Sunday, July 04, 2010
Vieste, Gargano, Italy – Windsurfing and Eating :-)
We just returned from a trip to Vieste. Where is Vieste, you ask? It is pretty far south in Italy. Basically, when you think of the “boot” that’s Italy, Vieste is the tip of the spur. (Click here for a map). We drove there from Austria, which was a lengthy drive (11 hours), especially considering that we only had 6 days there. So a long drive for a relatively short trip, but boy, was it worth every moment of it!
But first things first: Why did we even end up going to Vieste? It really all started some 20 years ago. Even as a teenager, I have always heard of the “Gargano” region of Italy (that’s what the spur is called) as a great place to go windsurfing. At the time however, I did not have a good way to get there, so I was stuck reading about it in German Windsurfing magazines (Surf Magazin). So this year, we found ourselves looking for a good place for a short vacation. We didn’t have much time. In fact, we had originally planned to go somewhere this spring, but we were so busy with our day jobs (thanks, economic crisis!) that all ideas of heading to the Caribbean, Central America, or Maui, had to be given up. We already knew however that (just like every year), we would be coming to our second home in Austria in June. Hence the idea arose to just drive somewhere from Austria for a few days.
Of course driving limits the distance you can go. (So my favorite destination – which is Greece – was out). We didn’t want to fly anywhere, because although it would have been very inexpensive to fly somewhere from Austria, we felt it wasn’t flexible enough. Plus, I wanted to go windsurfing. So that immediately limited the options, because windsurfing means you have to a) find a good place to rent gear (and not just any gear), and 2) you need a place to stay near the place that rents the gear, or else you are up for a pain in the rear trip. A quick search of some of the places I remembered, and a short discussion with a travel agent friend of mine, resulted in 2 “hits”: Gargano and the south of France. So I sent off some emails to the surf stations there, and the guys from France never answered. Alas, Italy it was!
The drive was much what you’d expect it to be. We left on a Friday evening (after watching that night’s World Cup football/soccer game) and drove until about 5am. We got to just before Rimini, which is a bit more than half way. We had thought about just taking a hotel for the night. But hotels are not that easy to find along the Italian Autostrada, and I felt like I only needed a nap. So we slept in the car for 3 hours and moved on. We got off the Autostrada (the highway, basically) around 1pm the next day. (Total toll charges to basically drive the length of Italy, came to Euro 50, in case you wonder). This brought us pretty close to our destination. However, as you drive out the spur, you are getting onto small and windy roads. Not quite “Road to Hana” material, but pretty close. So it took well over another hour for us to finally get to Vieste.
As you get off the highway, you are driving through some of the most poverty-stricken parts of Italy. Lots of low-income housing and other crappy stuff to see. Not exactly what you are hoping for as you are nearing your vacation destination. But if you ever go on this trip yourself: Fear not! It gets a lot better. We finally reached Vieste around 2:30pm. The town itself has a picturesque setting as so many Italian towns do. Vieste is not very big. It has an old town center (see below) as well as the more modern parts. The modern parts are typical Italian low-income living areas (i.e. “crappy”), but as you get into town (especially in the evenings), you can’t help but be charmed by Italian life-style. Boy, there is a lot of stuff going on there! You see people sitting in sidewalk Cafes, and you smell awesome Italian food being cooked. It is Italy’s finest and Italy’s worst all in one place. But after a few days there, you won’t even notice the crappy parts anymore over all the cool stuff!
Right as we arrived, we were in for an involuntary tour of the city. We had booked a bungalow at a campground called “Punta Lunga”. However, we didn’t really know where that was, and somehow, I had gotten the impression it was south of Vieste. So we drove down around the south side and discovered all kinds of cool clubs and restaurants (not to mention the vistas!), but no Punta Lunga! We then continued on to the north side, but this darn place was hidden so well, we drove past it twice before we finally found it. By that time, we had pretty much become experts and knew where everything else was. (If you ever look for Punta Lunga yourself, here is a tip: You turn right at the only traffic light, which is about 3 minute north of Vieste).
