Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 15, 2017
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Taking it lying down

Who says a cycling trip in Italy is all sweat
and no play?

The quiet countryside of Puglia is often overlooked by visitors travelling through southern Italy. Down in the heel of Italy's boot, bordered by both the Adriatic and Ionian seas, the region feels off the beaten path. You can cycle for kilometres, alone on narrow, winding back roads and pass only a few people working in fields or sitting on balconies.

Puglia's pastoral landscape is fairly flat, dotted with low hills that allow you to cover both salt-sprayed seaside tracks and rolling inland roads. Wildflowers and blooming cacti border paths and aromatic herbs scent the air. It's a great starting point for beginners and a good warm up for those who want to cycle in the more challenging mountainous regions farther north in Molise and Abruzzo.

I had decided to discover the area on a six-day cycling trip with Ciclismo Classico, a tour company that incorporates a cultural experience each day. I liked the fact that the daily distances were reasonable (about 30 to 65 kilometres per day) and that I could cycle at my own pace, and take on alternate circuits through more challenging terrain if I wanted to.

The itinerary eased us into the pace, starting with a flat easy ride along the seaside before relaxing for a seafood feast in a 200-year-old grotto carved from a cliff over the Adriatic in Polignano. We finished the evening at an art exhibition where the openness and kindness of the Pugliese was immediately obvious. When I asked to see more of the artist's work, she invited several of our group to her home, despite the fact that it was close to midnight. Her father greeted us in his pyjamas and went to change, while her mother brought out plates of homemade cookies and a sweet, hand-squeezed almond drink.

The next day we headed inland along winding roads to the small town of Castellana, where we explored the longest cave network in Europe. Descending 265 steps into the coolness of the caves, our bodies steamed from our exertions under the sun. A series of paths wound through underground rooms filled with strange shapes, built up as water trickled through the soil for over 65 million years. Intricately formed and precariously balanced, the delicate stalactites and stalagmites resembled hats, sandcastles or sea anemones — no two were alike.

As we neared the town of Alberobello, the farmland began to show traces of ancient Greek, Norman and Arab influences. The most startling relics were the trulli, white-washed conical stone houses tiled with concentric rows of grey slate. They remain scattered throughout the countryside, used as sheds in fields of poppies or behind rows of olive trees. Centuries old, they are built without mortar and often have astrological or religious symbols painted in white on their rooftops.

Not surprisingly Alberobello, where more than 1000 trulli are perched on a hillside, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Exploring the town, I walked up narrow stairs that led past the unusual structures and entered a labyrinth of pathways and gardens. Although many of the trulli in the main part of town are now souvenir shops and restaurants, they offer a unique opportunity to peer inside these dwellings about which so little is known.

 

That evening at a nearby family farm, we made orecchiette, small ear-shaped pasta that is a Puglian specialty. After a cook rolled out the dough, the 90-year-old woman who had been sitting quietly in a corner, walked over to the counter. Her grey hair pulled into a tight bun above her serious, pointed face, she began working the dough with intensity. She rolled it from a knife onto her thumb and flicked off perfectly shaped pasta with such speed that we couldn't count the pieces fast enough.

She let a few of us try our hand and after each failed attempt shook her head and clucked, then returned to her task. It was only after one of the men in our group created a perfectly shaped orecchietta that she laughed, smearing her fingers on her apron as if her work here was done. The rest of the evening she was all smiles.

Slow Cities
I decided to take a break from cycling the following afternoon and explore Locorotondo, our base for the night. Perched on a hill above the Valle dei Trulli, this whitewashed circular town has narrow alleyways and passages leading away from the main streets. Sitting in the Piazza Dante, I watched two worlds collide with each turn of my head: old ladies bundled in dark kerchiefs walked single file down a pathway while a row of young girls in tight jeans strolled arm in arm chewing gum; men in dark suits and black hats sat on a park bench talking passionately as young boys in shiny tracksuits kicked a soccer ball down the hillside.

That evening we were treated to an organic seven-course meal at a farming cooperative. After devouring the fresh fare, the tables were moved aside and we joined in some traditional dancing.

The next morning we passed groves of gnarled, ancient olive trees toward the coast and the region around Fasano-Selva. Known for its orecchiette and wine, the area also accounts for almost 70 percent of Italy's olive oil and has become one of the richest of Italy's southern regions.

Our destination for lunch was the wine tasting at the Borgo Canalli Cantina in Fasano. We sat along the road, our cycling outfits sticky from sweat, leaning back towards the shade of the front porch as we sipped wine taken straight from the barrels. We had time to savour the view and the tranquility — only one car drove by during the afternoon.

Travelling by bicycle let us wander deep into the countryside, while the tour company showed us a slice of local life and customs. We watched mozzarella di buffalo being pulled from large tubs as if it were dough and then tied into a bow at a cheese shop in Correggia. We walked through monastery grounds at an olive oil museum in the lovely whitewashed village of Ostuni.

There were days when I headed out alone in the afternoon and discovered that Puglia is one of the friendliest regions in Italy. Farmers in fields and women stringing up laundry along the street would chat with me as I walked by, or interrupt a conversation to see if I needed informazione. Shopkeepers even stepped out of their stores to help direct me down the right street.

I will certainly return to Puglia, if only for the warm smiles and kind gestures of strangers and the open fields where rows of poppies shake hands with the wind. And I will certainly return on a bike.

 

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