The Gargano coast does have a treasure-map look to it – rocks part to reveal shockingly white sandy beaches. One hidden cove, Porto Greco, was so-named because sailors used it to shelter from a sharp wind from the northeast known as the ‘Grecale’. A beach covered in pebbles, backed by wind-sculpted cliffs, it’s accessed by a trail through thick, fragrant maquis (shrubland) and pines. The walk helps to thin the crowds – there are few beach umbrellas and no restaurants.
Nearer the small town of Mattinata is the secluded Baia di Vignanotica, where bone-coloured cliffs rise above bright sands lapped by the dark blue of the Adriatic. Perhaps the most beautiful beach of all is Baia delle Zagare, south of Vieste. Soft underfoot and scattered with pebbles as smooth and pale as eggs, the beach is backed by cliffs swirled with raspberry-ripple creases, and topped by pine trees and buttercups. There’s still no highway in the Gargano; instead, narrow coastal and forest roads dip and wind above these sandy bays. The occasional farmer sells bay-leaf liqueurs and oregano from roadside trestle tables.
A few miles northwest of Vieste is one of the Gargano’s busiest beaches, but even here there is a place of unexpected silence. La Salata (“the Salty One”) is an early Christian graveyard – natural caves carved with burial niches, and covered in a tangle of wild rosemary and capers. Eels and turtles dart through the mingled fresh and salty water of the local spring that gives the place its name. Though abandoned in the sixth century, the site was subsequently used for shelter by shepherds, the marks of their fires still visible on the rocks. Whether as an island or as a peninsula, the Gargano still feels a world apart.
Has all that sea air given you an appetite? It’s a two-hour, 120-mile drive southeast from Mattinata to the city of Bari – the place to sample fantastic Pugliese staples such as seafood and pasta.
Porto High on the coast, just outside the attractive town of Mattinata, this hotel has a breezy, seaside feel. The best of the uncluttered, pale-toned rooms open onto sea-facing terraces, and there’s an infinity pool that overlooks the Adriatic. The restaurant, white with jelly-coloured chandeliers, offers classic Mediterranean cuisine, with lots of seafood.
La Rinascita dei Trabucchi Storici Giovanni’s organisation offers 1.1/2-hour tours of the trabucchi; it helps conserve the machines and educate people about their use.