Italy is just an hour by car from Geneva. Yet we often overlook it as a weekend destination. So, to kick off a year of concerted efforts to explore our animated, pasta-rich neighbor, we celebrated our third anniversary with a five-day trip to the Apulia region (Puglia), Italy’s stiletto heel, known for its whitewashed hill towns, centuries-old farmland and hundreds of kilometers of Mediterranean coastline.
We booked a cheap EasyJet flight to Brindisi, a small harbor town on the Adriatic Sea just north of Bari, the regional capital. Mainly visited as the launching off point for ferries to Athens and the Greek Isles, Brindisi is not a particularly notable destination. So after savoring a mouthwatering pistachio lava cake in the airport cafe, we rented a car and immediately headed north to Vieste, the first of three highlights we had chosen to visit in the region.
Vieste is a tiny beach town located three hours up the coast in Gargano, much of which belongs to Gargano National Park, containing 30,000-acres of Umbrian Forest including some of the country’s oldest trees. The area is also home to some 300 varieties of orchids and nearly 110 miles of shoreline with hundreds of undiscovered sandy beaches. However, despite its natural beauty, Gargano has a reputation as a budget destination for Italian vacationers, which it is slowly trying to shed.
Around 50 years ago, Enrico Mattei, then president of the Italian oil and gas company Eni, was captivated by the area during a visit and financed a large tourist center near Vieste including hotels, residences, and a shopping complex. This prompted local businessmen to capitalize on the area’s potential tourism and build a rash of cheap motels, campgrounds, and fast food restaurants, which consequently cluttered the roadways with advertisements. Thus, by the 80’s Gargano had become known as an ultrabudget beach getaway, and its original charm and allure were overshadowed.
But over the past decade, residents have been working to change this by opening boutique hotels and local, quality restaurants, with some travel writers going so far as to now describe Vieste as an undiscovered Amalifi. Perched atop the picturesque white Pizzomunno cliffs between two large sandy beaches, Vieste certainly has a lot going for it. The white Pizzomunno rock tower standing along the shoreline is said to contain the spirit of a heartbroken fisherman who was transformed into the monolith after sirens of the sea killed his lover. The rest of the coast is made up of gulfs and small, hidden sandy coves where erosion by water and wind has shaped the rock into grottoes and arches, creating beautiful scenery for boaters and photographers.
But the drive from Brindisi kept us wondering if we had made a mistake as we passed inland through flat fields of olive and almond groves, industrial looking cities, and dilapidated towns – a far cry from the beauty of Italy’s swanky northern regions like Tuscany and Veneto. Finally, we reached the hills and began to climb through the pines, creeping nervously along the winding roads as we drove in switchbacks up the cliffs while death-defying Italian drivers flew fearlessly at us from around the bends.
Finally, the turquoise blue waters of the Adriatic came into view and we pulled over to admire Vieste from afar. From a distance, the area is stunning – white cliffs covered in green shrub and wildflowers dropping off into the calm blue waters below. Unfortunately, as we walked along the curb to the lookout points, closer inspection revealed the influences of neglect and lack of resources in a part of the country where tourism has not yet created a demand for clean roadsides. The bushes were covered in litter, the beach strewn with trash. Though the water has received awards for purity, we had no desire to set foot in it.
However, the old town of Vieste was pristine and full of charm. We got an unintentional tour as Google maps guided our small rental car through a series of winding cobbled roads wide enough only for one small vehicle before directing us through a large pedestrian-only square, where our hotel lay waiting on the other side. This resulted in carefully repeating the route in reverse, instead finding parking on the outskirts of the city near the gritty harbor. We walked along the water back towards our BnB, the distance allowing for a beautiful panoramic view of Old Vieste, founded by the Greeks in the ninth century BC, with fortifications and fortress walls built-in medieval times to resist marauders and pirates.
We wandered into a large palm-tree lined square surrounded by seafood restaurants and ice cream shops, looking out to the town lighthouse set on an island in the harbor. After stopping in a particularly alluring shop, we carried melting cones of delicious rich gelato through the maze of tiny flower-filled stone streets of the old town to our BnB, an ancient converted house containing five spacious guest rooms. Once settled, we set out among the picturesque alleyways to get a feel for the town before dinner.
During a lazy lap around Vieste’s cliff-edge perimeter, we watched groups of local townspeople slowly congregate for an aperitivo in the cobbled alleys and open terraces overlooking the water. Surrounded by cocktails and happy chatter, we soaked up the relaxed vibes and warm air and slowly settled into vacation mode. As the sky grew dark, we found a cozy dinner spot down a narrow path and were given a seat at a wooden table in the midst of a soccer match between the neighborhood children, an occasional ball bouncing off our chairs. Amid the excited yells of the players and stern reprimands from the parents, a whole fried fish, freshly caught, and bottle of local white wine arrived and carried us happily through the night.
In the morning we wandered into the new part of town, a typical modern and somewhat uninteresting city. A local outdoor market had taken over one large section of the block, and we stopped to discuss an array of white cheese hanging like flour sacks from the cieling with the woman behind the counter, buying a small one along with other supplies for a picnic lunch later on. A storm sent us scurrying under a covered outdoor seating area, where we sipped espresso until the rain let up. As we made our way back to our BnB, we passed by Vecchia Vieste, a cave restaurant known to have some of the best homemade, hand-shaped orecchiette in Puglia. Never able to pass up great local cuisine, we put our picnic aside and filled up on bowls of fresh oriechette topped with the local specialty, cima di rape: rapini – a bitter green leafy veg – with anchovies, olive oil, chilli peppers, garlic and pecorino.
Then it was back to our room for an afternoon nap before catching the sunset by the ancient fortress on the edge of the cliffs. Along the way, we discovered a set of rickety wooden fishing platforms, or trabucco, balancing precariously over the water. Made of pinewood, these fishing village relics are found along the coast in Peschici, Vieste and Pugnochiuso.
When the pinks and purple clouds had faded to grey, we headed towards Al Dragone for dinner, but were charmed along the way by a boisterous, friendly crowd having drinks by candlelight in the open air on the edge of the cliffs. We took a seat on a warm cement wall and ordered a gin and tonic from a tough looking waiter covered in tattoos. At 10pm it was now the local dinner time, and we continued to the restaurant, entering yet another cave – this one a small, romantic space – where we were shown to a table near the back. Our meal – chitarrina (thick spaghetti) with cuttlefish, cooked in its ink, and Orecchiette with turnip tops, sautéed with red anchovies and mullet bottarga, paired with a local red wine, lasted until after midnight.
In the morning we said our goodbyes and made our way to the distant car park, readying ourselves for the perilous journey back down the winding roads and the three-hour drive inland to our second destination, Matera.