chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.


Experience April/May 2023

Biking for Food and Wine

Gerald Joseph Todaro


  • Experience a biking adventure in the Puglia and Basilicata regions of Italy with its scenic routes, cultural experiences, and culinary delights.
Biking for Food and Wine Moser

Jump to:

When my back gave out, I turned to biking as my primary form of exercise. My wife and I bike with two other couples on weekends. We range in age from 60 to 76. For the past five summers, we’ve biked the Pelotonia, The Ohio State University cancer research fundraiser that has raised $250 million in 15 years. The rides range from 25 to 200 miles over relatively flat courses.

The beast, that be my wife, rides 200 miles in 2 days. What I call the badass twins, Kat and Chriss, closer to age 60, are fiercely competitive and ride more than 100 miles or more in one day and 40 miles on the second day, averaging 16-17 miles an hour.

I’m not saying they’re mean, but when I whine about their choice of hilly courses, they question my manhood.

So you can imagine how I felt when the ladies suggested we do a bike trip in Italy. Huh? Isn’t Italy hilly? But I wasn’t about to pass up a country known for its mouthwatering food and heavenly wine.

A challenging route to our tour

You can choose among many bike tour companies in Europe and the United States, including Bike and the Like, Adventure Travel Group, and Butterfield. The ladies chose Backroads, a California-based company that, according to Forbes, “is famed for the quality of its guides and for finding exceptional food.”

OK, I’m in.

We chose the Puglia to Basilicata bike tour. Puglia is the region of Italy called the heel of the boot and home to a spectacular 11th-century basilica. The cost for 6 days and 5 nights was $5,899 per person double occupancy for premium accommodations, excluding airfare from the United States and our lodging on the night of arrival in Bari. Stays in casual hotels run about 1,500 Euros cheaper.

As is, unfortunately, the case all too often with airline travel, our flight from Columbus, Ohio, to Boston was delayed, and our bags didn’t make the flight to Heathrow Airport in London. We spent a night in London as planned, which was a mistake.

Our bags didn’t catch up to us, and the next day, our flight from Gatwick Airport to Bari was cancelled. We stayed another night in a hotel 30 miles from Gatwick and returned the next day to find that we couldn’t board the flight to Bari because of a ticketing error by our travel agent.

Late that afternoon, we flew to Venice, Italy, and then onto Bari, arriving at 10 p.m. We’d missed our first day of biking, and the hotel booked through our tour was an hour away—and we had no idea how to get there. To our great relief, our tour company had a Mercedes van and driver ready to take us and our bags to the hotel.

Il Melograno is a small, tastefully restored 17th-century farmhouse nestled among olive trees. Our room was spacious and comfortable, my wife was pleased, and chocolates solve a lot of problems.

Meeting our guides and bikes

After breakfast the next morning, we packed our bags and left them outside our room. They would be transported to the next hotel. Besides never having to muscle your luggage, all breakfasts, four lunches, and all dinners are included, along with snacks and beverages between meals.

There we met our guides, who introduced themselves and showed us our bikes. In the past, I’ve rented bikes from tour operators that were poorly maintained, of poor quality, and heavy as a Brinks truck. These bikes were state-of-the-art lightweight titanium bikes equipped with electronic shifters. Our guides also showed us how to use our bike’s GPS.

I’d arranged for an ebike. I had a medical procedure two months before our trip, and I couldn’t train for any distance. And I didn’t want the beast and the twins waiting on me. Yeah, I can keep up with them—on steep downhills with the wind at my back.

One of the leaders asked me if I’d ridden an ebike before. I hadn’t. So I was given specific instructions on that. Once I was familiar with the shifting mechanism and the front and rear brake, our guide cautioned me to always start in the lowest gear or with the motor turned off. Otherwise, the bike can shoot forward and I could lose control. Turns out, no one in our group had an issue with handling an ebike.

There was no extra charge for the ebike. I thought it would be a little embarrassing to ride an ebike, even though the only difference was the small battery mounted on the frame below the handlebars. But there were 26 people in our group, and a third had an ebike. I could ride the bike like a regular road bike or use the motor on the steep hills. There were four levels of boost on my ebike: eco, touring, sport, and turbo.

Oh, my, those steep Italian hillsides were a day at the beach on turbo drive. I have to say that if you’re a reasonably fit cyclist but feel somewhat intimidated by the more physical levels of biking in Europe, an ebike eliminates the stress and worry of struggling on long rides on steep hills.

You set the pace

In our group of 26, there were riders of all fitness levels. Our trip was designed to meet various biking abilities, interests, and stamina. Some days the route options had three or four levels of difficulty to choose from. The options depend on distance and altitude.

Level 1, for example, may be 15 miles and a gain of elevation of 800 feet. A level 4 may cover 40 miles with 3,000 feet of elevation. Our tour allowed riders to select the level they felt comfortable with for a particular day, and at any time, they could call for the shuttle to take them back to the hotel.

The routes planned for our trip were off the beaten path of crowded, touristy areas. On our first day, which was everyone else’s second, we biked along the Adriatic coast past quaint fishing villages overlooking a calm, sapphire blue sea. I had a flat tire midafternoon. One of the leaders showed up in five minutes, exchanged his front tire for mine, and we were back biking before I could finish my power bar.

It was the first week of June, so after our ride that afternoon, we relaxed by the pool and sipped our favorite beverages. Then we were chauffeured to a cooking demonstration and wine tasting led by a sommelier, followed by dinner. After dinner, our travel frustrations were a distant memory.

On day 3, we toured Alberobello in the southern region of Puglia, a UNESCO World Heritage site with 1,500 cone-roof trulli. Trulli are drystone huts with corbelled roofs dating back to the 1400s. Using slabs of limestone, these tiny houses were constructed around a circular base and domed at the top.

We visited the well-maintained huts, which some of the residents have refurbished and now live in. Later we lunched at a sidewalk restaurant. Inside a trulli, we watched and learned from a master how to make mozzarella cheese.

The next day, we biked rolling country roads to the charming 7th-century town of Ostuni, known as the white city, which is a maze of whitewashed buildings perched atop a hill. Later that evening, we learned to make pasta and dined on fresh seafood. We also tasted some of the finest red wine produced in the Puglia region.

On our last night, we arrived in the ancient city of Matera known for its cave dwellings. We stayed at the Sextantio Le Grotte della Civita. This hotel sleeps its guest in caves carved into the stone face of a hill. Our room was comfortable and fascinating—no minibar, though.

Because of the ancient primeval-looking scenery in the heart of the city, dozens of movies have been filmed in Matera. The Passion of the Christ and the latest James Bond film, No Time to Die, are among them.

Back home, reflecting on our adventure, I have to agree with those who say that a focus on active travel is a richer and more flexible way to see the world. This won’t be my last biking adventure.