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The Gargano


The Gargano peninsula, known as the spur of Italy, covers an area of almost 3,000 square kilometers.  A veritable limestone island of mountains (between 600m and 1,000m high), the Gargano's very inaccessibility and total independence from the Apennines and the rest of Italy determined its very nature and customs.  Once a remote place, unaffected by the outside world it developed, and has amazingly managed to maintain, its charm, traditions, characteristics and unique dialects.

The rugged coastline is dotted with ancient villages, the interior is a mountainous region of deciduous forest.  Between the forest and the sea, the landscape is an ocean of olives and pine woods.  Along the northern coast two large sea-water lakes are home to all manner of wildfowl and the southern coast is bounded by the Gulf of Manfredonia.  The whole being a National Park.

 

WEATHER     The Gargano enjoys a Mediterranean climate with rainfall, concentrated in the autumn and winter months, of about 60cm pa in the valleys and 120cm pa in the hills and mountains.  

 

COASTLINE     The Gargano has 200km of beautiful, primitive, unspoilt coastline, much of it only accessible by boat.  Sandy beaches, pebbly bays, rocky coves, sand dunes, sheer cliffs, caves and magnificent stacks; all natural works of art and architecture sculpted by sea and wind.  The Tremiti Islands are jewels in the Gargano crown; surrounded by crystal clear waters teeming with many species of sea flora and fauna. 

 

PARCO NAZIONALE DEL GARGANO     The Gargano National Park was instituted on 5th June 1995 and extends over an area of 120,000 hectares (approximately 300,000 acres).  From sea level to its highest point at Monte Calvo (1,065m) it comprises many woodlands and forests,  lakes and marshlands and the marine reserves at the Tremiti Islands.

 

FORESTS     There are true natural havens to be found in the Gargano, the Foresta Umbra being the most famous.  The “Shady Forest”, the biggest broad-leaf forest in Italy, extends over some 15,000 hectares of the heart of the Gargano - a mere 15% of what it used to be.  In these Gargano woodlands and forests Beech, Maple, Fir and Chestnut grow to monumental size and beneath these giants a myriad of flora and fauna abound.

 

WETLANDS     One of the main reasons for which the National Park was established is the presence of important wetlands such as the lagoons of Lesina and Varano, and the marshes at Frattarolo and Sfinale.  Rich in the presence of amphibian, reptile and bird life they are made more interesting by being situated on the migratory routes between Europe and Africa.

 

FAUNA     In summer you might see a green frog near a watercourse or and emerald toad.  In spring, with a little luck you might spot the mating dance of a newt, and lizards are never far away from footpaths, though vipers mostly confine themselves to sunny spots in higher mountain areas.  The forests are the kingdom of the rare Gargano Roe deer, wild boar, wild cats, badgers, hedgehogs, martens, dormice, foxes, owls and many other creatures.

Numerous species of birds can be seen on the Gargano peninsula, some are permanent residents, some are summer visitors and some are just passing through.  Ravens, hoopoes, woodpeckers, cuckoos, golden oriols, bee-eaters, blackbirds, blue rock thrushes, swifts, serins, tree creepers, robins, tits, wagtails, finches, and nut hatches; herons, cranes, flamingos, oystercatchers, avocets, kingfishers, waders and curlews; eagles, buzzards, kites, kestrels, peregrine falcons, and owls (eagle, tawny, barn, and little).  These to name just a few.

 

FLORA     The variety of eco-systems in the Gargano and indeed its geographical position, makes for an interesting botanical crossroads.  Here Apennine and Central European plants thrive as well as the more distinctly Mediterranean and Balkan species.  In fact, the Gargano boasts more than 2,200 botanical species - 35% of all plant species found in the whole of Italy.

Most notably, a Mediterranean record number of orchid species flourish in the Gargano and can be seen flowering between February and September.  An ever increasing number of varieties have been identified - 61 at the last count.  47 different species have been classified in the environs of Monte Sacro alone, including the widespread Ophyrs Garganica, Ophrys Bertolonii and Ophrys Apulica.

 

CRAFTS     Thanks to its splendid isolation, manual dexterity and creativity are innate in the people of the Gargano.  A huge variety of objects are still produced according to ancient traditions.  The development of local crafts is directly linked to the agricultural life and many objects were made to ease the burden of work on the land, at sea, in the stable as well as in the home.

