Italy’s hum­ble stone huts make quite a pile

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Primespace - Rosamaria Mancini Al­ber­o­bello, Italy

IN Puglia, at the heel of the Ital­ian boot, a cen­turies- old ar­chi­tec­tural pe­cu­liar­ity has turned into an un­likely real- es­tate boom. To the lo­cals, the trulli — coneroofed struc­tures that dot the coun­try­side — are a re­minder of the re­gion’s hum­ble past.

The most ba­sic trulli are one- room round huts con­structed of stacked, dry stones, which form walls and a sim­ple vaulted cone roof. ( The name de­rives from the Greek trou­los or tho­los, mean­ing dome.)

They date back to as early as the 14th cen­tury, and most housed peas­ants or live­stock — or both. Di­men­sions are snug: The av­er­age cone is slightly big­ger than a four- per­son camp­ing tent. Many lack ne­ces­si­ties, such as run­ning wa­ter or toi­lets.

But to a grow­ing num­ber of Bri­tish, Dutch and Ger­mans, they are the ideal fixer- up­per.

Our kids thought we were crazy,’’ says Stephen Snooks, who moved from Derby, Eng­land, to a 300- year- old trullo about four years ago. They couldn’t be­lieve we were go­ing to live in it.’’

Snooks first saw a pic­ture of a trullo on the in­ter­net, then headed to Puglia with his wife to see what they were all about. To them the trullo was ro­man­tic and steeped in his­tory — and it was a prop­erty they could fix up. It re­minded them of the cone- shaped oast houses in the English coun­try­side that were used for dry­ing hops for beer. They also fell in love with the re­gion and the sim­ple way of life they could have in Puglia, where peo­ple still take sies­tas in the af­ter­noons and Sun­days are for re­lax­ing.

They put down a de­posit on a five- cone trullo — each room has its own cone- shaped roof — on about 8500 square me­ters of land that cost a to­tal of about $ 86,500.

Three months later they moved to the small town of Martina Franca and lived out of their camper while they gave the trullo a thor­ough clean­ing and in­stalled a bath­room.

‘‘ I thought, ‘ I need my bloody kitchen,’ ’’ says Snooks’ wife, Jo Wa­ters, but af­ter mov­ing in and sink­ing an­other $ 45,500 into ren­o­va­tions, she says she got used to life in a trullo.

The ren­o­va­tions in­cluded con­nect­ing a power line for elec­tric­ity and re­pair­ing the pump for a rain­wa­ter tank to pro­vide wa­ter for the bath­room. ( They bring in bot­tled drink­ing wa­ter.) They also added ap­pli­ances to the kitchen and painted inside and out.

There are about 5000 trulli in var­i­ous states of dis­re­pair scat­tered among the olive groves and cacti in the Valle d’Itria, on the strip of land flanked by the Adri­atic and the Io­nian seas.

Stone was plen­ti­ful in the area, and lo­cal leg­end says the rea­son the trulli were built with­out mor­tar was so they could be quickly dis­as­sem­bled into a pile of bricks when the tax col­lec­tor came.

About 1400 are lo­cated in the town of Al­ber­o­bello, des­ig­nated a Unesco World Her­itage site be­cause of the struc­tures.

Dur­ing the 20th cen­tury, the trulli were aban­doned by own­ers flee­ing to the city in search of mod­ern con­ve­niences. Some were used as oc­ca­sional coun­try homes by lo­cals, while some of the larger ones were turned into rus­tic coun­try inns or restau­rants.

Then, for­eign­ers started com­ing. About five years ago, low- cost air­lines be­gan fer­ry­ing peo­ple to nearby Bari from Frank- furt and Lon­don. Vis­i­tors were in­trigued by the oddly shaped struc­tures, many with Chris­tian or as­tro­log­i­cal sym­bols painted on their roofs. Sens­ing op­por­tu­nity, lo­cal realestate firms started ad­ver­tis­ing in Bri­tish mag­a­zines, push­ing the trullo as a unique coun­try- home in­vest­ment. Pi­etro D’Amico, who owns a lo­cal prop­erty firm, says he sold 200 trulli to Bri­tish buy­ers last year, 10 per cent more than the year be­fore.

The re­cent trulli boom is partly a con­tin­u­a­tion of the for­eign- fu­elled realestate spec­u­la­tion that be­gan sev­eral decades ago in Tus­cany. As the val­ues of coun­try homes in Tus­cany soared, the more ad­ven­tur­ous wan­dered into nearby re­gions such as Um­bria, and then farther south to the Marche and Abruzzo. Puglia is the end of the line.

Th­ese are prop­er­ties that are still af­ford­able, in spite of the soar­ing real- es­tate prices in Italy,’’ says Lu­cia Bruno, an ar­chi­tect whose com­pany helps re­store trulli.

While a trullo might be cheaper than a Tus­can farm­house, prices have risen in re­cent years. To­day, un­re­stored trulli with three cones go for about $ US122,000 ($ 131,500), about 30 per cent more than five years ago, ac­cord­ing to D’Amico. The cost of fix­ing one up has also surged. Adding the ba­sics — bath­room, kitchen and elec­tric­ity — can cost at least $ 122,000 more, he says.

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