My driver had no hat, and no paper sign, but he was there on-time and his smothering handshake and wide smile were the perfect welcome to this sunny land, after having set off in the cold dark of a London March morning. My destination was the palatial Borgobianco resort and spa, where I would indulge in the smart cuisine and legendary spa to fortify myself for my orchard-wandering, picnic-gathering, village-hopping adventures.
The drive south skirted the coast, climbing out of each valley to reveal the clean blue line of the Adriatic Sea to the East. To the West, the gentle hills lifted up in a mosaic of planted green, and the gnarled grey of almond trees. The road was modern and fast, but changed abruptly when we pulled off and started west, into the hills just as the sun dipped behind them. Immediately, the track was a single lane and the surroundings were those of a food growing region. Grey cairn walls guarded orchards and white stone “masserie” farm houses sat back like defensive keeps. The driver explained the blowing white almond blossoms that swirled in our wake; that next month would bring the pink blossoms of cherries and after that, the yellow blossoms of olives. We turned left at a crumbling plaster shrine. Then, rising like a citadel of crenelated turrets and stone terraces sat Borgobianco, a five-star resort spa, self-described as “…a place to discover authentical emotions and refresh the harmony within myself.” The car passed through a proud iron gate and stopped with a gravel grunt in front of the glowing archway of the entrance.
The hospitality started with a warm personal greeting as soon as I stepped from the car. I was shown through the clean white, candle-lit lobby into an open courtyard of palms and vine trellises. A few sunset couples sat around low tables sipping bright evening cocktails.
Pushing open the heavy wood door to my accommodation revealed a breezy scene of white stone and pressed linens. The wide bed and the heavy writing desk were perfectly oriented to take advantage of the ocean view and the sea-breeze through a tall pair of shuttered French doors that opened out to a private terrace. The doors let in the fragrance of rosemary and lavender from the surrounding gardens. I stowed my meagre carry-on belongings in the tall wardrobe, slipped on a jacket and more comfortable shoes and headed over to the bar to take an aperitivo with the other guests and find some “authentical emotions and harmony.”
The Italian tradition of whetting one’s appetite with a bracing cocktail and a few crunchy snacks was executed with five-star perfection. The stoic bartender, looking firmly the part in Chalk-stripes and peaked lapels, shook up a perfect Negroni and proffered up a plate of almonds and small, crisp Taralli bread hoops. After an abbreviated conversation about football and Formula-one, I took my seat up stairs for a brilliant dinner of red mullet fillets in white pepper, rosemary and chicory. The delicate fish sat perfectly atop the soft, slightly-bitter greens. The next course was a perfectly creamy risotto of prawn and artichoke. After a finale of decadent custard-topped, warm apple tartlet, the clean Malvasia Bianca wine and the long day began to wigh on my eyelids. I excused myself to go fall unconscious on my freshly turned-down bed, in anticipation of the next day’s adventure.
That first morning dawned like a Bertolucci film. Accustomed to the dark of a London winter, the hazy light of sunrise that crept into my room was all it took to wake me. I dressed and climbed the stairs to the dining room terrace and stood in awe of a view that had gone unnoticed in the dark of the previous night. Green rows of spring crops rolled away to the jumbled white buildings of seaside Polignano a Mare and beyond that, the shimmering blue line of the Adriatic cut through a cloudless sky. I sat and enjoyed a cappuccino and custard filled Cornetto, stumbled through the front page of the Gazzetta Mezzogiorno newspaper trying my hardest to get into character for my cycling adventures.
Thus far, glimpses of Puglia had seemed oddly vacant of Bicycles and mopeds, perhaps owing to the long distances or summer heat. It seemed a mystery to me, as the plentiful back-roads, scarce traffic and fairly level terrain made for perfect two wheel adventure territory.
Even in the perfectly mild air of early spring, I was the only guest interested in taking out one of the dusty hire bikes. I looked over the lot as if selecting a prize race-horse, eventually settling on the only one with reasonably inflated tyres. I mounted my steed, christened her Olivia out of respect for my agricultural surroundings and pedalled off through the back gate, down the long, white gravel driveway. The few noises of the resort faded to absolute silence as I rode along the blossoming almond orchards, down the narrow road and pointed the bike toward the sea.
On a tip from the Borgobianco staff, I skirted Polignano itself, and turned north, coasting to a stop at a small lazy waterfront where old men in tweed jackets sat and scrutinized the small green and blue day boats as they returned with their catch. The fishermen scurried back and forth ferrying wicker baskets of what had to be the world’s freshest sea urchin. I stood my bike against a wall and peered over the fishermen’s shoulders to catch a glimpse of deft hands carving open the urchin to reveal the orange briny insides. This was certainly my type of lunch. Inquiring after procedure, I was pointed to a low wooden shack where yet another group of old men congregated. I queued up with the village locals, came away with a square wedge of still-warm focaccia and returned to haggle for a basket of the urchin. I took my prizes and my wide smile to sit on the end of a creaky wooden pier. The deep-sea taste of the urchin smeared over the oily focaccia was a faultless triumph. I ate slowly – savouring the sweet, ocean flavour – and basked in the breezy, seaside bliss.
The ocean harvest is a constant source of culinary inspiration for the Puglians. Seafood treatments are clean and fresh; a bit of citrus, a bit of herb and a few minutes on a grill. The prevailing attitude of territorial superiority thrives, and conversations are littered with declarations that the fish from one village are infinitely superior to the fish from another. In Puglia, like much of Italy, the ingredient is king, and the job of the cook is to simply not screw things up. This culminates in a bright cuisine of purity and honest flavours, whether it is served at an impromptu seaside stall, or a candle-lit trattoria.
As I crossed over the ancient roman bridge toward the historic centre of Polignano a Mare, the coastal cliffs jutted out to reveal the tall, white-washed walls of the old-town leaning out over the sea. Crumbling balconies clung to the facades, sloping towards nothingness. I wandered through the quiet warren of narrow white alleys and long shadows, occasionally emerging onto a small piazza hosting the ubiquitous kids kicking a football. A winding walk along the cliff ridges offered views down to the wide caves that pock the cliffs, some of them converted to host gleaming restaurants and trendy bars. I had heard tales of the crush of August tourists that crowd this seaside village, but in March, I had the place to myself; the old town echoing with scant few footsteps.
The slanting ride back up the farm road was just steep enough to warrant a few out-of-the-saddle stints. Turning on to the level, white gravel road for the final stretch of cool orchard shade and sea-breeze was a welcome reward for the effort. After parking Olivia amongst her brethren, I decided that today would be my day to visit the calm serenity of the much-lauded spa. After a visit to the sauna, the trance-inducing hammam steam room, and an hour of aromatherapy massage, I emerged a rejuvenated version of myself, ready for another dinner feast and one more day of bicycling in search of Puglian food perfection.
There are a number of ways to explore and experience this corner of Italy. The coastal villages are home to dozens of quaint bed and breakfasts and the countryside is dotted with farmhouse inns. Staying at a full service spa resort is a luxurious counterpoint to the rugged, stoic countryside. The evening ritual aperitivo and the thoughtful dinners accompanied by a visit from the chef are the perfect way to unwind after a day’s pedalling.