Friday, May 18, 2018

From Alberobello to Matera: The Adventure Continues

Yesterday's ride began in Alberobello, and we soon left the land of trullis--the conical-roofed traditional houses of that area of Puglia--and set off across the relatively flat area characterizing western Puglia. Along the way, I was enthralled by the vast skyscapes and the fields of green and red--green of growing grain and red of poppies.

Mottola in the distance. We stopped here for our morning coffee break.

Our guides explained to us that we are extremely lucky to be able to see all the poppies because they only bloom for about a week. They also said that, in the many years that they have been guiding this particular tour, they have rarely seen it so green in the area we passed through yesterday. I feel fortunate, and it was just after we had stopped to take the above picture of the whole field of poppies that I felt a tremendous sense of happiness, doing what I was doing, being where I was with the group of people I am with. It truly is great to be here, and I'm grateful.

We stopped at an agritourismo place for lunch and had it all to ourselves. It typically isn't open during the day, only in the evenings, and the food, wine and experience were all great. All fresh ingredients. Homemade. Delicious.

The owner, Giocomina, and her helper, Luigi.

After lunch, we set out again. Bob, Kevin and I opted for the extra loop that took us back up to the plateau that forms much of Puglia. On the way down, we ran into a bit of a traffic jam involving sheep. Once they passed, we found ourselves dodging sheep poop on the road for several miles.

Following the sheep incident, we had another 20K to go before reaching Matera, our destination for the day. Of course, there had to be a kilometer of 14% grade to get up to the city. Of course. But we made it, and we were rewarded with a beautiful view of the town under gorgeous blue skies, the late afternoon light illuminating the scene.

From the overlook, it was a short distance to our hotel, the rooms of which are--like many of the structures in old Matera--formed from caves. The tour company selects the hotel, and the rooms are randomly assigned, so I was blown away when I walked into my room for the next two nights. I've never stayed in such an amazing room, which came complete with a semi-private terrace and a killer view.

View up toward my terrace and room as I came home from dinner last night.

Scene that greeted me as I walked out of breakfast this morning.

After a break to wash out our cycling clothes, shower and relax for a bit, our group met up for aperitivi on a terrace overlooking the canyon and caves on the other side.

An Aperol Spritz, local focaccia, baked olives, truffle bruschetta. Best happy hour ever.

Then it was time for dinner at a restaurant that was also built into caves. I had to call it quits, however, before we got to the main course. Stuffed and tired at 10:00 p.m., I excused myself to walk back to the hotel. It had been another magical, adventurous, fun day in which I was glad to be alive.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

And We're Off Through Trulli Land

Small in numbers but strong in spirit, our little group headed out Tuesday afternoon for a test spin in the Puglian countryside, making a couple of stops on the way out of Polignano. 

The first was to stop and pose in front of the statue of Domenico Modugno, Polignano's most famous native son, the grandfather of Italian singers who popularized the song, "Volare."

The second was the port of San Vito, from which Bob and I had embarked on our boat tour of the caves of Poligano. Here, we took the lead photo, above. While we didn't dare walk across the beach in our cycling shoes, we nevertheless symbolically dipped our wheels in the water of the Adriatic, and we will finish our tour with another photo of us doing the same in the waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea on the coast of Calabria.

San Vito, who apparently appreciated colorful dress, much as many cyclists do.

Here, too, we paused in front of a statue of Saint Vito (Vitus) to seek his blessings, protector as he is from (among other things) dog bites and bee stings--vital (no pun intended) for a cyclist setting off into the countryside. 

The weather was cool and overcast Tuesday afternoon and threatened rain. In the end, however, all we got were a few sprinkles. Thank you, San Vito. Totals for that short ride were 17 miles and 1007 vertical feet.

This picture was taken Tuesday evening from the terrace of our hotel.
We were having a meeting to go over the entire tour, and when I
looked up at one point, I saw the incredible light of the setting sun
on the buildings across the cove. This is a heavily filtered photograph,
but it captures the magic of that moment.

On Wednesday morning, we set off on the first full day of the tour. The sky was blue and the temperature was a little on the chilly side, but very comfortable. Our day's destination, Alberobello, wasn't all that far as the crow flies from Polignano, but by the end of the day we would ride 44.5 miles and climb 3750 feet -- not that there were any big ascents, but there were lots of ups and downs.