Stone Masonary     A craft that is still very much live with many local stonemasons working marbles from Italy and all over the world.  Their creations include mullions and sills for doorways and windows, hand carved crested keystones, fire surrounds, garden sinks, troughs, tabletops and decorative plaques. 

Wood Work     In the Gargano, land of woods and forests, there are a huge number of carpenters.  Beautiful pieces of furniture, including the very typical settle, are crafted from some of the many different wood types produced locally.  Turned and hand carved bowls, boxes, chopping boards, spoons, and forks too. Olivewood is a major protagonist; the olive tree dominating the Gargano as it does.

Metal Work     Though in recent years numbers have diminished, many villages still have  ironmongers who will make all manner of things, including wrought iron beds, gates, railings, door furniture, farming implements or copper guttering, ewers and bed warmers.

Ceramics     Each village had its own distinguishable style of making and decorating items such as cooking pots, plates, jugs and jars, large and small, for storing water, oil, olives and all kinds of preserves.  Small potteries now turn out similar designs as well as new, mostly for the souvenir industry.  

Needlework     Old wooden looms, though few these days, turn out lengths of cloth, woven with hand-spun threads then fashioned into napkins, hand towels, pillowcases, tablecloths and even handbags.  Embroidered decoration is applied, just as it used to be by young girls for their bottom drawers.  Crochet is very much alive as a craft with inspiration for designs coming from nature, the simple life on the land and at sea and very often from religion.  

Basketry     A craft that is slowly dying out, as few of the old craftsmen are willing to give away their secrets and even fewer of the young want to learn.  Some wonderful characteristic baskets are still to be found for sale at some of the many regular markets in the territory.

ON THE GARGANO TABLE     The local diet, rich and varied, is typically Mediterranean.  Fish features strongly as do locally produced olive oil, meats, cheeses, vegetables, tomatoes, oranges and bread.  And of course all the usual imported produce mostly from Italy.

Extra Virgin Olive Oil     The main oil production region is in the north east of the Gargano (Cagnano, Varano, Ischitella, Vico del Gargano, Vieste).  Ogliarola Garganica is the most prevalent variety, many of these trees centuries old with huge girths, but other varieties are also given growing space: Coratina, Peranzana and Rotondella.  The olive oil produced in the Gargano is said to be one of the best in Italy, indeed the world.

Cheese     Many small shepherded herds of goat and sheep are still commonplace and often block the path of motorised vehicles along the hill roads of the Gargano. It is not unusual to come across a small herd of cattle wandering through the woods unattended, great bells donging round their necks.  These "Podolico" cattle, and the rarer buffalo, provide the milk that goes into making some of the best cheeses in Italy: Caciocavallo, Pecorino, Cacioricotta, Mozzarella and Ricotta, to name but a few.

Pasta     Despite the availability of excellent dried pastas it is not  uncommon to make fresh pasta at home, especially for special feast days.  Pasta is made by old and young alike.  Flour, water and salt are the ingredients used (egg pasta is rarely made).

The most typical Pugliese pasta shapes are Orecchiette (little ears), shaped using the thumb; Maccaroni, traditionally made with the help of a square spoke from an antique umbrella; Introccioli (short square spaghetti) and Tagliarini (long square spaghetti), both made with the help of a chitarra (guitar-like cutting instrument).

Fruit     Among the many varieties of fruit grown here oranges and lemons are by far the most important, including the Femminello del Gargano, the oldest lemon in Italy, and the Melangolo Dole del Gargano, the sweetest of sweet oranges.  Many varieties of fig are grown, as are loganberries (black and white), loquats, prickly pears, pomegranates, walnuts and almonds, among others.

Chard, turnip tops and spinach are favourite greens; cabbage, cauliflower and broccoli too.  Broad beans and French are enjoyed in season, whilst pumpkin and many kinds of dried beans and pulses add variety to the table during the leaner winter months.  The biggest local crop though is tomato - almost every household here makes their own Passata.

