Whizzing down the coastal road, I gaze out and marvel at the shimmering sunlight reflecting off the clear blue water of the Adriatic Sea.
Our eight-person fellowship is nearing its next destination outside the small town of Otranto in southeastern Italy.
The terrain begins to flatten out and we enter the home stretch of our ride cruising at a comfortable pace that allows us to soak in the dramatic Mediterranean scenery.
The lonely road winds along craggy, rocky cliffs offering spectacular views of the sea extending to the coastal mountains of Albania far off in the distance.
We are halfway through a dynamic 10-day bike trip that began in the ancient city of Lecce. Leading our pack is the founder and owner of Piccolina Adventures, Laura Frew.
A former Nevada Union student and valedictorian that grew up in the small town of Oregon House (about 30 minutes from Nevada City), she has close ties to the local community.
Frew, an energetic and eternally upbeat character, started her travel company from humble beginnings with nothing more than a laptop, a love of Italian culture and a genuine passion for travel and adventure.
During her junior year at the University of California, Berkeley she took her first foray into real Italian life with an 11-month study abroad program in Bologna, Italy and became fluent in Italian.
After graduating in 2005, she journeyed back to Italy to live, work and continue exploring the country. She returned home to Northern California a year later to begin pursuing her dream of creating beautiful, personal, unique and unforgettable travel experiences for others.
“The focus of Piccolina Adventures is to lead active vacations that integrate cultural exploration with physical activity,” said Frew. “Each tour explores a destination’s beautiful landscape, while delving into the rich history, traditions, culture and local cuisines found there.”
The “Biking Puglia” trip focuses specifically on the region of Puglia, which is located in the southeastern corner of Italy. Widely unknown outside of Italian vacationers, Puglia (see the heel of the boot on the map of Italy) is a unique region with a distinct personality all its own. When compared with the iconic and heavily trafficked tourist destinations of cities like Rome, Venice or Florence, Puglia feels like a small country unto itself and almost completely independent of greater Italy.
It has a robust character all its own. The pace of life here is intoxicatingly relaxed and the people exude warmth and friendliness. The countryside is open, free and relatively unexplored by most outsiders.
Coming into the home stretch of today’s 25-mile ride, I become suddenly aware of just how famished I am. Thoughts of delicious, fresh-cooked local specialties begin to fill my mind and push me a bit harder towards our final destination for today.
We are stopping overnight to stay in a rustic agritourismo overlooking the sea and will soon be enjoying a well-deserved dinner and a night’s rest.
You might ask, “What’s an agritourismo?” The format combines the best amenities of a countryside inn, an organic farm, and a gourmet restaurant into one amazing establishment.
An agritourismo typically features an in-house restaurant serving meals prepared with organic produce and food grown on the establishment’s private land. Accommodations are conveniently awaiting you on site and you can leisurely return to your room after dining and enjoying a few glasses of the local wine.
The result is a thoroughly relaxing way to escape the hustle and bustle of city life and see a different side of Italy that one may not glimpse visiting larger cities and more populated areas.
A refreshing aspect to Piccolina Adventures and Frew’s business approach is that the trips cater to a balanced cross-section of people; From working professionals in their 20’s and 30’s escaping the daily grind of city existence, to students and recent graduates looking for a new adventure between semesters or following graduation, to free spirits in their 40’s, 50’s and 60’s eager to enjoy a new experience they may have missed out on in their youth.
As far as the biking and physical demands of the trip are concerned, an average day’s ride between destinations ranges from 20-45 miles, with one to two days interspersed where no ride is scheduled and free time is available to explore on one’s own.
“Most Piccolina trips don’t cater to avid cyclists looking for endurance rides. It was never intended to be aimed at those riders,” said Frew. “The tours are designed to provide an active and engaging way for adventurous and reasonably healthy people to truly experience Puglia in an authentic, comfortable and exciting way.”
After cleaning up from the day’s travels, we all gather at a long table on the patio outside the restaurant and sit down for a well deserved and anticipated dinner.
Our meal begins with a first course known as “antipasti.” This varied selection of appetizers is possibly my favorite part of an Italian meal and Frew has taken the liberty of selecting an array of local specialties.
Some favorites include: grilled homegrown eggplant, peppers and zucchini, calamari salad with tomatoes and cucumber, marinated anchovies, pepper stew, and tomatoes with “Frise”(a twice baked bread which is dipped in water to soften and covered with chopped red tomatoes, basil and olive oil).
The second course of pasta is almost an afterthought given the amount of antipasti that we have indulged in on this occasion.
Following the two-course meal and several glasses of locally grown red wine, we relax and listen to a group of local singers and musicians play “Pizzica,” a traditional folk music of Puglia employing acoustic guitar, tambourine and vocals.
We eventually retire to our rooms relaxed, with full bellies and more than ready to hit our pillows to get ready for another day of riding, new faces and new experiences.
When all is said and done and we prepare to board our respective flights back to the States, we have enjoyed guided tours of historic cities, taken a cooking class with a local chef, made our own pasta, enjoyed a winery tour and tasting, stayed the night in ancient stone dwellings, visited a Mozzarella factory, relaxed at an agriturismo, taken a boating cave tour, lounged on spectacular beaches, enjoyed exhilarating bike rides, indulged in a multitude of Italian foods and cuisines, and shared the experience with a group of newfound friends and fellow adventurers.
If you’re looking for a way to shake up your routine, put yourself in a new and vibrant setting and enjoy a vacation from atop a bicycle, expand your horizons and book a trip with Piccolina Adventures. Looking back, this will be a trip like no other.
San Francisco resident Alex Sheldon grew up in Oregon House.