Italy’s humble stone huts make quite a pile
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.