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TOURISM

Trulli to treehouses: Why Italy’s tourists can’t get enough of ‘back to basics’ travel

Italy's mountain huts, treehouses and even caves are being given luxury makeovers and rented to tourists, often for eyewatering prices - and people are happy to pay. Reporter Silvia Marchetti looks at what's behind the growing trend.

Trulli to treehouses: Why Italy’s tourists can’t get enough of ‘back to basics’ travel
A trullo house in Cisternino, Puglia - simple, traditional buildings are repurposed as tourist accommodation in Italy, and it can be surprisingly expensive. AFP PHOTO / GIUSEPPE CACACE

I believe there’s nothing more luxurious than simplicity, especially when it comes down to accommodation and travel. 

And it seems that tourists visiting Italy agree. Several accommodation business owners have recently told me there’s a high demand for chic but simple experiences, both in terms of holiday homes to rent and hotels, as well as restaurants. 

Unexpectedly, these places are more expensive to buy or rent than modern rentals and hotels. 

There’s a sort of ‘expensive poverty’ glamour that lures travelers. That’s why there’s been such a revival of ancient dwellings across Italy, well beyond the famous luxury spa-type hotels set in old cave houses like the ones in Matera, Grottole and other southern areas.

It’s an emerging trend that feeds the primeval nature of man. Travellers want to reconnect with mankind’s ancient heritage – but with money and a few modern comforts.

READ ALSO: Is Italy’s west or east coast the best place for a holiday?

Take the simple treehouses that are springing up recently in Puglia, near Foggia, within lush forests where visitors are surrounded by nature – but at the same time inside a cozy room. The experience may recall our prehistoric roots in some way.

Or reverting to sleeping in sea grottos originally inhabited by primitive men, then turned into cozy white-washed fishermen shelters where entire crews would take shelter during storms.

A renovated fisherman’s hut on Italy’s Ponza island. Photo: Touristcasa

The tiny atoll of Palmarola off Rome’s coast is dotted with fishermen grottos turned into élite summer retreats, rented with private dinghies starting from 500 euros per person per night. One such grotto home has a double entrance that cuts right through the rock, so you have panoramic sea views on both sides – great for solo morning swims. 

On the nearby island of Ponza, where caveman used to go looking for the precious obsidian black stone, clifftop seafront villas cut into hillsides are the most in-demand accommodation.

I once met a young couple who was staying in one of these for two weeks and it was funny how they enjoyed such an isolated place with no easy access (only by boat). At night they would climb down to their little dock along a steep dark path without any lights lined with prickly pear shrubs to get to a little dinghy (that comes with the villa) that would take them each time to the main village to shop, eat and so on. It was like their scooter.

I fell, scratched my legs and nearly broke my neck visiting, and it was daylight. They enjoyed going around with flashlights at night because it was cool, they said. Oh, and their kingsize shower also had a limited water supply, because it used rainwater as a source like in the good old days. 

The view from a fisherman’s hut on Italy’s Ponza island. Photo: Silvia Marchetti

This is all part of a new  trend that’s unique to Italy, given the country’s rich, ancient architectural heritage. 

The cone-shaped trulli of Puglia are an iconic type of accommodation, found not only in Alberobello, the most touristy place of all, but scattered all over the area, where families that own one in their backyard can rent it at high prices – as referenced in the funny Italian movie titled ‘Mi rifaccio il trullo’ (I’ll give my trullo a makeover).

READ ALSO: Why visitors to Italy are ditching hotels – and where they’re staying instead

Last time I visited the Alto Adige region I was surprised at seeing so many old ‘masi’, which are Alpine dairy lodges and farms built by ancient shepherd tribes with thick stone walls and slanted roofs, lavishly restyled and transformed into country houses offering ‘nature stays’. The ‘spa’ at the one I stayed at was the actual freezing stream outside with currents, so I just had to take a dip and have my legs massaged by the running water, and the spring water served at dinner came also from that same stream. 

The owners are a very rich couple who hate cars, so they would travel from their house to the lodge on horseback. Obviously all the teas and herbs I drank came from the maso’s garden.

Part of an Alpine maso in Alto Adige. Photo: Silvia Marchetti

In Sicily I found interesting salt pan mills turned into panoramic bars, while near my house medieval olive oil millis, or frantoi, are now busy pizzerias and B&Bs with stone rooms featuring the original grindstones.

In the region of Abruzzo, the entire coast is dotted with old wooden sea huts dubbed Trabocchi suspended above water with fishnets, abandoned by fishermen families after the second world war and now turned into restaurants with a cute, romantic vibe.

All these ancient dwellings which are being restored for tourist use are in demand because they offer a chapter of history and an ‘immaterial cultural experience’. That is why people are prepared to pay whatever the price. 

It’s a bit like renting a tribal tent in an African luxury resort: you’d be paying more for the ‘emotions’ it triggers than the tent itself.

With savvy travelers always looking for that special, out-of-the-ordinary experience, this ‘luxury poverty’ accommodation trend will only keep growing in popularity.

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CHRISTMAS

Seven of Italy’s most enchanting Christmas markets in 2022

Here are some of the most magical Christmas markets taking place in Italy this year.

Seven of Italy's most enchanting Christmas markets in 2022

After two years of pandemic cancellations and restrictions, Italy’s Christmas markets will be back in full swing this festive season.

While the energy crisis means some towns are cutting back on lighting and limiting the hours of operation, there’s still plenty of magic to be found.

Whether your focus is on sipping mulled wine surrounded by snow-topped mountains, riding a ferris wheel, sampling German sausages or marvelling at light displays, Italy has something for everyone.

Without further ado, here are some of the country’s best Christmas markets in 2022.

