Alberobello — Whether they serve as the quaint setting for a Japanese wedding or present a lucrative opportunity for the British investor, Italy’s trulli — funny little stone dwellings in the southern Apulia region — are all the rage.
"When Alberobello was listed as a UNESCO heritage site in 1996 it generated huge publicity overseas, and now it’s the most visited tourist spot in Apulia," said tour operator Donato Mastronardi. "You can really speak of a boom."
The fad has helped efforts to preserve the unique heritage in the Itria valley lying between Bari and Brindisi, in the "heel" of the Italian peninsula.
In this storybook landscape, one half expects to see a gnome emerge from one of the little limestone houses with conical roofs.
"The olive trees, the gentle hills, the colours … that’s what our visitors like," Mastronardi said. "We are contacted practically every day by the Japanese. For them, marrying here is really special," he said, noting that the town even has a "trullo church" for the purpose, complete with a conical bell tower.
Alberobello alone counts some 1,500 of the structures.
Unlike the Japanese, the British come to the Itria valley with investing on their minds.
"It began five years ago when the pound was strong and they wanted to invest in property. Catching this wave, the airline Ryanair began offering direct flights from London," Mastronardi said.
The interest has been a boon for area residents who have been able to restore many trulli that have fallen into disrepair after dozens or even hundreds of years — the oldest of the structures date back to the 16th century.
The ancient dry-stone technique was useful for peasants living illegally on feudal land, Mastronardi said. "They could quickly dismantle the roof during an inspection, and put it back again in a night."
The structure’s thick walls keep residents cool in the summer and insulate against the cold in winter.
A trullo today costs between a few thousand to several hundred thousand euros, depending on its condition, its amenities — some even come with a swimming pool — and whether it comes in clusters, a coveted option for families.
Visitors can spend the night in a trullo for prices similar to a hotel room — between 70 and 110 euros (160 dollars) for a double.
"The fad in recent years has spurred the restoration of a great number of trulli, and as a result the cost of labour has shot up," Mastronardi said.
Ten years ago it cost around 1,500 euros to repair a roof — replacing the stone slabs one by one. Today it costs around 15,000 euros, he said.
One young artisan who gave his name only as Giuseppe said he has been restoring trulli for seven years.
"I like the idea of doing a very specialised job," he said. "This roof will take me two weeks to restore, and will last the next 50 years at least."
All around him for as far as the eye can see, Alberobello’s trulli dot the landscape, topped with stars, balls or white crosses — the "signatures" of their builders.
Some have symbols painted on them — a sun, a star and crescent, or even a heart with an arrow through it.