Puglia: Bicycling and Eating Through the Italian Countryside

September 15, 2017

Getting to the Heel: Puglia

Puglia (Puh-lee-a) is the heel of the Italian boot.  The leather of this part of the boot isn’t as high end as in Milan, Rome or Florence, but it’s well-worn, confident and genuine.

What is Puglia?

Flat, olive trees, olive trees, old olive trees, older olive trees, olive trees.  Oh, and the dry stacked stone walls. Everywhere.  And, the Adriatic and all of its influence.

Why Puglia?

A little more untouched, a little different perspective, a little more Mediterranean. The Italians go here for their vacations (much like Cinque Terre used to be).  The strategic geographic position made it a favorable place to settle for almost everybody, and control throughout history.  Puglia was a gateway to Europe from the east.  This led to little towns set up along the water with castles and forts to view and protect. Today’s result is natural beauty, great examples of Baroque architecture, and a lot of well-kept ruins from various significant periods throughout history.  It’s a resilient and well-experienced part of Italy.

This tiny little treasure of a region boasts more olive trees and olive oil and wine production than it’s given credit for.  You can see evidence of this everywhere.  And the fish is abundant and fresh.

There’s the summary.

The other reason is that we’ve been to Rome, Naples, and the Amalfi Coast multiple times, Florence, Lucca, Pisa, Cinque Terre, Venice and Trieste, and Tuscany many times. We love them all for different reasons (except Rome….LOVE is a strong word for Rome), and wanted to see a contrast.

If you haven’t been to Italy, I wouldn’t start with Puglia.  But, if your list looks even a little like ours, definitely go.

This trip was a bit different for us.  We decided to do a “self-guided” bike trip. Self-guided, in this example, means you have someone book your hotels, transport your luggage, organize a few small things (such as the bikes that are critical to get us from place to place), and provide you a cell number to text if you have an emergency or need a massage at your next hotel.

We also went with two friends who hadn’t been on a bike trip before.  So we learned something pretty important: Biking around the world is very cool.  Of course, we knew that, but to see two newbies with the freshness and enthusiasm is like hitting the re-start button.

Day 1:  Monopoli

Up early, walk the entire small city, followed by an exceptional hotel breakfast buffet (ham and cheese sandwiches for breakfast?  Hell yes!) Watch our friends arrive with luggage large enough for dead bodies (see “the people you meet”).

Head to Alberobello for a small tour of the trulli’s and introduce our friends to the art of the big, boozy lunch before the bicycle.

Bicycle back to Monopoli through the countryside, and introduce our friends to almost throwing up riding the hills after big, boozy lunch.

Appreciate the beauty of this new countryside of stone walls and olive trees.  Everywhere.  It looks somewhat Mediterranean, with hints of Croatia and Ireland.

Arrive back at hotel for naps, showers, happy hour, and wine tasting/dinner on the rooftop.  Lesson for today:  Primitivo is Zinfandel, and Puglia is an important wine region.

The hotel, Don Ferrante, commands the best location and view of anywhere in town, and it’s built out of the town’s original stone walls. It’s a must to stay in one of its quirky rooms, or have dinner (seasonally) on the rooftop.

Overall enthusiasm rating for the day (1-10):

Us:  5

Friends: 10

Miles traveled:  about 20 (35 km-ish)

Day 2:

Up early, walk the entire small city.  Buy water and supplies for today’s riding.

Meet our friends, hear their awe at the city and the fact that we bought supplies for the ride.

After a quite a while of getting ready for the ride (forgot sunscreen, where’s my phone, need to pee, my seat’s too high, my seat’s too low, need to pee again, is there any more water?), we set up on a loop from Monopoli to Polignano a Mare.  (Other guests at the hotel we met said, “You know, it’s only 5 minutes by train or car…that would be much easier.”)

The ride started with getting lost about 50 times trying to ride out of Monopoli.  Not unusual for a crazy little Italian town.  Finally, smartphones prevailed and we found our own way to get back on track. We had a lovely ride up through the countryside with panoramic views of the sea, then back down into Polignano, perched on the water.

We went into the old city and had a big and boozy (see a theme here?) pizza lunch before heading back to the hotel in Monopoli for the naps, showers, happy hour, and dinner.

Monopoli actually has a number of great little restaurants, and they’re all about a 4-8 minute walk through the small city.

The city itself is a place where people live and work, so winding your way through the stone streets gives you a glimpse of another time and another life.  It’s magical.

