Biking-all

 

We wanted to visit and bike in southern Italy for a long time. We were lucky and found the Italian company Siciclando which arranged a private guided trip for the two of us in the region of Puglia (or Apulia) in the south-east corner of the Italian boot. We continued through the adjacent region of Basilicata just touring, no biking. Dario of Siciclando (one of the owners) tailored our trip to our wishes and was incredibly accommodating.

 

We were picked up by our guide Paolo in Bari where we had spent a day sight-seeing.

 

We stayed in Bari in the old city in this charming B&B La Muraglia on the right. From the balcony on this side we looked down on this little square and an old church. From the balcony on the opposite side we looked out over the Adriatic Sea.

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Our guide Paolo was so much fun that it is hard to describe. He is a professional musician (trumpet) and only guides occasionally. Most of the time he either plays with an Italian theater company both in Italy and all over the world or performs on cruise ships. One of the theater company’s  favorite performances (in which Paolo has played the trumpet close to 1000 times!) is Goldoni’s (written in 1745) “Arlecchino servitore di due padroni” (Harlequin Servant of two Masters).

 

He followed us with the van and was delighted the few times we took the wrong turn because he could help us. Being with him made our experience in southern Italy unique.

 

 

From Bari we drove to Alberobello; on the way we visited the spectacular limestone caves of Grotte di Castellana.

 

On the right is a view of Alberobello at dusk with its World Heritage trulli houses. We stayed in one.

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Alberobello-loop

 

When we were getting ready to start our first ride, Italian tourists just couldn’t get enough of us and took pictures of us and of them. We were flattered at this friendly reception.

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Leaving Alberobello we biked by many trulli houses in the countryside. It was May and the poppies were in full bloom.

 

 

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A local red wine in Puglia comes from a variety called “Primitivo.” It’s a wonderful, rich wine and we drank a lot of it. Only recently, DNA analysis showed that Primitivo was actually Zinfandel.

 

Be that as it may, Primitivo tastes better than Zin. Or is it where you drink it, or with whom and what food?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

These olive trees are up to a thousand years old!

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When we stopped in the Fasano town square we were immediately welcomed and questioned by the locals. These guys insisted we take their picture (with us).

 

A sexy policewoman came by and chatted. She told us she wanted to go to California to practice her English.

 

Then she turned to these guys and chewed them out because they just sat there, they weren’t active like we were. (Paolo translated)

 

Our 33 mi bike loop ended at a restaurant in the town square called “miseria e nobilta.” That is the title of a famous 1954 Italian movie meaning “misery and nobility.” We thought it was appropriate as the ride had one climb 8-miles long with a 1200’ elevation gain followed later by a much steeper 250’ elevation gain in a little over a mile (note the GPS height profile above)…

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Our next bike ride started in Savelletri on the Adriatic and took us to Ostuni.

 

We rode through magnificent ancient protected olive groves with many poppies in bloom.

 

We loved the way our Siciclando Alberobello bike jerseys matched the poppies.

 

Some of the olive trees are very old (please, no jokes about Juergen’s age).

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Our bike ride that day ended in Ostuni which is also fittingly called “La Citta Bianca” or the white city.

 

The walls of Ostuni.

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We stayed the Albergo La Terra in the old town. The car (photo at left) couldn’t go there.

First, we had to walk through the narrow arch way (in the left picture) that led to the small street where the hotel was located (end of the road in right photo). Happiness for us is staying in such locations because the streets are empty of tourists after dinner time.

 

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When we checked into the hotel in the early afternoon they asked if we wanted to have their fixed lunch and we agreed. They started with one dish which we thought was the entire meal. But more and more dishes kept coming and even though we ate only a fraction we waddled away so stuffed that we hardly could move. The food was incredibly tasty.

 

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The magnificent Gothic cathedral Santa Maria Assunta in Ostuni.

 

Sidewalk café in Ostuni.

 

The wonderful towns in this area of Italy have few tourists.

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Checking email on one of the balconies of our hotel. The hotel was near the top of the hill.

 

From Ostuni we drove to Lecce, which is nicknamed the “Florence of the south” because of the rich Baroque architectural monuments.

 

Every city we stayed in during the tour was completely different from the others.

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Lecce has a famous baroque cathedral. On the left is one of the entrances.

 

On the right is the Basilica di Santa Croce (1353-1549).

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Inside the basilica.

 

There is even a Roman theater in the middle of the town.

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From Lecce we did a nice loop ride through old olive groves.

 

We continued riding the next day to Otranto.

 

While we were biking, Paolo went ahead and set up a picnic lunch in this fairy tale like woods.

