In this five-part series taken from Lonely Planet Magazine (Aug 2010 issue) we show you just where to step off the tourist trail and start exploring the real Italy - from the hills harbouring the country's finest wines to a coastline to rival the Amalfi.
The Gargano, the sea-thrusting spur of the Italian boot, was once an island. Knowing this makes sense of the place. It feels a region apart, with a skirt of sea so blue it makes you blink. The land is a tumultuous mix: bleached sea cliffs, dense dark-green scrub, wild orchids, pine forests and silver beaches. A protected national park, it's the kind of place where, if you picnic on the clifftops, you're likely to be joined by an inquisitive herd of goats.
Vieste and Peschici are the main coastal towns, bunched-up clusters of narrow lanes and heavy limestone houses, cool even in the heat. Their pale buildings seem to grow out of the sea cliffs, with fierce blue views in every direction. In high summer, it seems that everyone in Italy is here, but June and September are the Gargano's finest months, when the carnival-like crowds are gone, but not everything is closed.
Before tourism, fishing dominated the Gargano. Giovanni Dimaso is 70 years old and has been fishing since he was 10. 'My family were all fishermen. We fished not only to sell, but to eat. When we couldn't escape from a rough sea, we would take refuge in a cave and pass the night shivering. Life was hard for my father, my grandfather.'
Nowadays, fishing stops in high summer so that stocks can replenish. Then, Giovanni takes tourists on boat trips. He enthuses about the places his job takes him to, pointing across his wooden boat: 'The coast south of Vieste, with its natural architecture and the colours of the marine caves. Then, the most beautiful archaeological site, La Salata [palaeo-Christian necropolises] tangled in Mediterranean vegetation.'
Curious cat's-cradle-like constructions, trabucchi, dot the Gargano coast, ancient fishing tools still in use today. Some are over 100 years old. The term trabucco comes from the word 'trick'. When the fish migrate, they swim into bays where the current is less strong and the water too shallow for predators. The fishermen's ploy is to put a net in those shallow waters, slanting it to the left or right according to the direction of the migration.
And what does Giovanni like to eat, once the fishing is done? 'I recommend that everyone try my favourite dish: the fish soup called ciambotto, with spaghetti.'