Photograph by RenataAPhotography, Getty Images
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A traveler soaks up the view of trulli in Alberobello, a small town in Puglia, Italy. These unique dwllings were made from limestone boulders and feature domed roofs.

Photograph by RenataAPhotography, Getty Images

Hobbit homes in Italy? Not quite, but just as charming

Head to Puglia to tour trulli, traditional dwellings with a fascinating history.

Drive around the Itria Valley in southeastern Italy and you’ll discover houses straight out of a fairy tale. Of diminutive size and topped by conical roofs made of stacked limestone, trulli—the traditional structures of Puglia—look like beehives from another planet. Found on almost every country road in the valley, trulli are not idle curiosities; they are actively used as homes, farmsteads, guesthouses, and more.

They’re not hard to find. Several thousand trulli are visible in the Itria Valley, with more than 1,500 concentrated in Alberobello, a town located some 40 miles south of the port city Bari. (Click here for a fascinating portrait of this memorable Italian town by the sea.) Some trulli of Alberobello date to the 14th century; this architectural ensemble was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1996.

People began to settle in the region of Alberobello around a thousand years ago, and the construction of trulli in the area most likely began at that time. But the origin of their shape is much older; some sources say the idea arrived with the Greeks when they colonized southern Italy between the 8th and 5th century B.C. Tholos, the Greek funeral chambers, had similarly domed roofs; the ancient Greek word trullos (τρούλος) means cupola.

Built in the dry-stone tradition—a mortarless construction technique used in the Mediterranean basin for several thousand years—Puglia’s trulli have whitewashed walls and corbelled roofs. Many have pinnacoli on their rooftops; these knob-like pinnacles vary in shape and may have helped the trulleros, or trulli builders, to identify their work. Several trulli feature symbols such as crosses or evil eyes—some astrological, others Christian or pagan—painted in white on their roofs. Although a curiosity for many, these markings aren’t original, according to Dr. Annunziata Berrino, professor of contemporary history at the University of Naples and author of a book on the subject. “They’ve been invented [over time] to satisfy a visitor’s curiosity,” she says.

What is authentic, however, is the degree to which the people of Puglia care about their architectural history. “Trulli have been protected since 1910, and the local people have suffered a lot because it was forbidden to make changes to these homes,” says Berrino. “If today we can visit Alberobello and its trulli, it’s thanks to the sacrifice of the entire population.”

How to get there

Most visitors fly into Bari or Brindisi and make their way to Alberobello; it’s about an hour drive from either airport. If coming from elsewhere in Italy, Trenitalia, the national railway company, runs regularly scheduled trains to Bari from Rome and other large cities.

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Many of these cozy trulli still serve as homes, farmsteads, or guesthouses.

Regional highlights

Trulli pepper the countryside in the region, but they aren't the only sights. “A slow, sustainable way to see Valle d’Itria is a biking or hiking experience,” says Alessandro Perrone, who’s been leading tours in the Itria Valley for more than a decade. “You’ll enjoy rolling hills, [whiffs] of the Mediterranean with its thyme, wild mint, and myrtle aromas, and you can stop along the way in vineyards,” he says. Three must-sees beyond Alberobello: the neighboring Locorotondo, known for its circular structure; Cisternino, one of the valley’s most picturesque towns; and Ostuni, known as the “white city,” thanks to its picturesque whitewashed buildings. Don't forget to look miles of dry stone walls; the ancient technique (and art) of stacking stones in Italy and other European nations was recently inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Margarita Gokun Silver is a freelance writer and a novelist based in Madrid. Follow her adventures on Twitter.