Punta Lunga Campground and Bungalows
We chose to stay in a bungalow at the Punta Lunga campground, because we wanted to be close to the windsurf center I had chosen (see below). My expectations for this were pretty low, but so was the price. As it turned out, the bungalows weren’t anything fancy, but they were nicer than I had expected. And the campground itself was very nice for a campground. It has several restaurants (or 1 restaurant and a few snack bars) and a bar, and an entertainment area (with the same darn song being played all the time!). Everything is right on the water, and the beach is somewhat secluded. Quite a nice setting, actually! Especially since things weren’t too busy there. (I imagine August would be not quite as nice a time to come, as it is probably packed!).
So if you ever intend to go there with a camper van or a tent, this is a pretty cool place to go. And if you are interested in a bungalow, you get good value for the price. Note: If you rent a bungalow, rent the real bungalow. They have other options, such as renting a mobile home or a so-called “Banga” bungalow, which I would advise against. The Bangas looked like they were bought out of old stock from Soviet Russia! But the real bungalows were OK, and you could even cook there. We didn’t take advantage of that (as it would be a waste of awesome restaurants in the area!), but it is nice to have a fridge and a stove.
We also dined right at the restaurant at the campground twice. This is mostly an option for a lazy night, as the restaurant isn’t anything special. The fish there was pretty good. The “frutti di mare” was very good, actually. Pizza was just OK, although I got pizza there on both visits, so it wasn’t horrible either.
Almost everything at Punta Lunga is reasonably priced. All kinds of foods (snacks or real food) were reasonable. The only thing I was not happy with was the price of the beach chairs and umbrellas. I guess if you come in a camper-van, you bring your own, but if you have to rent, it is a rip-off! Also, even though the place claims they “now are a wireless Internet zone”, the Internet sucks too. It is relatively expensive and it only works in a tiny area (which is also the children’s entertainment area and mostly loud, especially in the evenings… did I mention they were playing the same song over and over and over…?). Speed was OK, but how hard could it possibly be to have reasonably priced wireless Internet in the whole area?!?
Of course the main reason we came was windsurfing. I had chosen Punta Lunga, because I had first chosen Gargano Surfcenter as our windsurfing station. This turned out to be a great choice. This windsurf station is not very large, but there is enough gear there. It is all up to date. Most of it is high-quality Lorch and Aerotech gear. I usually pick my windsurf stations based on whether they have Neil Pryde sails or not, but I was very happy with the Aerotech sails, and the Lorch boards turned out to be excellent as well. (So much so in fact, that I would consider buying a Lorch board and Aerotech sail myself now). Tomy and Diana immediately made us feel welcome, and the overall vibe at the station is great, regardless of whether you are a beginner or a pro.
The windsurfing conditions were good as well. I am always worried when I go somewhere for a week, because one usually gets just a day or 2 of sailing at best. Not enough to get back into it and too much to be bitten by the bug again. Very frustrating. In this case however, we had enough wind to sail every day. Not super-strong (about 5 bft, 20 knots or so… a bit more at times) but consistent. The spot also builds up a bit of wind-swell. About 1 meter max any time I sailed, but I hear on good days (one of which I just missed by a few days), it gets up to 11 bft of wind-speed, and 4-5 meter waves. As far as I can tell, waves are pretty much always the same direction as the wind, so no wave-riding here. We also had quite a bit of chop, so if that bothers you, then this isn’t the spot for you.
One of the things I really enjoyed at Gargano Surfcenter was that I could switch boards and sails any time I wanted. More so than at any other rental station I had ever been at. One day I just went through various boards, sails, and even harnesses, just to try things out. Very cool! I also felt that Tomy and Diana were more than fair in how they counted my time on the water (and only the actual sailing time counted for rental, so if there would have been a day without wind, I wouldn’t have ended up paying for it) and I felt I ended up getting a good deal. Especially since they were nice enough to use some of the time block I had purchased towards a lesson for Ellen.
