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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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FOOD & DRINK

Sagra: The best Italian food festivals to visit in September

If you're visiting Italy in autumn, don't miss the many local food and drinks fairs held around the country. Here are some to visit this September.

Sagra: The best Italian food festivals to visit in September

One of the best things about visiting Italy in the autumn is having the opportunity to attend a sagra, a type of harvest festival or fair centred around one particular food or drink item local to the town hosting it.

sagra has a fairly broad definition: it could last for several weeks or one day, and might consist of anything from a raucous celebration with music and dancing to a lone food stall with a few wooden benches. It will usually be hosted in a field or a piazza, and entry is free.

READ ALSO: Seven reasons autumn is the best time to visit Italy

What all sagre have in common is the focus on eating and drinking fresh local produce, and the assurance that you won’t leave unsated.

While October is the month with the most sagre, by September there are already a good number taking place throughout the country that are worth seeking out if you’re in the area.

Here are just a few of the sagre happening across Italy this September.

Campania

Sagra della Rana (frog festival), 2nd-4th September in Marcianise.

Sagra del Cinghiale (wild boar festival), Fridays-Sundays until the end of October in Dugenta.

The 10th annual Festa del Fagiolo (bean festival), 9th-11th September in Volturara Irpina.

Emilia Romagna

Sagra del pinzino e dell’arrosticino (fried bread dough and meat skewers festival), 31st August-11th September in Ferrara.

Sagra del Tartufo (truffle festival), 31st August-12th September in Sant’Agostino, Ferrara.

The 55th annual Sagra dell’Uva e del Lambrusco Grasparossa (grapes and lambrusco wine festival), 11th-24th September in Castelvetro di Modena.

Sagra Provinciale dell’Uva (grapes and wine festival), 17th-18th September in Riolo Terme.

Sagra della Salamina da Sugo al Cucchiaio (pork salami festival), 22nd-25th and 29th-30th September in Madonna Boschi, Ferrara.

Photo by BORIS HORVAT / AFP

Lazio

Sagra della porchetta di Ariccia (spitted pork festival), 2nd-4th September in Ariccia.

Festa del Fungo Porcino (porcini mushroom festival), 8th-25th September in Lariano.

Sagra del Ciammellocco (ciammellocco biscuit festival), 10th-11th September in Cretone.

Sagra degli Gnocchi (gnocchi festival), 16th-18th September in Castelnuovo di Porto.

Lombardy

Sagra della Rana (frog festival), 2nd-4th September in Sartirana Lomellina, Pavia.

Sagra dei Crotti (natural cave cellars festival), 3rd-4th and 10th-11th September in Chiavenna, Sondrio.

Sagra del Risotto (risotto festival), 12th-15th September in Cergnago, Pavia.

Fungolandia (mushroom festival), 3rd-11th September in Valle Brembana.

Sicily

Sagra del Nocattolo (nocattolo almond biscuit festival), 4th September in Nicosia.

Sagra dell’Arancino (fried arancino rice ball festival) 8th-11th September in Ficarazzi.

Festa della Noce (walnut festival), 30th September-9th October in Motta Camastra.

Cous Cous Fest, September 16th-25th, San Vito Lo Capo.

Piedmont

Gusto di Meliga (sorghum festival), 18th September, Chiusa di San Michele.

Sagra del Pomodoro (tomato festival), 2nd-4th September, Cambiano.

Fiera Nazionale del Peperone (bell pepper festival), 2nd-11th September, Carmagnola.

Puglia

Sagra del Maiale (pig festival), 2nd-4th September, Villa Baldassarri, Lecce.

Sagra della Zampina del Bocconcino e del Buon Vino (zampinabocconcino and good wine festival), 30th September-2nd October, Sammichele di Bari.

Tuscany

Sagra della bistecca (steak festival), 1st-4th September in Badia al Pino, Arezzo.

Festa della mora (blackberry festival), 3rd-4th September in Vaglia.

The 50th annual Expo del Chianti Classico (Classic Chianti Expo), 8th-11th September in Chianti.

Settimana del Miele (‘honey week’), 9th-11th September in Montalcino.

The 57th annual Sagra del Cinghiale (wild boar festival), 7th-11th September in Capalbio.

Umbria

Primi d’Italia (national first courses festival), 29th September-2nd October in Foligno.

This list is not exhaustive. Did we miss out your favourite September sagra? Leave a comment below to let us know.

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