At the heel of Italy's stylish boot, the southeastern part of the region of Puglia, is the Salento Peninsula, consisting of historic towns, olive groves, fields, broad plains, vineyards and low lying hills. My companion David and I like low lying hills because today we need to cycle 60 kilometres of them en route to the easternmost town in Italy, the Roman town of Otranto.
We've got off to a late start: we had bikes to acquaint ourselves with and Carlo Cascione from Bici Tours to meet. He delivered our wheels, patiently explained the GPS, described our 263-km 7-day route, and started us off on our way through the twisting, skinny streets of the Baroque town of Lecce, on the Salento Peninsula.
On this hot late May morning we wobble past tables encroaching on the already narrow streets and locals who sprawl contentedly at them, sipping ice coffee with almond milk, Latte di Mandorla.
No ice coffee for us just yet. We're soon rolling on country roads fringed by red wild poppies, blue cornflowers, yellow daisies, purple thistle and the red ripening fruit on the ubiquitous prickly pear cactus. Birdsong feeds the ears and the tantalizing licorice aroma of abundant flowering wild fennel fills every breath while the soft air under the olive trees cools our faces.
After an idyllic hour we enter Acaia, a medieval village with its iconic castle, old walls and deserted streets. Now where's an ice coffee when you need it? The village is somnolent, however; we're on Italian time now.
So we carry on, following a sylvan stretch of trail through a wildlife refuge with boardwalks over reeds and marshes to a lake, and beyond that, the Adriatic is winking its baby blues. So far, only three cars have passed us. Carlo told us of the many weekends and holidays he and his compatriots had spent exploring and charting the quietest routes through Salento-a job well done.
We stop at San Foca on the sea. We're hot and hungry and our kickstands drop at a impromptu café where several tables are set up under an awning, and the Adriatic wafts cool kisses at us. The smiling waiter tempts us with the local delicacy, sea urchin, but he has to settle for bringing us a selection of antipasto: pizza rustico, Polpette di carne, (meatballs) and fizo di zucca in pastella, (zucchini flowers in a tempura batter). This tasty antipasto is washed down with Primitivo, the regional white wine.
Still ahead, carved into the Adriatic coast, the Bronze Age Ruins of a Messapian village dating from 3000 B.C bring us to an abrupt halt. These ancient Indo-European peoples spoke a language called Messapian, which became extinct after the Roman Republic conquered the area. We wander in a landscape of wildflowers playing hide-and-seek with prehistoric ruins, while the sea licks sugary sand nearby and the mountains of Albania waver beyond.
Moments like this-just the two of us in a quiet piece of the world-surface time and time again on this Puglian pilgrimage. We see Neolithic cave paintings, splash in both the Adriatic and Ionian seas, peer inside Byzantine crypts with traces of colour from frescoes painted on the rock walls, roll through the largest 'megalithic garden' in Europe at Giurdignano, and sample local foods in Specchia Gallone at a bakery where three generations of family grow and grind their own brand of wheat and serve it up in breads and meals.
We wander around the ramparts of more castles than you can shake a lance at and we give our bums a break at Ciolo Bridge, where we explore the huge caves along the inlet.
Now in Gallipoli on Puglia's Adriatic coast, with our circle almost completed, we stare up at the ceiling in our own little Sistine Chapel in the old town, a huge room in an 18th century home with an enormous painting across its high expanse. The artist may not be Michelangelo, but you wouldn't kick his work out of the art gallery. Olive oil put this town on Italy's map as a bustling port, exporting the fragrant liquid to the rest of Europe for use as lamp oil.
Before beginning the last 50 km. of our journey back to Lecce, we feast on an al fresco breakfast of fresh strawberries, pastries, cheeses, pizza rustico, local breads and cappuccinos while chatting with the Bici Tours representative, who has come to collect our luggage and our thoughts. "Make the tour longer, we say, and slow it down even more."
IF YOU GO:
" Macs Adventure Tours (www.macsadventure.com). Handles daily luggage transfer, bike rentals, accommodations, etc.
" Air Canada (www.aircanada.com) flies to Rome with connections in Toronto.
" Italian trains are very reasonable and comfortable and should always be booked well in advance for maximum savings. (www.trenitalia.com.)
PHOTOS. By Cherie Thiessen
1. Castle at Acaia
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