Explore Tour Leader Dee Brown tells us about the first departure of our new 'Puglia on Two Wheels' tour:
"I recently returned from Puglia, where I had been leading the first of Explore’s new cycle tours around the 'heel’ of Italy, deep in the South East. It’s an easy grade cycling tour with an undertone of sampling the unique and excellent local food and wine, which differs surprisingly in each of the places we stayed. For those of you who think Italy is just laden with pasta and pizza, you would be mistaken; it is so much more than that.
The tour starts in Altamura, where incidentally the world’s oldest man was discovered – preceding the classic Neanderthal. Ancient city walls surround the town and the narrow streets within hide some of the most authentic Italian cuisine, yearning to be sampled.
We started sampling the food here at a quaint little restaurant tucked away in a tiny street of the ancient city where all the produce of the restaurant is grown by the owner. Dishes included Cardi Spinosi, Cicerchia E Fughi Cardon Cell, Zuppa Di Farro Perlato Con Patate E Cardoncelli, Sfortlato Di Zucca, Ricotina Fresca Con Confet. The dishes kept coming and the wine kept flowing! To end the evening we had a very special dessert, Cassate D Ricotta...heaven in a bowl. This dessert dates back to the time of Frederick II (who had the imposing Romanesque Cathedral built in 1232), and if it was good enough for him...
Walking back to the hotel after this first group dinner, a member of the group ranked the meal in their top ten favourite meals ever. Great I thought, no pressure for the follow up meals then!
I need not have worried as the following night was very different and still very special; a delight that tantalized the taste buds and set in what was previously a 15th century church.
Our first day of cycling took us out of Altamura to Castel del Monte in Alta Murgia national park. We rode along very quiet, gently winding roads past ancient stone walls that line the hills. There are hardly any cars. The views are vast and we can see for miles. This area produces fine wines of the 'uva di Troia’ (Troy) grape which we got to try later on. On arrival at the castle we had a guided tour. Built in 1240AD, the fortress is an octagonal prism with octagonal towers at each corner. It is truly unique, a World Heritage Site and was used as the main location for the film ‘Name of the Rose’.
The next day we cycled south to Matera, enjoying spectacular panoramas of endless fields and cornflower blue skies along the way. Matera originates from a prehistoric settlement perched over a deep ravine and is considered one of the oldest cities in the world. Mel Gibson shot the Passion of Christ here. The historic centre is called the sassi and it has been a World Heritage Site since 1993. Sassi are ancient houses dug into the calcareous rock itself. We spent the night in a sassi hotel; the rooms have great atmosphere and there are original stone carvings inside. Christian Rupestrian churches, carved from the soft volcanic rock of the region, dot the skyline all over the sassi. As we sipped a glass of the local wine in the early evening we watched a cast of small falcons feasting on grasshoppers, treating us to a great show while the sun set. The sassi slowly lit up and it looked like small candles flickering in the warm night air.
After a free morning in Matera to wander the sassi, we headed off to Alberobello. We cycled along very small lanes past olive groves and fields of grain. As we got nearer to Alberobello, we started to encounter the trulli - little stone houses with cone-shaped stone roofs that scatter the countryside. It looks like Lilliput as you cycle past the tiny doors and windows of these strange houses. You can just imagine Gulliver walking among the trulli; it is overwhelmingly picturesque.
We continued our cycling tour passing through Locorotondo and Cisterino ending up in Monopoly on the beautiful Adriatic coastline. We got to try fresh local breads, wonderful cheeses and more wine along the way.
These are just snippets of my observations of 'Puglia on Two Wheels' - it is truly a gem. The scenery is unsurpassed, the food is a wonderful surprise, the coffee and wine are very enjoyable and I was joined by 15 fellow Explorians; it was a wonderful experience."
By Dee Brown