Sunday, September 30
The success of the previous day's outing with my mother and aunt had me wondering if we couldn't do something a bit more ambitious. I scanned through the list of attractions and activities Elvira and I had jotted down before leaving Canada, and there was indeed one item that could conceivably work as a low-energy, minimal-walking activity that we could all share: a driving trip to the Italian region of Puglia, where there were a couple of intruiging points of interest that I'd become aware of over the last few years.
The first of these points of interest were a strange type of distinctive dwelling that, as far as I could tell, occurred only the Puglia region. Called trulli
, they are mortarless limestone dwellings that have a very distinctive look and shape: bright featureless white walls topped with a conical-shaped roof made out of limestone slabs. The second puglian point of interest that had caught my attention was a fascinating octagonal castle from the 13th century, called Castel del Monte
When I floated the idea past my mom and my Aunt the night before, I was half-expecting both of them to express tired, pained expressions, and to decline our offer. My aunt, however, immediately perked up at the idea of such a trip and of visiting the trulli
and the castle, both of which she was quite aware. Although perhaps a bit less enthusiastic than my aunt, my mom also expressed interest. I assured my mother that we'd work to try and make her walking requirements as low as possible - hopefully through the strategic positioning of the car.
The region of Puglia (Apulia in english) stretches for hundreds of kilometres along the extreme southeastern tip of Italy - the "heel" part, if you imagine Italy's shape. The first of our two destinations was approximately 250 kilometres from Avellino, and in order to make the most out of the day, we left Avellino nice and early, at 7 a.m., driving through the Appenine Mountain range before entering the broad arid plains, karst pleateaus, and low-lying hills that characterize the Puglia region.
Our first Puglian destination was the town of Alberobello. Although the distinctive trulli are found scattered throughout parts of Puglia, they are most concentrated and developed in Alberobello. The significance of the place is such that it has been declared a UNESCO world heritage site.
One of my objectives was to include my limited-mobility mother in our exploration of the town. While normally I'd try and find the most convenient parking spot and walk, this time we drove around for longer, trying to find a place to put the car that was as close as possible to the central zone of the town that contained the trulli. This turned out to be somewhat hard, since most of the streets populated by trulli were designated as pedestrian-only. We managed to find a spot that was right on the edge of the trulli zone - in fact, within easy sight of them. However, despite my best urgings, my mother preferred that the three of us do a walk while she waited. We promised to make it short.
Trulli construction is mortarless, with whitewashed, rounded walls topped with a conical roof made out of rough limestone slabs. On many trulli, the tip of the conical roof has some sort of decorative symbol; apparently these were meant to ward off evil spirits. Additionally, many of the roofs had weird symbols painted on them - possibly more magical symbols?
The rows upon rows of whitewashed, conical-tipped trulli were truly a unique sight. They have a certain Lord of the Rings vibe to them; I suppose this might be so because they are suggestive of what hobbits might build if they were surrounded by an arid, limestone-rich landscape, rather than the green hills of the Shire.
Keeping in mind my mother waiting in the car, we kept our visit short, but not before visiting several of the more 'famous' trulli, including the so-called siamese trullo. We visited the inside of one trulli that an enterprising person or family had decided to open for people to visit (but with a conveniently-placed donation jar). The interiors were tiny, but also strangely devoid of a sense of space, owing to the interior walls, which were white, featureless and cornerless.
With our brief but enjoyable walking visit to the trulli finished, we returned to the car (where my mother was getting a bit warm with no air conditioning), and continued on our way. On the way out of town, I managed to find a non-pedestrian-only street that ran through a section of trulli. I drove slowly to give my mother a good close look at them.
Next up was the other puglian point of interest that had attracted our attention - the Castel del Monte, situated about 80 kilometres back in the direction of Avellino. We took a country route to get there (rather than the Autostrada), passing through the arid farmlands lined with many limestone rock walls. It wasn't hard to see where the construction materials for the trulli came from!
Castel del Monte is a 13th-century castle situated atop a low hill in Puglia's Alta Murgia National Park. Constructed in the 1200s by the Emperor Frederick II, it is a very striking building as far as castles go, with a very unusual symmetrical octagon shape. When I first saw a picture of it, I knew I had to visit it at some point. That point, as it turned out, would be today.
Castel del Monte
Upon approaching the castle, we were turned aside by a figure standing in the road pointing to a parking lot. Not thinking anything of it at the time, I assumed that one could not drive up the road to the castle and must take a shuttle bus, so I dutifully turned in (as it turns out later, that road is a through road, and we could have parked higher, but in any case it did not make much difference; we would have still needed some sort of shuttle). I was a bit worried about subjecting my mother to the ups and downs of getting on and off a bus, but she handled it quite easily. I brought the folding chair along for good measure. Perhaps we could get her to walk around the castle - if slowly and with stops.
Amazingly solid construction
The bus dropped us off about one hundred metres from the castle itself. Try as I might, I couldn't convince my mother to walk that distance, even with the promise of rest stops, and she insisted that we place the folding chair underneath a shady tree, and shooed us along. If only we could have found some sort of folding wheelchair. Then I could have plopped her in it and wheeled her easily up and around the castle before she'd be able to utter a single word of protest.
Amazingly solid construction
So, once again it was just myself, my Aunt Rosetta, and my sister. We walked easily up to the castle, sitting regally atop the crown of a hill. It was of course possible to go inside, but first we did a slow tour around the outside.
The view of the surrounding Murgian countryside, stretching around in all directions, was of course beautiful and peaceful. The castle, though, held most of the attention. Despite having gone through nearly eight hundred years of mostly neglect and plunder, it was in remarkably good shape. Yes, it had had some restoration work done on it, but it was clear that the core construction of the castle had endured: amazingly precise and solid construction, and the regularity and symmetry of it seemed perfectly implemented. You'd think that this was the kind of castle an advanced alien civilization might build as an outpost on a distant planet - if aliens were into building castles.
Interior, Castel del Monte
After completing our exterior circuit, we then went inside, where we were pleased to find that admission was free today (normally there is an admission fee, but today was part of a two-day park no-fee initiative). We spent some time looking at the historical literature pamphlets, learning a bit more about the time of Frederick II.
My aunt was quite knowledgeable about Frederick, and I got the impression she admired his reign and his deeds (Frederick II was one of the most powerful of the Holy Roman emperors, and was admired for his unorthodox thinking, a thirst for learning, science, and of culture. He was relatively tolerant of other faiths and beliefs, and instituted several movements towards regular and consistent application of laws. On a negative note, though, his scientific experiments were sometimes callous with respect to the experimentees).
Having endured hundreds of years of plunder, there wasn't too much in the way of interior fixtures and furnishings left. We walked around the regular trapezoidal rooms of the first floor, and also spent some time in the (also octagonal) central courtyard. Looking straight up from the center of the courtyard was a very neat experience in perfect geometry!
We returned to my mother, still sitting placidly on her chair in the shady afternoon. We expressed our regrets at not being able to share the castle with her, and then waited for a shuttle bus to take us back to the car park. There, we broke out the lunch we had packed for ourselves back in Avellino, and had a pleasant (minus some annoying flies that were buzzing around us) picnic.
Interactive Trackmap, Drive to Puglia - click map to view