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Travel

A taste of paradise in Puglia

Clive Nicholls samples the real Italy during a luxury cycling holiday on the Adriatic coast

The leaden skies can't diminish the beauty of the small harbour. Fishing boats gently bobbing in time with the faintest of ripples, couples strolling hand-in-hand,, seagulls floating lazily on the water, historic buildings bleached by the simmer sun framing the idyllic scene. Then, suddenly it just gets better.

The low sun finds the smallest of chinks in the cloud and like a searchlight homes in on the harbour and for a few moments casts a wondrous glow over the scene before me. the harbour is Monopoli in Puglia, the heel of Italy.

I travelled here with Headwater on their 'Contrasts of Puglia' cycling tour. I'm cycling tomorrow but for now I want to make the most of Monopoli, which is on Italy's Adriatic coast (just at the top of the heel).

The harbour is beautiful but so is the town. Delightful backstreets, quirky shops, great coffee houses and it's so very Italian. It's compact, so walking is the best form of transport, but as the rain starts I make my plan to get up early in the morning and continue my tour before breakfast. I'm so glad I did.  the sun is shining, the local rowing club has taken to the water in the harbour and, apart form the odd jogger, I've got the place to myself.

My bike has arrived and it's a smasher: all mod cons, panniers as well. The guys handing over the bike were brilliant, nothing was too much trouble. It gets you off to a great start when people are so pleasant and helpful.

Helmet on, I set off. You can download te route onto an app on your phone so you have a satnav on your handlebars. I'm a bit behind he times with technology so I just stuff the map into my pocket and press the pedals.

I could have opted for an electric bike but the route doesn't have too many uphill stretches so I decline (I may regret it later).

in a car, windows up, air con on you are isolated. On a bike, it's so much better. The sights, the sounds and the fresh air are undiluted- its a great way of travelling. 

I follow the coast road out of Monopoli all the way to Polignano a Mare, a beautiful fishing village sitting high on limestone cliffs overlooking the sea.

I park my bike against the statue of Domenico Modugeno. Who? he was he chap who co-wrote and sang Volare in the 1958 Eurovision Song contest. It only finished third but went on to sell 22 million copies worldwide. Domenico was born here in Polignano a Matr in 1928. After a successful singing and film career (44 movies) he was elected o the Senate in 1990; he died in 1994.

riding through the streets here is good, pedestrians are happy to share the walkways with you and as I park my bike in the town square I feel that I'm experiencing the real Italy.

I'm also about to eat the best prawns ever. Nothing fancy, just fried prawns and chips at Pescaria but they are astonishing. Giant prawns that just melt in your mouth., dripping with flavour, cooked just perfectly.

Back on the bike I carry on following the coast road through the hamlet of San Vito before turning inland for the gentle climb up to Conversano with its Norman castle and Romanesque cathedral.

The ride from Conversano to Alberobello looks great on the map but my time is limited so I have to make the transfer by minibus.

Alberobello is a gem; it's a UNESCO World Heritage Site, home to just under 11,000 inhabitants and in the summer a it busy as a tourist attraction. Out of season it's much quieter. It is famous for the trulli houses; small and round, with domed stone roofs, these peculiar buildings date back to the 15th century. Taxes were levied on habitable buildings so the locals came up with a cunning plan.

The roofs were built without mortar-on hearing the inspectors were on their way, owners would climb onto the roof, remove the keystone in the middle and it would collapse like a house of cards.

They wouldn't pay the tax but would have to spend the next week rebuilding the roof. It's hard to decide who is the winner! I stayed in a trulli overnight; a great experience.

The next day's cycling is planned as a 27 mile circular route in the Itria Valley, through Locorotondo (wall to wall with historic buildings) on to Martina Franca (Martina), a beautiful town with wonderfully preserved palaces, before coming back to Alberobello. There's so much to see in Puglia and cycling is a great way of seeing the sights. All around are ancient olive trees, some dating back thousands of years. 

I called in at Masseria Brancatio- what a treat. The olive trees here are more than 2000 years old (proved by carbon dating) and some are thought to be up to 4000 years and they're still producing olives that make some of the finest olive oil in he world. Imagine that, an olive farmer in Puglia planting out the saplings way before Jesus was born!

Owner Corrado Rodio is so passionate about his trees that it's infectious; you find yourself touching the trees with the same reverence that he shows- somehow it's a humbling experience.

His olive oil tasting is an education. I didn't do too well here.

Faced with some of the world's best olive oil. I showed a preference for the cheaper stuff- perhaps I'll do better with the wine tasting later in the day.

At the I Pastini Winery, Gianni Carparelli hosts the tasting. With all the fabulous seafood I've been eating in Puglia I've tended to drink Italian whites but really my preference is red.

As we go through the tasting it's all fine but when we got to the final red, the Verso Sud, I find my favourite. Originally from Dalmatia, the Susumanuello grape (100 percent in Verso Sud) is now considered local to Brindisi- it's always nice when you like a local wine, and I certainly did.

I've tried the olive oil and wine, so I can't leave without trying the Mozzarella fresh at a farm.

Giorgio Spalluto, 'Big George' to you and me, lives and breathes mozzarella and is an excellent hos at his farm, Itria Bonta. Not much in the way of big machinery here, it's all down to the skill of Big George and his cows just outside.

It's great to see real specialist producers like Corrado, Gianni and Big George sticking to their values and making olive oil, wine and mozzarella that is special to this part of Italy yet would hold its own on the world stage.

I've sampled the best of local produce including the most wonderful seafood, my accommodation and cycling is perhaps the finest way of seeing beautiful Puglia.

Headwater do this so well, their bikes are top notch, the roues are well thought out and there's a touch of luxury for an activity holiday. Brilliant. 

Have you ever visited Puglia? What did you think to it? 

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