September 2020: donkey treks; a Greek masterpiece rediscovered; a fab weekend in northern PugliaTuesday, 15 September 2020
Events in Italy in September
Donkey Trekking in Umbria; Cooperativa La Mulattiera (Ancarano di Norcia, Via Blasi 25; http://www.lamulattiera.it). What could be more therapeutic in these challenging times than walking with donkeys though the beautiful valleys and mountains of Umbria? La Mulattiera (the Mule Trail) Cooperative is a group of likeminded people who breed and raise donkeys. Among other thing they organise multiday guided treks with donkeys in the uncontaminated nature of the ‘green heart of Italy’. But, they also organise self-guided treks, with maps, accommodation and food booked and donkeys provided. What could be better??
MITO September Music, various venues in Milan and Turin (http://www.mitosettembremusica.it/en): This annual festival takes place in Milan and Turin: 80 concerts in 16 days, dedicated to classical symphonic music. It kicked off on September 4 in Turin and it continues in several locations around the two cities. Check the program on the official website for more information.
The Boxer, Palazzo Massimo Museum, Rome (Largo di Villa Peretti, 2; www.youtube.com/watch?v=PE45pPCRCuc). After an extended restoration, one of the most extraordinary bronze sculptures of antiquity has been returned to Rome’s National Museum. Created in Greece in the 2nd century BC, this moving sculpture shows an old, battle-scarred boxer, still bloody from a bout, looking up to hear his fate. It was recognised as a masterpiece in its day and was rediscovered in Rome a hundred years ago.
Hidden Italy weekend (Puglia): Gargano Peninsula and the Tremiti Islands
Hidden Italy September weekend: Gargano Peninsula (northern Puglia) and the Tremiti Islands
Surrounded by sparkling waters, white limestone cliffs and pretty fishing villages and with its vast forests criss-crossed by ancient pilgrim trails, Gargano, a forested peninsula in the north of Puglia, is a perfect place for a Hidden Italy weekend, particularly in September when the crowds have gone, the weather is cooling down and the forest are changing colour.
Gargano is the ‘spur’ on the boot of Italy, an expansive promontory covered by one of Italy’s oldest national parks. Millions of years Gargano was an island. Alluvial soils carried down by rivers in the nearby Apennine Mountains ultimately joined Gargano to terrafirma but the ‘island’ maintains its wildness and fascination. With its mix of mountains and sea, Gargano has a unique ecosystem with 35% of the flora of Italy, including ninety-five different species of orchids and an ancient beech forest that occurs between covers one hundred and twenty-five hectares and was placed on the World Heritage List in 2017.
With its strategic position, Gargano also has a very rich and fascinating history. It has been inhabited since Neolithic times and has towns that were founded by the ancient Greeks and Romans, however, it was under Norman rule during the Crusades in the 11th and 12th centuries that Gargano reached its greatest glory when the sanctuary of Monte San Michele became one of the most important pilgrim destinations in the Middle Ages.
There are many wonderful places in Gargano (it is, in fact, one of my favourite parts of Italy) but we have limited ourselves to presenting three locations that show the diversity of the peninsula: the little mountain village of Vico del Gargano; the splendid coastal town of Vieste; and the Tremiti Islands, a small archipelago an hour by boat off the coast.
The Mountains: Vico del Gargano
Vico is listed as one of Italy’s most beautiful villages. Perched on a plateau 450 mts above sea level overlooking the northern coast of the peninsula, Vico del Gargano is quite removed from the summer bustle of the coastal towns. It has a population of eight thousand people, thirteen churches, thirteen medieval towers and a perfectly preserved historic centre which is divided into three quarters: the ancient Civita (around the castle); Terra (below the castle, where the nobility lived) and Casale (built outside the walls in the 17th century to house Greek refugees).
Oranges were introduced here in the 16th century, bringing a certain level of prosperity to the town, it is the only place on the Adriatic Sea that still produces citrus fruit. Worried about the threat the icy winter winds from the Balkans held for the crop, the townsfolk travelled to Rome and obtained the permission of the Pope to select a second town patron, one whose saint’s day fell in the winter in February. They chose St Valentine. Citrus fruits are still important and every 14th of February a colourful procession is held to celebrate the saint. The tradition has it that, on this night, young couples declare their love for each other in a narrow lane (only 50 cms wide) in the centre known as the Vicolo del Bacio (Kissing Lane).
With its location between the coast and the mountains and relatively untouched by tourism, Vico is an excellent base from which to explore the Gargano.
How to get there:
By car: take the A14 autostrada from Bologna to Taranto, leaving at the Poggio Imperiale exit and then picking up the state highway 693. By train: the closest station is Foggia, which is on the Rome to Bari line (there are several trains a day but it is best to get the Frecciarossa fast train, which takes around four hours). There is a regular, if slow, bus service from Foggia station to Vico.
Where to stay:
Hotel Maremonti (Via della Resistenza, 119). An historic hotel in the centre of town, this comfortable, family-run 3-star hotel has all you’ll need. Double from 70 euro per night.
Pizzacato B&B (Via Bucci 13). This lovely b&b has four self-contained apartments. It is owned by the same family who own the celebrated homonymous bar/pastry shop in the centre of town. 40 euro per person with a sumptuous breakfast included.
Villa Maria Park Hotel (San Menaio, Via del Carbonaro, 15). This elegant, arte nouveau villa was built in the early 1900s. It is immersed in a pine forest, two hundred metres from the beach. A double room with breakfast starts from 80 euro per night.
Where to eat:
La Corte Federiciana (Via Chiesa Madre 10). This elegant restaurant is in the courtyard of the town’s medieval castle and specialises in local cuisine including a delicious roast pork with citrus sauce. Around 50 euro per person.
Locanda Miki (Locality Vadotiglia). Miki’s cooking has been celebrated since this simple restaurant opened in 1949. It presents a comprehensive choice of local cooking grilled meats to seafood and is famous for its orecchiette with chickpeas and mussels. From 35 euro per person.
Cantina Il Trappetto (Via Casale 168). Set in an old olive mill excavated into the mountain, this relaxed trattoria serves tasty local treats and, in the season, is a wine bar with occasional live music. From 25 euro per person.
What to do:
Vico is only ten kilometres from the coast but the real treasure is the vast forest behind Vico. Although the Gargano National Park takes in most of the peninsula, only a small part of this, the Foresta Umbra (the Forest of Shadows) is truly wild. The forest is the last remnant of Puglia’s ancient forests and shades the peaks of the mountainous interior with a blaket of Aleppo pines, oak and beech. It was World Heritage Listed in 2017. There are plenty of marked trails within the forests’ 15,000 hectares and there are several picnic areas.
The Villaggio Umbra, a short drive south of Vico, is in the heart of the forest. The Corpo Forestale dello Stato runs an information centre here housing a small museum and a nature centre. You can pick up a hiking map here, in both English and Italian, with a variety of simpler walks shown. Local tour operator can also organise excursions (eg www.exlporagargano.it) and, of course, Hidden Italy offers a fabulous self-guided walk (one of my favourites) that walks to length of the peninsula, from mountains to the sea (www.hiddenitaly.com.au/self-guided-walks/).
The Sea: Vieste
Vieste is an attractive white-washed town jutting off Gargano’s easternmost rocky promontory into the Adriatic Sea. It is one of the oldest towns in northern Puglia: there were Neolithic settlements; it was a Greek town before it became a Roman town. In the Dark Ages it was ruled by the Byzantines, then the Lombards, the Normans, the Germans, the French, the Spanish and finally the kings of Naples before becoming part of united Italy in 1860. Whew!
With all this chopping and changing, life was rarely easy for the people of Vieste. The town was sacked by the Venetian in 1239 and then regularly raided by the Ottoman Turks. The lowest point, though, came in 1554 when a pirate called Dragut raided the town carrying away part of the population as slaves and beheading the rest (some say five thousand people died) – the chopping block, Chianca Amara (the Bitter Rock), is held in the cathedral.
Fortunately, that was all a long time ago and Vieste now is a relaxed, very attractive place with the old town, a tangle of narrow white-washed lanes, spectacularly extending along a narrow peninsula, with wide, white-sand beaches rolling out on either side. It is a lively, fun place in summer, packed with Italian holidaymakers but much more relaxed in the pleasant spring and autumn months. It is an ideal place from which to explore the spectacular coastline with its white, limestone cliffs and hidden bays and beaches. It’s also the jump off point for the Tremiti islands (see below).
How to get there:
By car: take the A14 autostrada from Bologna to Taranto, leaving at the Foggia exit and then picking up the state highway SS89 around the coast. By train: the closest station is Foggia, which is on the Rome to Bari line (there are several trains a day but it is best to get the Frecciarossa fast train, which takes around four hours). There is a regular bus service from Foggia station to Vieste.
Where to stay:
Hotel Seggio (Via Vesta 7). This small 3-star hotel is in heart of the old town. Rooms overlook the bay and there are vertiginous views down to the hotel’s private salt-water pool, tiny private beach and lagoon. Doubles from 150 euro per night.
Palace Hotel (Via Santa Maria di Merino, 7). A short walk from the marina, this 4-star hotel has modern roofs set in historic palazzo. Doubles with breakfast from 120 euro per night.
Where to eat:
Enoteca Veste (Via Duomo 14). An excellent family-run restaurant in the centre of the old town set in a cavern excavated into the limestone. Around 45 euro per person.
Osteria degli Archi (Via Ripe 2). Sitting out on the point of San Francesco, this lovely restaurant occupies a restored stone building in the seawall. It specialises in seafood and uses its own olive oil and wines. Around 35 euro per person.
Ristorante Box 19 (Via Santa Maria di Merino 13). Outside the old town a short walk from the new port and marina, this is an old-school restaurant popular with the locals. Around 45 euro per person.
