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Riding around Gargano in vintage cars, I felt a lot like a girl from one of the James Bond movies…minus Daniel Craig and a bad guy trying to take over the world.
I visited Gargano, Italy, as part of a blog trip to Manfredonia, to experience the popular Carnevale di Manfredonia. In addition to joining in the festivities, I also got to explore the town’s major sights, taste the local cuisine and see some of Puglia’s beautiful coastline.
The third day of my trip happened to be Women’s Day and when we emerged from the front of our hotel, a fleet of classic cars were waiting for us, along with some chivalrous drivers waiting to drive us to Monte Sant’Angelo.
Among the cars were a vintage Jaguar, a Fiat and an Alfa Romeo and we could all choose whichever we wanted to ride in.
My translator Patricia ran straight to the gray Alfa Romeo to claim it.
Looking it up and down, I said “What made you pick this one?”
“Because the driver is handsome!” she replied.
Since I have zero knowledge of cars, I figured that’s as good a reason as any! So off we went; whisked away by our handsome driver and his friend, who was instructing him how to operate the car. Prior to the trip I had been warned not to eat too much for breakfast and soon I realized why.
As we motored along the winding roads up the steep mountain towards Monte Sant’Angelo, my stomach felt a bit queasy and the motion sickness kicked in, but luckily we soon stopped for some fresh air.
Motion sickness aside, this region is absolutely beautiful, and if you want to explore off-the-beaten track Italy, it’s definitely worthy of your time. From coastal drives and sea caves to dense forests and pilgrimage sites, there are lots of great things to do in Gargano, which I’ll list here.
Where is Gargano, Italy?
The Gargano Peninsula is located in the south of Italy on the east coast. If you look at a map, Italy looks like a giant boot and the Gargano is the spur of the boot.
Monte Sant’Angelo, one of Gargano’s most visited towns, is about a 1-hour drive (57km) from the city of Foggia and around 3 hours from Naples.
The central part of Gargano is mountainous with a beautiful national park called Gargano National Park. Within the park lies Foresta Umbra, which is a dense forest packed with oak and beech trees.
Driving along the coastline you’ll see beautiful limestone cliffs and lots of interesting caves and rock formations that jut out of the Adriatic Sea. The water is a beautiful turquoise blue color and there are plenty of spots to pull over and soak in the views.
How Do You Get to Gargano, Italy?
The best way to get to Gargano is to fly into Naples and or Bari and then pick up a rental car and drive. With such beautiful coastal scenery, the Gargano Peninsula is the perfect place for an Italian road trip. Check out my guide to finding cheap flights and use Rentalcars.com or Discover Cars to find the best rental car deals.
While it’s not ideal, you can also use public transportation too. From Naples you can take the train to Foggia via Caserta. Use Trenitalia or Rail Europe to book your trains.
From Foggia, there’s a local bus that goes to Mattinata via Manfredonia. When you reach Mattinata there are local buses that will take you to Monte Sant’Angelo and Vieste. The buses tend to take a long time though and you’ll be spending a lot of time waiting round, so it’s not recommended.
Things to Do in Gargano, Italy
Perched up high on a mountain in the south of Gargano lies Monte Sant’Angelo, a picturesque town with a labyrinth of narrow streets and a spectacular cave church that’s been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. .
Strolling through this picturesque town we passed various little shops selling the local rustic bread. The town is famous for its bread; big, heavy round loaves with a hard crust and a soft sourdough centre.
The shops also sell other local foods such as olive oil, dry pastas, regional herbs and a cheese called Caciocavallo (literally “cheese on horseback”) which gets its name from the way the pear shaped cheese is tied with string and slung over a wooden board to dry with age.
Aside from the cave church, you can also walk along the walls of the Castle of Monte Sant’Angelo, which offers beautiful views over the entire region.
Sanctuary of Monte Sant’Angelo
The main attraction in Monte Sant’Angelo is the Sanctuary of Monte Sant’Angelo, which looks like any ordinary church on the outside, but resembles something out of Indiana Jones on the inside.
The UNESCO World Heritage Site is a Catholic sanctuary dedicated to the archangel Michael, and has been an important pilgrimage site for many years. Many popes, emperors, kings and princes have visited the sanctuary over the years and while walking through the town we saw lots of pilgrims passing through.
Upon entering the church we went down the long staircase and through some bronze doors with 24 panels depicting Bible scenes. These doors lead to a cavern called the Cave of Saint Michael. Legend goes that the Archangel Michael is said to have appeared in 490, 492 and 1656 and consecrated the shrine himself. People visit to confess their sins, to be forgiven and to supposedly shave some days off their time in purgatory.
Gargano National Park
In the central part of the Gargano Peninsula you’ll find Gargano National Park (Parco nazionale del Gargano), which is a protected nature reserve established in 1991.
Covering an area of 300,000 acres, it encompasses the Foresta Umbra, the Tremiti Islands and the Lago Salso wetlands.
Umbra Forest is a dense forest of beech, pine and oak trees that covers around 10,000 hectares of Gargano National Park. The name means “shady” and derives from the dense vegetation that creates lots of shade.
