It is late February and as I get down at the Brindisi airport, there is a cold wind cutting through my thin jacket, to stab me between the ribs. Wasn’t it supposed to be cold? Mimmo and Paolo are waiting for me at the airport exit and they apologise, “We have an uncharacteristically severe winter this year with temperatures going below zero!”

There is a nice wide free highway road (superstrada) connecting Brindisi to Ostuni and at eleven in the night, it is also empty! The ride to Ostuni takes just about half an hour. Mimmo is a car dealer while Paolo, retired, is planning to go to Ostuni, white cityCongo to help in building a small dam and village electric system. Both are members of the AIFO group of Ostuni. Their chatter is pleasurable and I listen to their voices in the front, while slowly dozing off. Then suddenly Ostuni appears, seen from the car window against the night sky, it seems like a mirage. A crown of very white houses perched at the top of craggy and naked dark hill. The day after, while going around the old town, Paolo had remarked that old Ostuni is built on three hills so it is halfway to being Rome (Rome is built on seven hills). Three towers on top of three hills is the symbol of Ostuni.

Paolo will be my constant companion and guide in the three days spent in Ostuni, showing me around in the old town, where he was born, and taking me around to the valleys and towns surrounding Ostuni, in the land of Trulli. Thanks Paolo.

Where is Ostuni

Ostuni is in Apulia (in Italian Puglia) region on the south-eastern coastline of Italy between Bari and Brindisi, about 40 kms from the later. It is known as the "white city", or sometimes as the "manger city" because of the shape and the whiteness of the houses which make up the ancient nucleus of the town. It probably grew up on the site of a very ancient neolithic settlement, followed by a Messapian settlement. Messapians were the ancient dwellers of this place and their mark is seen Ostuni, white cityin the architecture, symbols and names of places in the region. The old town has a circular town plan, which grew up around the cathedral and is completely surrounded by fortifications built by the Aragonese kings dating to the fifteenth century. Then there are the newer residential quarters, which have grown up mostly on the lower slopes of the Murgia rock-shelf.

The etymology of Ostuni's name is probably derived from "hastu-neon", the new city - the mediaeval name was in fact Hastunium. It is proposed that earlier settlement of Ostuni was on the sea shore and after some calamity or war, they were forced to shift more in land, choosing to build their city on top of a hill for defensive reasons, calling it the “new city”.

History of Ostuni

The first inhabitants of this area were “dolmen” civilizations in neolithic times, coming here from Anatolia and eastern Mediterranean. Signs of their presence, including impressive dolomens can be seen in the caves at Sant’Angelo, Magda and San Magno. Two new people replaced the dolmen groups, Messapian and Japigi, around one thousand BC, and they are credited with building of first nucleus of Ostuni.

Around 500 BC, Ostuni fought on Rome's side against Hannibal, who only managed to capture it after suffering heavy losses in a series of hard-fought battles. For seventeen years (till 488 BC), Ostuni was under Hannibal. It was later ransacked by Romans during the second Punic war. (216 BC)

With the arrival of Christianity in Italy, an important Christian community built up in Ostuni, partly due to a visit by St. Biagio, who became the patron saint of the city. A small 12th-century church is dedicated to him in the village of Ostuni, white cityPizzicucco, where there are also caves with Byzantine paintings. In the fifth century it was a flourishing city; then it was stripped of its marble works and its monuments by the king Theodoric, who was keen to adorn his own royal city of Ravenna in the north of Italy. It remained under Byzantium, and only began developing again after the tenth century when it became the seat of a bishop. In 1071 it was occupied by the Normans who began the work of fortifying the inhabited area. It was first added to the county of Lecce, and then later to the Principality of Taranto. In this period (13th -15th century) came the city's greatest period of economic development, which brought with it a great enrichment of its buildings, both civil and religious. In fifteenth century, it was dominated by Aragonese and Sforzas families, and then in 1528 it was seized by the Venetians, and came under threat from the Turks. Then it passed into the domains of the Kingdom of Naples, and from 1639 and throughout the seventeenth century, it was a feudal possession of the Dukes of Zevallos. Zevallos period is known for the decline of Ostuni under the harsh and exploitative dukes and it ended in 1804. Thereafter, it was attacked by Borbons and became centre of political agitation for liberty from feudal oppression. Finally in 1860, Ostuni became free and part of Italian republic.

Places to see in Ostuni

It can be visited just as a summer vacation site for going to the seaside, 7 kms away. However, the real attraction of Ostuni, white cityOstuni is the quaint architecture of the old city, where in spite of difficulties of car-parking and carrying of heavy shopping bags over long winding stairs, people still live there.

The highest point of the city is 229 metres (about 700 feet) above sea-level. The characteristic white houses of the old town are reached by narrow little streets and pretty steps leading up the hill. These are often decorated with archways, vaults and verandas. The remains of the antique Messapian settlement consists of a necropolis below the mediaeval walls.

