On Two-Wheels through Puglia, Italy

The sight of four 60 something year old cyclists hovered over the handlebars, each offering an animated interpretation of the directions provided by our GPS must have amused the farmers passing by on their tractors.

A narrow lane among ancient olive groves in southern Italy was the scene of our debate. We knew with certainty that we were in Puglia, the region located along the Adriatic Sea in the heel of the Italian boot. That we were 24 miles from our morning starting point amongst the ancient Trullo near Alberobello seemed evident as well. Once the confusion was cured via text message from the tour company, we remained on course for the next five days.

Patty and I had never relied upon bicycles for vacation transportation in the past. But we were intrigued by our good friends’ Kathy and John’s invitation to consider a week-long cycling trip in Italy.

The retirement-aged people in the promotional material seemed to be having fun. The background scenery in the photographs on the web page looked amazing. We were sold after determining that a week of Italian food and wine would be agreeable to us. We decided “we can do this” but signed on with the conditions that it was not necessary to train for the holiday and electric bikes had to be available for those so inclined.

©Kevin McGoff

Tour Company

There are multiple packages offered by Puglia Cycle Tours (PCT). We opted for the freedom of the self-guided Giro di Puglia—Alberobello to Lecce. There was occasionally city traffic to navigate and a few more traveled roads along the way. However, most of our route alternated between lanes through olive groves lined with drystone walls, coastal towns along the Adriatic Sea, and hilltop cities once strongholds for protection from Saracen invaders.

The company provided the daily itinerary. Each route was well scouted and the informational materials were thorough. The equipment PCT provided was top notch and the support was first rate as well.

Our loads were light as our luggage was transported and waiting for us at each night’s destination. We carried water and a few snacks in a small case on our bikes. The accommodations were included in the price of the tour. Each overnight stop was unique. We alternated between hotel rooms, a trulli, and comfortable apartments.

The Trulli of Alberobello

©Kevin McGoff

Our friends, Kathy and John, incorporated our cycling adventure into their three-week Italian vacation. We had easy connections from Marseille to Bari where we met our fellow cyclists. After an hour in a taxi, we were at Alberobello being fitted for our bikes.

The village serving as our jumping off point is a UNESCO site in the heart of the Itria Valley. The area is famous for the concentration of the conical roofed, dry-stone huts, called trulli in Italian. Over 1,000 trulli fill the town and many more dot the surrounding landscape. It is in Alberobello that we experienced firsthand living in one of these treasures, as our first two night’s accommodations were in a comfortable and modernized trulli a short walk from the center of town.

The first day’s route was primarily along little traveled roads, lined with olive groves. Our loop ended back at our starting point following our ride through the hilltop town of Locorotrondo and on to Martina Franca. It was a challenging start. The energy expended conquering the hills served to increase our heart rates and sharpen our appetites for the Apulian dinner we had planned for the evening.

After breakfast the next morning, we headed toward the sea and the fishing village of Monopoli. The drop in elevation over the 27 miles ride was welcomed following our first day spent pedaling the inclines. The availability of electric bikes leveled out the hills of Puglia with the push of a button. The battery assisted pedaling insured that our group remained intact and in good spirits throughout the tour.

As our path met the sea, we stopped for a lunch in Polignano a Mare. Our meals included fresh fish, tuna tartare, and sword fish carpaccio, accompanied by a chilled Erbaceo, vino bianco. Our foursome spent $100 on lunch. We found the cost of meals to be reasonable and the proximity to the ocean meant fresh seafood was always on the menu.

Outside the restaurant stood a three-meter high bronze stature of the singer Domenico Moduguno. Known as “Mister Volare” the Polignano a Mare native Moduguno’s likeness greets you with arms outstretched while belting out his famous tune. Tourists flock to the statue to have their photo taken while striking Moduguno’s pose.

After lunch we made our way to Monopoli. The city has been on the map since 500 BC and fishermen in blue boats continue to ply their trade from the small port. We enjoyed a lively Saturday night in this seaside town. The din of café chatter blended with the clang of glasses provided background music during our search for a restaurant along the festively lit streets and crowed squares.

Sunday Ride

©Kevin McGoff

We started our Sunday trek around 9 a.m. beneath the walls of the16th century castle of Charles V. A few screeching gulls joined us while we worked our way out of the sleeping town. With the fortified port walls of Monopoli at our back, we enjoyed our jaunt along the quiet coastal road. Beach clubs dotted the Adriatic on one side and the hills toward our next destination loomed to the west.

After lunch the scent of saltwater and gentle breeze from the ocean gave way to our labored breathing as we climbed toward the whitewashed walls of Ostuni. We could see the “White City” in the distance as we made our way almost five miles inland. Once the last hill was conquered and the bikes stored, we rewarded ourselves by several hours of people watching in the Piazza della Libertà.

The four of us gathered under the last bits of sunlight for a glass of wine on the terrace of the Hotel la Terra before dinner. The warren like streets of Ostuni stretched out below our perch, topped by fortifications from the 16th century.

Dash to the Train

We joined locals making their way to work through Ostuni on Monday morning as we set out on about a 10-mile ride to the train station at Carovigno. We were quickly out of the village and on a downhill run through olive groves being prepared for the harvest.

Despite our early start, we found ourselves dashing for the train as we dallied along the short route. The station in Carovigno is remote, and missing the train meant waiting at least another hour. Recognizing we were behind schedule, we raced the last few miles to the station, pulling in as the arrival of the train to Lecce was announced. As we began to celebrate the good fortune of our arrival, we realized that the train was pulling in on Track 2. Thus, the scramble continued as we lugged our bikes down a steep staircase through the tunnel under the tracks and then up the other side. We breathlessly joined the queue of other cyclists, who were cheering us on as the train pulled in.

After an hour on the train, we arrived in Lecce. We found it necessary to pass on certain site seeing opportunities in order to make it to our next destination before dark. The Roman amphitheater and Baroque architecture of Lecce were among our list of visits unfortunately missed. Instead, we purchased sandwiches for a picnic and navigated our way out of the Salento capital toward Borgagne about 18 miles further south.

At Acaya, we bought a bag of chips and soft drinks and dined in the shade next to the castle. Built by Gian Giacomo d’Acaya in the16th century for protection from the Saracens it is considered an excellent example of defensive architecture from that period. It also served a nice spot for a picnic on a warm October afternoon in the 21st century.

Olive Harvest

©Kevin McGoff

Throughout our mid-October journey, we witnessed workers placing thick nets beneath fruit-laden olive trees. Workers would soon arrive to shake the olives from the tree. On our way to Borgagne we fortunately happened upon the harvest in one grove and stopped to watch the process. Two small tractors faced each other on opposite sides of the trunk of a massive olive tree. Simultaneously the attachments at the end of their buckets were driven into the limbs high in the tree. They were activated and violently shook the entire tree for a few minutes causing the fruit to fall onto the net. A crew folded the net, drug it to a nearby machine and shook the contents into the noisy apparatus that separated the olives from the leaves and stems. Even with machine assistance this is a time-consuming task as the grooves in Puglia are substantial and numerous.

Beer and the Internet

Our plan to arrive in Borgagne early afternoon for a bit of a break was perfectly executed. It was hot and we were tired and thirsty when we coasted into town. Other than a crew demolishing a building, the streets were deserted at the hour of the siesta. We happened upon a resident who pointed us in the direction of the shaded terrace of the Caffetteria Petraroli. Served a couple of beers, a plate of olives, and bowl of nuts, once combined with high-speed internet we were in paradise.

There were other groups on the same route. We chatted with folks from Canada and Britain over breakfast when staying in the same hotels and when we saw each other along the route. Several fellow travelers connected and rode together.

There was only one restaurant open in Borgagne on a Monday night—Big Mama Pizzeria-Ristorante. The six groups cycling along the same route filled a corner of the restaurant near the wood oven. Stories of the road and tales from home were shared over pizza and several bottles of Primitivo.

Last Day on the Trail

©Kevin McGoff

On our last day we left Borgagne under a clear blue sky. We took in so much interesting scenery in our week that it is difficult, and perhaps a bit unfair, to say that any one vista was the best. But this last stretch of our trip was among our favorites. Our route took us back to the coast and the waves crashing on the cliffs between Torre dell’Orso and Saint’Andrea. The fresh sea breeze, the smell of the ocean, and the sound of the surf combined to compel us to stop numerous times to take pictures. At our stop at the Grotta Della Poesia (Cave of the Poet), we came upon a naturalist sunbather. He courteously donned a towel before we began to photograph this ancient site.

The last 27 miles of our ride ended too quickly in Ortranto. We arrived in Italy’s most eastern town mid-afternoon in time to relax at a seaside restaurant. The umbrellas on the terrace flapped in a steady ocean breeze near an 11th century church. We were glad to have our jackets as we revisited the stages of our trip over a cup of coffee and biscotti. Though our first cycling vacation was not quite finished, we began talking about our next bike trip.

Over dinner we said our farewells. In the course of our week, we all caught a bit of sun, ate well, tasted some new wines, and covered paths not likely to be seen again. Patty and I headed back to France while Kathy and John stayed on for a week of site seeing in Puglia, this time on four wheels. Armed with the dos and don’ts of veteran cyclists, we are in the course of planning our next week in the saddle.

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