We ripped through the coastal towns of Abruzzo and Molise, on a mission to arrive before nightfall. We knew that driving in the dark with unlit winding roads and sheer perpendicular drops would not be the best way to travel along this promontory.
I allowed myself to escape into memories, at least for a little while to avoid the mounting heaving caused by my acrophobia.
The last time I was jostled from sharp curve to sharp curve, I was 6 months pregnant with my first child and travelling this same road that would take me, and a group of colleagues and friends, to our final destination, Pugnochiuso in the Gargano.
Then as now, we were blessed with spectacular cliff-top views of beaches and medieval towers, plus, for anyone who's endured the white-knuckle ride of the Amalfi Coast – a refreshing lack of traffic. It was still mid-day and as we wended our way around the promontory, our eyes darted and flitted, trying to take in all the beauty from every angle and in every detail.
I had for years hoped to come back to the Gargano, to this out-of-the-way area of Italy. Known also as the “spur” on the heal of the boot, the Gargano promontory is in the province of Foggia, and stretches out seventy kilometers into the sea, dominating the Adriatic, and rising about 1,056 metres above it.The area along the coast is mostly covered with a mix of pine forest, green scrub and sea cliffs. The many variety of orchids that grow here emit a gentle perfume that imbues the air.
I was returning to it finally, wondering how much I would find that had changed.
I expected perhaps the monstrous gargoyles of hotels hanging at the cliff’s edge, above the sea, blocking its view; an infinite stretch of buildings, streets and shops bustling with loud holiday crowds.
But this was not the case.
When I arrived the first time it was for a much-needed break following a frenzied cycle of meetings at the publishing house Giunti Marzocco, who were about to publish our Italian textbook for Heritage Language. I was fatigued and heavy as any expectant mother would be, but I found here a light refreshing sea air that would be the balm I was looking for.
I had suggested a saunter to this area, to my group of friends, because I had just read how Enrico Mattei,who was the president of the Italian oil and gas company Eni, was taken in by the area’s charm and beauty during a visit to what was then mostly a farming region. Eni financed construction of a large tourist center near Vieste called Pugnochiuso, building two hotels, residences and a shopping complex. 1. https://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/02/travel/in-gargano-polishing-italys-spur.html
By the time we had arrived in the summer of 1980 the tourist complex was ready, spanking new and very luxurious.
Two lovely hotels perched on a cliff looking out to the sea nestled in a cove along the coast that resembled a “closed fist”; hence the name Pugnochiuso.
But how was it possible now that roadways cluttered with signs advertising motels and campsites were virtually non-existent; no massive hotels lined the coast, hiding the sea.
Could there still exist such an exquisite untouched coastline as this?
As we drove along towards our destination, the sky seemed to be bathed in a pink-hued, pearly light contrasting the sea, which softens from intense to turquoise to powder blue as the evening draws in. The yellow of the countryside merged with emerald green scrub and the limestone walls enclosing private villas. The stretch of coast we drove along alternated between overhanging cliffs and coves with small beaches that were, for the most part hidden, and blended into the myriad blues of the Adriatic. As we approached our destination two imposing boulders came into view. Jutting out of the crystal sea two monolyths looking like sylphs dancing on the waters announced possibly the most splendid sandy bay of Italy. We had arrived at the Baia delle Zagare.
A nondescript sign was the only indication that beyond awaited what would be our temporary home in Paradise.
We arrived laden with suitcases and an enormous curiosity about the Hotel Baia Delle Zagare, which had been enthused about and recommended by friends. While the size of the complex was not yet visible to us what immediately captured my notice was the elegance of the Mediterranean styled villas and how the hotel structures merged so perfectly and in total harmony with the natural environment.
Hallway tables displayed clay pots, large and small; an arched glass door etched with “Emporio Zagare” announced the coloured-filled boutique within. The open, breezy lobby offered comfortable large “poltrone”, and beyond the open terrace, a heart-stopping view of a crystalline shimmering sea.
A quick hop to our rooms --large, modern and well appointed-- and we were off to explore and discover.
At Hotel Baia delle Zagare pathways meander between the hotel structures in a seemingly spontaneous way, without rhyme or reason, peeking out from behind shady alcoves and then emerging into bright sunlight. Palm trees accompany your jaunt, their fronds carrying the sea breeze that cools.
We follow a path as directed that will take us down to the beach. It is our most pressing purpose that moment; we cannot ignore the call of the sea.
On our way we pass secular olive trees, oleanders and amethyst coloured bougainvillea, and a large variety of succulents. Someone, a guest, I imagine, is resting in a hammock and enjoying the beauty of this sumptuous park, coddled by the sea breeze.
As we near the cliff’s edge and step out from the canopy of trees, a searing bright light assails us; the cobalt hue of the ocean tinges everything in blue. A swift intake of breath, and we are transfixed by so much beauty.
“I believe the world is incomprehensibly beautiful, an endless prospect of magic and wonder.” Ansel Adams
Panoramic elevators zip us down fringed white cliffs overhanging the sea, and to the beach.
It is a splendid beach of soft white sand, and set inside an enchanted cove, ---a matter of inspiration for poets, surely, ---in a stretch of high, jagged coastline dotted with marvelous sea caves. The huge rocks we saw earlier on our approach now emerge from the sea only a few kilometers from where we stand on the shore.
It is nearing late afternoon and the twilight is beginning to throw beguiling shadows over the cliffs and beach. The two colossal boulders suddenly take form and rise Neptune-like from the sea. Some sea goddess swathed in turquoise crystal veils surges with the waves from behind.
My dream is interrupted as I stir from a fatigue induced sleep on the beach chair. We take the elevator back to the top and I turn for one more quick look over my shoulder, just in time to see the sun dip into the ocean.
Hotel Baia delle Zagare –
Litoranea Mattinata-Vieste S.P.53 - 71030 Mattinata (Fg) –
Gargano - tel.: +39.0884.550155