Friday, October 14, 2016

Grottos of Vieste, Gargano Peninsula hidden gems off the beaten tourist trail

I don’t feel much like writing while I’m on a tour (we are touring Southern Italy with Rick Steves’ agency). Beyond the fact that I want to relax and enjoy myself (and writing, for me, is hard work), the purpose of my blog is not to substitute for a travelog or guidebook to Italy. It’s not hard to find plenty of the latter in bookstores and online. However, sometimes I come across something so interesting and relatively unknown to the average tourist that I must steel myself and sit down to write, even when I am supposed to be vacating.

Fishing from a rocky ledge.
Vieste is on the tip of a rocky peninsula in the large Gargano National Park on the east coast of Italy. Traditionally known as a fishing village, now its main claim to fame is as a summer resort for Italian and German vacationers. English guidebooks give it little mention. With its blue waters and sandy beaches, Vieste looks like it would provide excellent relief from the summer heat, though we are here in October, so the beaches are mostly empty because the temperatures only reach the upper 60s. But for us, it’s perfect because we are here mostly to enjoy the everyday pace and culture of Italian living—and the scenic beauty of the coastline.
This experienced Vieste fisherman is pulling in an octopus, which he held high to show us moments later.
It is the latter, especially, which has proved so surprisingly spectacular. Our tour guide booked us a boat ride along the rugged Gargano coastline, where we saw geological splendors such as arches, grottoes and thousands of layers of sedimentary rock that whisper the changing history of the region. We also saw men fishing from the high rock banks and in small boats. One cheerful pescatore slid a squirming octopus out of his net and held it high for our benefit.

No way will this big boat fit in this small opening . . .
The highlight, or so I thought at the moment, was when the pilot approached a small opening in the rocks, seemingly to give us a close-up look. But he didn’t stop, and, accompanied by a few gasps from startled passengers, the boat slipped inside with only a few feet to spare on either side, and we were inside a semi-dark grotta (grotta is the Italian word for the English grotto).

Yet somehow it did.
The gasps turned to ooohs and aaahs—expressions that were to be repeated later when we went inside another four grotte, some of which had openings in the top to let in beams of light. One—the Grotta dei Pomodori—had round red sea anemones that looked like cherry tomatoes growing just below the sea line. Some people commented that
Sea tomatoes
now they wouldn’t need to go to the more famous Grotta Azzurra on the island of Capri. I hesitated to take photos—although of course I did take them—because I knew a two-dimensional image of a single section of a 360-degree splendor couldn’t adequately reproduce the experience of being there.

As for the city itself, we liked the fact that the centro storico, the old city center, was right next to the more modern buildings and also right on the coast. Some of the resort towns I’ve visited on the west shore have touristy modern cities along the water, and the historic centers are a mile or more inshore. We stayed in the Hotel Seggio, which overlooked the coast and even had its own stairway down to the beach. Although we are only in the first few days of our tour, I think the boat trip will be one of the more memorable parts of our 13 days.
Inside the Grotta Dei Due Occhi, the cave of two eyes.

Will we come back to Vieste on our own? Probably not, because though it’s a pleasant town, we feel we were able to experience our favorite highlights in the two days we were there. Of course, if we were living in Italy in the heat of the summer, we might feel differently. However, we can certainly recommend it as a vacation destination that’s less crowded and more authentically Italian than many of the more famous places.
The layers of sediment and volcanic ash would be a geologist's dream field trip.

And not all of the scenic splendors were outside of the boat. I found this striking blonde beauty right next to me on the boat!

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