This unspoilt forest boasts numerous hiking trails and is home to a wide variety of plant species and wildlife.
On our hike through Foresta Umbra, we saw some wild roe deer and took a walk through the trees towards the Umbra Lake which is apparently used as a source of water when there are forest fires.
Besides roe deer, you can also spot foxes, badgers, hares, the rare wild cat, woodpecker, peregrines, buzzards, kestrel, owl and birds.
Vico del Gargano
From Forest Umbra we continued onwards to Vico del Gargano, a town that’s nicknamed the “Village of Love” because its patron saint is none other than Saint Valentine himself! On Valentine’s Day- February 14h- the town is decorated with arrangements of oranges, lemons and bay leaves.
We descended down some stairs into a cave-like workshop where a lady makes beautiful handmade embroidered cloth. She demonstrated her weaving skills using an old wooden loom and told us that she has back troubles from hunching over for hours and hours every day. No wonder she can’t find anyone willing to continue this craft!
By this time we were all feeling peckish so we stopped by a popular bar called Pizzicato for some aperitivo. The bar is a typical Italian cafe serving gelato, coffee, cakes and cocktails and seems to be the hub of the town.
One of the best places to visit on the Gargano coast is Vieste – a beautiful whitewashed town filled with narrow streets, bars, restaurants and gelaterias. Highlights of Vieste include Castello Svevo – a medieval fortress – and Vieste Cathedral, an 11th century cathedral with a beautiful baroque bell tower.
Nearby you can visit the famous Pizzammuno monolith and explore some of Gargano’s best beaches, including Spiaggia di San Lorenzo and Scialara Beach.
Drive Along the Coastline
One of the absolute best things to do in Gargano is a road trip along the coastline. I’ve been on a few scenic road trips, including the Great Ocean Road in Australia, and this was up there with the best of them. I felt like I was in a car advertisement for the TV; one where a Nissan or something to that effect drives along a stunning coastline on a beautiful sunny day.
On our scenic road trip we made brief stops on the road for pictures at Baia Calenella, Torre di Monte Pucci and a seafood restaurant called Trabucco di Monte Pucci.
If you’re visiting Vieste, snap a photo of Pizzomunno, a beautiful rock formation located on Spiaggia di Castello beach. This striking 25 metre-high monolith is one of the most iconic symbols of Gargano and has a legend about two lovers attached to it.
So the story goes, a man called Pizzomunno fell in love with a beautiful girl called Cristalda. Every day he would go out to see to fish, and beautiful sirens (mermaids) would try to seduce him with their songs. They offered him immortality and the chance to be their king, but he always returned to Cristalda. One night, when the two lovers were together on a small islet, the sirens kidnapped Cristalda and dragged her down into the depths of the sea.
Pizzomunno couldn’t save her and the next day he was found on the beach; his anguish petrified him into the white pinnacle we see today.
Spiaggia di Baia dei Mergoli
If you want to hit the beach, check out Spiaggia di Baia dei Mergoli, which is located next to Baia Delle Zagare hotel. This 1 km long beach boasts beautiful limestone cliffs, turquoise blue waters and a pristine bay of gravel and small pebbles.
Sea Caves Boat Tour
One of the most popular things to do in Gargano is to take a boat tour to explore the sea caves. The best place to book a tour is from Vieste, and you’ll find numerous tours available ranging from shared boats to private excursions.
Tremiti Islands (Isole Tremiti )
The Tremiti Islands are an archipelago of islands in the Adriatic Sea, and are part of the Gargano National Park. There are five in total; San Domino, San Nicola, Capraia, Cretaccio, and Pianosa.
While they may look beautiful and laid-back today, the islands have a bit of a murky past, as they were used as a penal colony dating all the way back to the Iron Age. In the first century AD, Emperor Augustus exiled his granddaughter there on charges of adultery, and in the 20th century, Mussolini interred homosexuals there in a camp on San Domino.
Today they’re a popular tourist attraction, attracting over 100,000 tourists per year.
Known for their pine forests and clear blue waters, the islands are especially popular for hiking and snorkeling. You can also spend some time exploring the Abbey of Santa Maria a Maria, which is situated on San Nicola Island.
To reach the islands you’ll need to take a ferry from one of the nearby ports; Vasto, Ortona, Termoli, Vieste, or Rodi Garganico. For a faster way to get there, it’s also possible to catch a flight with Alidaunia from Foggia or Vieste.
Arco di San Felice
For the postcard-perfect photo, head to Arco di San Felice, which is a beautiful limestone rock with a hole in it. To get to it you’ll need to drive along the winding coastal road that runs south of Veiste (SP53). The best place to admire it is from the Torre di San Felice, which sits on a headland just slightly south.
In between the two headlands is a beach called Spiaggia di San Felice, which is a great place to stop and have a swim.
A Final Word…
The Gargano coastline is really something special and there are plenty of places to stop and park the car so you can admire the views. There are some stunning rock formations, numerous ancient watchtowers and of course lots of dramatic views. This would be beautiful in any hire car, but the classic cars made it feel even more special. Although I love the classic cities like Venice, Milan and Rome, it was nice to beat the crowds and explore a different side of Italy.