ExperiencePlus! - Bicycle Tours since 1972

Travel Stories

Cycling Southern Italy and Puglia

by ExperiencePlus! - Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Cycling Southern Italy and Puglia

PugliaFifteen years ago Paola and I led each of the five tours we offered every year. Now we are lucky to participate in two or three tours per year of the seventy or so that we offer. This year we got to pedal our inaugural Puglia – Cycling Southern Italy tour with a full group of twenty plus customers.

Puglia, sometimes referred to in English as "Apulia," is the heel of Italy. Stretching from the Gargano Peninsula (the "spur" of the Italian boot as you look at a map) all the way to the tip of the heel, Puglia is a series of flat limestone plateaus layered on top of one another, sometimes warped, broken, or cut by ravines (called "gravine" in Pugliese dialect). The riding, therefore, is mid-level on this 301 level tour. We might have classified it 201 level except that the tour is eleven days long with ten riding days. Anyone wanting to pedal this at the 201 level would probably opt for rest days on our two night stays in Matera, near Alberobello and in Martina Franca.

The highlights on this tour are the classical Greek heritage and the unique architectural history of Puglia. This latter includes the castles of Frederick the second, the 12th and 13th century Romanesque churches, the trulli – peculiar cone shaped stone houses that dot the rural landscape and dominate the village of Alberobello – and the baroque churches of Martina Franca, Gallipoli and Lecce. Last, but not least, are the foods and wines of Puglia. Here you’ll taste the best of southern Italian cooking!

The Greeks colonized the coastal areas of southern Italy and Sicily beginning in 700 BC so underlying the entire history of Puglia is this Greek heritage. Whitewashed houses in some areas still recall a deep-seated Greek history. And if you’ve traveled in Greece, you’ll recognize the Pugliese habit of serving a variety of hors d’oeuvres or antipasti, much as the Greeks serve a range of "mezes," filling up the table with small plates of tasty appetizers.

After gathering in Trani, with it’s magnificent Romanesque cathedral, our second and third day had a series of highlights, namely in Ruvo di Puglia. Of course, on our way to Ruvo we pedaled by Frederick the Second’s masterpiece, the Castel del Monte. Set on a lonely hilltop in north-central Puglia, this castle is unique in Italy for its simplicity, geometry and majesty. An octagonal castle with a hollow, octagonal center courtyard and eight octagonal corner towers, this is probably the single most important building left by Frederick in 1240 AD and one of the most significant Medieval buildings in all of southern Italy; see also my Puglia reading list here for more on this castle.

Ruvo, though offers a mix of delightful experiences, beginning with its Romanesque cathedral, which we were lucky enough to visit just as the sun set. Afterward, it was off to our restaurant for a wine tasting and one of the best dinners on the tour. The owners of the restaurant are both sommeliers and they have a very fine collection of wines from Puglia, so we thought this would be the ideal place for an introduction to Puglia wines. And it was! We followed the wine tasting with a wonderful dinner featuring local specialties that concluded with an almond muffin (that’s the best way to describe it, but this was no simple muffin) doused with an orange sauce that hinted of home made Grand Marnier!)

We topped off our Ruvo stay with a visit to the National Jatta Museum. This small museum has one of the finest collections of classical Greek vases and pottery of any museum in Italy. (And the best thing about it is that it is free of charge and can be visited in 15-30 minutes, depending on your level of interest!)

The cycling on this trip is not strenuous, though we are able to do some fairly long days on undulating terrain. One of these days takes us out of Puglia and into Basilicata for two days to visit the fascinating caves (the sassi – literally, the stones) in Matera. The "sassi" of Matera have been inhabited since prehistoric times but their unique history dates to the 7th and 8th centuries when Byzantine monks inhabited them, carving churches and dwellings out of the pliable sandstone/limestone tufa. Subsequent centuries saw more dwellings created as well as larger Catholic churches after the Byzantine age. We take a guided walk through several of these churches and dwellings during a rest day in Matera. (Click here for more on the sassi).

Our ride from the sassi of Matera to the trulli of Gioia del Colle and Alberobello takes us back across the undulating limestone plains of Puglia. In Gioa del Colle I stopped at the mozzarella factory and bought a handful of miniature, smoked mozzarella cheese balls called scamorza. They were so good I went back and bought a bag full so everyone could have a taste! The day’s ride ended in our lodgings in the trulli of a new hotel not far from Alberobello. Staying in a trullo gave everyone the experience of local farmers who, since the 17th century have lived in these traditional dwellings with thick walls and a high central ceiling. This hotel is so new with such a great swimming pool that everyone enjoyed it immensely. But, everyone also agreed that living in a trullo would take some getting used to!

The variety on this tour is enhanced with a stay of two nights in Martina Franca and one night in Gallipoli, a major fishing port on the Ionian Sea. Actually, we stay two nights on the Ionian, including one night on the beach where most of us enjoyed a swim both in the afternoon and the next morning before cycling. Other highlights on the tour included a visit to the ceramics shops of Grottaglie and our ending in Lecce, with its spectacular Roman ruins and Baroque cathedral.

Our Puglia tour fits perfectly within our line of bicycle tours that "go someplace" compared to many of our competitors who just take you cycling around two or three luxury hotels. In eleven days of pedaling we traveled more than 500 kilometers and came home feeling that we’d had a great introduction to Puglia, both modern and historic. Travel by bicycle is what we’ve been doing since 1972 and that’s what we continue to do in Puglia. Note, however, that our new "Slowjourn™" tours take you bicycling or walking in beautiful places without having to pack up and move daily. Have a look at the Slowjourn™ then decide if you’d like a traditional ExperiencePlus! bicycle tour or a more relaxed, shorter Slowjourn™. In either case you can count on us to make it one of the best vacations you’ve ever had!