Italy's secret islands

 

The Tremiti archipelago can be tricky to get to, but you’ll be rewarded with an unpretentious, beautiful and refreshingly affordable destination, writes JO CAIRD

THE TREMITI, an archipelago of three tiny islands off Italy’s Adriatic coast, are one of the Bel Paese’s least-known destinations. San Domino, home to most of the archipelago’s hotels and restaurants, San Nicola, the historical centre of the Tremiti, and the uninhabited Caprara are unpretentious, refreshingly affordable and offer some of the most beautiful island scenery in the Mediterranean.

Just 22 miles from the coast of the Gargano peninsula - the spur of Italy - the islands are also steeped in culture and legend, playing host over the centuries to religious communities, political prisoners and mythical figures.

While summer-holiday destinations in Tuscany or on the Amalfi coast are over-run with restaurants offering multilingual menus and shops selling “traditional” tat for hugely inflated prices, the Tremiti have a far more genuine feel. Walk 10 minutes up the hill away from the port on San Domino, the largest of the islands, and you will find restaurants providing fantastically fresh fish for reasonable prices, a good range of family-run accommodation and not a hint of tourist-resort cynicism.

The locals – there are only 440 of them at the peak of summer, a number that falls to about 100 in winter – are extremely affable and will do their utmost to make your stay more comfortable, although one drawback to the islands’ not being on the tourism map is that very few speak English, so bringing a phrase book is a good idea.

The main attraction of the Tremiti is the archipelago’s stunning beauty. The islands are protected under two schemes: they are a designated marine reserve in themselves and also part of the mainland’s Gargano National Park. Construction has been prohibited since 1979, and the result is a landscape characterised by meadows and pine forests (90 hectares of a total 208 on San Domino).

The Benedictine monks who lived and worked on the islands from the ninth century until 1782 called San Domino the Island of Earthly Paradise, and it is easy to see why. As well as a huge variety of flora and fauna, the island’s waters are warm and limpid, kept clean by the gentle currents that move through the archipelago.

In addition to limiting construction, the archipelago’s council has practically outlawed motor vehicles. San Nicola is accessible only on foot; the sole route to the village is up the original footpath of the fortified abbey that dominates the island. On San Domino only residents are allowed cars, but most do not own one; the distances are so small that it is just not necessary. Most vehicles on the tiny, footpath-like roads bear the logos of hotels and BBs, which use them to ferry guests and their luggage to and from the port.

The scarcity of cars makes the islands not just deliciously peaceful but also particularly safe for children. Angelo Lisci, who owns the Relais Al Faro BB and Era Ora wine bar, lets his four-year-old daughter play wherever she wishes. “There is no danger here,” he says.

While tourists visiting the Italian mainland must choose between cramming on to a stretch of sand at a private beach club, paying through the nose for a sunbed and umbrella or isolating themselves in a private villa with a pool, visitors to the Tremiti can enjoy beautiful scenery without such expense and inconvenience.

Although San Domino does have a couple of pretty sandy beaches where you can hire sunloungers and umbrellas, most of the island’s 10km of coastline is made up of small, isolated coves ( calasin Italian). San Domino is easily explored on foot or by bicycle: footpaths criss-cross the island in the shade of impressive pine forests, and bikes are available to hire from the appropriately named Jimmy Bike, who sets up in front of the bank on San Domino’s main square (about €15 per day).

Each of the archipelago’s coves has its own charms, but it is certainly worth venturing to those farther from San Domino’s port, as these attract fewer day trippers and therefore tend to be less busy. Adventurous types willing to walk for a little bit longer will be rewarded by more secluded patches of seaside.

Given the island’s geology, aqua shoes or rafting sandals are recommended, both for getting into the sea and for the sometimes inaccessible routes down to the coves through the forest. Cala di Zio Cesare, on the southern tip of the island, and Cala Tramontana, on its north side, both offer ample space for sunbathing and entry points to the water that are not too precarious.

A less energetic option is hiring a gommone, or motorised rubber dinghy, from one of the many booths at the port on San Domino, to explore the coves and caves that mark the coastlines of San Domino and Caprara. (They cost from about €60 to €120 per day, depending on capacity and engine size.) Many more coves are accessible via the sea than via land, and a gommone is a fantastic way to see the islands’ many grotte, or sea caves. Particularly worth a visit is Grotta delle Viole, or Cave of Violets, named for the purple tint of the water as it reflects off the narrow entrance.

