I felt like I had just stepped into the Hobbit’s Shire when I arrived in the small whitewashed village of Alberobello. Little people scampering in and out of the tiny cone-roofed houses with hairy feet didn’t appear, however. Instead, the village streets were packed with big people like myself, exploring the rows of cone-roofed trulli that proved to be anything from gift shops to restaurants. Bizarre and quirky? By all means, yes.
Surrounded by ancient vineyards, medieval castles, and white-sand beaches, Alberobello sits at the top of the heel that makes the boot of Italy. Not far from the Adriatic coast, it is understandably a magnetic tourist attraction.
The Trulli are actually limestone dwellings that are mortarless, using prehistoric building techniques. The pyramidal, domed or conical roofs are built up of corbelled (stone slabs that progressively overlap each other) limestone slabs. Specific to the Itria Valley in Puglia, they have appeared here since the mid 14th century.
But why the unique construction? One big reason was the need for a dwelling that could be easily dismantled before inspectors arrived to enforce paying higher taxes on the property. However, the golden age for the trulli began in the 19th century due to wine production. Today, fewer are used as a permanent dwelling and many are being converted into Bed & Breakfasts and shops.
Let’s take a peek inside of one…
Most of the traditional trulli include one room under the conical roof with added living space in arched alcoves with curtains hung in front. However, many of the trulli converted into B&B’s are embellished and more expansive. They usually have an open fireplace with a chimney stack, but they are difficult to heat because of the conical roof. The thick walls keep them cold in the winter. The lack of windows and tall conical roof give it a cave-like feel.
As I walked through this trullo, which didn’t take but a few minutes, I was charmed. The light-colored brickwork helped to brighten a room that otherwise would have been much more like a cave. Although it was small, I could definitely cozy up here for a short stay. Everything I need is literally at my fingertips, and when I step outside the doorway, I’m greeted by bright sunshine that reminds me of Dorothy’s Oz.
Bed partially nestled into an alcove
If you would like more information regarding a trullo stay, I suggest you check out Trulli é Puglia. To be clear, I have not personally had any experience with them as I went on a group tour and did not spend the night in one, but I feel that this is authentic as it is locally operated.
Dan Brown’s book, “Angels and Demons” flashed through my mind as I crossed the Ponte Sant’Angelo one morning in Rome. Ten Baroque statues of angels line the bridge, each bearing a symbol of the suffering and death of Christ. Designed by Bernini in the early 17th century, they look down demurely at passersby from their travertine marble perches. They feel like a silent presence, outwardly still but internally watchful.
Castel Sant’Angelo awaits at the end of the bridge. Reminding me of a cross between a king’s crown and a wedding cake, it stands majestically among the monuments of Rome. Packed with history, it has been here for 2,000 years. Emperor Hadrian had this huge cylinder, built in 139 AD, as a mausoleum for himself and his family. However, for nearly 100 years after Hadrian’s death, it continued as the burial grounds for succeeding emperors as well, ending with Caracalla 217 AD.
Over the past 2,000 years, Castel Sant’Angelo has been more than a funerary monument. It was used as a fortified outpost, a notorious prison complete with a torture chamber, a palace for the popes embellished with Renaissance art, the keep of the Vatican treasury and finally a museum.
What I discovered as I toured the fortress, now the Museo Nazionale di Castel Sant’Angelo, fascinated me. At the time of Hadrian, the mausoleum was topped by a garden of Cypress trees and crowned by a golden quadriga, a huge statue of him riding a chariot. It was the tallest building in Rome.
In ancient Rome, tombs were not allowed inside the city limits. This pertained to the emperors as well, even though they were looked upon as gods. So Hadrian chose a commanding position just outside the city walls and across the river. Even today, it holds a stately presence among the many monuments of Rome.
It helps to get a bit organized so I’ve included a brief overview of the 6 levels of Castel Sant’Angelo:
Level 1- Begins the winding Roman construction ramp, the Courtyard of the Shooting and the Chapel of the Condemned.
Level 2- Hall of Urns, former prisons, and storerooms
Level 3- Military displays, papal apartments, the courtyard of the angel (Cortile dell’Angel), which houses the former archangel, Hall of Justice
Level 4- Exquisitely decorated papal apartment with sumptuous frescoes by artists of the school of Raphael (Luca Signorelli, Carlo Crivelli), archaeological gallery, historic Armory.
Level 5- Treasury, Library
Level 6- The Angel Terrace providing amazing views of Rome, especially the Vatican and St. Peters Basilica
Upon entering, an old cobbled road winds around the base. This fortress has a lot of stairs. One leads down to the original Roman floor and follows the route of Hadrian’s funeral procession. There is a bridge that crosses the room where the ashes of the emperors were kept. The urns and ashes were scattered by Visigoth looters during a sacking of Rome in 410.
The Sala del Tesoro is the treasury where the Vatican wealth was kept locked up in a huge chest. The rooms are ornately decorated with rich frescoes and marble.
The Passetto di Borgo is intriguing in itself and historically fascinating. You have probably heard of an elevated fortified corridor commissioned in 1277 AD by Pope Nicholas III leading from Vatican City to the Castel Sant’Angelo (thanks to Dan Brown). The passage served as an escape route to the Castle for popes during times of war and sackings.
Enjoy a gallery of photos from my day spent inside this massive fortress. It would take a book to explain everything. One of several things that impressed me was the circular walkways leading up and down within. Wide and tall, they were lit with the golden light from wall lamps. Effectively mysterious…
The Angel Terrace offers dazzling views of Rome from several directions. The wind was gusty so walking from one end to the other for a view was slightly challenging.
It’s from here you can get up close to the majestic Archangel Michael, who stands on the very top. As I gazed up into his face, I had no doubt that he means business.
So what’s the deal about the angel Michael? As the story goes, in the year 590, the Archangel Michael appeared above the mausoleum to Pope Gregory. The angel sheathed his sword, and the pope took it as a sign that the plague was ended. It soon became a fortified palace renamed the castle of the holy angel.
Close beside the Archangel Michael is a large bell, called the Bell of Mercy. Beginning in the mid-1700’s it was wrung to inform the people of capital executions of the prisoners while a prison.
As the grand finale, enjoy some views of Rome taken from the Angel’s Terrace
**Resources used are from the National Museum of Castel Sant’Angelo**
Legendary animal symbols in Italy intrigue me and they usually impart some meaning to a particular place. While visiting the lively city of Perugia in Umbria, I saw the Griffon and the Guelph Lion bronzes, medieval symbols of Perugia, Read more