A pastoral scene we passed yesterday morning. Saint Vitus came through again shortly after this photo was taken as a dog came running out in hot pursuit after the couple on the tandem in front of me, oblivious to my presence just behind. We escaped unharmed.

A view out over the coastal plains of Puglia to the Adriatic with two trulli in the foreground. These conical-shaped structures are found throughout this region of Puglia, and the ones in this and the following photo were some of the first we encountered.

One of the fun things about these tours is the occasional encounter with locals. When we stopped to refill our water bottles at one point, we encountered Giovanni, pictured below, who entered into an intense, rambling discussion with Dana, one of our guides about his life as a widower, going to dances several nights a week and the trials and tribulations he experienced while trying to find a woman at this point in his life.

After lunch, we headed into the Itria Valley and passed some lovely vineyards and fields of poppies. Then it was on to Alberello, where we sampled yet more gelato, a guide told us the story of the trulli, and we attended a tasting of several local wines.

Wild poppies with the cones of three trulli peaking over the grass in the distance.

Listening to our guide tell us about trulli.

Alberello, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Italian Adventure: Bari and Polignano

Believe it or not, this post marks the 693rd time I've written about my life in this forum over the course of the last six years. It seems hard to believe that it was only six years ago that Mark and I made our first trip to Maui together. From that point, many of my blog posts chronicled our travels together, then mine on my own after he died. It's been a great resource (and comfort) to look back on all those posts ... and so I continue now with a chronicle of this trip I'm now on.

I arrived in Bari on Saturday afternoon a couple of hours before my friend, Bob, pleasantly surprised after two experiences with lost bags and missed connections last year that my connecting flights and my luggage both arrived on time. 

That evening, Bob and I headed out in search of gelato, an Aperol Spritz and dinner, in that order. We managed to find all three--each one delicious--and we also enjoyed the festive atmosphere that prevailed in downtown Bari that evening.

Bari waterfront.

A rosato that I had been looking forward to trying ever since learning about it in my Italian wine courses.

One of the squares was lit up with the huge electrical display pictured in the above photographs. The place was thronged with people of all ages enjoying the evening and the festive atmosphere. We learned the following day that this display is put up every year at this time to commemorate the arrival in Bari of the remains of St. Nicholas a thousand years ago. We just happened to luck out and be there during the festival. The remains now rest in the crypt of the Basilica of St. Nicholas, and the lights are designed to recreate the shape of the church.

Basilica of St. Nicholas (photo from Internet)

The highlight of the following day was a private walking/foodie tour of the old city of Bari with our guide, Francesco. Our first stop was to sample some delicious Bari focaccia from a bakery operating out of what had been a church constructed 900 years ago. Unlike Genoese focaccia that is thick and features cheese or onions, this focaccia was much thinner, drenched in olive oil and topped with cherry tomatoes -- sort of like a pizza. Delicious.

Inside the Basilica of St. Nicholas

The next foodie stop, after winding our way through what Francesco off-handedly referred to as "the labyrinth," was "Lady Nunzia's" on "Pasta Street." All along this street, women make pasta traditional to Bari and Puglia, particularly orecchiette that are shaped like small ears. They make the pasta in the first floor kitchens of their "tower houses," then set up shop on the street to sell their products to both tourists and locals. There was a large tour group on the street outside Lady Nunzia's, but we were invited in to her kitchen to sample both her pasta and her husband's homemade wine. I will admit to feeling special.

Lady Nunzia and her guests.
Her orecchiette featured a very light sauce of olive oil and rabe. It was delicious.

We were also offered a sample of their deep-friend polenta.

"Pasta Street"

After touring the Basilica of St. Nicholas and stopping for a glass of rosato, we made our last foodie stop of the day, at Gelateria Gentile. It was here that we said goodbye to Francesco. We had really enjoyed our tour, and one of the reasons I enjoy taking these small-group or private tours when I travel is the opportunity to get to know the local guide. It had been a fun and educational experience.

Fabio, owner of Gelateria Gentile, who had just returned from opening a new store in Brooklyn.

Bob, Francesco and me

Yesterday, Monday morning, we took the train from Bari to the town of Polignano a Mare, where our cycling tour would begin. The highlight of that day was what ended up being a private boat tour of the caves along the coast below the town of Polignano.

The harbor at Saint Vino, from where we embarked.

And so it begins. Today, after lunch, we will take a short spin of 17 miles into the countryside to make sure our fit on our bikes is good and that everything is in working order. Then tomorrow, we head out. Andiamo!