Discover the Italy that Britain forgot

What did the Med used to be like before the developers and the tourist trade moved in? Can anyone remember? The answer may in the Gargano Peninsula.

In the ninth and 10th centuries, when the English travelled to the Continent it was more often than not to make a pilgrimage to Monte Sant'Angelo in southern Italy.

In the ninth and 10th centuries, when the English travelled to the Continent it was more often than not to make a pilgrimage to Monte Sant'Angelo in southern Italy. It was here that the Archangel Michael in person had founded a Christian church to replace a pagan oracle and left part of his cloak as a memento. So excited were the Normans by the tales of wealth and plenty brought back by pilgrims to this Byzantine outpost on the Gargano Peninsula, that they sent armies not just to see, but to seize.

For almost 1,000 years, we tended to steer clear, while the Italians capitalised on the wonderful coast that wraps round the south of the country. The Gargano Peninsula, a piece of Albania that stayed behind when the Balkans separated from Italy, is one of the most beautiful parts of the whole Italian coast. Sticking out as a spur above the country's Apulian heel, its 200-mile coastline is marked by startlingly white cliffs and a multitude of little coves where boats and bathers can rest. And, thanks to a harvest of cheap flights to the south of Italy that are yours for the picking, you can discover a region in the gentlest, quietest of autumnal decline.

In a sense, history has turned southern Italy on its head. For 10 centuries after the decline of the Roman Empire, conquest and political instability through the rules of Byzantines, Normans, French and Spanish left the southern Italian coasts vulnerable to piracy and pillage. Vieste still preserves the stone on which 5,000 of its inhabitants were beheaded by the Turks in 1554. As late as the 18th century, the farmhouses on the sea plain were being fortified for fear of attack. Towns kept to the high places and monasteries to the plateaux above. Now, though, the coast is the magnet for humanity.

In the high season, the Italians flock from Rome, and from points north, to the camp sites and small hotels in the woods behind the sandy beaches, to enjoy a family holiday by the sea. So do the Germans, Poles and Czechs, taking their camper vans and tents to the caravan-and- camping villages that lie, half-hidden, among the pines. These are simple, seaside places aimed at families with small children and simple appetites. The best food is to be found in specialist restaurants round the little ports of Péschici and Vieste, along the road that hugs the hillsides and offers such stunning views below.

Yet the high season in these parts is mercifully short – 15 July to the end of August, if you go by hotel prices. By September, it's amazingly quiet. The beach facilities are there. The restaurants are open. But the crowds are not. And the warmth of the Adriatic preserves a semblance of summer well into October.

Yesterday afternoon, I checked fares for anyone wanting to escape to Italy this coming Monday. The closest airport to Gargano is Pescara, and Ryanair's computer offered a flight from Stansted, returning a week later, for under £20. The Essex airport is now the gateway to the south – of Italy.

Like no-frills flying, this corner of Italy is splendidly democratic. It has none of the airs, nor the relentless desire for fashionability, of more celebrated Italian beaches, such as Forte de Marmi, Rimini and Amalfi. Most of the southern Italian coast is for the ordinary family, or couple, not the grand, the noisy or the trendy.

But that is not true of every part, it has to be said. Along the Ionian Sea, the sole of the Italian boot, you can find several hundred miles of uninterrupted beach, once home to some of the richest cities of Magna Graecia and now host to great ribbons of the kind of seaside development that has marred so much of the Mediterranean. There, the mountains have been denuded by logging in the last two centuries and the cities razed by a succession of earthquakes that have helped to impoverish Calabria.

The real glories of the south, however, are the forested mountains and the high plateaux behind them. For generations, the British have ignored the country south of Naples on the grounds that it is barren, bandit-ridden and Mafia-run. The Mafia is indeed there, but outside the big cities it's not in much evidence.

Barren the south is not, other than in the extreme south of Calabria and Apulia. It is a country where the great Emperor Frederick II loved to hunt, a land of forests covering the hinterland and spreading down the mountains to the sea.

On the western side, the mountains are powerful and the scenery is dramatic – most of all along the thin sliver of Basilicatan coast on the Tyrrhenian Sea, which is like the old Côte d'Azur before development – some villas, a few small 10- or 12-room hotels, and some of the best local cooking you'll ever taste. The small beaches are pebbly, wonderful for swimming, but not so good for small children. Further south, in Calabria, the pebbles change to sand, the bays are bigger and the accommodation more modern – although the mountains still keep unrestrained development at bay and provide a magnificent backdrop.

The rest of the Apulian coast is more mixed and less wooded, until you get down to the very heel, around Otranto. The land is flatter, the seashore rockier, and much of it overwhelmed by the horrendous main road that leads to Brindisi and the ferries to Greece.

It is inland that the real cultural treasures lie, in the little towns of Locorotondo and Martina Franca, the city of Matera, with its caves full of paleolithic rock art, in Horace's birthplace at Venosa, and Frederick's castle towns around Melfi, at Cosenza in Calabria amid almost alpine scenery and, of course, Monte Sant'Angelo.

A kind of decoy helps to keep the place serene: Padre Pio's church in nearby San Giovanni Rotondo soaks up the gaudier expressions of modern pilgrimage. Monte Sant'Angelo itself has not changed much over the past millennium. It is still an unspoiled town of Romanesque architecture, ancient alleyways and holy pilgrimage.

Travellers' guide

Getting there: Ryanair (08701 569 569, www.ryanair.com) flies daily from Stansted to Pescara. A fare of £59.48 return was available yesterday for travel out next Saturday, 22 September, returning a week later. Demand on Fridays and Sundays tends to be greater, and therefore fares are likely to be higher.

Go (0870 6076543, www.go-fly.com) flies daily from Stansted to Naples. On the same dates, a return flight was priced yesterday at £222.50, but lower fares are available midweek or by booking further in advance.

More information: Italian State Tourist Board, 1 Princes Street, London W1R 8AY (020-7408 1254; www.enit.it).

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

News
people
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave crime series
Sport
Frank Lampard and his non-celebration
premier leagueManchester City vs Chelsea match report from the Etihad Stadium
Sport
Esteban Cambiasso makes it 3-3
premier league
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
Mario Balotelli celebrates his first Liverpool goal
premier leagueLiverpool striker expressed his opinion about the 5-3 thriller with Leicester - then this happened
News
people'I hated him during those times'
News
Britain's shadow chancellor Ed Balls (L) challenges reporter Rob Merrick for the ball during the Labour Party versus the media soccer match,
peopleReporter left bleeding after tackle from shadow Chancellor in annual political football match
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says
tvSpoiler warning: Star of George RR Martin's hit series says viewers have 'not seen the last' of him/her
News
i100
News
Dame Vivienne Westwood has been raging pretty much all of her life
peopleFirst memoir extracts show she 'felt pressured' into going out with the Sex Pistols manager
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
Lauryn Hill performing at the O2 Brixton Academy last night
musicSinger was more than 90 minutes late
Sport
Lewis Hamilton in action during the Singapore Grand Prix
Formula OneNico Rosberg retires after 14 laps
News
i100
News
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: 'Time Heist' sees a darker side to Peter Capaldi's Doctor
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    IT Administrator - Graduate

    £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

    USA/Florida Travel Consultants £30-50k OTE Essex

    Basic of £18,000 + commission, realistic OTE of £30-£50k : Ocean Holidays: Le...

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Sales Account Manager

    £15,000 - £25,000: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for ...

    Day In a Page

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam