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 10: Egnazia and Monopoli (I know, creativity abounds in this title)

Buon giorno, ragazzi! Today is a big day for IC. While this entry details our Day 10, we have a special edition entry coming shortly thereafter! And yes, as promised…it’s SAPPY! Sappy, happy, and thought-provoking. Most of all, I hope you’ll get something out of it.

We began the day with a 9-mile ride to and from the nearby Egnazia ruins. I have here a few pictures from Egnazia. It was pretty cool to see, and the ride over was BEAUTIFUL. Just take a look at that glittering sea!!:

The ruins date back to the Bronze age - as far back as 16th century BC. However, much of what is left dates back to the Roman era (2nd century BC).
The ruins date back to the Bronze age – as far back as 16th century BC. However, much of what is left dates back to the Roman era (starting around 2nd century BC).
The "Oriental Cults" buildings contained altars dedicated to priestesses and goddesses. And they even had a fish tank. Cool!
The “Oriental Cults” buildings contained altars dedicated to priestesses and goddesses. And they even had a fish tank. Cool!

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Here remains the floor of a porticoed square. Imagine an ancient Roman market happening up in this biz!
Here remains the floor of a porticoed square. Imagine an ancient Roman market happening up in this biz!
Ahhhh the ocean!
Ahhhh the ocean!
Fields at Egnazia
Fields at Egnazia
What remains of an old basilica
What remains of an old basilica

We broke up the day with facials (ah, girl stuff) and some poolside relaxation. Of course, “poolside relaxation” for me is more like slathering on SPF 100+ and sitting under an umbrella, but it’s still nice (have I mentioned that I’m a vampire?).

Dang it, water...stop looking so pretty and be warmer!
Dang it, water…stop looking so pretty and be warmer!

We then headed into the town of Monopoli again for a thoroughly amusing journey. My friends, I cannot emphasize enough that Italians eat late. When we got into town at around 6:00 pm, we were told by every single restaurant (and we looked at about 12) that they were not open until 8:00 pm and stared at us like we were pazze (crazy). It wasn’t long after venturing through town that we became local celebrities for our earlybird antics. By about an hour in, I had asked 6 people where the nearest ATM was (in Italian) and had earned the nickname “Bancomat!” by an elderly Italian gentleman sitting near the jewelry store. I also think we got to know every street in Monopoli by heart, because we straight up scoured the place. On the bright side, we were able to pass by a neighboring apartment and hear beautiful piano music! We even clapped after he finished his étude; he probably thought we were weird, which we totally are so it’s fine. But seriously, how “Italy” is walking up and hearing someone play piano in the open air?!??! 🙂

We finally found a place RIGHT where we had originally been dropped off. Not only were we let in 30 minutes early, but we received EXCELLENT service and wonderful food that we enjoyed every bite of. Should you find yourself in Monopoli, this is THE place to be. Check it below:

REVIEW – Locanda Indelli

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ambiance – Yes, were the first people in here at 7:30, followed by an older British couple at 8:00. Nobody else entered the restaurant until we were leaving at 9:00 for our taxi. That being said, it was quiet. As you can see above, it was also very upscale, and it almost felt like we were dining inside a beautiful museum. We were big fans of the candle holders covered in brown paper, too. (5/5)

service – Honestly, exquisite. We were let in early, treated like princesses, and comped a few items without even asking. Our waiter was a super nice dude who loved the U.S. and spoke very good English. His name is Andrea – I insist that you ask for him if you come here. (5+/5)

food – Like Ai 2 Ghiottoni of Bari, this place is known for its fresh fish, brought in daily from the ocean we were right next door to. We enjoyed sea bass and mussels, both of which were the best fish we’ve had in Italy, sadly knocking our beloved Homie G to numero due. Dispiace! We also had lightly fried vegetables, pettole (fried dough balls), salad, and fava bean puree (a Pugliese delicacy). And hey, what would all this be without a glass of primitivo? All was quite exquisite and we had no complaints whatsoever. (5/5)

cost – Ehhh, not cheap…but definitely worth it. Once again, we enjoyed quite the spread for a VERY reasonable price. ($$$/$$$$)

We ended our day with gelato out on the patio of our hotel room. I wish the below picture captured how cool our little patio is. The stars were out, the smell of jasmine lingered over us, and we were the only people outside.