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Most everything was set up when we arrived….

 

This collapsible picnic table was a marvel of engineering and style. The Italians do this so well.

 

…and Paolo had prepared the most colorful and tasty lunch.

 

During biking breaks, he offered the usual biking treats: energy bars, nuts, and so forth. But we stuck to the fruit he offered. Each piece of fruit was absolutely perfect and so good.

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The colors and shapes in this salad are just beautiful.

 

We believe Italy has the world’s best salads.

 

We biked through the small village of Acaya. It is a rare example of a fortified village in Puglia.  On the right is a castle built in the 1530s.

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Left and below is one of the entrance gates.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unfortunately the castle was closed.

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We biked to Otranto which has a long and rich history. The castle on the left is an impressive medieval structure that is right above the Adriatic Sea.

 

When we biked up to the hotel we stayed in, we looked for its street address - which was “Ottocento Martiri” (800 martyrs).

 

One week prior to our arrival while we were traveling in Albania (12 May 2013) we heard the news that Pope Francis had canonized 800 new saints.

 

Without knowing any background we thought that this was a bit much but didn’t think about it more. However, when we looked at the street name where our hotel was located we realized it referred to the 800 martyrs from Otranto! Quite a coincidence!

 

The 800 were beheaded by the Ottoman Mehmet the Conqueror in 1480 because they refused to convert to Islam.

 

The cathedral on the right was consecrated in 1088 and is famous for its impressive appearance, the mosaics inside, and, of course, what’s left of the 800 martyrs.

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The entire nave is famously covered with mosaics dating from 1166. They present a vision of heaven and hell in a bizarre syncretism of the classics, religion and plain superstition.

 

Skulls and bones of all of the 800 martyrs are displayed in huge cases surrounding the altar. A strange sight. (Those whiter dots in the cases are skulls)

 

The “chopping block” is in the altar and can be seen from the back of the altar through a glass window.

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Our final bike ride was a loop ride from Otranto to Castro.

 

In Castro we paused for an 8-mile boat ride in the Adriatic. It was fitting to take a boat ride with Paolo as he was a life guard in his younger days. His nickname at that time was “s

Squalo Adriatico” (shark of the Adriatic).

 

This was the most southerly point of our tour in Puglia.

 

 

 

According to legend it was here that Aeneas first landed in Italy.

 

That brings up something else about Paolo. Juergen had so much fun reciting in the original language and discussing quotes from Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Virgil’s Aneid,  Dante’s La Comedia Divina just to name a few with Paolo. It turns out that Paolo had a similar “unusual” classical high school education that Juergen had: many years of Latin and ancient Greek. Paolo had many quotes memorized and they challenged each other to remember more! Paolo was very knowledgeable and it added to the already unique interaction we had with him. We hope we can get together with him again.

 

On the right is one of the incredibly blue grottos one can explore by boat.

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Paolo passed the time waiting for us by practicing his trumpet and it was fun to hear as we approached.

 

On the left is a final serenade (click to listen to the music) with the Adriatic in the background.

 

Actually, he was playing besides another tune a very, very jazzed up “Happy Birthday” that he plays on cruise ships!

 

The Italian province of Basilicata lies west of Puglia.

 

Siciclando also offers bike tours in Basilicata, but as it is very mountainous we had to pass on the “advanced level” biking.

 

We wanted to see Basilicata, which is even less-touristy than Puglia, so Dario designed a non-biking add-on which ended in Maratea on the Tyrrhenian Sea. From there we took a train to Rome and then flew home.

 

Both Puglia and Basilicata are incredibly beautiful and interesting and it is hard to understand why even Italians only visit in small numbers. We started in Otranto.

Basilicata-track

 

 

Our first destination in Basilicata was the town of Matera.

 

It’s famous for the Sassi di Matera (stones of Matera) which are troglodyte houses dug into the rock (see photo below).

 

Many of the houses are only little caves. Some streets are located on roof tops of the caverns.

 

Matera’s cave dwellings are the best in the Mediterranean and it is one of the oldest inhabited human settlements in the world!

 

 

 

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These caves were ”livable” before the population increased too much in the 20thC. Well designed canals regulated flow of water and sewage.

 

By the 1950s this area was extremely poor and had an infant mortality rate of 50%. People begged for quinine to combat malaria.

 

In the late 1950s about 15,000 inhabitants of these sassi were forcibly relocated to new government housing.

 

In 1993 Matera’s Sassi were declared a UNESCO world heritage site.