There are more windsurf and kite surf stations just a bit further north. And truth be told, I am under the impression the wind may be a bit stronger there in general. However, there were a lot more people on the water there, and windsurfers and kite surfers were all sailing in the same area. Always a recipe for disaster, if you ask me. Personally, I would go back to Gargano Surfcenter and Punta Lunga. Maybe if I ended up without much wind there, I might make a day-trip a few miles north. But in general, I think one is better off at Gargano Surfcenter.
BTW: Gargano Surfcenter also has a group on Facebook.
Diving and other Sports
There are quite a few other things one could do in Vieste. Anything from Mountain Biking, to SuPs (Stand-Up Paddle Boards) and to Go-Karts is readily available. We didn’t have enough time to try anything else really. However, Mountain Biking could be very cool there, and I found myself wishing we had brought our bikes. It seems there are lots of places to go, and lots of little back or beach-roads to discover. Bike rentals are available too, but we didn’t really go for it after all. (We spent quite a bit of time just walking along the coast).
We did actively try to find a way to go scuba diving though. Unfortunately, it turns out that’s not readily available in Vieste. We were told there is a filling station in the port of Vieste somewhere, but we looked and didn’t find anything. Besides, we didn’t bring our own tanks anyway. We snorkeled around a bit one day, but there really wasn’t much to see at all, so I doubt there is good diving there, even if one had a way to do it. The best option probably is to take a day trip to the island of Tremiti. Such day-trips are readily available from Vieste, and I am told that the trip is worthwhile regardless of diving, and in addition, Tremiti has a scuba center. We didn’t have time to check it out, but that seems to be a viable option.
One of the things you will notice as you drive along the cost is odd wooden contraptions build out on the cliffs. At first, they look a bit industrial and crappy, but then you realize they are kinda nifty and cool, actually. These are called “Trabuccos” and they are old fishing rigs that can only be found in this area of Italy. (Click here for a description of Trabuccos on the Wikipedia). In the old days, fisherman would use Trabuccos to cast their nets into the Adriatic Sea and let them lay at the bottom for a little while, before they pulled them back up and collected everything in it. These days, that doesn’t amount to much, as overfishing lead to pretty barren waters. Good news for water sports enthusiasts who are afraid of sharks ;-), but bad news for everyone who likes marine life.
In any event: You can see Trabuccos all over the coast line. Some of them are even built out as restaurants, which is very cool (see below).
Vieste – Old Town
There is more to Vieste than just water sports. Go into the center of town (park you car for 3 Euros at one of the monitored parking areas in the outskirts of town… you won’t find parking in the center) and you can’t miss the old town. Simply follow one of the main roads that lead into town until you hit the main square. There is tons of stuff going on there as well, but keep going upwards. The oldest part of town is at the top of the hill. You will find an area of tiny little roads and ally ways. No cars allowed here, because they wouldn’t fit anyway. Just walking around here is great fun and should not be missed. And then of course there are the restaurants. Oh boy, are you in for a treat!
Of course you will also see lots of other little shops (such as the typical small Italian designer and souvenir shops). You will see people socializing in the streets. You will see places people live. And you will have great vistas and photo opportunities.
We ate a lot on this trip. And I mean A LOT! If you like Italian food (and that includes pizza and pasta, but I am talking mostly about fish and other things from the ocean), then you will feel like you died and had gone to heaven! We didn’t have a single bad meal on the entire trip. There is too much too talk about really, but let me sum up some of the most important dining experiences we had:
Pelikano: This is a beach restaurant (and club, actually... see here) on the beach to the south of Vieste. It’s a very cool and modern restaurant. Somewhat on the upscale side. Expect relatively decent food, very nice ambience, and a somewhat higher price. Generally speaking, I wouldn’t hesitate to go back there. On the other hand, we found so many excellent places, “pretty good” has a difficult time competing with “experience of a lifetime”...
