His face said it all. Padre Pio, immortalised in a small statue, was scowling at me from beside a tree in the middle of a hushed, deserted meadow. I couldn't relate to many of the late monk's troubles, such as the stigmata and the demands of healing the sick. But I, too, would scowl if I lived amongst the splendours of Italy's mountainous Gargano Peninsula with no time between good works to enjoy it.
Forty-two years after his death, and eight years since his canonisation, Padre Pio's good works continue. His influence now extends into new territory: tourism. He is responsible for Europe's largest pilgrimage after Lourdes. Every year more than 7 million worshippers flock to his shrine at San Giovanni, and experience a hidden slice of Italy in the process.
The Gargano Peninsula, roughly the same size as Rome, is part of the south-eastern region of Puglia – the spur above Italy's heel. Any walk reveals terrain rich in nature, heritage and sheer variety. Silent forests are laced with forgotten paths; ancient rock art and abandoned monasteries descend to a coastline of secluded bays; towering chalk-white limestone cliffs plunge into the Adriatic.
The region is regularly and wearisomely described as the "new Tuscany" as a result of these abundant charms. Much of it was turned into a national park in 1991, although despite being a popular beach resort for holidaying Italians, it remains a largely overlooked area for foreign tourists. However, a new guided walking itinerary offers an insight into what makes the region tick. The seven-night tour involves a series of day hikes in the countryside around the charming medieval town of Vieste, the gentle pace allowing time to appreciate all of the peninsula's subtle beauty.
Vieste, three hours from Bari, is the perfect base to explore all the region has to offer. My walking group stayed at the cliff top three-star Hotel Seggio, which has its own private beach and dates to the 17th century, when it was the town hall; using local bus services to get to and from Vieste, we were due to cover a gentle average of 10km per day.
Up in the hills of Sagro on a route that would eventually take us down to the coast, the amateur botanists of our 20-strong party were soon cooing over exquisite and plentiful Bee Orchids that peppered the plains rolling forth before us. These rare flowers are just one of the 60 species found here.
From there, we walked across acres of spongy grassland, a lone farmhouse on the horizon. At first glance, it seemed picture-perfect; it was only as we drew nearer that I noticed curious little touches on its otherwise typical Mediterranean exterior. Was that really a toilet seat on the roof?
"Locals are big believers in inventive recycling," laughed our guide, Nigel. Puglia is one of Italy's least-prosperous regions, and residents have long adopted novel methods of home improvement. "They'll think nothing of using unwanted bedroom furniture to fill a gap in the fence," added Nigel. Or, it seemed, using a lavatory seat to secure loose roof tiles.
A couple of hours later, the terrain became more challenging as we crossed a series of steep ridges, the tops of which offered sensational views over the calm Adriatic Sea. Thankfully, we were carrying nothing but our light daypacks. Beyond, open countryside became valleys of unpruned olive groves, bushes of juniper berry and clumps of wild nettles – a favourite ingredient among Vieste's chefs, who pick them to give dishes an unusual twist.
A late afternoon rest stop saw us pause to nibble on large pieces of herby aubergine focaccia bread baked and purchased that morning in Vieste while sitting silently in a field laced with majestic Tongue Orchids: their rhubarb-coloured stems supplied a warm splash to the pastel surroundings. Then the track sloped further and gravel soon gave way to the coarse brown sand of Scialara beach. Vieste, still another 3km away, appeared deceptively close. Happily, every step of the homeward stretch was soothed by the invigorating waves that rolled over my weary feet.
That evening, I joined the quiet groups of locals huddled in Vieste's many gelato shops for a scoop of nocciola ice-cream. The compact town centre was quiet, with a handful of couples strolling along Corso Fazzini, the main street, which is lined with palm trees draped in fairy lights.
Next morning I explored Vieste's steep, cobbled backstreets by daylight. Dogs barked from wrought-iron balconies above and smiling locals appeared momentarily from behind creaky wooden shutters. At the crown of the hilly town is a Romanesque cathedral; locals say that its eye-catching bell tower resembles a cardinal's hat. Inside lies an impressive collection of marble portraits of Jesus and the Virgin Mary.
Early the following day, we travelled inland to the eerie Foresta Umbra (Forest of Shadows). This darkened broadleaf wilderness is more typical of woodland in northern Europe than the balmy Med.
Our path ran from the small settlement of Baracconi to the old foresters' station of Caritate. Dappled sunlight filtered through the treetops, sending long shadows over the loose stones. As we descended, the forest transformed before our eyes; the change in altitude meant that the beeches gave way to pines. Cones from the countless Aleppo trees lay strewn across the forest floor where green lizards sat poised on rotting logs while the aromas of lemon, fennel and spearmint permeated the air sweetly.
Padre Pio isn't the only cause of pilgrimages in Puglia. The Archangel Michael also gets the faithful reaching for their walking boots. At 2am every 29 September, hundreds of torch-wielding pilgrims begin a gruelling 22-hour journey from Vieste to Monte Sant'Angelo, 25km away and perched 800m above sea level, to mark his appearance in a cave here in the fifth century. We weren't quite up for such a long walk, so the next day we opted for a mere taster. Getting a considerable head start by setting off from the coastal town of Mattinata further south, we followed the route for several kilometres, slowing inching towards the monastery.
In the far distance, atop a forested plateau, appeared Monte Sant'Angelo – no doubt a sobering sight for the pilgrims, who would still have much ground to cover. Our time on the ancient route would soon come to an end, but Nigel was eager to show us another of Gargano's unexpected delights.
The gothic ruins of the Benedictine abbey on Monte Sacro emerged from a façade of wild palms and overgrown grass. Dating from 1058, this vast complex started modestly as simple hermit cells but expanded to become a thriving and powerful religious centre during the 12th century, with many properties throughout the peninsula under its control.
By the 15th century, however, a poor economic climate and local unrest saw the monks abandon the monastery, leaving it to fall into disrepair. Deserted and free to access, I roamed the open-air chambers admiring the elaborate carvings and marvelling at the sheer scale of the site, about the size of a football pitch.
For the final time that week, Vieste's unmistakable skyline appeared through the bus window on our journey home; the cathedral's elegant bell tower rising supremely above the countless terracotta rooftops. We were weary, but our pilgrimage was complete.
Nick Boulos travelled with Ramblers Worldwide (01707 331133; ramblersholidays.co.uk) on the eight-day Gargano Peninsula itinerary, which costs £650 per person. The price includes return flights to Bari from Gatwick and half-board accommodation; there are two available departures in September.
Bari is served by British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) from Gatwick and Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) from Stansted.
Italian Tourist Board: 020-7408 1254; italiantouristboard.co.uk.Reuse content