Situated on the 'heel of the boot' of Italy, Puglia (pronounced poo-lee-uh) has, for decades, been a popular summer location for northern Italians and, thankfully, Puglia remains a place which is unmistakably and unshakeably by Italians for Italians.
Puglia is not the new Tuscany or Almafi Coast. It is nothing like them. Tuscany is as elegant as a Renaissance painting, all terracotta-roofed farmhouses and slender cypresses adrift among vineyards. Puglia is grittier, less pretty, less considered. It is raw-edged, big-skied, and flooded with ocean light. Its seas are as clear and sparkling as the Caribbean.
Reasons to Love Puglia
Every town, whether coastal or inland, is unique. Puglia was once the centre of the known world, one of the great intersections of the Mediterranean. Everyone came to Puglia — Greeks, Arabs, Romans, Byzantines, Normans, Venetians, North Africans, Turks, Dalmatians — in search of fame and fortune. The memories of grander days linger in towns of echoing palaces, in churches where you escape the midday heat in cool stillness, and in castles with walls so thick their ramparts are the width of dual carriageways.
The northerly part of the region is hillier and lush with unique villages of Alberobello with Trulli stone houses. Locorotondo has evening lights and Ostuni, the White City, where all the buildings are painted white.
There are also cave towns. Just over the Puglian border is Matera, used as a filming location in the James Bond franchise, No Time To Die. But you don't need to leave Puglia in search of caves. Ginosa, Laterza, and Mottola — three relatively off-the-beaten-track canyon towns set within the Terra delle Gravine Regional Natural Park — were also the base of cave communities for centuries and perfect for gravel and off-road exploring.
Lu sule, lu mare, lu ientu
Then there is the very tip of the heel, Salento, where they have the saying lu sule, lu mare, lu ientu (the sun, the sea, the wind). Salento is home to Lecce. The city is the star turn, not only of Puglia but of all southern Italy. Nine colossal churches of the most extraordinarily delicate ornamentation, all the result of the 'tender' malleable properties of the local stone, bestride its narrow streets. It is not all medieval musings. Lecce has a very contemporary vibe of great restaurants, budding galleries and modern design.
Looking east, the hairpin-accessed town of Castro on the western coast is the historic island town of Galliopoli, which was old even before the Romans turned up, and pretty little Santa Maria di Leuca at the very tip. It is possible to see the sunrise in the morning and ride a loop around to see the sunset in the evening at the sea wall in Gallipoli.
There is no better way to cool off after a ride or part way through one than at one of the small grottos (caves), lidos or rocky beaches that line the coast on both sides. When we say beaches, don’t imagine stretches of golden sand, which makes them perfect for a bike ride cool-off because you don’t need to worry about your chain getting covered in grit or sand trapped in Lycra.
Top pick swimming spots for mid ride cool off
Polignano a mare
Calette di Torre Cintola (near Monopoli)
Porto Badisco beach
Castro Marina & Cala dell'Acquaviva (near Castro)
Santa Maria di Leuca
Il Ciolo (a cove beneath a bridge at the tip of Puglia)
Punta Pizzo Beach (south of Gallipoli)
The cacti and olives
Cacti line the road in Puglia in huge clumps, sometimes as big as trees. Fichi d'India is the Italian term for its prickly orange and pink blooms. The prickly pears can be picked and carefully peeled to reveal juicy red fruit.
Forty percent of Italy’s olive oil comes from Puglia. Whatever road, path or track you turn down, you’ll ride past a row of olive groves, and with that olive oil tours and plenty of amazing value oil to pick up in the supermarket too.
The snacks and food
Italian food also has clear regional variations, and there are certain elements which you will only really find commonly in Puglia. As Puglia is nearly entirely surrounded by water, expect plenty of seafood with region-specific pasta shapes, ice cream and, of course, very good pizza at budget prices.
There is good food to be found even from petrol stations should you need to grab a top up mid-ride.
Crocchè & Frittatina - A deep fried ball of potato or pasta carbonara, great as a starter.
Rustico - A circular tomato and béchamel-filled pastry.
