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Italy's Alberobello Presents a Fantasy in Stone

September 29, 1991|EVA G. FREMONT | Fremont is a Los Angeles free-lance writer. and

Nicola Sprobba's family has lived in the structure known as Trullo Siamese since the 1500s. Legend has it that two brothers who lived there long ago fell in love with the same young lady. The one who successfully wooed her built a wall between his domain and his sibling's and created a separate entrance in the back lane. Presumably, they all lived separately--but happily--ever after.

The Sprobbas showed us the trullo's interior, while their children, Anna, 7, and Rosario, 9, hung back shyly at first but soon joined in communicating via sign language and broken English. Nicola fashions miniature souvenir trulli of ceramic shards and pieces of stone, and his wife, Lorenza, crochets brightly hued scarves that they sell (along with T-shirts, pottery and other items) in their souvenir shop. The parents sleep in a cupola above the store, furnished with a bed, a hanging lamp and a niche with a Madonna image. The children's headquarters next door is cheerful but equally Spartan.

One of the earliest documents relating to Alberobello's environs dates to 1100, when Roberto Decerano deeded the nearby Selva (forest) of Fasano to the Bishop of Monopoli. Nearly 400 years later, in 1481, Count Andrea Matta Acquaviva of Conversano received the Selva--and its numerous \o7 trulli\f7 --from Ferdinand of Aragon.

By 1635, there were more than 200 people living in the Selva's \o7 trulli\f7 . Count Giangirolamo Acquaviva, the "Guercio (one-eyed man) of Apulia," forbade the construction of houses other than \o7 trulli\f7 . The Guercio also stipulated that the structures be built without mortar so that they could be demolished instantly in case of a royal inspection (to collect taxes on each existing dwelling). Guercio was imprisoned by Philip IV of Spain in 1649--not for his unorthodox tax evasion, but because he rebelled against the Spanish viceroy that was then ruling Apulia.

After 300 years of feudal servitude to the Acquaviva family, the Selva's then-3,000 settlers were finally granted their freedom by Ferdinand IV, King of Naples, in 1797. The citizens dubbed their town Alberobello (beautiful tree) for an ancient oak tree near which many legendary battles had been fought. The Casa d'Amore, the first house constructed of stone and mortar after Ferdinand IV's decree, was declared a national monument in 1923. The landmark is still lived in, as is the Sovereign Trullo, the most striking habitation in Alberobello. The latter's 45-foot dome, the town's tallest, rises over the 12 \o7 trulli\f7 that the ediface encompasses.

At the end of the Monti District we came to Via Indipendenza and the Fiesta dei Santi Medici, celebrated throughout Apulia each September. Lining the street were 30 booths, at which everything from hardware items to artificial blooms, Benetton T-shirts to toy Peugeots was being sold.

Following the sounds above us, we climbed to the upper town. The Curso del Vittorio Emanuale, and neighboring streets leading to the cathedral, were decorated overhead with tall, lacy stands of white plastic and festive banners. The streets were thronged with the faithful in their Sunday best, listening to afternoon mass being broadcast over loudspeakers from the cathedral. The men wore dark suits and ties; some sported fedora hats. The women, also in dark colors, wore scarves over their heads. The younger generation was more casual in jeans.

Accompanied by martial music, down the cathedral steps came the procession: church officials, the mayor and local dignitaries preceded statues of Cosma and Damiano, the region's patron saints, borne by priests. More VIPs and trumpeters followed. The crowd followed the parade down the hill and from there, as far as the eye could see, a double line of worshipers carrying lit tapers marched slowly up toward the cathedral. The candlelight mingled with the twilight glow, illuminating their rapt faces. It was an affecting scene.

At 11 p.m., after dinner at Il Poeta Contandino, we joined the crowd near the bandstand on the Piazza del Populo and listened to the band render the "Triumphal March" from Verdi's "Aida," a perfect amalgam of the religious and patriotic fervor, and spectacle, we had experienced earlier.

In the \o7 trullo\f7 mood, we chose to stay at the Dei Trulli on the Via Cadore, a short block from the Sant'Antonio church. The hotel's 30 multi-coned, \o7 trullo\f7 -shaped bungalows of whitewashed stone (with mortar!) are connected in twos and threes. The habitations are set in a spacious pine grove surrounded by beds of impatiens and roses. Beneath our apartment's three crowns were the foyer and a tiny tiled bathroom with shower, the prettily appointed bedroom and a dining room/parlor with red-brick fireplace. Simple but cozy for $160, double occupancy.

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