headed upwards, arriving at a large piazza. A few people were wandering around, and I asked one of them where we might find the Tito Schipa Bar. Miraculously, it was just one block away!

Unable to believe our luck, we hustled down the street. Thankfully, the door was wide open and behind the bar stood the friendly-looking woman we were seeking: Annamaria. She had our keys.

Annamaria walked with us to the end of our little street and pointed out the door to Casa Esmeralda, our home for the next few days. Just as we arrived at the door, Tim and Angela, the owners of our apartment, stepped outside their own house, two doors down.

Tim showed us around, then after promising to return at 4:00 to take us on a quick orientation tour of the town, he left us to settle in. As soon as the door clicked closed, we raced wildly around the rooms, forcing ourselves to keep from screaming. This place was a dream!

The steps leading down to the front door at street level

It was built on three levels. From the street, the front door opened onto a hallway with steps leading upwards. Not far up, an arch led into a large airy room with exposed stone vaulted ceilings.

This room served as the main living area. A tiny kitchen nook was off to one side. Gino had to duck to enter it.

Off to the side, an angled wooden ladder led up to a loft with two single beds draped in white cotton bedspreads.

The view from the loft down to the main room

From the living room, two glass doors opened onto a little balcony with a small, ice-cream-parlor-sized table and chairs. You could stand out there, suspended over the street and see who was coming and going.

Gino surveys the street below

Back in the entrance hall, a narrow staircase led up to the second level. Halfway up was a strangely positioned tiny bathroom. Tim told us it used to be a closet, but had they converted it to a bathroom for the lower level. Further up, was a coat closet tucked into the wall. The whole place was starting to remind me of the vertical homes you find in Amsterdam.

The wooden door at the bottom hides a closet-size bathroom. The red curtain to the right hides a clothes closet

At the top of the steps was the main sleeping room. It was right out of a fairy-tale. A large double-bed with white frothy mosquito netting draped down from the honey-hued arches of the stone ceiling. The fabric was gathered at each of the four corners, creating the effect of a four-poster without the posts.

An armadio stood at the foot of the bed with plenty of hangers for our clothes. Its top was lined with books. There was also a small, but very adequate bathroom — sparkling clean. It even had a washing machine!

The bedroom, too, had French doors that opened onto a private balcony. This balcony was larger than the one below, off the living room. With an umbrella and a larger table and chairs, we and several guests could easily eat there.

We ventured onto the balcony and spied yet another set of steps off to one side. Climbing up, we found a rooftop terrace set with garden furniture and a bird’s eye view of town. As we looked over the neighboring roofs and in between the forest of TV antennas, we could see the tops of the buildings in the piazza and, in the distance, the hazy blue of the Adriatic Sea.

I was wild with excitement, dashing up and down all the stairs, admiring the whimsical decor in bold colors: day-glo oranges, yellows, fuchsia reds, turquoise blues, and lime greens. Angela had left us water and a bottle of Prosecco chilling in the small fridge. A fresh loaf of Pugliese bread sat on the counter, waiting to be sliced. We had landed in a Hobbit house, and already I never wanted to leave!

Sasso Caveoso

An abandoned part of Sasso Caveoso

Once known as the “The Shame of Italy,” Matera is now regarded very proudly by its inhabitants. It’s hard to imagine that in the first half of the 20th century, the cave houses of the Sassi were crammed full of people and animals, living together in malaria-ridden squalor.

Carlo Levi wrote about this area and the town in his book, Christ Stopped at Eboli, shining a spotlight on the horrid living conditions of this area. In 1950, the government could no longer ignore the extreme poverty and unhealthy state of the Sassi inhabitants, and over the next ten years forced the resistant families out of their cave homes. The Sassi dwellers were relocated into new government housing in the outlying areas, but were not happy about it.

Now, after years of abandon, the cave homes are slowly being renovated, and in 1993 the Sassi were declared a Unesco World Heritage site, drawing more and more tourists to this ancient land of the past…including us.

The side of Matera called Sasso Caveoso was still mostly abandoned and here I could more easily evoke the past. Although the entrances of several of the empty cave houses were barred, you could peer in. I was even able to slip inside a few and stand in the center of the darkened rooms. The caves were cool despite the heat outside. In most, small clumps of refuse were piled here and there.

I will let the images of this stony, silent world speak for themselves.

I slipped inside a couple of the abandoned caves

One of the inhabitants reclaiming a cave as home

I could have spent an entire day in Matera’s Sasso Caveoso. But our time had run out. We had to get back to check out of our hotel. As we did, the clerk noted where we were from and told me we were lucky to live in California. “We dream of California!” he exclaimed. I told him we dream of living in Italia! We all laughed.

The breakfast was still set out, and he urged us to pack some food for our drive. Thanking him for his thoughtfulness, we wrapped up some panini and fruit and waved goodbye.

Back in our car, I slowly drove up and out of the steep driveway, careful to avoid the stucco wall, and pointed the car in the general direction of the autostrada. We were headed to Ostuni, in Puglia.