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).

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
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

    Recruitment Genius: Membership Sales Advisor - OTE £20,000 Uncapped

    £15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Manager / Marketing Communications Manager

    £35-40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Communicati...

    Guru Careers: Membership Administrator

    £23K: Guru Careers: We're seeking an experienced Membership Administrator, to ...

    Guru Careers: Dining Room Head Chef

    £32K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Dining Room Head Chef to work for one of ...

    Day In a Page

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor