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Puglia or Bust

Warren Zelman Photography

Photo by Warren Zelman Photography

Long ago, I promised myself that one day I would take a biking trip through some obscure corner of Europe, going in-depth over a small region rather than covering hundreds of miles a day. (You’ve heard of “slow food,” this is the travel equivalent.) Busy schedules and finances always worked against me, but after I turned 50, the calendar was conspiring against me more emphatically.

Planning a great trip is a part-time job. The more you put in, the more you get back. I wanted the ultimate vacation: to put in nothing and travel like I’d studied for months. And I wanted a destination I’d never seen. Tuscany, Provence, the Loire Valley or Italian Riviera would not cut it.

Over and over I read about one destination I had never come near: Puglia, the heel of Italy’s boot. A region of wild coastline, olive groves and ancient cities, not yet scrubbed clean by the tourist hordes. The Italy of Italians, not German and British second-homers.

Relative to Italy’s affluent north, Puglia is gritty, working class, slower paced, with locals who are rather ambivalent about tourism but less blasé than the average Italian. Brindisi, the less than charming regional hub where 18 of us gathered at a hotel the night before the trip began, was just such a place.

Things looked better as our hotel set out wine, cheese and cured meats and my fellow travelers—Canadians, Americans and Brazilians—got to know each other. The group was a broad mix of ages, stages and socioeconomic levels, more diverse than I had anticipated. We were all anxious about the rigors of the biking to come, who our guides would be and what the weather held in store.

Day 1
Though most of our group professes to be cycling neophytes, they show up for breakfast in serious, form-fitting Lycra biking gear. I resign myself to taking up the rear with the two almost-grandmas on the trip. Our guides are both Italian: laid-back Giacomo from Venezia and Alex, raised in Italy but born in Germany. He is precise, organized and sweated the details as few Italians would.

We pile into a couple of minibuses and light out of Brindisi past heavy industry into quiet countryside. Puglia is rather rural, but not manicured. Centuries-old stone walls hem olive groves, plus the occasional discarded mattress and toilet. After about 90 minutes, we arrive at a staging area where we are fitted to our bikes, given route instructions (in clear sleeves that are held to the bikes with Velcro) and set off on a short ride to lunch on the Adriatic coastline at the charming small town of Otranto.

We gather at Acmet Pascià, a family-owned restaurant that serves a groaning spread of antipasti, fried pizza dough, vegetable dishes with local chicory and olives, a mussels casserole, wines from the Salento (the local region at the bottom of Puglia), followed by main courses of langoustines over linguine in tomato sauce and a risotto with mussels and curry. Lemon sorbet is dessert.

This could have been the best lunch of the five-day trip, but all are nearly as good—a bucolic setting, local food and wine, and a welcome respite for the legs. Drinking too much comes at a price once back on the bike, so you only overindulge once. I tell myself the calories burned will equal all the food I’m eating, but the veterans of the trip warn me they won’t (I gain only three pounds).

Leaving Otranto we are given a long and short option for the afternoon. I choose short, sensing rain. My wife chooses long and arrives at our hotel soaking wet. But what a hotel it is: Masseria Montelauro was built as a farm complex in 1878, but now it’s a small resort typical of rural Puglia, with stark white buildings and a spare, lovely pool.

Dinner is an elaborate affair in a local castle, where we are serenaded by traditional folk musicians in a dialect that sounds more Greek than Italian. Not bad for the rough side of Italy.

Day 2
This is our coastal day. We ride 45 kilometers into a stiff wind to the southeast tip of Italy (that’s Albania in the distance!). My long afternoon bike rides at home pay off as Amy and I beat all but the racing bikers to lunch at a charming (except for the surly proprietress) restaurant on a cliff above the Adriatic at the town of Ciolo.

This is Butterfield & Robinson’s final European trip of the season, and there are definitely pluses and minuses to visiting Puglia in the fall rather than summer. We encounter few crowds, very little traffic and moderate temperatures in the 60s and 70s. But outside the cities, many shops and restaurants are closed for the season and seaside towns seem almost deserted.

Due to the winds, most of us bus back to the masseria, where there is time to swim or sleep. Dinner is preceded by a Pugliese cooking lesson in which we learn how to make pasta and bruschetta using local tomatoes, olive oil, garlic and oregano—an ingredient found often in Puglia. Appetizers include a spectacular focaccia pie with tomato and wilted chicory. Dinner gilds the lily.

       
The view of Santa Caesarea Terme, a spa town with thermal baths on the Adriatic coast. Photo by Adam Platt.        

Day 3
We say goodbye to the masseria, heading out into scrubby country and olive groves, through quiet small towns. We stop at 11 a.m. in Giurdignano, where we set up a table in the piazza, drink shots of espresso and share warm pastries called rustico—stuffed with soft mozzarella, béchamel and a little tomato sauce.

We’ve biked 37 kilometers by the time we get to lunch at a masseria in the countryside called Copertini, where the proprietress serves us on a long table in the garden. Fourteen kilometers onward, through an increasingly urban streetscape, is the baroque town of Lecce, the cultural capital of Puglia.

This is the urban tourist magnet of Puglia, a charming town of 100,000 with several piazzas, an enormous cathedral and a Roman-era amphitheater. The detail on most of the churches is papier-mâché due to the privations of spending much of the 15th century at war with the Turks.

Dinner is at an informal local restaurant, where we eat long-cooked broccoli mixed with anchovy; the region’s typical starter of mashed fava beans and wilted chicory; peas with pancetta; shaved fennel in cream and meatballs in tomato sauce. The main course is a square of porcini mushroom lasagna in béchamel.

Day 4
This is our most ambitious day: 60 kilometers for the “short” route, with a break for coffee by the Adriatic at San Cataldo and lunch at a more upscale masseria.

Puglia is pretty along the Adriatic, but the seaside towns such as San Cataldo are often severe and functional, with a lot of decaying 1960s construction. Our guide in Lecce attributed the region’s relative impoverishment to tax starvation, the result of locals listing themselves as unemployed for tax purposes and working for cash under the table. One of the guides noted that Puglia was one of the only regions of Europe where he led trips in which hotels and merchants still expected to be paid in cash rather than invoiced.

Later, Amy and I skip a wine-tasting to buy chocolate for the folks at home. If you are ever in Lecce, leave an hour for Maglio, the town’s fabled chocolatier, whose specialty is local figs dipped in dark chocolate.

Day 5
We leave Lecce by minibus for the hillside tourist town of Ostuni, which dates to the Middle Ages. Only one of its streets is wide enough for cars, and the permanent population is 70; most of the residences are owned as holiday homes by wealthy Romans and other urban Italians. Our guide is Paola, a local university professor who hosts lunch in the garden of her family’s 18th-century estate, four steep kilometers above town. This is a picnic with local royalty, if you will. To describe it as idyllic would be an understatement.

We bike downhill toward the Adriatic after lunch, finishing at our final hotel, the stylish, whitewashed Masseria Torre Maizza, just a few kilometers from the sea, where we eat a seafood dinner at the hotel’s private beach club.

Day 6
This is the cultural highlight of the trip. It begins with a ride into San Marco for a mozzarella-making demonstration, followed by an elaborate cheese buffet, which I wisely eschew, considering the 18 kilometers of biking ahead. That gets us to Alberobello, a region of Puglia famous for its conical stone homes called trulli. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the town is quaint and whitewashed, but it’s also a real city with real residents, which adds a layer of richness. Lunch is “on your own,” followed by a hair-raisingly fast 29-kilometer downhill ride to the coast and the inviting pool at our bougainvillea-draped masseria.

At cocktail hour, the guides present a surprisingly elaborate video of our trip that they had shot as we rode each day and edited as we slept. It is followed by a festive final meal, where we say our goodbyes, promise to look one another up when next in Toronto or São Paolo, and wonder how we’ll ever readapt to any other type of holiday.

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