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The Best Way to Discover Italy’s Unspoiled Province

Two friends thought they’d be done with this kind of travel by now. But Italy’s best-kept secret can be very persuasive.

“Silvia!” My longtime friend David Gold shouted, dusting off his long-lost traveler’s Italian, “Ho bisogno di un po’ di van support.” 


“Sì, Davide, un momento!”
Our cycling guide, Silvia Pasqualetti, replied from her boxy white minibus. After she pulled over to an escarpment that plunged off the heel of Italy into the turquoise Adriatic, she came running with a bag of nuts and chocolate. “Allora, Davide, what kind of van support do you need?”

“The thing is,” David continued, “I . . . I have masculine genitalia . . . and the angle of this seat is . . . well . . . never mind.” “No, no, Davide, please, tell me, what?”

“It’s OK,” David demurred, “I’m not planning on having any more children.”

Ma Davide no, no! You don’t want to lose the option!”

That David and I would find ourselves here in Puglia with a personal guide attending to a bicycle seat’s discomforts was highly unusual, given our previous modes of travel. In college we’d journeyed the length of India by third-class rail. As twentysomethings we’d cycled the width of Portugal holing up in cheapo pensiones, sometimes even sharing a lumpy bed and a ratty blanket. In our 30s we’d crossed Crete on old bikes that shed parts under a blazing summer sun. In spite of the inconveniences, our trips had provided some of our most authentic moments: times when we could explore the possibilities of our friendship together and hatch fantastic plans. While cycling along the Rio d’Ouro in Portugal, we’d designed a never-to-be-built port wine bar. In Greece, we’d created an imaginary language. In Kerala, we’d established rules for an experimental commune that would spare us a life of toil.

All this happened years earlier, before life interceded and whimsy withered into routine.


So when the opportunity arose to cycle through Puglia, arguably Italy’s most unspoiled province, we jumped at it. We hadn’t done a long ride since before our children were born, before David had abandoned an academic career in ancient Sanskrit and been buried in law and tech, and before I had traded in novel writing for journalism. Now, slowed down by college savings plans and tricky knees, we wanted to feel the open road. For the next week we would feel that road again, all alone together. Alone, that is, except for the van support.

 

Puglia is a place where roads have a tendency to end. Even the Romans brought the Appian Way only as far as Brindisi and then told their slaves to stop rolling boulders. “Lu sule, lu mare, lu ientu” goes the saying in one of the dozens of local dialects: the sun, the sea, the wind. These are the things that concern the Pugliese. These and an endlessly bountiful land. Imagine a terrain flat as Iowa’s but girded by beautiful seas and worked not by agribusiness but by families growing dozens of grape varietals, 200 kinds of figs, and more olives than you can shake a branch at. This sleepy, end-of-the-road quality has been Puglia’s defining characteristic well into the modern era.

I should mention now that my friend David was falling head over heels in love with Puglia with every passing kilometer. He loved the way the Pugliese baked whole olives into their bread and told you to watch out for the pit before biting in. His eyes welled up when he took in the orchards of 1,000-year-old olive trees spaced so elegantly amid carefully planted fields of fragrant fennel. He was charmed that often we were served a farm-fresh ricotta made from a first skimming of sheep’s milk followed by a serving of a lighter cheese made from the second skimming, and that the Pugliese insisted the two cheeses were significantly different. He felt it sane and sound that meals began with an aperitivo and ended two hours later with a digestivo tinted pink with the blossoms of a wild laurel.

But I suspect what was really captivating David was the way Puglia was fitting into his ideas about democracy and the freedom he thought people needed to live worthwhile lives. My friend is a searcher of the highest order. He’d defended a PhD dissertation about Hindu pilgrimage a day after successfully sitting for the New York state bar exam. A few years later he created software for searching ancient philosophical texts. He’d taught himself biblical Hebrew, and in midlife he’d learned how to ride a unicycle. Now, as we traveled north from Otranto on two wheels, he laid out what he thought was wrong with the world and how the Pugliese needed to protect themselves against the global tourism onslaught to come.

