The Surreal And Whismical Palmenti Of Pietragalla

In Basilicata, tiny white stone houses pop out of the earth like mushrooms: these are not hobbit homes, but old wine cellars.

Palmenti Houses Basilicata
The palmenti houses in Pietragalla, Basilicata. Mngon (Giuseppe Cillis), CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Apart from the famous Sassi di Matera, Basilicata isn’t a major region for tourism, but it holds a very special hidden gem. In the province of Potenza, 20km from the capital, a small town called Pietragalla is home to some unique structures not seen in the rest of Italy.

Tiny, whimsical white stone houses pop out of the earth like mushrooms. They look like hobbit homes, built into the earth and covered by grass and soil, and with no other adornment besides a simple wooden door. These are the palmenti, the charming stone structures that were once wine cellars for the local Pietragallese of centuries past.

While they may appear ancient, they in fact are quite modern and date back to the early 19th century. There are approximately 200 of these in the area, and the structure itself is very simple: built into the quartz sandstone and the newly loosened stone refashioned to form the front and roof of the structure, then covered with soil and grass. The rutt (the name in dialect) are also strategically built to face south-southwest, as a natural way to keep the internal temperature above 20℃ during the grape harvesting period in the autumn. They can be found on the edge of the eastern part of town, along the SS169—not out in a deserted part of the countryside as you might have imagined.

Inside a palmento are two vats: a smaller one for crushing the grapes, and the larger one for collecting the juices and fermenting it together with the must; with the smaller vat elevated from the larger one so the liquid can drain easily through linked pipes. Some others might also have an additional vat for filling casks, and even a niche for a fireplace used to further warm the must and accelerate the fermentation process (typically 15-20 days). Aside from the door, there are no other ingresses into the cellar aside from a small square vent where carbon dioxide is allowed to escape.

It’s unclear how the name itself came to be, but some hypotheses suggest that it comes from the Latin ‘pavimentum’, the floor where grapes are crushed; or from the word ‘pavire’, meaning to press or to beat. In any case, it is a unique Southern Italian term for a unique structure.

At the height of the period of wine production in Pietragalla, grapes grown in the surrounding vineyards would be harvested and transported by donkey to these cellars. Now the palmenti sit mostly disused (except for a handful of local families who make wine for personal consumption). They spring back to life in the late summer during festivals or cultural events, but otherwise they wait quietly for the next curious traveler to ease open the little wooden doors to take a glimpse into the past.