IC Special Edition: Why You Should Do the Backroads Puglia Trip

You see the types of trips Backroads provides, which range from scaling the misty cliffs of Bhutan to even-paced cycle rides through the flower fields of Holland. In addition to the incredible locations it services, Backroads seeks to provide the ideal touring experience. Note the distinction between “touring” and “tourist”. There is nothing “touristy” about these trips, as you really get to explore the parts that most other travelers would never see on their own. The trip leaders are virtually all renaissance men/women who can work on bikes, speak the local languages, cook, and give history lessons – to name just a few things – and are probably the best part of the whole experience.

On June 2nd, 2013, I had no idea what to expect of my very first Backroads trip in the region of Puglia, Italy, other than what my mother had told me. She has been on three prior to this one (as well as one with another company) and raved about them. So, when I graduated with my Master’s degree, I knew that that was what I wanted to do. My favorite things in the world are traveling and exercising, so this fit the bill perfectly. So, what are my honest thoughts about Backroads?

The overall experience was the trip of a lifetime. I truly felt like I was immersed into the culture of the beautiful Puglia region and felt accustomed to the warmth of the people, the tranquil beauty of the masserie, and freshness of the cuisine. There were times during my trip where I wanted to say: “Is this real life?” Every day was an adventure. Moreover, Backroads made it possible by not only facilitating these adventures, but providing context, education, and 24-hour support to go along with it.

Without our outstanding leaders, however, this trip wouldn’t have been half as amazing – which says a lot, because this trip was spectacular. Caterina, Stasa, and Jane were not only strong riders, postive, and insanely smart people – they were also so, so, so much fun and so helpful. Each of them made a point to connect with everyone and give their all when people needed help. From the shuttles up the major hills to waiting at the hospital when someone got hurt, they went above and beyond the call of duty and made us, the guests, their priority. I would not have wanted anyone else on these trips with us. I understand that the Backroads hiring process is intense, and for good reason – you’re not going to find many Caterinas, Stasas, or Janes in this world.

The local guides were a treat as well. The hilarious and effervescent Mimmo, who overflowed with knowledge of Puglia and its many fine wines, was probably the trip favorite, but everyone we met was kind and enthusiastic about sharing in Pugliese culture. In fact, I’d venture to say that the people of Puglia are the nicest people I’ve ever met in my life. And the hotel staff? Wow, can you say “on it”? Needless to say, Backroads picks lodging well…very well.

Don’t even get me started on the hotels! Il Melograno, Masseria San Martino, and our personal favorite, Masseria San Domenico, were magnificent accommodations and a wonderful setting for the Puglia region. While the internet situations at the first two were frustrating at times, we honestly have no other complaints. A little pain will always accompany beauty.

The ethereal bliss provided by the food cannot properly be put into word. Take note – Backroads feeds you well. Breakfast is always provided, and you only need to pay for one lunch and one dinner on your whole trip. The only item not usually included is wine, but even that is provided occasionally – it is Italy, after all. The food is always fresh, local, and characteristic of the region.

Oh wait, don’t let me forget the biking! We were generously provided with bikes, cyclometers, and helmets. Our bikes were aerospace titanium and equipped with a front pack for easy storage of our cameras, jackets, tissues, snacks, and more. We even have a clear front pocket for our directions. Despite navigating a rather uncharted area of the country, the directions were pretty darn good. It would have been nice to have a GPS system, as the Puglia region is easy to get lost in. However, that was obviously not totally necessary, as we all made it back unharmed and tuckered out from the great rides. While the rides were always challenging, I firmly believe that anyone in moderately good shape would be just fine. Besides, there were so many opportunities to shuttle through the most difficult parts, it was never a problem! I’d rate the difficulty of this trip from an athletic perspective as about a 3/5.

Safety is a priority for Backroads, and we received extensive guidance on remaining safe during our trip. Like I mentioned before, all 3 guides did an excellent job with this. I send my best wishes and love to the one person who received a minor injury on this trip. However, I know that she was in good care by her husband and family and received top-notch attention and assistance from Backroads. All this being said: if you are interested in an active travel trip, please do not let the possibility of injury deter you. This is a risk run with any physical activity, and you are missing out on an amazing experience if you don’t go because of that.