Bolzano

One of Italy’s longest-running Christmas markets, the festive extravaganza in Bolzano’s Piazza Walther is also said to be the country’s largest, with around 80 stalls selling a variety of traditional handicrafts and local treats.

Resting at the foot of the snow-capped Dolomites, Bolzano’s pre-WWI history and proximity to the Austrian border means the city is steeped in Germanic influences, with a number of citizens speaking German as their first language.

This gives Bolzano’s Christmas market a German twist; expect to be offered candied fruit, apple strudel, cinnamon-spiced mulled wine and other alpine delights as you browse its chalet huts.

When? Until January 6th

Christmas balls on display in Bolzano's Christmas market.

Christmas balls on display in Bolzano’s Christmas market. Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP.

Trento

While it hasn’t been running for quite as long as neighbouring Bolzano’s, Trento’s Christmas market has become almost as popular, with new stalls added every year.

Just like Bolzano, Trento is surrounded by maintains, which means you can take in views of stunning white peaks as you wander the old town’s cobbled streets warming your hands on a cup of vin brulè.

As usual, the market will be spread across Piazza Battisti and Piazza Fiera; the Trento city council has also published a calendar of key events happening every day as part of the city’s festive offering.

This year Trento’s Christmas market will have a ‘green’ focus – the use of clean energy, edible bread plates and recycled paper are all part of the concerted effort to limit the event’s environmental impact.

When? Until January 8th

Trento's Christmas market has grown rapidly in recent years.

Trento’s Christmas market has grown rapidly in recent years. Photo by ALBERTO PIZZOLI / AFP.

Milan

Throughout the month of December and into January, Milan’s Piazza del Duomo plays host to the city’s Christmas market, with almost 80 wooden huts popping up all over the main square.

Those who want to see Milan at its most Christmassy, however, will want to wait for the “Oh Bej! Oh Bej!” (“How beautiful! How beautiful!” in local dialect) festive fair held in the area surrounding the city’s castle, Castello Sforzesco.

This sprawling, centuries-old market is held to coincide with the Feast of Sant’Ambrogio, Milan’s patron saint, and is expected to take place as usual from December 7th-10th.

As a result of the energy crisis, Milan will turn on its Christmas lights two weeks later than usual this year, on December 7th – so you might want to time your visit accordingly if you want to witness the city’s illumination.

When? December 1st until January 6th (Piazza del Duomo market)

People walk across a Christmas market in downtown Milan as snow falls on December 8, 2021.

People walk across a Christmas market in downtown Milan as snow falls on December 8, 2021. Photo by MIGUEL MEDINA / AFP.

Cernobbio, Como

Lake Como’s roving ‘Città dei balocchi‘ or ‘Toytown’ Christmas fair this year moves to Cernobbio, where visitors can expect to find the town’s Villa Erba park transformed into a winter wonderland.

Fairytale characters, singing trees and a talking tower will greet adults and children who enter the park, with admission free to all.

Festivities are due to kick off at 5pm on December 7th with the opening of Magic Light festival, a mesmerising light display with projections of moving images.

On December 8th – Italy’s Feast of the Immaculate Conception, which for many in Italy signals the start of the festive period – light displays on Cernobbio’s tree and in the old town will be switched on, heralding the arrival of Christmas.

When? December 7th until January 8th

Florence

Florence has a range of Christmas markets, but the largest and best-known is the one on Piazza Santa Croce in front of the beautiful Santa Croce Basilica.

It’s run by the organisers of the Heidelberger Weihnachtsmarkt in Germany, which means you can expect authentic bratwurst, stollen, Glühwein, lebkuchen biscuits and German beer, as well as Austrian, Dutch, Hungarian, Polish, French and Italian treats.

This one closes a full week before Christmas, so if you’re planning an Italy Christmas markets tour you might want to make Florence your first stop.

When? Until December 18th

Florence's Christmas market is German-themed.

Florence’s Christmas market is German-themed. Photo by ANDREAS SOLARO / AFP.

Verona

Like Florence, Verona’s Christmas market is a collaboration with that of a German city; in this case, Nuremberg’s Christkindlmarkt.

At the main market on Piazza dei Signori you can expect to find sauerkraut, potatoes and German sausage, as well as fried donuts made with ricotta and coated in chocolate.

In addition to those on main square, the market stalls – which this year number some 100 huts – will fill Cortile del Mercato Vecchio and stretch intro surrounding squares and streets.

This year’s festive offering includes a Santa Claus house, a children’s train, two skating rinks, and a range of musical events.

Be sure to look out for the city’s famous 70m-high, 82m-long illuminated shooting star sculpture in Piazza Bra – installed in November and dismantled in January every year since 1984, the sight has become central to the Veronese Christmas experience.

When? Until December 26th

Salerno

Ensuring that Italy’s northern and central regions don’t get all of the glory, the Luci d’artista (Artist’s Lights) display in Salerno draws visitors from all over the world to this small city just east of the Amalfi coast.

This illuminated open-air exhibition runs the length of the main shopping street, up to the Christmas tree on Piazza Portanova, through the medieval city centre and up to the Villa Comunale public gardens.

Salerno’s Christmas market stalls occupy a stretch of the seafront, and this year will run from December 3rd-25th.

Accompanying the event will be a 55m-high ferris wheel, two jazz concerts, and a Santa Claus house (from December 10th to January 7th).

When? December 2nd until January 31st; Christmas market stalls December 3rd-25th.

The Luci d’artista lights display in Salerno attracts visitors from all over the world.

The Luci d’artista lights display in Salerno attracts visitors from all over the world. Photo by MARIO LAPORTA / AFP.
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