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I’m not going to lie…it’s weird to be here without our Backroads group. I miss them all terribly. Oh man, I need to get my tissues out for today’s next entry…

Thought of the day: Good things do not necessarily come to an end. Sometimes they do for a while and just get reincarnated.

ITALIA Day 8: Say “Formaggio”!

Ahhh, again, it saddens me to be departing the beautiful Masseria San Martino so swiftly! Nonetheless, we had another fun ride today, with gentle rolling hills, more trulli, and gorgeous little neighborhoods.

Because the day’s ride looked like a combination between Days 2 & 3, I’d have to say that the main event today was our lunch at Truddhi, a trulli-resort near Locorotondo. We got to watch Pasquale, an expert cheese-maker, make mozzarella cheese! Check this out:

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Pasquale explaining the process to us
Pasquale explaining the process to us

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Whooaaaaaaa!
Whooaaaaaaa!
Making an elephant out of cheese
Making an elephant out of cheese
End result. Eaten within 10 minutes.
End result. Eaten within 10 minutes.

Of course, then there was the actual food itself (including the mozzarella we saw before our eyes). I’m going to be boring again and say that it was AMAZING, AMAZING, AMAZING. The highlight? Orecchiete (ear-shaped) pasta with a decadent red sauce. Darn it, I should have taken a picture!

Oh, I also have a new best friend: Eddie! I think he’s the son of the people who own the place, and I know he’s the nephew of one of the gals who prepared our lunch. We climbed trees and played with Jeeps.:

"There's a snake up there!"
“There’s a snake up there!”
"I'm wearing my boots today!"
“I’m wearing my boots today!”

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Towards the end of the ride, we found ourselves RIGHT next to the coast!

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I’m sure I’ll have more pictures tomorrow, but it felt so good to feel the ocean air! We are near Torre Canne, a TINY town about 50 km from the port of Brindisi. Apparently there’s amazing gelato here. Update: finally tried gelato here, in the town of Monopoli (mentioned below). I think it has crack in it, because everyone on the trip either went for 2 or wanted 2. I could have had 8…though, I’m that way with food in general.

We arrived at our next hotel, Masseria San Domenico, at around 3:15 pm. Ummmm, is this just going to keep getting better and better?!? Mind you, these are just PART of the grounds:

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At 7:00, we headed out via shuttle for the town of Monopoli. It was bigger than I expected, and a little more touristy, too. But still, cute!

Our gorgeous guide, Stasa!
Our gorgeous guide, Stasa, on the shuttle to Monopoli!

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Since we were let go to have dinner on our own tonight, allow me to review our next restaurant!

REVIEW – Il Punto Cardinale, Monopoli (BR)

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ambiance – “Dinner on your own” is kind of a loose term, as I think about 2/3 of our group ended up coming here. It’s a tucked-away place and not terribly large, with a dark, trendy, yet casual decor. The coolest thing about the restaurant are the bathroom sinks, made of glass mosaic. (3.5/5)

service – If you’re looking for good English, our waitress spoke it perfectly, as did most of the other people in the restaurant. I was not too impressed with the slight impatience and curtness of our waitress, but I’m guessing she just has a different personality. (3.5/5)

food – We were brought an absolutely scrumptious appetizer of what appeared to be lightly fried pizza dough. After that, most of us ordered pizza and I order grilled vegetables and the salad bar. Other than the dough-things, the food was really not all that spectacular. But I won’t be too harsh; we ordered simply. (3.5/5 – gotta give the dough-things their due credit).

cost – Food in Puglia is remarkably cheap compared to that of Rome. If you order just a pizza, or just the salad bar, with maybe a side of grilled vegetables (as I did), you’re looking at a 10€ with coperto; not bad! ($-$$/$$$$)

Tomorrow brings another hill of epic proportions. Sleep and colazione will be my friend.

Thought of the day: The earlier you bring up a problem, the less of a problem it becomes. Is there a graph that shows this relationship?