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Cycling through Puglia

I’m back in Nardò this weekend, finalising the autumn workshops, including accommodation and cycling around. A bike is probably not the first mode of transportation that comes to mind when thinking of summer in Italy. And yet, in Salento (the southern part of Puglia), it works.

But, really, what choice do I have?

I don’t drive.

bike path next to the sea
Bike path in Santa Maria al Bagno (Nardò)

At one point in my life, I did drive. I got my license at sixteen, though the instructor didn’t make me complete a driving test. Then I moved to New York City for university and stayed for ten years. Having a car was unnecessary in Manhattan. Relocating to Australia, where cars drive on the left and are all manual was also a no-go. I think it’s around twenty years since I’ve driven a car.

How do I get around? On foot, by bike, public transportation and the largess (or impatience?) Luckily, The Netherlands is a small, highly interconnected country. I can reach every village or city by train, tram, metro bus or combination. However, budget cutbacks make this increasingly difficult. The trains are poorly managed, frequently cancelled, overcrowded and incredibly dirty. But still, you need to get to where you need to be.

sign of a person standing in from of a car with the caption "Bike street, cars are guests"
Cars are the guests in The Netherlands

For both short journeys and longer leisurely ones, the bike is ideal. The Netherlands’ bike infrastructure is the best (and safest) in the world. Whether by the beach, national parks or inside big cities, there is always space for the bike. Cars are being eliminated from the cities – parking spaces are removed, they aren’t allowed on some streets anymore, and parking is expensive. In the case of Amsterdam, the parking costs are the highest in Europe. There are even streets where cars are banned or, if they must be allowed, are reminded by the sign above that they are not the most important thing on the road.

Nardò also turns out to be ideal for cycling. It lies in the region of Salento, the southern part of Puglia, the heel of Italy. The three major provinces within Salento are Taranto, Brindisi and Lecce. Nardò lies within the Lecce province, which also has a capital city of the same name. Lecce is known as the “Florence of the South”, though they don’t resemble each other. Lecce is full of baroque architecture constructed from local limestone. The moniker comes from its centre having well-preserved monuments and even the significant remnants of a Roman amphitheatre.

bike path in Nardò
Nardò bike path

Nardò is the region’s second-largest city, with some 30.000 residents, making it lively, though liveable. And certainly never overcrowded. It doesn’t get the masses that descend on other parts of Puglia, and unlike some of the other cities in the region, Nardò has events year-round. Nardò, the city, is inland, but its commune includes the Ionian sea towns of Santa Maria al Bagno and Santa Caterina.

Founded around 1000 BCE, Nardò (known as Neretum and its inhabitants Neretini), Nardò, like its more populous, more well-known neighbour city Lecce, is full of baroque architecture, though on a smaller scale and much less crowded, giving you time and space to enjoy without the rush or stress of crowds. Nardò’s living room is Piazza Salendra, a central square with restaurants and a large baroque tower, often the meeting point for appointments. Major performances and festivals occur in or end up in the piazza.

Villa in Puglia with palm tree
Villa in Cenata

Nardò is easy enough to reach from the two major airports -The Salento region is generally flat and full of cyclable roads through vineyards, farmland and forests. The coast, however, has hills ringed by dunes and rocky cliffs. Porto Selvaggio is a dense forest along the coast, with several lookout points and a few small rocky beaches. When the weather isn’t too hot, you hike for several kilometres.

Nardò has recently installed bike paths extending almost entirely from the city centre to the beach. There are wide bike paths along the water itself, though, again, people use them as pavement extensions, so be aware. Conversely, you’ll often have the paths to yourself.

The paths themselves could be more logically planned, as in The Netherlands. You’ll often have to switch to the pavement. There aren’t good ways to cycle the roundabouts; far too often, the path stops abruptly, forcing you onto the road or farmland.

Yet, the rewards outweigh the obvious adoption issues. Cenate is a neighbourhood of grand (and, at times, not too grand) villas between Nardò and the sea. The bike path takes you past two of the below. Many of the villas are registered monuments and closed to the public. However, as part of the Writing Grove workshops, participants can tour some estates, meet the owners and learn about the houses and their inhabitants’ history.

villa in puglia

Because of the heat, an e-bike is ideal. It was thirty-five degrees Celsius when we went cycling to the beach. Cycling thirty minutes on a regular bike would’ve been too much, but with the added assistance of a battery, it wasn’t taxing.

Bikes can be rented from the tourist centre or tour operators in the city. If you plan to stay long term, you could buy one from stores like Euronics in town. Special thanks to my friend Allison for the tip on where to buy the bike! Cycling through Puglia gives you a chance to travel deeper.


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