Panzerotti (or ‘panzerotto’, singular) - A small fried calzone or pocket of dough, filled with anything from tomato and mozzarella to herby octopus.
Pasticciotto - A traditional custard tart from Salento. Choose from plain custard to an almond and lemon custard to chocolate and ricotta filling. Perfect for a mid ride cafe and coffee stop.
Maritati - This is a Puglian-specific pasta dish, which features two unique shapes. Dough is rolled with a very thin iron called caturo, while round, very very thin pasta pieces are made into a little dome, orecchiette.
Where to eat after a day of riding
Santa Monaca, Gallipoli (santamonaca.it) - tucked in a square inside the walled old town of Gallipoli, Santa Monaca serves traditional Gallipolian food and seafood. As well as their own regional cheese, they make their own bay leaf digestif.
P.zza De Amicis, 13 Gallipoli.
Bar Cotognata Leccese, Lecce (cotognataleccese.com) - top quality Rustico (see snacks above), ideal for a ride stop or mid-afternoon top up.
Viale Marconi - 73100 Lecce
It is the Italy of the movies
Think narrow, preserved, rustic mazes of streets, town squares with classic Fiats and Vespas, and Piaggio Ape trucks being driven by leathery looking farmers (definitely not to ferry tourists around). An evening walk through the backstreets feel like a film set with antique street lamps pooling into chiaroscuro gloom. As you pedal through olive groves you’ll comes across a shepherd herding his flock or a farmer in a horse drawn cart. Italians know and love Puglia for its food, its sea, its people and its simplicity. This is where they come for summer.
When to go
Hot dry summers and mild winters. Visiting Puglia is viable anytime of the year. April through to October is the best time to go. Avoid late July and August when temperatures reach mid 30°Cs and the swimming spots will be crowded.
If you go out of spring and summer season some cafes and restaurants may be closed.
Where to go
Puglia has lots to offer, here's a list of towns and areas to explore:
Polignano a Mare
Alberobello (for a day trip)
Most people hire a car to travel across the region and see the sights.
Getting around by train is possible, especially if you are with a bike but you'll need to do a little bit of planning as the trains don't run frequently.
Lap of the heel - 130km
This route can be ridden whichever way you prefer, or whichever way the wind is blowing. You could even start on the east coast with a sunrise and loop around the tip to finish in Galliopoli for the sunset. The east coast offers up coastline views, fortifications and caves along its route. There are swimming spots in Castro and Tricase, where Helen Mirren and Meryl Streep have discovered Puglia's retro charms and bought holiday homes. Aim to make a cafe stop (and swim) in the picturesque town of Santa Maria di Leuca at the most southerly point of Puglia.
Leece and Gallipoli - 130km
Fancy a day trip to Gallipoli or Lecce? Then this is the ideal route and incorporates a spin through the historic square of Galatina. Grab a coffee or lunch in Lecce and weave through its limestone city streets, where old palaces with sculpted window frames and ornately decorated portals lean shoulder to shoulder.
Pedal through Piazza del Duomo, Palazzo Maresgallo and past Basilica di Santa Croce. If you decide to base yourself in the historic city then you can turn this ride to a day trip to Gallipoli and cruise along the seawall to look back at Italy.
Caves, Climbs and Canyons - 150km
A gravel ride to explore the cave towns. Midway up the Italian heel are the towns of Alberobello, Monopoli and Locorotondo. They sit on the flat lands looking towards the Terra delle Gravine Regional Natural Park where communities carved their homes into the rock, creating the cave towns of Laterza and Mottola.
The ride travels out west from Locorotondo and back via Alberobello for a quick ride through the town famed for its pointy stone houses. We dip through the ravines of the National Park to Laterza, cycling through one of Europe's largest canyons. The ride heads deep into the canyon and out then looping back east and picking up the Ciclovia Acquedotto Pugliese (AQP) to the start. The AQP was a historic aqueduct (1906–1915) and hydraulic water system that flowed across the region. The service road and route has now been turned into a 500km cycle and hiking path.