Meat     Goat, or rather kid, is by far favourite.  The native Capra Garganica, recognizable by its long black hair, large stocky head, quiffed forehead, bearded chin and arching horns, is particularly well adapted to the territory it grazes freely.  Sheep are raised and eaten more and more as the price of goat meat rises and the odd family of pigs can often be seen foraging under the trees, both in woodland and olive grove.  Wild boar is hunted for its much-prized meat and is usually only available in restaurants.  Beef, or rather veal, is much loved although very little is actually grown here - the free-range grey "Podolico" cattle are more valued for their cheese making milk - although, as demand for the excellent beef that is produced grows, more and more locally produced beef is beginning to appear on the local butchers counters.

Seafood     Clams, mussels, cuttlefish, octopus and grey mullet are the varieties most commonly caught locally.  If you are really lucky you can buy them directly from the fisherman on the beaches where they work.  Other fish, predominantly Mediterranean caught, include anchovy, red mullet, cod, gurnard, sea bass, sea bream, John Dory, turbot mackerel tuna, swordfish, squid, lobster, crab, scampi, prawn, oyster - the list is almost endless.

Natures Larder     The people of the Gargano have a passion for wild food and not only because it is free.  A variety of greens, herbs, fruits and nuts are collected for the kitchen, many of which are now only known by the older generations.  Senape (mustard greens). borragine (borrage), cicoria (dandelion-like chicory), aspargi (wild asparagus), origano (oregano), finnocchietto (wild fennel), melacotogna (quince), nespola (loquat), pera (pear), sorbola (service fruit), nocciolino (hazelnut), to name the most common.

Wild mushrooms are a particular favourite.  Between August and November many venture out into the forests and olive groves armed with sticks and baskets (and nowadays licences too) to seek out this highly prized ingredient.  From their hunting grounds, fiercely kept secrets, they will bring back Porcini (Penny Bun), Fungo di Carrubo (Chicken of the Woods), Gallinella (Chanterelle), Ovolo (Caesars Mushroom), Chiodino (Honey Fungus), Stecchino Dorato (Wood Hedgehog) and many more.  So popular are funghi here that every autumn a fascinating exhibition is held in Vico del Gargano to display examples of the huge number of varieties, both edible and toxic, to be found in the territory.

Liqueurs & Preserves     A tradition for preserving all kinds of foods in all manner of different ways was developed not only to conserve the glut at harvest time but also to ensure a varied diet during the harsher winter months.  Salted black olives, green olives in brine, olives in vinegar; artichokes, courgettes, wild grape-hyacinth bulbs, chilli peppers, mushrooms, tomatoes, mackerel and tuna in oil.  And of course liqueurs - lemon, orange, cherry, bay leaf, walnut, fennel and many more.

 

WHAT TO SEE & WHERE TO GO

Caves     The easily eroded limestone make up of the promontory has resulted in the Gargano's geological characteristics.  Water erosion, by subterranean river, sea and rain has resulted in a rugged terrain and coastline peppered with valleys, gorges, gullies, underground tunnels, caverns and caves as well as a multitude of spring water sources spouting from hillsides.

The most interesting of the caverns include La Grotta di San Michele at Monte Sant'Angelo, La Grotta dei Paglicci at Rignano Garganico with its important Paleolithic cave paintings and perhaps the most geologically spectacular of all La Grotta Pian della Macina at Sannicandro Garganico.  Among the many sea caves the most noteworthy are to be found around the Tremiti Islands; La Grotta del Bue Marino, La Grotta delle Viole and La Grotta delle Rondinelle.

Necropolis     Paleochristian cemeteries of tombs carved into the rock floors and walls of caves.  There are more than 200 of these ancient burial sites in the Gargano.  The site at La Salata near Vieste is the most impressive and due to its various remarkable geological, botanical and zoological features has been declared "an oasis of archaeology and nature" by the WWF.

Saracen Lookout Towers     The coastline is dotted with these architectural ancient features, many now sadly falling into ruin.

Trabucco     Wooden fishing structure perched on rocks, overhanging the sea, thought by some to date back to Phoenician times.  A fascinating WWF run guided tour of the Trabucco di San Francesco near Vieste demonstrates how this traditional fishing contraption is worked.

Many of these Trabucchi jut out over the Adriatic around the Gargano coastline and though some are still functional, fish stocks are too low to make them viable - several have now become restaurants.  Though often more memorable for their setting than their cuisine it is worth visiting at least one - Trabucco di Ziana, Trabucco di Monte Pucci, Trabucco di San Nicola.

