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 6: Olive Trees and Ocean Air

Why, yes, I did just take yesterday’s post title and transfer it to this one. Casual.

But hey, I think it describes today PERFECTLY, even moreso than yesterday, as you’ll see below.

How can I even describe today? Seriously, it’s getting to the point where words don’t even do it justice. After a beautifully presented and delicious breakfast, we had our “route rap” (a brief discussion of our biking day to come) down in the lobby and set course. We once again found ourselves amidst the lush farmlands and rolling hills of Puglia.

…Of course, what would “rolling hills” be with a big, enormous one at the very beginning (3 km to be exact??!) This would be the perfect time for a picture of the beast, but I was too busy defeating it. EXCELSIOR!

At noon, we found ourselves in Polignano di Mare, a beautiful seaside town, for a brief lunch at a small restaurant (I’ll get back to you with the name, but do go here if you visit Puglia!). LOOK AT THE COLOR OF THIS WATER!!!!!!!

What color is this? Cerulean? Cobalt? AWESOME?!
What color is this? Cerulean? Cobalt? AWESOME?!

As you can see from the remaining photos, the rest of the day was none too bad, either – even when it started to rain!

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After stopping to pick and eat cherry trees on the side of the road
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Center of Polignano di Mare

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We rode about 33 miles today. WOOHOO!!! By the grace of god, the last 5 km were downhill, almost like a gift saying “Your thighs have earned this. Now let’s go back and eat some pasta.”

At 7:00 (sorry – 19:00), we rejoined for a wine tasting and I think we met our new favorite person next to Stasa and Caterina: Mimmo! Mimmo is our sommelier and will also be with us for another cultural adventure on Day 7 (Day 3 for Backroads). We tried 5 wines from the Puglia region as well as some SCRUMPTIOUS cheese (my personal favorite part!!) It was fun to learn about wine, as I know literally nothing about it. I had no idea there was such a flavor as “peppery” or “unbalanced”, so I was impressed with everyone around me, who could distinctly identify the differences between the wines!

The man of the hour: Mimmo! (not Nemo)
The man of the hour: Mimmo! (not Nemo)

The four wines we tried were: Il Falcone, Antelo, Di Voto, Kriko, and Aleatico. The last two are dessert wines. I think Aleatico is the unique one of the group; my mom described it as having a “cognac-y” flavor (I’ll go with that – I don’t even know what cognac is).

The cheeses? Now THERE’S where I know my stuff 😉 Haha. Not really, but I certainly love almost all cheese. We tried three different kinds: a “drunk” cheese aged in primitivo wine of the Puglia region, smoked cheese, and, the best one of all…pecorino aged in ash! I have to say that pecorino, while somewhat strong, is probably one of the best cheeses ever. It’s made of sheep’s milk, too, which has a distinctly better, fattier taste than cow’s milk. All the cheeses were topped with local chutneys, which you spice lovin’ folk would have died over. I can’t be in the same vicinity as mild salsa and not have my tongue tingle, so I avoided them…but I heard all wonderful things!

We went straight from wine tasting to dinner at the hotel. You’ll notice that I haven’t actually reviewed our last few restaurants, other than giving their names. Why? Because EVERYTHING has been perfect. Seriously. Going on these trips, it’s not even a fair comparison to compare our artfully prepared, perfectly serviced little banquets to your average restaurant visit. Backroads (the company we’re going with) sets everything up to everyone’s tastes and does everything in their power to make the experience wonderful. On these types of trips, la vita è bella indeed!

I’ve also gotten used to eating late, and might even prefer it. Italy protip: Italians eat late, obviously 🙂 In the North, dinner typically starts at 7:30-8:00, and it gets progressively later in the South. Here in Puglia, we’ve eaten no later than 8:30 the last couple of nights

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Pugliese cuisine is heavy in vegetables, beans, and seafood. Also look for taralle, which are like little fat breadsticks formed into a circle!
Pugliese cuisine is heavy in vegetables, beans, and seafood. Also look for taralle, which are like little fat breadsticks formed into a circle!

I am once again writing this in the morning of my Day 7, and today we will be leaving Il Melograno 🙁 I’ll be sad if I write more, so let me go get my coffee!

Thought of the day: The mood you’re in affects the mood of people around you. If you’re not happy with the demeanor of your surroundings, smile! It’s contagious.

-H