Benvenuti in Trullishire: middle classes rush in to grab last unspoiled corner of paradise  

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The Independent Online

If a benign dictator were to set about creating an earthly paradise for the English middle class, it would probably look a lot like Trullishire.

If a benign dictator were to set about creating an earthly paradise for the English middle class, it would probably look a lot like Trullishire.

This is the new rustic Italian hot spot, promising to do for the region of Puglia, at the heel of the Italian boot, what Chiantishire has done for Tuscany: replace a population of Italian peasants with one of English professionals.

Chiantishire, which took off 30 years ago, is now unaffordable for many. Today's holiday home seekers are heading south, where in the interior of Puglia they have discovered a land vastly different from Tuscany, but with extraordinary qualities of its own.

This is the land of trulli: traditional peasant cottages unlike anything elsewhere in Europe, and the inspiration for which may have arrived from Africa 3,000 years ago.

At first sight they look like the exhibits in a Tolkien theme park. They are composed of clusters of round structures with low exterior walls of whitewashed stone and steep conical stone roofs, culminating in cultic knobs or twiddles. They are irresistibly sweet. Inside they are dark and can be a little cramped, but the small windows and metre-thick stone walls make them cool in the fierce Puglia summer, and readily heated in winter.

Outside the cottages is the rich red land of the region, very fertile despite the relative aridity, blooming with figs, vines, almonds, olives and apples.

And because the owners of the trulli are the children of peasant farmers, most cottages come with a few acres of soil - plenty of space for a landscaped pool. Prices range from less than €10,000 (£7,000) for a small ruin to €200,000 plus for a large, fully modernised specimen. Modernisation - putting in plumbing, kitchen, bathroom and electricity - can add €10,000to the purchase price. Since L'Inglesi started moving in three years ago, prices have rocketed, rising some 20 per cent in the past year.

The British influx is already provoking controversy in the region, however. "Some people say, how can we allow our heritage to be bought up by foreigners who don't share our customs or our language," said one estate agent. "Others point out that nobody else wants to buy the trulli, and the foreigners look after them well."

The Trullishire boom is too recent for the new arrivals to have made a visible mark on the region. The great majority only visit for occasional holidays. One family in more regular residence left a firm instruction with agents that he was not to be bothered by the media.

Trullishire's trulli would mean little without their surprisingly rich and intriguing context. Southern Italy has got itself a bad name: poverty, Mafia, rampant illegal construction, dodgy dress sense - the south is everything the north of Italy strives not to be. Yet the interior of Puglia is very different. The trulli are scattered across a region defined by half a dozen country towns, each strikingly different from the others, and each full of charm and history.

There is Alberobello, for example, whose calm, pretty centre is dominated by 1,500 trulli bizarrely reminiscent of stockbroker Tudor villas in Surrey. Martina Franca, meanwhile, could not be more different, its ancient centre entirely baroque. It is the setting for a splendid passeggiata every Sunday evening, when the population meanders through town in their Sunday best.

Ostuni, 20 kilometres to the east, is a town of colossal, gleaming medieval structures and labyrinthine lanes. Other towns offer cave complexes, winery tours and archaeology; sandy beaches and sea are no more than a dozen kilometres to the north.

The drawbacks? English speakers are far thinner on the ground than in Tuscany. And the nearest budget airport is Ferrara, a five hour drive to the north-west. If that were to change, trulli prices would probably go through that dinky little roof.