Finally, a word about the group we went with: should you happen to stumble upon this review, please know that it was such a pleasure to meet all of you. I understand that many of you are following my blog (Infinite Corners, infinitecorners.com) and have friends and family doing so as well. This is such an honor to me. You all helped make the trip, so saying goodbye to you all was understandably rough. I’m glad I was wearing sunglasses when I left; full disclosure here: I was crying.
Until my next Backroads journey – shall we say, Thailand?

ITALIA Day 3: The Borghe-see and Holy Sight-See

Good day, i miei amici! First, a few administrative announcements. As I have fixed the computer situation, I am able to go back to inserting a few of my favorite photos from the day directly into my posts. In addition, I will have a full score of photos up on Flickr when I get the chance. Admittedly, my motivation to do much in the way of blogging while on vacation is difficult to maintain…so hopefully I’ve not disappointed you thus far 🙂

Today brought two of Rome’s most important, historical sites: the Borghese Gallery and the Vatican. My brief descriptions, along with some selected photos from my phone, will follow:

Borghese Gallery – No amount of stress I had this morning (following a 30 minute ordeal to find a cornetto e cappuccino and an unexpected medical emergency) remained after seeing the splendor and beauty found within the Borghese Gallery, as well as the Borghese Villa itself. This vast, green garden houses an intimate but opulent museum with a decorative scheme that is just as impressive as the Classical and Baroque masterpieces it houses. Although we were not allowed to take photos within the Gallery itself, I was able to get a few of the Villa, which is just fine: the Villa is breathtaking. Reservations to the Gallery are MANDATORY and your visit is strictly limited to two hours. We booked about 3 weeks in advance, though I think you’re fine with one unless there’s a holiday coming up.

The first floor, which contains mostly sculpture, is the most interesting, although the Pinacoteca on the second floor contains some notable paintings (such as the famous Amor Sacro e Amor Profano) as well. I highly, highly recommend the audio tour as a supplement to your visit if you’re at all interested in the history of the museum or, in particular, the sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini.

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The Vatican – My first reaction upon seeing the line to the Vatican:

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Needless to say, we found a tour guide.

Of course, it was about 55 €/person and we did it with about 20 other people, but at least we skipped the main line. It was still extremely crowded in the museums (yes, the Musei Vaticani is composed of multiple mini-museums, rather than one big one) and the Sistine Chapel, while less so in St. Peter’s Basilica. I have a few pictures (below) of the museum’s pre-Sistine portion, but I’m honestly glad we weren’t allowed to photograph it. Truly, photos do not do it justice. No photograph can capture the visual inundation of figures, color, and beauty that is Michelangelo’s magnum opus. Our tour guide, Angelo, was especially knowledgeable of the life of Michelangelo and regaled us excerpts from his diary after completion of the Sistina. These insights into the mind of such a genius, in effect, helped make the tour.

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The Basilica is also a wonder, and probably the most grandiose thing I’ve ever seen in mah lyfe. Indeed, it is the biggest church in the world, and, to no one’s surprise, has effectively been under construction for 500 years. The most beautiful and impressive part, in my opinion, is the High Altar, seen below:

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While some people think the main event here is the statue of St. Peter, I find the above wayyyy sicker. Not that I don’t love mushy feet.

We had lunch after the Vatican at a nondescript trattoria (do not eat near the Vatican…that is all). However, our dinner was delicious and sooo much fun. My review of our restaurant is below.

REVIEW – Antica Enoteca

ambiance – dark, cavey, with an almost medieval quality, but at the same time upscale. Focal point is the bar, for sure. Kinda crowded, but not uncomfortably so. Mostly locals. (5/5)

food – sorry to be boring, but everything was delicious! My eggplant parmesan was to die for, as was the vegetarian pizza my mom ordered. Bruschette, which we’ve ordered at every restaurant thus far, was fairly standard…which means it was freaking delicious. My mom’s salad looked slightly boring, but I’m sure it tasted fresh and good regardless. (4.75/5)

service – Pretty dang good! Our waiter was prompt and a very nice guy. And he (rightfully) complimented mia bella mamma! 🙂 (4/5)

cost – Probably nice for drinks or a casual dinner. ($$/$$$$)

That’s it for tonight, folks! Tomorrow we depart for Bari, the boot-heel port town of our Adventure Part Deux, and tonight I will convince my mom to let me go to the Jewish Ghetto tomorrow…or at least the Missoni down the Spanish Steps.

Okay, fine. Zara it is. 😉

Thought of the day: Don’t be afraid to have a sense of humor. That’s the key to life.

– H