‘This stage is divided into two stretches. The first one is shorter, starting from Otranto and after visiting the imposing and elegant Castle of Carovigno, you reach the little Carovigno railway station, nestled amongst ancient olive trees.’
Welcome to Puglia. In the saddle.
It’s day 5 of our 8 day ‘Giro di Puglia’ cycling adventure, exploring the countryside and coastline of the southern part of this intriguing, hidden heel of the Italian boot.
‘We thought up an itinerary to achieve the very difficult goal of showing you the most beautiful corners of our region, riding on the most revealing paths. You will see a varied and surprising landscape, and meet Apulian architecture, art, culture, traditions, food and wine.’
And where better to start the adventure than in Alberobello, a UNESCO World Heritage site and world capital of the iconic Trulli. Our first two nights are even spent under the cooling, honeycombed roof of a Trullo, originally designed centuries ago to be demolished with ease, but now charmingly repurposed for modern-day living. There are an estimated 1,500 Trulli in Alberobello, and in the warm glow of evening sun the town looks like an over-stuffed box of walnut whips.
Six days are spent cycling, covering 40-50 km each day. The terrain is generally flat, with the exception of the medieval hilltop towns we need to reach for lunch or overnight stays. We cycled on quiet rural lanes, fringed by dry-stone walls and ancient olive groves, or occasionally on off-road tracks, including the Ciclovia dell’Acquedotto, a 500 km cycling and hiking route on the service track of an aqueduct constructed more than a century ago.
It’s all very manageable within a leisurely Italian day, but e-bikes are readily available for Silver Travellers in need of an occasional turbo-charge. Our self-guided group of five had sturdy self-propelled bikes, armed with Garmin gizmos loaded up with the daily routes, and a capacious bag by the handlebars for extra layers, sun-tan lotion, energy bars, a pump and tyre levers. All you have to do is jump on the saddle each morning, pedal a bit and enjoy the excellent itinerary.
Historic villages and towns, some built for more affluent times, await you at every turn. Dive into the cooling embrace of an old Baroque church or grab a morning macchiato on a pavement café. Pedal gently along quiet lanes or tracks, swifts warbling and swooping high above you, wild flowers swaying gently in the Apulian breeze by the roadside.
On the Adriatic coastline, have a seafood lunch in Polignano a Mare, perched on the side of steep cliffs and birthplace of legendary singer Domenico Modugno, ‘Signor Volare’. And enjoy your night spent in Monopoli, its fishing harbour just a few steps away from the captivating old walled town, with narrow labyrinthine streets and an imposing Castle.
Considered the Gateway to the Orient since Roman times, Puglia represents even now a bridge to Greece and the Levant. The ports of Bari, Brindisi and Otranto offer easy passage to Albania, Turkey and Greece and as a result Apulian culture is shaped noticeably differently from other regions of Italy.
Listen out for a distinctive Greek dialect of Italian in Salento, and Albanian influences in Lecce. And it’s not hard to imagine you are in North Africa when getting lost in the enchanting medina-like mazes of the walled old towns of Monopoli, Lecce, Bari and Ostuni.
FOOD AND DRINK
Apulian food is an example of ‘cucina povera’, cuisine of the poor. Traditionally, its main constituents were bread, vegetables and pasta, and very different to that of the country’s carnivorous, more affluent north. With the improving tourism picture in Puglia, I suspect meat is more readily available here these days, but why not stick with what the locals enjoy?
We were given a very useful guide to some regional specialities. Here are just a few…
‘Orecchiette’ – probably the best known local dish, handmade pasta shaped like little ears. Often offered with ‘cime di rapa’, literally turnip tops but usually something more palatable like broccoli.
‘Frisella’ – a twice-baked ring-shaped bread, briefly soaked in water before serving, topped with tomatoes, olive oil and salt.
‘Panzerotto’ – fried half-moon shaped leavened dough filled with tomato and mozzarella.
Leave room for ‘pasticciotto’, a typical oval-shaped pastry found in Lecce and Salento, filled with custard. And don’t worry, you’ll be cycling off all those calories.
And after a day pedalling, indulge in an Aperitivo, perhaps the ubiquitous Aperol Spritz, the bright orange cocktail with Aperol, prosecco and soda. You’ll probably also receive a few nibbles, perhaps some plump local olives and ‘taralli’, crunchy little bagel-shaped bits of boiled and baked dough, made with flour, olive oil and white wine.
Talking of wine, do not leave Puglia without guzzling a few bottles of Primitivo, a rustic and punchy red grape grown largely in the Manduria region, that will undoubtedly help with your overnight recovery.
Hopefully this has whetted your appetite for a cycling adventure in this fascinating, lesser-known region of la bella Italia. We went with local company Puglia Cycle Tours but Silver Travel Advisor partners Cycling for Softies offer two of their own holidays, with different self-guided itineraries.
In terms of timing, I can highly recommend going at the end of April or the beginning of May. The temperature will hopefully be perfect for cycling and the abundant wild flowers – including vibrant red poppies, yellow meadow calendulas, purple echium vulgare, startling goldenfleece and wild orchids – were an undoubted highlight.
‘You may have the Universe if I may have Italy’ – Giuseppe Verdi