Foresta Umbra      A wonderful shady forest.  See above.

Tremiti Islands     Just 12 km from the Gargano coastline and reached by catamaran ferry, these islands, often referred to as the pearls of the Adriatic, are a beautiful destination for a day trip.  Apart from the beaches, worth a visit are the Benedictine Monastery (the Abbazia di Santa Maria di Mare) and the remains of a fortified castle.  A boat trip around the islands to see some of the many stunning sea caves is not to be missed and for diving enthusiasts the crystal clear waters have much to offer (by special permission only).

The ferries leave daily from Peschici and Rodi - during the busy months of July and August it is advisable to book your tickets in advance.

 

VILLAGES & BEACHES

Villa Oleandro is surrounded by the mountain villages of Vico del Gargano (500 asl), Ischitella (300 asl) and the seaside gems Peschici and Rodi Garganico Each town has its own market day, held every other week.

These small towns each have a Centro Storico (Historic Centres) with characteristic narrow streets and alleyways filled with charming buildings, interesting architectural features such as crested doorways and unusual chimneys.  Peschici's medieval castle is worth a visit as is the Trappeto Maratea Museum (Anient Olive Oil Mill) in Vico.

There are many churches well worth visiting (Vcio has 12) though some open just once a year on the feast day of the saints they host.  Speaking of feast days, many Festa’s are held in honour of some of the many saints special to the local people.  It’s well worth trying to fit one of these festivals into your visit to the Gargano, if only for the spectacular ear-popping fireworks display held at the end of each Festa.

There are some lovely beaches nearby too.  Calenella is our nearest  and Peschici is just 10 minutes further around the coast.  The beach from San Menaio to Rodi, only 10 minutes away, stretches for 3 kilometers (see photo above left).

Monte Sant’Angelo     A little further afield but worth a visit.  Apart from the Centro Storico, there is an ancient castle that has been partially restored and opened to visitors and the underground grotto shrine of Archangel Michael is a must.  During the middle ages this basilica was one of the most famous pilgrimage destinations; kings and popes, St Francis of Assisi and Thomas Aquinas all knelt in prayer here, as well as the Crusaders about to embark for the Holy Land.

San Giovanni Rotondo     The home of “Padre Pio” (now Saint Pio), in whose honour a magnificent new cathedral has been erected.

Sannicandro Garganico     Of interest is the 12th century church of Santa Maria di Monte d'Elio decorated with Byzantine frescoes; also the Museum of History, Archaeology, Ethnography and Farming.  Located in the impressive Fioritto Palace in the heart of the old town, with 13 rooms and more than 3,000 exhibits, the museum helps unravel the history of the Gargano.

Vieste     Vieste lies on the easternmost point of the Gargano coastline and has its own Centro Storico.  Of interest are the triangular castle, now a naval post, and the cathedral.  The beach here is beautiful, wide and clean.  The Trabucco di San Francesco and the Necropoli La Salata are nearby.

 

GUIDED EXCURSIONS     The Gargano National Park organizes guided tours to help visitors discover the rich heritage, stunning scenery, history and art offered by the Montagna del Sole (Sun Mountain).

For more information and resevations please contact the Gargano National Park Official Tour Guides Association:

Associazione Guide Ufficiali del Parco Nazionale del Gargano

Via S. Antonio Abate 121

71037 Monte Sant'Angelo (FG)

Tel:   0884 568911

Email:   info@parcogargano.it

Website:   www.parcogargano.it

 

BOAT TRIPS     Regular day-long boat trips (depart 9am, return 4.30pm - approximate times) leave from Rodi and travel around the spectacular Gargano coastline.  During the busy months of July and August it is advisable to book you ticket in advance.

BEWARE - These boats are completely uncovered so during hot sunny days you will need to equip yourself with adequate protection - sunscreens, suitable clothing and a hat.

 

PLEASE NOTE

Ladies     When visiting churches it is advisable to cover up if wearing strappy tops - a scarf thrown over the shoulders will do.

Gentlemen     When visiting the underground church at Monte Sant'Angelo, you are required to cover bare knees and shoulders too.  If necessary a sarong will be lent to you (free of charge) at the entrance.