Gargano, Puglia: Discover the Wonders of this Glorious Coastline
As a new travel company dedicated to bringing you the very best of Italy and Croatia, Olive Tree Escapes is thrilled to share our enthusiasm for this compelling corner of the Mediterranean. And a fun fact of which you might not be aware is that a little bit of Croatia is actually embedded in Italy, meaning its specific geological characteristics show up on opposite shores of the Adriatic Sea. That’s because millions of years ago the two countries were part of the same landmass; when it split into the Apennine (Italian) peninsula and the Balkan peninsula, a couple of pieces of Croatia got left behind.
Italian Promontories in the Adriatic Sea
The only significant protrusions into the sea along Italy’s relatively smooth Adriatic coast are the promontories of Monte Conero and Monte Gargano, and this is where the “Croatian infiltration” occurs. Monte Conero, right below Ancona in the Marche region, is just a small bump, however Monte Gargano on Puglia’s Gulf of Manfredonia—dubbed the ‘spur’ on the heel of the Italian ‘boot’—is 40 miles long and 25 miles at its widest so its greater expanse shelters thousands of rare animal and plant species. Many came from the Balkans and were stranded here in prehistoric times: fantastic sounding beasts like hairy hedgehogs, five-horned prong deer, giant hamsters and extinct, flightless, goose-like waterfowl are reduced to fossils now, but numerous insects found nowhere else in Italy still live on the Gargano Promontory, while over 65 species of orchids sweetly perfume the air in springtime.
Much of this high, rocky promontory lies within the 30,000-acre Gargano National Park, whose forests have never been felled in human history. The magnificent Umbra Forest contains some of the country’s oldest trees—mainly beech—and for its exceptional naturalistic value, it was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2017 as part of a transboundary property that stretches over 12 countries, Croatia among them. Half-day guided hikes of the Umbra Forest can be reserved at the park’s visitor center; bike rental and walking maps are available here too.
Visit the UNESCO site of Monte Sant’Angelo
The national park shelters another UNESCO World Heritage Site, Monte Sant’Angelo, inscribed in 2011 as one of seven Longobard Places of Power in Italy. Developed around the location where the Archangel Michael appeared to the Bishop of Siponto on several occasions starting in 490 AD, this is the first shrine ever dedicated to St. Michael in Western Europe.
It quickly became a very popular pilgrimage destination, which it still is today; this comprehensive website with opening hours for the various monuments, special events and Mass times is helpful in planning a visit. Don’t miss the sacred cave where the Archangel made his appearances, adorned with a statue of St. Michael carved in white Carrara marble by the High Renaissance master, Jacopo Sansovino.
Monte Sant’Angelo features attractive whitewashed houses running down the side of a hill, overlooking the deep-blue sea. The town is renowned throughout Italy for its bread, famous not only for its natural goodness and epic dimensions (a round, crusty loaf can weigh up to 15 lbs) but also for its durability: the bread is edible (and sliceable) for 8 or 9 days after leaving the oven. Try it alongside a slab of ‘grilled’—meaning melted—caciocavallo cheese, another local specialty. Or pick up a loaf to take with you before heading down to the coast; it’s perfect for making sandwiches for a picnic on the beach.
Discover Gargano’s Coastal Towns
Gargano’s coastline seems permanently bathed in a pink-hued, pearly light, in contrast to the sea which softens from cobalt to powder blue as evening falls. It’s one of Italy’s most beautiful spots: towering white limestone cliffs riddled with grottoes, secluded bays, sandy beaches lapped by the sparkling Adriatic, citrus groves, olive trees and fragrant macchia mediterranea (dense scrub vegetation) share the stage with the storybook villages of Vieste and Peschici on the promontories’ eastern edge. Here you’ll find wrought-iron balconies with geraniums spilling over the railings, gorgeous sea views and one cliffside castle apiece.
Don’t Miss the Idyllic Tremiti Islands Archipelago
Nearly 110 miles of shoreline means hundreds of sandy beaches to choose from, many of them all but unused except in July and August; travelers seeking to get even further off the beaten path can hop a ferry or hydrofoil over to the Tremiti Islands. These five bite-sized islands—only two, San Domino and San Nicola, are populated—form an archipelago and this is where Gargano most resembles Croatia, although in a much reduced version (Croatia boasts an astounding 1,185 islands, 66 of them inhabited).
This truly natural paradise makes a great day trip from the Gargano towns of Manfredonia, Vieste, Peschici and Rodi Garganico. Boats to the Tremiti Islands also leave from Pescara, Ortona, Vasto and Termoli; no car ferries, though, since motor vehicles are not permitted. They’re not needed since San Domino, the largest and lushest island, is small enough to cross on foot in under two hours. And dozens of beautiful coves dot the island’s tortuous coastline: Cala Tramontana on its northern side, plus Cala Matano and Cala delle Arene—the archipelago’s only sand beaches—rate a special mention.
Smaller San Nicola exudes a sort of mystical atmosphere, due mainly to the imposing Abbey of Santa Maria a Mare (Holy Mary on the Sea) that towers above the harbor. Originally constructed in the 9th century by Benedictine monks, the abbey reached the apex of its splendor in the 11th century, as the church’s elaborate mosaic floor attests. Charles I of Anjou subsequently fortified the abbey, but in 1334 it was attacked by Dalmatian corsairs who killed all the monks. A religious order of Lateran canons restored the abbey and extended its buildings, creating several cisterns which still function to this day. It was suppressed in 1783 by King Ferdinand IV of Naples, who established a penal colony there the same year.
Islands make ideal prisons—Alcatraz and Rikers Island, to name two—and in ancient times the Roman Emperor Augustus chose the Tremiti as the place of exile for his adulterous granddaughter, Giulia. The islands were also used for the internment of political prisoners during Benito Mussolini’s Fascist regime. Starting in 1938, Mussolini had dozens of homosexuals deported to San Domino, giving the island the distinction of being the only internment camp in which all the prisoners were gay (although some found life in the country’s first openly gay community to be a liberating experience).
Eighty years later, just spending time on this idyllic archipelago in the Adriatic is a liberating experience! Divers will want to explore the archipelago’s impressive underwater caves and coral reefs, while no one should miss circumnavigating the islands by motorboat or gommone (motorized rubber dinghy). Group motorboat tours depart from the marinas of San Domino and San Nicola, sailing along the beautiful shores of San Nicola, San Domino, Capraia and Cretaccio (Pianosa, the fifth island, has the lowest elevation and is sometimes submerged). Circumnavigation takes at least an hour and a half and includes two stops for swimming or snorkeling. Renting a gommone costs more but allows the freedom to stop when and where you want; these can be hired from one of the booths at San Domino’s marina.
Dive Into the Adriatic With a Croatian-Puglian Vacation
And a match made in heaven is the Croatian-Puglian vacation an OTE honeymoon couple has planned. Two glorious weeks starting today in Split, Croatia, with a day trip to Sibenik and a stop to see the waterfalls in Krka National Park. Then some downtime on the beautiful island of Brac, with one day set aside for a private speedboat tour of the island of Hvar. A speedboat will also whisk the couple and their luggage right to the Split airport pier for the short flight to Rome. After three nights in the Eternal City, with a chance to visit the unmissable Colosseum and Vatican, it’s off to Puglia’s international airport in Bari where they’ll pick up a rental car to begin their five-day Puglian adventure.
This custom itinerary is just one of the many ways Croatia and Puglia can be combined, so feel free to call and ask us for more great ideas!