Drive along the olive tree-covered beachside mountains of the Gargano Peninsula in Northern Puglia, hot on the trail of wild coves and bays only accessible by foot.
Locked in our homes for months on end during the first wave of the pandemic in Italy, through countless video chats and netflix binges and online workout videos streamed on my phone, the number one thing I dreamed about was being on a wild, natural beach and sinking into clear, calm waters somewhere hot and sunny.
After a long summer working, I finally found my window to take a week off and make that dream happen at the tail end of August. This is a tricky time to do beach travel in Italy; even in a pandemic I knew all of the beaches would be overrun at this time of year. I decided to take a chance on a part of the country I’d visited once before but never properly explored: the beaches of the Gargano National Park, jutting out from Puglia’s Northernmost part into the Adriatic Sea, the spur on the boot-shaped Italy.
We booked at the very last minute, finding ourselves staying on Mattinata Beach, described to me by my Italian boyfriend’s mother simply as ‘chaos’ (it works in Italian and English!). But at the end of August the neverending rows of beach chairs and umbrellas sat half-empty and the spiaggia libera, free beach, had plenty of spare room where we could lay our towels down. At the end of August, the ‘chaos’ seemed to have calmed down.
In any case, we’d really come to Mattinata and the Gargano National Park for the tiny, rocky bays and coves I’d scouted when searching the area on Google maps. So we made Mattinata our base and spent our days driving up and down the mountainous coastline with the endless views out over the sea, stopping in at a different wild beach every day.
You can spot the sometimes elusive walking tracks down to the bays and coves, baia and cala in Italian, from the cars parked haphazardly by the roadside, in a very Italian style I’ve often heard my boyfriend refer to as ‘creative parking’. There’s often a creative parking attendant to match, taking a few euros in exchange for keeping your car safe for the day. Follow the dirt track down and arrive at a rocky, small beach, inevitably full in August but usually with space enough to welcome a few more.
Mattinata Beach itself is wide, backdropped by a chain of green-covered mountains and framed by beachside olive groves covering most of the arid, typically-Puglian land. The hotels, campsites and low-key resorts sitting along the beach and inland blend in seamlessly, where you feel you’re really in the middle of nature without a chain hotel in site.
At sunset, we’d hike up a set of overgrown stone steps towards Monte Saraceno and its ruins to watch the sun set over Mattinata town and the moon rise over the sea.
At night, we’d eat homecooked pasta with local buffalo mozzarella on our balcony looking over the olive groves or drive into Mattinata town and wander around until we found a restaurant with a table. One evening, we saw an older local man performing with a three-piece band on a restaurant terrace. A crowd formed around him as he sang old Italian love songs he said he hadn’t sung in years.
If you’re looking for a down-to-earth beach spot in Italy where you’ll be one of very few international tourists, the Gargano and its wild Southern beaches, bays and coves could be the perfect spot.
We left booking somewhere to stay until the very last minute - never a good idea in high season! Nonetheless, we found a room at Torre del Porto with a kitchenette and a balcony overlooking the olive groves and the sea and loved it. It was just a five-minute walk to the beach, a walk I did many times in my swimsuit and sarong, book in hand. The hotel is located close to the start of the hiking trail up to Monte Saraceno.
Trabucco da Mimi, Peschici - The freshest of seafood served al fresco on a trabucco – an ancient wooden fishing structure native to Gargano.
La Vineria, Mattinata - Wine bar where you can definitely stay on for dinner too; great platters with all the local specialties allow you to try everything the area has to offer.
Dal Saraceno, Mattinata - Family-owned and run restaurant with downhome cooking to match, most of the tables are sprawled out in the cute street behind the restaurant.
Mattinata - Endlessly long main beach in the area with beach club after beach club of paid chairs and umbrellas in rows. A few spots where you can lay out on your own towel for free; we perched on the Southern end.
Vignanotica - Pebble beach under an impressive sheer white cliff face with both paid chairs and umbrellas and plenty of ‘free beach’ space too. The sun goes behind the cliff quite early meaning it’s shady in the afternoon so it’s best to come in the morning. Lots of (affordable) parking here.
Portogreco - Free beach with a very ramshackle hut making fresh meals for takeaway lunch on your towel. This beach was fairly crowded when we went but we still found a safe spot to sit. Rocks to dive off of and a little snorkelling and cave exploring to be done.
Cala della Sanguinara - I didn’t make it to this one but wanted to. This one is a bit of a longer hike to get to, meaning less people, but has a very small beach so I would advise getting there first thing in the morning.
Lazy day on the spiaggia libera at Mattinata Beach. Roadside preserve van on the cliffs driving up the coast - we bought baked olives, sundried tomatoes, eggplant and a millon fresh figs.
Fichi d’india, Indian figs, everywhere by the roadsides in Gargano.
Al fresco restaurant, Trabucco da Mimi, the freshest of seafood served on a trabucco – an ancient wooden fishing machine native to Gargano.
Sunset view walking up to Monte Saraceno from Mattinata Beach.