Puglia, the region occupying the spur and heel of Italy’s boot, offers up any number of interesting options for perfect summer vacations. From captivating coastal villages to the baroque beauty of Lecce, often called the Florence of the South, Puglia is a region far from the maddening crowds of summer vacationers in Rome, Venice and Florence.
One of the most beautiful parts of Puglia is the Gargano Peninsula [the spur of the boot] on the Adriatic Sea in Foggia Province. Most of the area is a 300,000-acre national park with a mountain running through it.
While you can stay in the States and visit a national park or certainly find a great beach, Gargano National Park goes on your list because it is in Italy and now want to see what’s off the beaten path.
This park is a nature lover’s paradise of unspoiled beaches with bays, coves, caves, dunes and cliffs. So, enjoying the beach means more than reclining on a strip of sand or even wind surfing and boating. The north side of the park also has two salt lakes Lesina and Varano.
You can also hike through the last remains of the Forest Umbria that once covered most of Europe. You’ll see spectacular ancient beech and chestnut trees. And, orchid lovers alert, here you will find the highest concentration of orchids in all of Europe with more than 60 different kinds recorded.
As you would expect from any national park Gargano has a number of interesting hiking trails and biking opportunities. Check out the garganotravelguide.com site for more details. You may also contact the park directly by sending an email to info (at) parcogargano.it or phoning 0884.568911.
The easiest way to reach the Gargano area is to fly into the Abruzzo Airport then rent a car and drive about two hours to the park. You can actually drive the very scenic Route 89 coastal road around the park in about 7 hours or longer with stops to enjoy the sites.
Lodging near the park has grown over the years and in Vieste, the closest town to the park you’ll find two new hotels the I Melograni [from $65] and Garden Hotel Ripa [from $78] [More information at venere.com.] Just outside of Vieste on the coastal road to Peschici you’ll see signs for Terrazza sul Mare an area with apartments as well as rustic sites with showers. The restaurant on site even bakes up brick oven pizza.
You’ll also find lodging in Mattinata, Monte Sant’Angelo, Peschici and Vico del Gargano all of which have expanded their fishing and agricultural economy by welcoming tourists.
While you’re in the Gargano area be sure to book a day trip over to the outlying Tremiti Islands about 12 miles off the northern coast of the park. These islands are a protected marine reserve and are home to an isolated settlement of fishermen who still speak an ancient Partenopean dialect.
On the largest of the three islands, Domino, you’ll find many caves including the Grotta del Bue Marino. The island of San Nicola houses the Abbey of Santa Maria at Sea, which was built around the year 1000 and features the mosaic of the Black Madonna. Trips out to the Tremiti Islands leave from Rodi, Peschici, Vieste, Manfredonia and Termoli.
If you have a lot of vacation time, by all means explore Puglia from top to bottom. Each of its provinces offers interesting sites. To reach the southern Puglia area you can fly into international airports in Bari or Brindisi from London or from major cities in Italy.
You may want to spend some time exploring the province of Bari, especially the village of Alberobello, a UNESCO World Heritage site that is famous for its conical, whitewashed structures called trulli.
There are many points of interest along the way, if you choose to drive from Gargano south down the Adriatic Coast. The town of Ostuni has a stunning hilltop town reminiscent of Umbria’s hill town. It also is home to Frederick II’s 13th century Swabian castles and has one of the best white sand beaches around.
If you fly into the Brindisi Airport, you’ll find coach service several times a day down to Lecce, sometimes called the Florence of the South, has beautiful baroque structures such as the Church of Santa Croce. In fact, the old town area is a perfect for strolling and enjoying the architecture including a 2nd Century Roman amphitheatre near Sant’Oronzo Square. Lecce has a mélange of historical cultures that is definitely reflected in the local culinary fare with traces of Arab, Spanish and Greek influences.
The Risorgimento Resort located in Lecce’s Baroque quarter is a great hotel choice with a rooftop restaurant with panoramic views. It offers free Wi-Fi, large modern rooms, and a relaxing spa. If you want to appeal to a golfer in the group by all means check out the Hilton Hotel Acaya near Lecce.
Puglia is just a great, mostly unspoiled region that you should enjoy now before it reaches everyone’s radar screen. Think of it as having the charm of Tuscany before everyone began clamoring for Tuscany’s charm.
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