Sapore di Mare: This is a restaurant with a view! It sits at the top of the cliff just about as far into the old town as you can go. Keep going until you can go no further (which is not very far in Vieste) and you have reached Sapore di Mare. The setting of the restaurant is such that you simply must not miss it if you ever go to Vieste. The restaurant itself is relatively simple. The food is to die for! We ate “frutti di mare” (mixture of various things such as scampi and squid… a true Italian classic!), Cozze (the black mussels), spaghetti with mussels, and a mixed fish grill plate. Everything was excellent and priced fairly. We will go back here on our next trip to Vieste!
Cafe Mistral: This one is outside of town, very close to Punta Lunga (just go south from Punta Lunga, and it is the first restaurant). This features a great view of Vieste in the distance. The restaurant itself is modern and tasteful (and a club at night, I believe). Pretty cool, Italian ambience. Also very good food. Once again, we ate mussels, frutti di mare, a fish soup, and some pizza, and it was all good. The price was also reasonable, all things considered.
La Ripa: Another highlight of the trip. This little restaurant (billed as a “typical Viestian restaurant”) is in the heart of the old town (near Sapore di Mare, actually). It is probably a tourist trap, and I have no idea if a lot of locals would go there. And yes, it is a tad on the expensive side (not too bad). But we had a great time there and one of the better dining experiences I ever had. We ate anything from fish to cozze to frutti di mare to grilled cheese and pasta, and it was all excellent. The wine wasn’t bad either. We may have paid about 80 Euros for 2 people, but I felt it was more than worth it. Every so often, there is nothing wrong with just being a tourist :-)
Nameless Place in the Middle of Nowhere: One night, Tomy and Diana (from Gargano Surfcenter) were good enough to take us (together with 3 other windsurfing couples we had met) to a little place they know. I would never be able to find it again on my own, and as far as we could tell, it doesn’t even have a name. I am not even sure it is really a restaurant vs. just some place that happens to sell food to people in the know. We paid 25 Euros each for all we could eat and drink. And what a feast it was! They served up every conceivable local specialty. It must have been 30-35 different appetizers. Any type of fish, octopus, vegetable, scampi, mussel, squid, made in any conceivable way you can imagine. This was followed by a few different pasta dishes. All home made. Then, all the fish and/or meat you can eat as the main course. Followed by some traditional desserts. It must have been 40-45 different courses, plus wine and a “digestivo” and whatever else one wanted to drink. This was the kind of dinner you will never forget, enjoyed with a fun group of new friends. You simply can’t have that kind of experience elsewhere. Awesome!
Trabucco da u’Manfrudien: This was a lucky find. We just walked along the beach one day about 20-30 minutes north of Punta Lunga (just on the south end of the larger windsurf bay near Portichelli) when we saw a pretty nicely maintained Trabucco. We walked closer to take a picture when we noticed a sign hat said it was OK to come in. We walked up the wooden plank, and would you know it! Someone turned the thing into a tiny little restaurant. We didn’t have any money on us, but we came back the next day for lunch. And we ended up with an experience of a lifetime!
The whole place was tiny. Nevertheless, about 30 Italians were feasting in little groups. Nobody spoke anything but Italian there, and there certainly weren’t any non-Italian tourists other than us. We managed to order 2 appetizer deals that turned out to be multi-course meals. We had frutti di mare, anchovies, all kinds of vegetables (and other bite-sized appetizers), olives, bruschietta, pizza, and the best plate of cozze (mussels) I ever had. All that for 10 bucks a person. We then followed it up by a grilled fish plate we shared. It was also excellent. We had a bunch of drinks and spent about 3 hours there. In the end, it cost us just over 30 bucks. I gave them 40, because I felt it was worth a lot more. (Normally, you do not tip much in Italy).
Travel is almost always fun. But sometimes, you go on a quick trip just to get away. You don’t have super-high expectations. Yet before you know it, you are having the time of your life! This certainly won’t be the last time I go to Gargano and especially Vieste. I intend to go to many of the same places again, but there are tons of additional ones we had heard about but didn’t have time to go to. (And I now have to go on a diet before I return).
This was travel at its best!
Posted @ 4:06 PM by Egger, Markus (firstname.lastname@example.org) -