What to do:
Although the beautiful interior is quite accessible from Vieste, visiting the town is really all about the beaches and the stunning coastline. The most convenient is San Lorenzo, a small beach with fine white sand north of the town or Pizzomunno, a long, flat sandy beach to the south of the town. Slightly less popular is the marvellous Scialmarino Beach, 4.5 kms up the coast towards Peschici but the nicest of all is the small Baia San Felice, squeezed between two headlands and backed by pnie trees, just before you get to Testa del Gargano, 7 kms to the south of the town.
If you want to swim away from the crowds and explore the spectacular, grotto-ridden coastline take an organised cruise, three-hour boat trips leave regularly from Punta San Francesco (Gargano Viaggi, www.garganoviaggi.it) and from the marina (Motobarca Desiree, www.garganook.com). Or, you can always hire your own gommone (rubber dinghy) and explore the coast at your leisure (Gargano Rent, www.garganorent.com).
The Islands: Tremiti
It is always an adventure to sail out to an island and this beautiful archipelago of three islands forty kilometres offshore from Vieste makes for a splendid trip. The hour-long boat trip takes you to raggedy cliffs, sandy coves and thick pine forests, surrounded by glittering dark-blue sea. Unfortunately, this no secret, at least to the Italians, and the islands are swamped with tourist during July and August, somewhat masking the islands’ natural beauty and tranquility, but out of season in spring and autumn it is a magical place.
The islands were traditionally a place of exile and punishment. Emperor Augustus his gand-daughter Julia to these islands and Charlemagne packed his father-in-law off here in the 8th century (minus his limbs and eyes). Monks from Montecassino built a monastery here in the 11th century that was able to resist the Turkish incursions. Later, in the 18th century, the Boubon kings of Naples send political prisoners here although they later worried about the declining population and shipped two hundred women from Neapolitan taverns to encourage a recovery.
How to get there:
There are year-round catamaran and hydrofoil connections to the Tremiti Islands (around 5 euro per person from Vieste each way). Tickets are available from a number of agencies in Vieste, including Gargano Viaggi (www.garganoviaggi.it) and the Adriatic office (www.tirrenia.it).
Where to stay:
Hotel La Vela (Via Vespucci, San Domino). Family-run, this 3-star hotels has 14 luminous rooms, each with independent access. It also has a good restaurant which prepares local specialities using vegetables grown from their own garden. Double room with half-board from 140 euro.
Relais Al Faro (Via Aldo Moro, 22). This simple hotel is surrounded by pine trees in the centre of San Domino. It has cheerily decorated rooms and self-contained apartments. Hotel doubles with breakfast start from 45 euro per night. An apartment that sleeps five starts from 140 euro per night.
Hotel/Ristorante Gabbiano (Via Giuseppe Garibaldi, 5). This comfortable 3-star hotel is run by a family that migrated from Naples is in forest, 15 minutes’ walk from the ferry terminal. It has 15 elegant rooms, as well as a number of self-contained ‘villetta’s, as well as a very good restaurant. Double rooms from 160 euro per night with half-board.
Where to eat:
Ristorante Il Pirata (Cala delle Arene). This classy restaurant has a terrace with views over one of the prettiest beaches of San Domino (the only sand one). It specialises, of course, in fresh fish. Dinner per person from around 40 euro.
Oasi (Via Cantina Sperimentale 7). Immersed in the pine forests with a terrace with panoramic views, this restaurant proposes seafood dishes such as paccheri (flat, tubular pasta) servied with a butterfly fish sauce and local capers; Catalan-style lobster and crudité di frutti di mare (Tremiti-style sashimi). Around 48 euro per person.
L’Altro Faro (Via G Murat 18). This relaxed, family-run restaurant with a menu that varies each day, depending on the day’s catch. Highly recommended: the Tremite fish soup; spaghetti seafood carbonara; and calamari kebab.
What to do:
Most ferries arrive at San Nicola, where you can wander around the monastic fortress and the tiny church of Santa Maria a Mare, built by the monks in the 11th century on the site of an earlier 9th century hermitage. San Nicola is rugged and rocky with no beaches, although there is nude bathing on the east side and good swimming off the whole island.
The next stop (a couple of minutes further on) is San Domino island, it’s greener than its neighbour and it’s pines offer welcome shade. It is ringer by sandy bays, rocky coves and limestone cliffs and is covered in tall pine forests and thick maquis flecked with rosemary and foxgloves. There are several small coves where you can swim in amazingly clear waters.
You can take a boat trip around the island (10 euro per person from the port) and exploring the grottoes, including the largest called the Grotta del Bue Marino, which is nearly 50 metres deep. A boat tour around the three islands costs 16 euro per person.
For the more active, you can go diving in the translucent sea with Blue Space (www.tremitidiving.com). There is an undemanding but enchanting walking track around the island, starting at the far end of the village. Alternatively, you could hire a bicycle from Jimmy Bike at Piazzetta San Domino.