 

Our little hotel consisted of about a dozen old 1-room “house-caves” connected by walkways and stairs. It was located in the middle of the old town.

 

On the right is is a view from our balcony at dusk.

 

Ninety percent of our room was a cave, with a modern 2’ outside the rock. It was all whitewashed and modern inside. We had a tiny “balcony” that was big enough for us to sit and have this view while we were enjoying some local wine!

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Our second destination was the “Dolomites of Basilicata.” The area does indeed have a similarity to the Dolomites. We stayed in Castelmezzano on the left, a charming hillside town.

 

There is a adventurous zip-line ride between two towns, each near the top of a mountain. The middle of the span is far above the canyon below. Unfortunately it wasn’t operating or we would have taken it!

 

Paolo let us out of the car at one of the towns and we did walk down one mountain, under the zip line, and up the other to Castelmezzano, where we were spending the night.

 

Further along the road is the abandoned medieval village of Craco.

 

During the mid-20th century, earthquakes and landslides damaged the village and made it uninhabitable.

 

The entire population of 1800 residents was moved in 1963. It’s been a ghost town ever since.

 

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Because of its unique setting and appearance, it became the setting of many movies including Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of Christ.” Craco is the town that can be seen in the scene of hanging Judas.

 

Visiting Craco is an uncertain undertaking. It was entirely closed until recently and one has to make arrangements with the caretaker. We did so but it took a while before he showed up. Four other tourists joined us.

 

Craco is fenced in and entrance gates are locked. We had to wear hard hats and sign all sorts of waivers.

 

There are plans to make Craco a future tourist destination, but they have to stabilize the buildings first.

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This is a view from Inside Craco.

 

On the way to Maratea, we passed by the charming town of Sant’Arcangelo.

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Paolo used a portable, inexpensive GPS in the van. It was quite unreliable and on numerous occasions left Paolo completely frustrated. When that happened he always said “maledetto GPSse” (darn GPS). We added this word to our Italian vocabulary and called everything undesirable “maledetto.” Conversely, everything we liked was “benedetto.” Maledetto MUST be pronounced in a very Italian way with LOTS of emphasis in order to appreciate this story. Pronounce it sort-of like MAL’ e DET’ to.

 

The following is an attempt to describe the most fun experience of our trip.

 

Yvonne doesn’t drink much beer or soft drinks, but once in a while she gets tired of water, and her favorite drink is a certain lemon soda. On this day, she was very thirsty and asked for one while we were sightseeing.

 

We took off and were nearly outside the city with Paolo and Juergen chatting happily when she had a mini-tantrum because they had forgotten her drink.

 

She complained loudly that the “maledetti” men with her didn’t listen to her. Paolo wanted to rectify this situation and stopped at the first “bar” he saw. They didn’t have the normal lemon drink but they had Schweppes Lemon so we bought it.

 

Then Paolo said he never gambles but he was going to buy a lotto ticket for a few Euro.

 

The ticket consisted of many places to rub off stuff to see if things matched. He rubbed off the first set (at top) and then rubbed off the first number below it, and it matched (the 27, where he won €10). He whooped and hollered and said it was a first time he had won! Then he rubbed off another (the 43, where he won another €10) and it matched again. We were laughing so hard we started collecting an audience. He built-in lengthy pauses before each new scratch off. At the bottom he even got another €20 for the glasses match!

 

This continued and he bought additional tickets; scratch off by scratch off, until he had won about € 150.00.

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The photo shows the counter littered with the Euros he had won!

 

 

Back in the car, he said my lemonade was a “benedetto” lemonade!

 

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Maratea is a charming place. It’s known for its many churches we unfortunately couldn’t visit because the time was too short.

 

Close to Maratea is a mountain with a stunning view of the turquoise seas of the Tyrrhenian coast.

 

Many beaches feature black, volcanic sand.

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On top of the mountain is enormous 70’ Carrrara marble statue of Christ the Redeemer dating from 1965.

 

We found the face very different and nice.

 

Finally, we liked the iconography on this Italian beer bottle warning pregnant women not to drink.

 

Benedetto advice to avoid maledetti consequences.

 

 

 

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From Maratea, we took the train to Rome for a 2-day stay. That was plenty. There were so many tourists all the streets were like fast-flowing rivers. The little square around the Trevi fountain was so filled with tourists so we could hardly walk through. Yuk.

 

We love Rome and know it fairly well. We’ve spent a week several times in Rome, always in winter, when the tourists are few. This May experience was a shock.

 

A nice thing about Rome was that we could meet Dario. We had pizza with Dario and Lezlie, his US rep (800-881-0484).

 

 

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