“We use markets to set all kinds of priorities for us that markets can’t possibly set properly. It’s destroying us—making us sick and unhappy, and burning up the planet,” he said as we passed a forager gathering wild chicory for his afternoon salad. “These fields of poppies and olive groves? Anyone can see they’re a treasure to humanity. And because technology now allows it, we can give them their actual value democratically, so some corporation doesn’t turn them into a resort.”

We continued this line of conversation until we finished a 20-mile loop that brought us to a botanical reserve. Here we dismounted and approached a row of 12th-century signal towers the medieval Pugliese had built to warn of approaching Saracens.

I’d mentioned in passing to Silvia that we wanted to know more about the olives of Puglia. I’d read about a foreign disease that had infected the oldest trees, forcing their possible culling. As she would do throughout our trip, Silvia somehow made the right person appear. An agronomist named Giuseppe Bene met us at the reserve, ready to explain the complexities.

“A lot of people blame the disease on a bacteria that arrived on imported oleanders,” Giuseppe told us as we hiked up toward one of the sand-colored towers, the fields below filigreed with walls of ancient fieldstones and blanketed in yellow flowers. “But really, it’s a syndrome caused by many problems. For years, people have been leaving Puglia. The European Union keeps paying people to keep the olive trees even after they’ve left. Now what’s happening is all the farmers’ kids are in Milan doing office work. No one works the soil, no one trims the trees. And the trees lose their vitality. So when a disease comes along, it turns into an epidemic.”

 

As we left the reserve and continued up the coast, David railed against the global economic forces that were disrupting the things that made Puglia so, well, Puglian.

“You see? This is exactly what I’m talking about,” he said. “You have these people who should be farming olives in Puglia. But instead, they are working as software engineers in Milan. Do they want to be in Milan? No! They hate Milan. They hate software. Instead of tending olive trees they’re programming video games for Milanese teenagers. They know it’s stupid. Everyone knows it’s stupid.”

But not everyone is leaving Puglia. Again and again we heard that the Salento peninsula was rapidly becoming the place for a certain kind of entrepreneur to open a boutique hotel or start a restaurant.

Puglia being Puglia, though, things don’t always work out as planned. On our third day, we cycled into the baroque masterwork of a town called Lecce and came upon a man who had tried to open a restaurant but ended up creating a museum. Luciano Faggiano met us at the door of the Museo Faggiano. A balding, cheerful man, he told us about the day that led to his bizarre situation.

“Ten years ago, when I bought this building, I noticed when I tried to flush the toilet, the water wouldn’t go down. I realized I needed to connect the pipe to the sewer below.” Here, Mr. Faggiano beckoned us downward to a passage. “I started digging, and before I knew it, I’d broken through.”

What Mr. Faggiano discovered in his quest for a sewer was layer upon layer of civilizations below his would-be restaurant. Medieval, Roman, and then finally a 3,000-year-old Bronze Age Messapian layer concealed below a hole so small that he had to tie a rope around the waist of his 12-year-old son and lower him into the necropolis. After seven years of excavation, Mr. Faggiano was denied a license for his proposed restaurant, so he turned the entire project into a museum. The restaurateur had become an archaeologist.


That evening David, Silvia, and I took on our own excavation project as we dug our way through the layers of a fantastical 12-course tasting menu at La Sommita Hotel in the hilltop town of Ostuni. But neither foie gras balls dipped in chocolate, nor raw sea anemone, nor a black sponge made of the essence of squid ink could get Mr. Faggiano’s project out of David’s mind. “I mean, that was a real calling,” he said, peering across the terrace of the 12th-century former monastery out to the plain and the sea 1,000 feet below.

 

“Listen,” he continued, romanticizing Mr. Faggiano’s struggles, “anyone in Lecce who started digging would have found one, two, maybe four civilizations. But most other people would have sealed it up and walked away. Mr. Faggiano, he felt that he had to do it. It was his fate.” David stared off into the twilight.

This, I thought, was what I loved and had missed about my friend in our humdrum adult life back home. Not only to banter with him about a giant democratic makeover of society but also to discover with him the kind of saga Mr. Faggiano literally fell into. To imagine a life free of constraints, where you follow your passions and interests down to the very bottom.