Overall enthusiasm rating for the day:

Us:  4 (hate getting lost)

Friends: 10

Miles traveled:  18 (about 30km).  Getting lost added about another 4-5 miles

Day 3:

Up early, walk the entire small city.  Buy supplies for the ride to our next hotel in Ostuni.

See our friends on the street and react with surprise and delight when they also bought supplies for the ride (see, aren’t we a good influence?)

After about the same amount of time to pack up our suitcases (to wait for their transport to our next hotel), and getting ready for the ride (see above for description), we headed out along the Adriatic on our way to the hilltop white city of Ostuni.

Today we stopped for a quick look at ruins dating back to 8 B.C., stopped for coffee and gelato, and had our first tester hill up into Ostuni.  After getting lost walking through town looking for our hotel at the very top, we finally arrived at La Sommita.  They welcomed us and our sweaty bodies with ice-cold beer and water before we headed to yet another pizzeria for lunch. He always gets the fish (spada, branzino), I could eat pizza for every meal.

Hit repeat with the naps, showers.  The only difference here is friends went for the massage; we went for the walk through the small city (touristy, but beautiful) before watching the sunset on the terrace.  Our hotel had a lovely Michelin restaurant, but we opted for a neighborhood place.

Overall enthusiasm rating for the day:

Us: 6 (they’re having an affect….)

Friends: 10

Miles traveled:  about 35 (50 km-ish)

Day 4:

Up early, great breakfast, short walk.

Today we’re being driven to Lecce to start our ride to the next hotel, so we actually had a schedule for the first time.  We were on our way from Lecce to Furnirussi, a hotel outside of a small town named Serrano in the countryside.

Our friends had stayed in Lecce, so they gave us the Cliff’s notes tour as we walked through the city, admiring the Cathedral, churches, and Roman amphitheater that was just uncovered in the early 1900’s.

Off we rode through little towns, making our way to the coast then back through the oldest olive groves imaginable.  They are actually living sculptures.

Today we had some spitting rain; and it was the first day by broken collarbone gave me true hell (yes, I stupidly road a bike my 5-week-old broken collarbone and ribs). Our friends had a different take on the slight spitting rain.  (“It’s refreshing!!!”)  The ride was beautiful, so the 10 minutes of spitting really didn’t matter.

Arrived at the hotel for the same afternoon routine.  Did I mention how great a nap is after a ride?

Our dinner that night was probably nine courses served completely out of order, leaving us crying in laughter.  Salad, followed by steak, followed by pasta, followed by 4 courses of branzino 12 ways, the lamb that came just as we were stupidly ordering dessert.  It was a lot lost in translation, and an awesome meal anyway.  We finished our wine on the terrace listening to the night rain that almost never happens in Puglia.

Overall enthusiasm level for the day:

Us: 7 (they’re really getting to us)

Them: 10 (they’re so annoyingly happy and positive and we’re learning to love it)

Miles traveled:  40 (about 60km)

Last day:

There wasn’t a city to walk, but there were gardens and fig groves, filled with smells of lavender, fruit trees and the freshness after the rain.

Our ride started leisurely because we didn’t have far to go.  We headed to the southern Adriatic coast of Puglia to ride along the sea back to Otranto.  The countryside was the stone walls and olive groves, and we hit the coast, which looks like the cliffs in Ireland.  It was windy in parts (Our friends:  “the wind is great, it keeps you cool!!!”), but one of the prettiest bike rides.

Otranto is another gem of a city with old, winding streets perched on the water. This city still had a Castello as part of the fabric of the town.   Many of them do, but this one is pretty well intact.

One more opportunity for me to get pizza (yes, he got spada again), and our last big beautiful boozy lunch (Negramaro, Primitivo) before bicycling a short distance back to the hotel for our afternoon ritual and dinner.  Ahhh, the drudgery.

The last dinner was significant because we finally got the friends into the limoncello after the meal.  We win.

Overall enthusiasm level for the day:

Us: 8

Friends:  10

Miles traveled:  Who’s counting anymore?

Puglia: The Highlights

Fly into Brindisi from Rome (a better jumping off point than Bari).  Make sure to balance staying on the coast with staying in a city further in the countryside.

For non-water cities, try Lecce (at a new hotel, La Fiermontina)  or Ostuni (La Sommita).  It’s easier to stay longer in Lecce, which has more to offer as a small city  The coastal towns not to miss are Polignano, Monopoli, and Otranto.  Go further down the southern coast (south of Otranto).  Even if you’re not bicycling, get out to smell the air and feel the wind.

Eat the seafood.  It’s exceedingly fresh and caught right there daily. Make sure to balance it with enough pizza and pasta.  It is Italy.

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