A delightfully disorienting circular labyrinth with white houses and streets glinting in the sun, Locorotondo (the name deriving from ’round place’) can be found deep in the Itria Valley of Puglia, surrounded by vineyards. On arrival there is a postcard view of gleaming white facades, elegant, clean and joyous with geraniums in summer.
A Balcony Over the Valley
The elevation of this conical city in the Itria valley makes it a perfect ‘balcony’ providing a panoramic view of the mosaic of vineyards, settlements and olive groves below. Vineyards are encircled by dry stone walls, and the olive groves surround ‘masserie’, great stone constructions where farmers and land-owners live, some of richest of whom fortified their dwellings. Dotted across the valley in little white clusters are the traditional ‘trulli’. These are the distinctive rural houses exclusive to the Itria Valley, notable for their conical roofs built without cement to hold them together.
A House that’s not a House
The origins of this idiosyncratic conical home are hazy. My preferred explanation for their form is from local legend, recounted to me by a local bar owner. As the charming story goes, the roofs were constructed without cement so that when the landowner visited to collect taxes for the houses the occupants simply pulled down the roof so it could not longer be designated as a house, and then rebuilt it once he’d left. One wonders quite how practical this solution really was to tax evasion. Another equally dubious explanation is that easily removable roofs allowed for swift expulsion of unwanted tenants.
Since around the 14th century these dwellings have been constructed in the Itria Valley, occasionally as individual structures acting as agricultural shelters, but more often as little huddles of four or five trulli, each a single room with a conical roof. Although now they are the delight of tourists, relished in all their quaint miniaturism, their original residents found them uncomfortably cold and damp in winter. Due to their design they are difficult to heat, and condensation from cooking and even breathing generated moisture dulling the warmth from the fire.
The Oldest Trullo in Puglia
Locorotondo is home to the Trullo of the Marziolla contrada, the oldest trullo in Puglia, whose date is known by the inscription 1559 over the entrance. A chameleon construction emerging seamlessly out of the flanking dry stone wall and obscured by trees, it is easily missed on the road leading from Locorotondo to San Marco. You can visit inside and see the remnants of a trough and shelving. The trullo was probably used as a communal space for farmers, and outside you can see a millstone and channels leading to the cistern beneath the building. Trulli are traditionally constructed by first digging out a cistern from the ground, the top forming the floor of the house, and using the stones excavated to build the walls.
The trullo is on private land but you can request a guided tour by calling this number: 329-3824187.
What to Visit
Aside from the oldest trullo, the main points of interest are within the city itself. It doesn’t have any particularly outstanding buildings in terms of architectural interest, but as a composite whole the borgo is simply delightful. Like a settlement of a Greek island, narrow streets twist between simple, white washed houses. The traditional house has a particular roof design called ‘cummerse’, formed in a high peak and constructed without cement. The peak gives the houses an almost nordic appearance, but it is very much local.
The petite church of San Nicola (1660) is a jewel. A humble white washed facade disguises a serene interior: the underside of the peaked roof is entirely frescoed with azure celestial scenes. Although not sophisticated, the many angels eternally playing their harps and lutes envelop the church in blissful calm.
Of contrasting character is the Chiesa Madre, a burly Neo-classical matron elevated above the city and striking to see upon approach. Her interior is all cream classical banality but the crypt is worth a look.
Balcony and door spotting is also an engaging activity, as Locorotondo sports some obtrusive ornate ironwork adorning the windows and Baroque stone flourishes around the doors.
When to Visit
One thinks of the south of Italy as a summer holiday idyll but bear it in mind in other seasons. We visited at Christmas time, and the red baubles and santa outfits adorning the town looked delightful against the white buildings and streets. There is also the added bonus of fewer tourists and some warming winter sun to keep away Vitamin D deficiency.
If you do visit in summer, however, you could time it with the Festa di San Rocco (14-17 August) which ends with a spectacular firework display in the valley.
Where to Stay
It may be a vexingly touristy but staying in a trullo is the inevitable accommodation choice. The Borghi più belli d’Italia association recommend the Masseria Serralta B&B, the Trulli Residence providing a kitchen area, and the Albergo Diffuso Sotto Le Cummerse, all of which fulfill expectations of splashes of floral colour against pure provincial white walls and tastefully unrefined masonry set in arcadian landscapes.