Way down the heel of Italy’s boot, sunset tints the clouds purple over the dark Adriatic Sea. Six weary cyclists and two cheery guides pause before a towering Roman column, marble as streaked as the evening sky.
Brindisi’s old harbour, at the end of the ancient Via Appia, the Appian Way, is where we end five days of rolling through vineyards, red-earth olive groves cut by white dry-limestone walls, along history-haunted coasts, towards evening respite at tables on piazza flagstones.
Rewind to the start. We are in the Italian province of Puglia to partake of a wine and cycling tour offered by Puglia Cycle Tours.
Puglia stretches 400km between the Adriatic and Ionian Seas at the Mediterranean’s centre; we are to follow in the footsteps of Mycenaean Greeks, Romans, Saracen Turks, Neapolitans and Sicilians, Bourbons, Aragonese and Venetians, to name a few.
We start from Putignano, all whitewash, glistening cobblestones and wandering crooked lanes under the watchful eyes of Cristina and Mimmo, our guides for the days ahead.
The ups are initially gentle enough, as we crawl through rolling hills, a verdant landscape of country lanes and ravines. Masseria – old-style fortified farmhouses typically attached to vineyards, nowadays often converted to agriturismo – are a feature of these parts. Soon it’s time for our first winery, where Giovanni Aiello pours us his sulphate-free Chakra Rosso, an excellent bespoke Primitivo.
As we sip and snack on archetypal Pugliese finger food – delicate bruschetta, fava beans, sharp olives and cheeses – Aiello, a bear of a man, fills us in on a childhood spent on this land and returning to establish his cellar. He calls himself a “winemaker for love.”
It’s a taste of what’s to come. Several wineries and one night later, we plunge into the Valle d’Itria, taking an easy descent to the heartland of a particular Pugliese icon. The trulli are pyramid-like dwellings with piled conical drystone roofs, often adorned with Christian symbols. There are various explanations for the unusual design, my favourite being it allowed for quick dismantling to foil tax inspectors.
Trulli abound all day, through lunch at Trulli Il Castagno where, underneath the chestnuts and conical roofs, fine Verdeca white wines accompany homemade orecchiette (little ears) pasta and cime di rapa, the broccoli-like greens that are – alongside fave e cicorie, pureed fava beans with chicory – my favourite Pugliese dishes. And into the night, after a steep climb out, within converted trulli at a hotel complex once a nunnery. My thighs are screaming.
Gladly, the next day is altogether gentler, as we descend towards Salento’s coastal plains.
History is writ large along this stretch, as we drop into the Renaissance in Locorotondo. As the name, from the Latin Locus Rotundus, suggests, this is a perfectly round town and very picturesque.
The history of the Pugliese agricultural tradition is next, at the 10-hectare Pomona botanical conservatory, named for the Roman goddess of gardens and orchards, where ancient varieties of fruit trees are conserved, including 600 varieties of fig.
On to the Romans, as we ride the route of the Ciclovia dell'Acquedotto Pugliese, an ancient Roman aqueduct, which once ran for 500km. A preserved 20km section is now an actual cycle trail, a change from the lanes we have navigated so far. It’s an easy elevated ride, as trulli and donkeys pass by photogenically below.
Our penultimate day is a sharp contrast to the rolling valleys we have adjusted to. Salento, Puglia’s most southern region, is altogether flatter and more severe. Once land of the Bronze-Age Messapians (Messapia, the land between the seas), said to hail from Illyria, across the Adriatic in present-day Albania, it lies between the calm Ionian Sea, the inner heel, and the far lumpier Adriatic, where we shall finish. The coast teems here in summer, but today the deserted littoral makes for fine and exhilarating riding.
Onwards to the elegance of Torre Colimena, a fine buttressed 16th Century tower on a rocky cove. One of many such along these coasts, it was built to guard against marauding Saracens.
Under a clear, warm sky, we turn inland through the regimented red-earth fields of vines, alongside drystone walls.
But there’s a sting in the tail. At Cantine Cantele, a fine boutique winery nestled in a converted factory, we are not only expected to consume more orecchiette, we must first make it. We are in the hands of Chef Mino, a dead ringer for George Clooney, and Mama Lisetta. Brows furrowed, we work the long strings of dough in silence. Lisetta, with a deft turn of thumb and knife, makes it look easy, but I am just thumbs. It’ll taste the same, I rationalise; Lisetta strongly disagrees.
Our final night takes us off the trail, into Lecce, a Roman and Baroque gem, and the ‘Florence of the South.’ Early in the morning we push on to the resplendent Romanesque Abbazia of Santa Maria di Cerrate where olive oil is the ancient tradition. But today our target is the Adriatic coast, far more formidable than the Ionian we have only just left, clear on the other side of narrow Puglia.
While it’s early days for Puglia’s cycling journey, I can attest it can dream big dreams, to bring more wheels to the heel.
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