A less expensive, but ultimately less satisfying, option are the larger co-operative-run motoscafi, or motorboats, that tour San Domino’s three most important caves. (They cost €10 per person; tours last about an hour.)

Besides being a place of natural beauty, the Tremiti are also rich in culture and history. San Nicola is dominated by the 11th-century fortified abbey of Santa Maria di Tremiti, which is an ideal diversion from days spent soaking up the sun. Hop on one of the ferries that make the one-minute trip between the two inhabited islands (€2.50 each way), walk the twisting footpath up to San Nicola village, itself a part of the fort, and marvel at the Knights’ Tower, the Church of Santa Maria a Mare, with its elaborate mosaic floor, and the Benedictine cloisters.

Continue upwards, through the partially restored abbey and out the other side of it, and you will come to the Tomb of Diomedes, the cave where, as legend has it, the Greek hero was laid to rest. On nights with no moon you can hear the eerie calls of small nocturnal petrels – unsettlingly similar to the cries of newborn babies. According to mythology, these birds, called Diomedee by islanders, are the spirits of the great warrior’s soldiers, charged by a vengeful Aphrodite to mourn him for eternity.

It’s a captivating story – and one that is strangely credible once you’ve heard the birds, but ultimately it’s flawed. Because nobody who has experienced the awe-inspiring scenery, deliciously simple cuisine and sense of history on these islands would have the slightest desire to leave of their own accord.

Rather than being forced to stay on the Tremiti, it seems far more likely that Diomedes’s soldiers just didn’t want to leave. After a couple of days there you’ll feel the same way.

Where to stay, where to eat and where to go

Where to stay

  • Relais Al Faro. Via Aldo Moro, San Domino, 00-39- 0882-463424, alfarotremiti.it. The bright and clean rooms at this BB share a balcony with a fantastic view that takes in San Domino village and the island of San Nicola. It also has five-person apartments with kitchens and daily maid service. BB €40-€60 per person sharing; €700 per apartment per week.
  • Villaggio Internazionale Punta del Diamante. San Domino, 00-39-0882-463405, puntadeldiamante.it. Two- to five-bed holiday cottages in the peaceful pine forest at Punta del Diamante. Can be BB or half or full board. From €33 per person.
  • Al Paradiso. Via Beato G Da Foligno, San Domino, 00-39- 0882-463400. This BB is less than a minute’s walk from San Domino’s main square. Each room has a little balcony, and the building has free Wi-Fi. From €35 per person.

Where to eat

  • A’ Furmicola. Hotel Le Viole, Via Punta Secca, San Domino, 00-39-0882-463312. The best of San Domino’s three pizza options. Most of the tables here are under the stars, among the pine trees, and after dinner the decks are cleared for a disco that lasts until the early hours. Pizzas from €8.
  • Ristorante Gabbiano. Piazza Belvedere, San Domino, 00-39-0882-463410, hotel-gabbiano.com. Original twists on typical Tremiti cuisine. Two courses cost about €25, excluding wine.
  • Ristorante Le Rondinelle. Localitá Rondinelle, San Domino, 00-39-0882-463314. Renowned locally for serving fresh fish at reasonable prices. Two courses cost about €20, excluding wine.

Where to go

  • Chiesa di Santa Maria a Mare. Situated within San Nicola’s abbey-fort complex, this church, which dates from 1045, has mosaic floors in excellent condition. In summer Mass is celebrated daily at 4.30pm.
  • Cala Matano. One of San Domino’s two sandy beaches, this is by far the more tranquil of the pair. Arrive early in the day – or the evening before – and book of the 20 sunlounger-and-umbrella sets in advance (€30 for set of two for the day). Kayaks for one or three people are also available to hire (€8/€15 per hour).
  • Cappella dell’Eremita. A circular path will take you to the highest point on San Domino, which offers a magnificent view of the archipelago.

Go there

Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) flies to Rome from Dublin, Cork and Belfast. Ryanair (ryanair.com) flies from Dublin. In Rome you can rent a car to drive to Termoli (try Hertz, Avis, Auto Europe and Carhire3000), where you can leave it to catch a passenger ferry with Navigazione Libera del Golfo (navlib.it) or Tirrenia di Navigazione (tirrenia.it). Alternatively, both airlines fly from Dublin to Bologna, where you can catch a train to Termoli (trenitalia.it).