Puglia is a thirsty place. Its few rivers are torrential, found only on the vast tavoliere plain at the foot of the Gargano promontory, a rocky spur that juts out into the Adriatic in the northernmost part of the region. Everywhere else, rainwater permeates the Pugliese limestone bedrock to form underground watercourses that resurface near the coast. Since the region is blessed with more than 300 sunny days a year and as many as 14 hours of daylight during the summer, water accessibility has always been an issue.
A solution to Puglia’s eternal thirst arrived in the form of the Acquedotto Pugliese, one of the largest Italian construction projects undertaken in the early 20th century here. The plan was a bold one. Since there weren’t any reliable rivers with consistent flow to harness in Puglia, engineers tapped into the headwaters of the Sele River in Campania on the western side of the Apennine watershed. The plan called for an almost ten-mile long tunnel through the Apennines to get the water to the eastern side of the mountains, supported by a labyrinth of ancillary tunnels, pipes and waterways that spread like a spider web through Italy’s southern mainland.
The project involved over 20,000 workers at the outset in 1906 and was planned to be completed by 1916. This didn’t happen—World War I stopped work completely for a time—but the first fresh water reached Bari by 1915. The entire project was considered finished in 1939, but it’s had consistent maintenance and repair ever since. Today, the entire length of the aqueduct is about 1,360 miles, serving more than 4 million customers in over 250 cities, towns and villages.
While we appreciate the Acquedotto Pugliese for the water, we’ve recently discovered a new reason to praise the foresight of Italy’s engineers. Since a network of bridges and tunnels supports the aqueduct’s pipes, it’s possible to follow it on foot or by bicycle from its inception near Naples to the waterfall that marks its end in Santa Maria di Leuca, the southernmost tip of the Pugliese boot heel. Our own exploration hasn’t been quite so involved—more than 1,000 miles in the saddle requires serious commitment—but we have ridden an 15 mile section near our country property and it was some of the best cycling we’ve done.
With a group of engineers and bicycling enthusiasts from the Brindisi area, we started our ride in the Pineta Ulmo near Ceglia Messapica, a nearby town noted for the quality of its food in a country where the standards are admittedly pretty rigorous. Among the riders was Dr. Alberto Mele, the director of agriculture, agritourism and masserias (rural manor houses in the midst of large, working farms) for the province of Brindisi in the region of Puglia. In 2012, Dr. Mele and his team completed a visionary project called Autumn in the Masserias that involved a series of cycle tours from farmhouse to farmhouse in the province. Cyclists were treated to demonstrations of farmhouse activities—mozzarella production, pasta workshops and more—while tasting masseria products and learning more about their role in the rural economy here.
While we missed the organized event, Dr. Mele gave us our own personal tour through the fields and byways of one of the most beautiful valleys in Italy a few weeks ago. Removed from the regular roadways on the aqueduct, we had a whole new perspective on the villages, farms and fields of the Valle d’Itria. Since the protected passageway doesn’t offer much in the way of challenging climbs or descents, riders are free to take in the scenery. And what a scene it is! The deep red of the soil, turquoise skies and creamy limestone farmhouses seemed more vivid than ever, overlaid with the heady scent of wild mint, wildflowers and cherry blossoms. And the group was especially convivial. All of the ride participants work in the provincial government that is committed to promoting this area’s natural resources and agricultural wealth, so their enthusiasm was contagious. One participant, an 82-year-old from Martina Franca, was the powerhouse of the group, generally found at the head of the pack. He had little patience for all the sightseeing, though, saying “At my age, you don’t stop pedaling if you can help it.”
We ended up at a tavola calda (lunch counter) in Locorotondo, with an embarrassingly rich selection of antipasti, first and second courses all waiting for us. When we’d finished, we got back on the bikes, a serious struggle, and headed back to Martina Franca, completing a 40 mile circuit with some of the best scenery and companionship we’ve ever had.
The Acquedotto Pugliese brought a new level of prosperity to Puglia by ensuring a reliable source of clean, abundant water in an area that struggled to access it otherwise. But its living on as a platform for clean cycle touring here, exposing Puglia’s physical charms for a new generation of visitors. With foresight by Dr. Mele’s group, we can expect to see more sustainable projects like Autumn in the Masserias, which may eventually prove to be as helpful economically today as the aqueduct was almost a hundred years ago.