By Philip Sheldon, CEO
Last winter, my staff challenged me to name the last time I went on a real vacation, rather than travel for a conference, a family visit or to research or lead an HE Travel gay tour. I couldn’t remember. So I checked our calendar of great spring and summer tours, and decided to take a real vacation.
I realized that, despite visiting SIX continents in the past decade, I hadn’t joined a bike tour since my amazing ride through Burgundy in 2003! Our clients love bike tours because they offer an intimate, authentic way to see a new region at a comfortable tempo. Biking is a great way to see the countryside, with the flexibility to stop and smell the flowers.
At the time, we had one room left on our Puglia Villa gay bike tour, so I signed up – as a client (I probably wouldn’t have made a very good bike guide). And as an added bonus, a good friend who is studying in Norway was able to join me for the week as well. We took lots of selfies.
Villa Cappelli, our lodging for the week, is the home of our hosts Paul and Steven, and they went out of their way to make us feel welcome. Instead of the flat-screen TVs and identical rooms of a chain hotel, we each had a unique bedroom. The 14th Century villa is built on the Appian Way, which was a popular route for pilgrims and Crusaders on their way to the Holy Land.
Instead of room service, we had a well-stocked (and always-open) kitchen that was the social center of the Villa. The delicious and decadent meals at Villa Cappelli were prepared by our hosts and served family style.
We usually dined on a covered terrace overlooking the large pool, but our most special dinner was in the wine cellar. We opened a massive wooden door, walked down a long flight of steps, and entered a chamber with a long wooden table lit only by candles. It felt like we were the honored guests at a medieval banquet!
Paul and Steven make daily trips to a lively produce market in the nearby village of Terlizzi to buy ripe vegetables, fruit and crisp greens. They also produce their own wine, olive oil and cherry conserve. When we went to a restaurant in Terlizzi it felt like we were going out with family because everywhere we turned somebody waved and greeted Paul and Steven, who are such generous and friendly neighbors to everyone in the town.
We took scenic bike rides each day to nearby villages, castles, historic landmarks and seaside towns, and visited museums, local craftsmen, and churches. Stronger cyclists had opportunities for extra challenges, and because we had a professional support team at the front and back of our group, the less athletic among us could go a little slower, or even hop in the van for a few kilometers if we needed to rest or catch up with the group.
During one of our bike rides Paul set up a lavish picnic of fresh fruits, cheese and cold cuts at a hilltop outcropping in Murgia National Park. While we ate, we had a view of fertile fields, vineyards, olive groves and our next bike path, as far as the eye could see. The fields were dotted with picturesque villages, many of which have been populated for over a millennium.
My favorite town was Gravina, named after a deep ravine, with a history dating back to a Greek settlement of the third century BC. We toured ancient churches that had been carved out of the steep rock walls centuries ago, then we walked across a Roman aqueduct to the village itself. Gravina’s huge cathedral stands strong on top of the bluff, but some buildings are perched so precariously on the steep hillside that a few have collapsed down the slope.
Actually, the most fun part of Gravina was watching one of our tour members flirt with a handsome local man who was out walking his dog. After a long conversation, they made plans to meet for dinner the next night, and they did!
Our host Paul Cappelli was fond of saying that this region had its heyday 1000 years ago and that the Renaissance passed it by, so it was not unusual to see churches and castles as old as the 1000-year-old church just around the corner from Villa Cappelli. A handsome local young man put on a medieval festival during our stay there, featuring fire jugglers, magic tricks, and a re-enactment of a knighting ceremony for a Crusader.
I’ve led and organized group travel for 18 years and I don’t think I’ve ever felt more at home than I did on this tour. I was welcomed as family in a part of the world I didn’t even know existed five years ago. I also enjoyed a memorable, invigorating week of cycling. As a 60-year-old who lives at sea level and isn’t able to do as much biking as I’d like, I was grateful to be able to hitch a ride on the van from time to time. However, each day I felt stronger, and on the last day I found I could keep up, and I arrived in the seaside town of Trani alongside my fellow riders in the peloton, with enough energy left to walk along the sea wall and gaze out at the Adriatic Sea. On a personal level, this was the most rewarding day of the entire week.
I’m determined to not let another decade pass before I take another bike tour!\
Read another Puglia Blog Post by Zachary Moses, HE Travel Marketing Director
Click Here for more details about the Puglia Villa Bike Tour.