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Drive Italy's Adriatic Coast

Boats at the Tremiti Islands, Italy

Try something amazingly out of the ordinary!

I LOVE visit. While I fantasize about moving to Italy and living la dolce vita, I doubt that I’ve got the fortitude to survive the notorious Italian bureaucracy and actually put down roots there. So, I’m content to visit from time to time, maintaining my illusion of the sweet life. And one of my favorite trips to Italy was down the Adriatic coast. Yeah, the Amalfi Coast and Tuscany are really popular, but I was interested in experiencing a different part of Italy. Enter Molise and Abruzzo!

This part of Italy, while beautiful, is quite earthquake prone because of the fault line that runs up the spine, (i.e., the Adriatic side). You may recall the recent devastating earthquakes in that region. In spite of that, it’s unbelievably scenic. It’s also remarkably un-touristy, so shhh – don’t tell anyone! Like I mentioned, we decided on Molise (MO-lee zay) and Abruzzo (uh-BROOTS-oh) because it was less touristy, and because we wanted to do a bit of hiking in the Abruzzo National Park in the Apennines mountains. We were also going to the Tremiti Islands to scuba dive, and in order to do that we had to make our way to the town of Termoli to catch the ferry over to the islands.

We landed in Rome for our aggressive 8-day trip, picked up our little Fiat 500 at the airport, and headed merrily eastward toward the Adriatic (really, it was more of a slow, painful slog after being on the plane all night, but the first way sounds way better). Our destination for the night was about two and a half hours away in the seaside resort of Giulianova, in the northern part of Abruzzo. There, we stayed at the Hotel Cristallo, overlooking the beach. Since it was September, the superb weather remained, but the summer crowds had gone, so the vibe was more laid back. We took a leisurely sunset walk along the promenade on the edge of the beach which helped us relax and unwind from the flight and drive.

Beach in Termoli, Italy

The next day we made our way south to Termoli, another seaside resort of about 30,000 in the Molise region. Termoli is known for its well-maintained historic walled section of the city. We stayed within the walled part at the Residenza Sveva, with a view of the Adriatic. It was lovely and cozy and the owner greeted us like family. That night, we had dinner at Restaurante Svevia. It was rustically beautiful and looked like a grotto or converted wine cellar. I don’t recall what we ate, except that it was delicious seafood and the gelato we had for desert was to die for.

From Termoli, we took the two and a half hour ferry ride over to the island of San Domino in the Tremiti Islands. The Tremiti Islands make up a small archipelago consisting of the islands of San Domino, San Nicola, Cretaccio, Caprara and Pianosa. Also known as the Diomede Islands, the Tremitis are located off the Gargano Peninsula, which is a geographical sub-region of Apulia, and the islands are actually part of the Gargano National Park. The name “Tremiti” relates to the history of earthquakes in the area since in Italian, the word "tremiti" means "tremors". Throughout history, the islands have also been used to detain political prisoners. Nowadays, they get about 100,000 tourists annually, but were mostly empty when we arrived in September.

We stayed on the island San Domino. It’s the most developed island, but far from overdeveloped. Most of the population actually lives on the island of San Nicola with the remaining three islands being uninhabited. Once we arrived at the ferry dock in San Domino, we made our way to the Hotel Eden, mainly because it was the only hotel open and also because the dive shop was at the hotel. We left our car in Termoli since no cars are permitted on the island, with some very limited exceptions. The hotel was closing for the season in a few days, so besides a couple of hotel guests and island residents, it was like having our own private island!

The waters surrounding the Tremiti Islands are known for being extremely clear and scuba diving certainly proved it, but the water was COLD, and by that, I mean in the 60’s. I had on a very heavy, 7mm wetsuit and our dive guide had on a dry suit (a cold water dive suit). BRRRRR! Still, we saw some really unique sea life, creatures that I hadn’t seen before. The only other divers were a photographer and his model who were participating in a multi-day underwater photography contest. How awesome is that!?

Barrea, Italy

Back on the mainland, we drove into the Abruzzo National Park, winding through the tiny hamlet of Barrea, visiting the other little villages and doing a bit of hiking. Barrea is a trail head for hikers and we saw tons of them all geared up, apparently for multi-day trips. Us, we were going to hike about, snap some beautiful pics, then drive back to Rome before wrapping up our adventure and flying home. So, after hiking, we made our way westward, dropped off our rental car at the airport and took the bus into Rome, since driving in Rome can be, shall we say, death defying.

We’d been to Rome before and stayed at the same adorable little hotel we’d stayed at on our last trip called Hotel Smeraldo, just off the Campo dei Fiori. We love that location since we can walk to the campo in the morning, have coffee at a café, get fresh baked goods at the Forno Campo dei Fiori and buy some fruit at the stands. Because we’d seen the “must do” sites our first time – the Vatican, St. Peter’s Cathedral, the Coloseum, etc., and we only had two days left, we decided to take the bus to the Appian Way, just outside of the city. It was a beautiful, wide open space, with tourists and Italians taking in the scenery, exercising, picnicking and generally enjoying the spectacular September day. It was a great way to end our trip.

Listen, I’m not telling you don’t go to Tuscany or bypass the Amalfi coast – they’re both awesome places and bucket list items for many people. But, for a completely different experience, take a drive down the Adriatic coast. You’ll be glad you did!

Some helpful tips:

  • Learn a bit of Italian: People are very friendly and helpful, but, as a guest in the country, knowing some basic phrases will go far and will usually yield some benefits (like getting extra treats at a restaurant, getting great tips from hotel staff, or getting help figuring out how to work the gas pumps).

  • Gas ain't cheap: We drove roughly 500 miles so we had to fill up more than once. Gas is very experience in many parts of the world and we forget how inexpensive it is here in the U.S. To fill up our tiny little Fiat once was close to $80! Yikes!

  • Driver, know thyself: Like I said, driving in Italy can be, well, challenging. It’s not just Rome. I’ve driven in many countries and in my experience, driving in Italy can be a bit hair raising at times, so if you do a driving trip, just be aware of this. Also, if you don’t know how to drive a manual transmission or aren’t good at it, Italy would probably not be the best place to work on that skill set. You may want to opt for a car with automatic transmission. Just sayin’….

Buon viaggio!

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