Meandering lazily down towards the Valle d’Itria, the Ferrovia Sud-Est (FSE) train passes through some of the prettiest of Puglia’s landscapes. Olives gradually lose ground to vineyards and cherry and peach orchards, neatly partitioned by dry-stone walls. The barren limestone terrain of Le Murge swallows rivers whole producing a landscape cut by deep ravines and pitted with caverns and grottoes.Read More
Trulli are still plentiful by the time you reach MARTINA FRANCA, a surprising town with a jubilant Baroque sensibility and a lively passeggiata at weekends. It is reputed to have been founded by settlers from Taranto fed up with constant Saracen attacks during the tenth century, but it was the Angevin prince of Taranto who bolstered the community in the early fourteenth century by granting it certain tax privileges. The town derives its name from this – franca meaning duty or stamp. Today its medieval core is adorned with some of the most subtle and least overbearing examples of architecture from the Baroque period you’ll find.
Through the Porta di Santo Stefano, which marks the entrance to the old town, Piazza Roma is dominated by the hulking Palazzo Ducale, which dates from 1688, and is now the town hall. A handful of rooms are open to the public most mornings (Mon–Fri) – most of them smothered in classical eighteenth-century Arcadian murals. Just across the square, the narrow Via Vittorio Emanuele leads right into the old town and Piazza Plebiscito, fronted by the undulating Baroque facade of the Chiesa di San Martino, an eighteenth-century church built on the site of an earlier Romanesque structure, of which only the campanile survives. From adjacent Piazza Immacolata you can either bear left down Via Cavour, with its Baroque palazzi and balconied streets, or wander further into the old town; the roads running around the edge of the surviving fourteenth-century town walls offer an excellent panorama of the Valle d’Itria, with its neatly ordered fields dotted with trulli.
Curious-looking trulli are dotted throughout the Murge area of Puglia. Cylindrical, whitewashed buildings with grey conical roofs tapering out to a point or sphere, they are often adorned with painted symbols. Unique to Puglia, their ancient origins are obscure, but are probably connected to feudal lords who made people working their land build their houses without mortar so they could easily be pulled down if tax inspectors came round. The thick walls insulate equally against the cold in winter and the summer heat, while local limestone is used to make the two-layered roofs water-tight. Most trulli have just one room but when more space was needed, a hole was simply knocked in the wall and an identical structure built next door. Although originally they were both dwellings and storehouses, these days they’re being snapped up as holiday homes, and some are rented out as self-catering or B&B accommodation. An organization called Trullidea (w trullidea.it), based in Alberobello, rents basic trulli in town and in the countryside for short- and long-term stays and can also arrange excursions and cooking courses.