Among the mediaeval remains still to be seen, are those of the castle, built in 1198 and demolished in 1559, and its stones were used to form part of the bishop's palace. The main square in Ostuni is triangular, dominated by the spires of the church of St. Orontius, 21 metres high. Oronzo (Orontius), the first bishop of Lecce and a catholic martyr, was also made patron saint of the city in 1657, for having protected the population of Ostuni from the plague. On the 26th August, the feast of Sant’Oronzo, there is a traditional procession, with men on horseback carrying an effigy of the saint through the city streets. At the front of the procession is a standard-bearer, and the riders wear white trousers and red tunics with beautiful white lace trimmings, white belts and enormous red fez hats with long feathers. The procession has ancient origins: most people believe it dates back to the times of St. Carlo Borromeo, the Bishop of Milan who built the monastery at Oria, and who passed through Ostuni escorted by 24 horsemen. At the top of the hill, there are several other churches, as well as the cathedral, which was begun in Ostuni, white city1435 and completed in about sixty years. Its façade dates back to the late Gothic period and above its main doorway is a magnificent 24 segment rose-window. Inside the main style is Baroque, and in one of the chapels on the right is the "Madonna with Child and Saints" by Jacopo Palma. The archives contain precious parchments from the 12th century.

The steeple of Sant'Oronzo, by the Ostuni artist G. Greco decorates the central square, Piazza della Libertà. The ancient sanctuaries of San Biagio and Sant'Oronzo are well worth a visit. A statue of Sant’Oronzo can be seen on the road going towards Cisternina, where the legend says that Sant’Oronzo was hiding in the valley as he was declared as a bandit. Below the mediaeval Aragoanese walls, the view of the plains going towards the sea, full of centuries old gnarled olive trees, called Piana degli Olivi, is well worth a look.

Going Around Ostuni - The land of Trulli

While we go around Ostuni, we pass strange fairytale like houses with conical roofs jutting in the sky like onions and I ask Paolo about them. “They are Trulli made of Tufo”, he answers laconically. “Can we go around and see those Trulli?” I ask him and he is only too happy to oblige, taking me to the valley of Itria and to the town of Cisternina.

The trulli, limestone dwellings found in the southern region of Puglia, are remarkable examples of drywall (mortar-less) constructions, a prehistoric building technique still in use in this region. The trulli are made of roughly worked limestone boulders collected from neighbouring fields. Characteristically, they feature pyramidal, domed or conical roofs built up of corbelled limestone slabs.

Valley of Itria: Trulli (singular Trullo) are present all over Puglia region but are more concentrated in the Itria valley in small cities like Alberobello, Locorotondo, Cisternino e Martina Franca. The Itria valley has over 20,000 trullo-type constructions beautifying the landscape. The toponym “Itria” derives from an ancient icon of the Odegitria Madonna (from the Greek: "That shows the way") found in a local grotto.

Similarities between Trullo and other Prehistoric constructions: The first mention about Trulli appear in written form in only seventeenth century. In some ways, they are similar to the Nuraghe found in Sardinia island. Like Nuraghe, they are mortarless Ostuni, white cityconstructions made of Tofu (limestone). Trulli are of various kinds – from rough Nuraghe like blunt round structures called “Casedda” to refined structures with pointed conical roofs. Similar round mortar-less constructions can be found in many other countries like Syria, Libya, Scotland, Ireland, South Africa, Canary islands, Spain, etc., including the igloos of Eskimos.

The Art of making Trullo

Hitting the Tufo stones with hammers in such way that flat tiles are separated from the stone, is an ancient art, like the art of building mortar-less walls by fitting the stones in such a way that they remain stable for centuries. It was the family profession of Paolo’s family but now it is disappearing as no one wants to have mortar-less walls! “I still have a cousin, who knows how to make them but otherwise, there are no more artisans who know this art”, Paolo says with a hint of sadness in his voice.

You can’t really see very old Trulli any where simply because the building material (Tufo) is very easily available all around and it is simpler to make new Trulli rather than repair and maintain old ones. Still, on the way to Ostuni from Cisternina, we visit a nice Trulli built on the site of a hundred year old structure, from outside resembling the traditional buildings and from inside, full of modern comforts. Paolo is dismissive about such modern buildings owned by “rich northerners, who come here for holidays”!

Legends about Trullo

There is a legend about Harran (or Caran) in Turkey, where constructions similar to Trulli are found. It is said that patriarch Abraham was from Caran. It is proposed that during Byzantine rule in one thousand DC, inhabitants of Caran brought this architecture to Puglia.

Why did people made them, such strange forms? One idea is that they are a “tax dodge”. The local nobility taxed permanent housing, while a Trullo can be pulled down with a rope and reassembled almost as quickly once the tax man has left. In any case, they are suitable for the terrain, cool in the long and hard summer and warm in the bitter winter.

Basic Structure of a Trullo

A Trullo has some basic elements of construction – circular walls, entrance arch made of big three stones, a dome like ceiling (Cannela) and the 45° or more inclined roof made of limestone tiles called “Chiancarelle” (or Chiàncole). At the pointed tip of the roof there can be some decorative elements called Pinnacolo, which are sacred stones, carrying symbols from oriental pre-Christian religions based on cult of “blue stones” (fire-producing stones or meteorites). Some times, round sun-like disks can also be seen in the Pinnacolo, hinting at the ancient cult of the sun-god. The calcium coating on the roof can be adorned with designs, come of them linked to Christianity but also some old signs linked to ancient religions and magic beliefs including “swastika” like figures.

This basic structure has evolved and has been refined over the centuries. For example, the entrance arch, the trilithic structure can be beautified with roman arch or the circular wall structure became square. They can be very beautiful. Thus, Alberobello, a village made only of Trulli in the Itria Valley has been declared a UNESCO world heritage site.