The Isole Tremiti (ee∙SOH∙leh treh∙MEE∙tee) are an archipelago of 3-5 islands-depending on what you consider an island-in the Adriatic Sea, 22 km off the coast of Italia. The Tremiti, considered ‘le perle dell’Adriatico’ (the pearls of the Adriatic), have been inhabited since at least the 4th century BC. They are part of the Parco Nazionale del Gargano (Gargano National Park) http://www.parcogargano.it and have been a protected Marine Nature Reserve (Riserva Naturale Marina Isole Tremiti) since 1989. The clear waters make the islands a popular spot for snorkeling, scuba diving and even bird watching.
San Domino is the largest island and has most of the facilities such as hotels, restaurants, the Tremiti Diving Center, and the heliport. It is covered by lush Aleppo pine forest, capers and rosemary, and surrounded by small coves and sea caves. San Domino has the Tremiti’s only sandy beach –Cale delle Arene. The rocky coves are beautiful to explore and swim-but don’t go barefoot! My friend stepped on a riccio di mare (sea urchin) and it was not fun. There is a 2 hour walk around part of the island and bicycles are available for rent.
San Nicola is the administrative and historic center of the islands, and where most of the 400 or so permanent residents live. The 11th Century Benedictine abbey and church of Santa Maria del Mare seem to rise up out of the limestone cliffs, with fortified walls starting at the port. The church has a beautiful 11th century mosaic floor and a Byzantine painted wood crucifix that was likely brought here by monks fleeing from the Crusades.
Capraia (or Caprara) is rocky and uninhabited except for sea birds. It is named for the capers that grow there. There is no organized transport to Capraia, but local fishermen can be hired to take people over.
Cretaccio is an uninhabited halfmoon shaped block of yellowish clay between San Domino and San Nicola. Cretaccio literally means ‘big hunk of clay’.
Pianosa is 11 km away from the other islands and is the most northern point of Puglia. It can be covered by waves during storms, as the elevation is only 15 m. The waters surrounding Pianosa are in zone A of the Marine Reserve, so access is strictly prohibited except for approved marine research.
The islands are sometimes known by their former name ‘Le Diomedee’ or ‘I Sassi di Diomede’ and you see a lot of things in the Gargano area called ‘Diomede’. According to legend/mythology, after the Trojan War, the Greek hero Diomedes settled in the Daunia area (Province of Foggia) and created the islands with 3 rocks he threw into the Adriatic. He was also shipwrecked on the islands with his crew and possibly died here.
There is an unmarked Hellenic period tomb on San Nicola that is known as ‘la tomba di Diomede’. His crew was so upset at the loss of their captain that the Goddess Venus took pity on the grieving men and turned them into birds that continue to cry for their loss. The scientific name for the Great Albatross which is common in the area, is ‘Diomedea’. These birds look a lot like seagulls and make a noise that can sound like a crying newborn. In Fellini’s ‘Otto e mezzo’ (8½) there is a scene where a cardinal tells this story to Guido (Marcello Mastroianni).
The islands also have a long history as a place of exile. Emperor Octavius Augustus confined his granddaughter Giulia to San Nicola for adultery with a Roman senator. She remained there until her death 20 years later. One of the necropoli beneath the abbey could be her tomb. Ferdinand, king of Napoli turned the abbey into a penal colony. A hundred years later, another Ferdinand tried to repopulate the islands with criminals and people moved in from the slums. For many years, the Fascists imprisoned those considered a danger to the public on the Isole Tremiti. One of the prisoners held there was Sandro Pertini, future president of the Italian Republic.
I have visited the islands several times by helicopter. As you can see in the photos, the emerald water is so crystal clear you can see the bottom from the air! The wonderful thing about visiting the Isole Tremiti is that there are no large hotels or resorts. All of the hotels are small and surrounded by pine forest, so although this is a tourist destination, it doesn’t feel overrun with people. The Isole Tremiti are accessible by 1-2 hour ferry ride from Vieste, Peschici, Rodi Garganico, Manfredonia and Termoli, or by half hour helicopter ride from Foggia http://www.alidaunia.it .