As soon as Italy reopens to Britons, an escorted tour of Puglia will be a good choice for safety-conscious clients
Looking outside the window, all I can see are neat rows of olive trees and the odd farmhouse peeking out from the groves in the distance. There’s not a soul to be seen for miles – not until we reach the next town on our escorted tour.
I’m on a journey with Riviera Travel in Puglia, a region that has reported some of the lowest coronavirus cases in the country. Its rate of infection to date totals 17,863 compared with 195,744 in Lombardy in the north, which was the global epicentre of the pandemic when the first major outbreak gripped Europe seven months ago.
“Southern Italy is very spaced out,” explains tour manager Paula Stone. “It’s mainly farmland out in the country so there is less contact between people and fewer chances of cross-contamination, because people have naturally created their own bubbles.”
This, combined with Riviera’s rigorous safety measures, makes the Puglia, Lecce and Vieste – Undiscovered Italy itinerary an ideal socially distanced holiday.
As part of its Covid policy, the operator has reduced guest capacity across all its tours by splitting a typical group of about 50 into two – each with its own coach and dedicated tour manager.
“They are guaranteed to be a maximum of 25, so you can zig-zag up the coach with seating, so nobody has to sit directly behind or in front of somebody else,” says Stone.
“We divided it by flight [with one group from Liverpool and the other from Heathrow] to try to help keep the separation and social distancing.”
In addition, logistics for the groups are staggered, while seating at restaurants and hotels is allocated according to bookings. Our driver, Maurizio, sanitises luggage every time they are placed in and out of the coach, plus temperature checks are carried out at each new hotel we check into.
We also wear face masks in indoor spaces – and on public transport and in shops and restaurants, unless you are seated at a table – and outdoors in busy areas where you cannot maintain a one-metre minimum distance.
It’s nothing we’re not used to, though, and the sights on our itinerary soon push the pandemic to the back of the mind.
Unesco-listed Matera in Basilicata is a particular highlight, with its 9,000-year history and ancient town Sassi, making it the oldest city in the country. It feels like stepping back in time as our guide, Brunella, takes us to the heart of the stone warrens where 30,000 people once lived in destitution – including her father. It wasn’t until the 1950s that the Italian government rehoused the inhabitants of the caves, and from there the area flourished into the tourist hotspot it is today.
There is ample time to relish the city’s bygone days with a coffee after the tour, but more active clients might be tempted to cross the suspension bridge over the Gravina stream and hike uphill to the other side, where a marvellous panorama of the city can be taken in.
Alberobello, another Unesco World Heritage Site, is similarly extraordinary. The small town is famed for its trulli – traditional whitewashed stone houses with conical roofs. Visitors flock here to see the curious-looking homes, of which there are more than 1,500 squeezed into a small area.
The rest of the days comprise blissful explorations of Lecce, known as the Florence of the South; Bari, where we say a brief “buongiorno” to pasta lady Angela Lastella, who supplies her famous home-made orecchiette to local restaurants; Trani with its Romanesque architecture; and Peschici, a peaceful village overlooking the Adriatic Sea.
Foodies might not feel like they’ve truly experienced Puglia yet until they’ve tasted its famous “green gold”. The region is famous the world over for its extra virgin olive oil produced from more than 60 million trees; Puglia alone supplies 45% of the country’s oil.
A visit to family-run agriturismo Osteria Pane & Vino – a short drive from Peschici – offers a fascinating insight into olive oil production, as demonstrated by the farm’s warm and enthusiastic owner. Following the demo, we are led inside the wooden restaurant where we are served a “light lunch” of multiple traditional courses of farm-grown vegetables and homemade pasta, plus local white wine. The icing on the cake came when our group was shown how chefs make the orecchiette, with some of us taking it in turns to roll and pinch the dough into “little ears”.
Despite the “new era” of travel, the mood in the camp is relaxed and jovial: one couple told me they felt safer there than back at home, while another woman said she was simply happy to be able to go on the trip at all. Getting to know my fellow guests reminded me of the beauty of touring – how delightful it is to connect with like-minded travellers again.
In light of the increasing coronavirus cases in Italy that week, Riviera made the early decision to shorten the trip by one day – meaning we only missed a free day to explore, and still enjoyed everything on the itinerary – in anticipation of quarantine.
It never came to pass (that week at least), however it showed that in these uncertain times it pays to travel with an experienced company that will act decisively in guests’ interests should the need arise. From what I’ve seen, you can entrust clients to Riviera – they’ll be in safe hands.