Gargano - spring flowers and natural history in southern Italy
A relaxed week of wild flowers and country walks, exploring the Gargano Peninsula, famous for its diversity of orchids, multi-coloured irises, wild tulips and showy peonies.
The Gargano forms the ’spur’ on the boot of Italy. It is a mountainous chunk of limestone with more in common with coastal Croatia than the surrounding Italian plains, rising up above 1000m above sea level to form a rugged peninsula jutting out into the Adriatic.
The Gargano has a unique botanical and historical legacy, a product of its position, geology and isolation from the coastal plains. It is not surprising that the Gargano is a designated National Park! Our visit is timed to make the most of the wonderful spring flowers.
The area is most famous for its amazing orchid diversity, amongst the most diverse areas in Europe with several endemic forms, including the ‘bee’ orchids Ophrys ‘bertoloniformis’, O. argolica ssp biscutella and O. fuciflora ssp apulica, which will no doubt feature high on our list of finds during the week, along with carpets of Green-winged and Pink Butterfly Orchids on the limestone plateau.
Colourful dwarf irises, Iris bicapitata and I. pseudopumilia are found in abundance in the rough meadows, with Wild Peony, Poet’s Narcissus and Wild Tulip all adding extra splashes of colour.
We will be based in the historic town of Monte Sant Angelo, perched high on the limestone ridge with views out over the Gulf of Manfredonia, from where we will take daily excursions to explore the various habitats and hidden corners of the Gargano, from the orchid-rich limestone grasslands to the ancient deciduous woodlands that cloak the centre of the peninsula, one of the largest broadleaved forests in southern Europe.
Please note that holidays change, although sometimes only slightly, from year to year and previous trip reports may not reflect the planned itinerary, or other holiday details, for the current trip. Please ask us if you would like to know of any significant differences.
Day 1 Our flights take us to Bari on the Adriatic coast from where we head northwards along the coast road, around the Gulf of Manfredonia before climbing onto the Gargano, arriving at our hotel in the hilltop town of Monte Sant’Angelo.
Day 2 We walk along the limestone ridge west of town, which should be ablaze with colour at this time of year. The limestone of the southern Gargano is particularly rich in orchids, and we will have our first introduction to the bewildering diversity, including a range of Ophrys orchids busy interbreeding. Dainty Orchis quadripunctata and the chunky Lady Orchid Orchis purpurea should also be found. Eastern Subalpine Warbler sing their scratchy song from scattered bushes, with spring butterflies on the wing, hopefully including the impressive Italian Festoon.
Day 3 We travel by bus into the Gargano National Park and walk a section of the ’pilgrims way’ through the meadows and woods, where carpets of orchids can be found. Green-winged Anacamptis morio and Pink Butterfly Orchids A. papilionacea grow together, with their inevitable hybrids adding to the confusion. In shady areas we look for the Dactylorhiza romana and Poets Narcissus Narcissus poetica. Even more impressive are the irises, with meadows full of the locally-endemic Iris bicapitata in its many shades, from white through blue to deep velvety purples.
Day 4 Today we will head into the centre of the peninsula, for an exploration of the quiet woodlands and grassy clearings of the Bosco Quarto. Nearby we will make a couple of roadside stops, where we will enjoy a splash of bright colours, with flowering Wild Peony Paeonia mascula and Wild Tulip Tulipa sylvestris.
Day 5 We head into the heart of the Gargano, and the Foresta Umbra, the ‘forest of the shadows’. Covering around 10,500 hectares of oak, maple and yew forest, this is reputed to be one of the largest broad-leaved forests in southern Europe. We look for Blue Anemone Anemone apennina, Spurge Laurel Daphne laureola and Coralroot Bittercress Cardamine bulbifera, along with woodpeckers amongst the trees.
Day 6 Today is a free day. You might choose to visit the various historic and cultural sites of Monte Sant’Angelo, sample the delicious Brutti Ma Buoni, ’ugly but beautiful’ biscuits (a local speciality), walk back out to the orchid-covered hillsides or venture a little further afield to the beautiful Abbey of Sta Maria di Pulsano.
Day 7 Today we are back on the orchid hunt: we will visit the limestone hill of Monte Sacro, once the site of a famous shrine dedicated to Jupiter and more recently a Benedictine Abbey, now in ruins. On the walk up the hill we will stop many times to enjoy the wild flowers: Ophrys argolica ssp biscutella, Ophrys bertoloni and Dactylorhiza romana should all be found amongst the meadows, amongst others.
Day 8 We begin our return to Bari, stopping along the way to look across the extensive salt pans near Margherita di Savoia, the largest ‘Salinas’ in Europe; in use since the 3rd century BC and home to a large population of Greater Flamingos.
Please note that the itinerary may be changed to suit the weather or other practicalities at the discretion of the leaders.
Our home for the week is the Palace Hotel San Michele, a four-star hotel set on the edge of Monte Sant Angelo, with easy access to the orchid-rich countryside and views out over the Gulf of Manfredonia. All rooms are en-suite.
Most evening meals will be taken in the hotel restaurant: on two nights we will ‘eat out’ at a delightful local restaurant in the historic streets of Monte Sant Angelo. We will take picnic lunches out with us every day.
For our daily excursions, we will travel by small coach: we may use a local taxi occasionally.
Group flights are with British Airways from London Gatwick to Bari.
Italy is one hour ahead of UK time.
If you hold a British passport, from 1 January 2021 you will be able to travel to countries in the Schengen area (including Italy) for up to 90 days in any 180-day period without a visa. You must have at least six months left on your passport to travel to most countries in Europe.
At this time of year the weather should hopefully be warm and sunny, with average temperatures around 15-20° C. As with everywhere, the weather is less predictable now than it used to be, and there may be cooler or hotter weather and some rain. We will do our best to adapt our walks and excursions accordingly.
On several days, we are walking for much of the day: the longest walk will be about 6 miles, albeit at a relatively slow pace. It is necessary to walk on rougher ground and up some slopes, although the walking is not strenuous. Walking boots are essential. The pace will be relaxed, with time to enjoy the surroundings and take photos as well as enjoying the wildlife along the way.