Of course, not everyone has such selfless, dreamy plans for the Puglian renaissance as David attributed to Mr. Faggiano. This we learned when we came to our lodgings for the night at the end of day four. Rising out of the plain, the Borgo Egnazia seemed like any of the other manor farms the Pugliese call masseria. But on closer inspection, and with help from the Borgo’s “local advisor,” Elena, we learned it was a newly built simulation.

Whereas Mr. Faggiano had spent hundreds of hours of his life going deep in search of the real Puglia, the owners of the Borgo Egnazia had spent hundreds of millions of dollars going wide and shallow, creating a make-believe masseria that would appeal to the international tourism market. All of the lovely signifiers of Pugliese country life had been turned into ciphers. Romanesque jars upended and stuck in alcoves. Piles of old keys randomly hung on strings over rows of candles. Deluxe rooms chock-full of the latest conveniences the typical harried American family would “require,” and a brochure of spa treatments that would help them “relax.”

Rounding a corner, Elena showed us how the Borgo had created a replica of a Puglian village square with ersatz-ancient pumice stone streets. And when we encountered the Borgo’s founder, a suave American-educated businessman, preparing to jet off to London, I asked what was the number one thing the mostly American guests of Borgo Egnazia wanted.

“Authenticity,” he said without a hint of irony.

David and I returned to our room in our first gloomy mood. I expected him to say,
“You see? This is what happens when you let American-style commerce boil away all the beautiful things!” But instead, he picked up the phone and rifled through the list of “wet” and “dry” options described in the florid spa brochure. “Hello, this is David Gold. I see you have many different body and facial treatments here, and I’m not sure exactly which to choose. Which one would you recommend? . . . What’s that? What do I want? . . . Well, I would like, as you say here, ‘to have a life-changing experience that I can bring home with me.’”

David was unable to schedule a transformative treatment, but we left the Borgo with our spirits undampened. This I chalk up to Silvia. On our last two days she guided us through the northern portion of the Puglian peninsula known as the Valle d’Itria, past conical trulli houses that, according to legend, had been built without mortar so that the original owners could disassemble them if tax inspectors arrived from Naples. She whisked us off to the Caseificio Notarnicola, a creamery where we watched the staff make the morning cheese and reveal exactly how that amazing creamy stuff gets into the center of Burrata.

When we’d had our fill of cheese, Silvia built back our appetites by guiding us 20 miles to Savelletri, to a restaurant called Pescheria 2 Mari, where a fisherman’s two blue-eyed daughters prepared delectable platters of crudo, the fish brought in that morning from the nearby sea.

And as we pushed on along our final miles, the olive trees growing wider and older, the blood-red poppies more numerous and richer in color, the scent of honeysuckle and fennel building as spring bled into summer, the landscape shifted to another level of intensity, as if the chrominance had been turned up. I wanted to be a painter at that moment. To pass on this beauty to others. And it was then that I realized that this was precisely what Silvia had done. Driving back and forth across Puglia’s beauty in advance of our trip, she had curated a selection of the best roads, free of bummers and blowouts. She’d done it with sequence, holding back her best work until act three, when it could come to us as the work of art that it was.

At a certain point I let my lighter road bike take me past David’s hybrid and thought, “This is friendship”—the freedom to speed ahead, wave hi with a smile, knowing that you would catch up later and discuss things in greater detail, over a bottle of wine (or three) and a dinner that would last hours rather than minutes.

At the last of these many meals, in the seaside village of Monopoli, David and I realized that the week was coming to an end. In the Piazza Garibaldi we sat at a restaurant called La Dolce Vita and watched the square fill with locals chatting, embracing, spinning off to join other groups. It was then that I reminded David that 15 years ago, at the end of our last bike trip together, he’d fallen into a dark mood and predicted that we were even then already getting old, that we wouldn’t be able to keep doing long bike rides like this, because our knees would be shot. I asked him now if he still felt this was the case.

 

“I feel great,” David said, his eyes misting over once again. “I just loved it here. I loved Mr. Faggiano. And I loved Silvia. I loved the restaurant here, and I loved the restaurant there. I even loved the spa at the Borgo Egnazia. And I think we should just keep on doing this until we can’t do it any more.”

And with that we finished our meal and stretched our legs and headed off to scheme about our next trip.

Ready to plan your trip? Check out our tips on where to stay, what to eat, and what to do in Puglia.