On the road from Polignano to Matera, via Alberobello

Nicola, or simply, Nic, was my effervescent driver and guide for a day trip from Polignano across southern Puglia in June 2018 and, as well as being fun, he was informative and good company. The idea was to head to two famous towns, both beautiful and also, in their own ways, unique. Everyone I met in Puglia said they were both must-see places, Alberobello and Matera. They weren’t wrong.

Before we got to the first destination, we stopped off near the town of Monopoli to get a view of this distinctive area of southern Italy, where the hills make way for a flat plain that heads back to the Adriatic Sea.

This is area is obviously dedicated to cultivating productive trees, in appealingly orderly orchards, orderliness is the Pugliese way. I assumed, wrongly, that the trees were olives.

Walking up the hill, on a moodily cloudy day, I was drawn to the prominent Calvary-inspired hill-top crucifix. Italy, at almost every turn as a habit of looking like a shot from a film.

Up close now, I could see that these were not olive trees, the branches were laden with what looked like runner beans. Bean trees, I thought, only grew in fairy tales. These are not beans, but carobs, the name coming from the Arabic, kharrūb, Locust Bean Pod. The Carob tree, or Locust Tree (Ceratonia siliqua) is part of the legume family. The seed pods are edible and are cultivated, mostly, in Portugal, Morocco and southern Italy. They are dried and used as a sweet culinary powder, best known as a chocolate substitute, or as animal fodder.

Alberobello – the beautiful tax-avoiding hobbit village.

Alberobello is unique, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, famous for its extraordinarily cute houses, known as trulli. The place is officially known as one of i borghi più belli d’Italia, (one of the most beautiful villages of Italy).

The little houses were first built in the early sixteenth century and the style has a highly practical basis – tax avoidance. In those days of cynical feudalism, the land around here was owned by Count Giangirolamo II (1600 – 1665), who only allowed around forty peasant families to settle here and cultivate the land. They had to pay their lord with a tenth of their crops. When there was a need to expand the number of houses, after the establishment of an inn, the Count decided that they could be built only if they were constructed without the use of mortar, so that he could avoid paying taxes to the Spanish viceroy of the Kingdom of Naples who was pacified by the thought that they were only temporary dwellings that could be easily dismantled. The easiest way of building houses with dry stone walls was to make them circular and small. The result is, of course, really cute but they have also proven to be anything but temporary in the four hundred years of Alberobello’s existence.

The little trulli houses are still very habitable and comfortable as I saw when I visited this hospitable Alberobello resident’s home to look round.

There were trulli here and trulli there and there was even a trullo church.

Simple and unpretentious, it was built in 1927 in a simple style that blends in perfectly with the over-all plan. If hobbits went to church, I suspect they would have gone somewhere just like this.

Alberobello deserves its reputation as one of Puglia’s must-see locations – I enjoyed my chance to wander round its little winding streets and to catch the many charming views of little conical roofs nestling together on the hillside. Hobbits would be save here, it seems. I felt safe too and I took the opportunity to practise my tai-chi and to earth my energy in a unique setting.

Matera – three thousand years of continual occupation

After Hobbit-town, we crossed the border between Puglia and Basilicata to visit the astonishing town of Matera which is considered one of the oldest sites of continual occupation in the world. People have lived here, in the town’s extraordinary cave dwellings, carved out of the rock since the 10th millennium BC. Some of these cave dwellings, known as Sassi, are still lived in today.

On my trip to Matera, I didn’t make it to the sassi caves, but I had time enough to walk up the precipitous lanes through the medieval city where houses cling to the rock-face in a similar way to the ancient sassi. It’s a matter of perseverance for anyone climbing up through the different levels and stopping, often, to take in the increasingly distant townscape views from each level. I felt like I was ascending an out-of service escalator, to the hill top where the grandest views awaited anyone fit enough for the climb.

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Half-way there, I came across this man, a Matera resident, he’d retired here from the big city, and was restoring his walls in the time honoured way – as he was happy to demonstrate. Using traditional materials is a requirement in this World Heritage Site which the following year was to be named a 2019 European Capital of Culture.

On I went, upwards and upwards, then up even more steps, in streets where every space is used and every corner has its surprises.

I was heading for Matera Cathedral (built between 1268 – 1270) up there at the top of the hill.

I made it to the summit, and, looking down, I was amazed by how far I had climbed. I was pleased too to arrive at Matera Cathedral, a handsome 12th century building with elegant romanesque external decorations.

If the cathedral was impressive, especially the rose window in the west front, the views of surroundings wa even more interesting with the ancient sassi caves and the rolling Basilicata landscape making the trip worth it.

The cathedral interior was certainly a dramatic and possibly a jarring contrast to its exterior. To my eye, the original Romanesque architecture has been spoiled by the lashings of gold from the 18th century’s gaudy redecoration.

I prefer the little cave dwellings that I could glimpse from outside the cathedral. What must those sassi dwellers have thought if they ever came up here to see the cathedral all dressed up in its pomp and swank.

As with all long climbs up, I was now faced with the great climb down and the journey back to Polignano. When we finally arrived at the apartment I was happy to see the lift waiting to take me upstairs for a well-earned siesta.

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