It was cool and shady, the path stretching invitingly into the distance. And birds calling out from every tree. I was in the Umbra Forest, part of the Gargano National Park, in Puglia in the far south of Italy. With miles of woodland tracks, the forest is the ideal place for hiking or cycling.
The Umbra Forest
The Gargano National Park covers the whole of the Gargano Peninsula, including the coastal wetlands and hill towns such as Monte Sant’Angelo, Vieste and Vico del Gargano. However it is dominated by the Umbra Forest, a mixed forest with some ancient trees. This is a hilly landscape, full of valleys and caves, providing homes for a variety of animals and birds.
The Foresta Umbra (“shady forest”) is so-called because of the density of its vegetation. When I visited in May the ground was carpeted with flowers; in autumn it must be the perfect breeding ground for all kinds of fungus. For many visitors the main attraction is the miles of walking tracks through the forest. The trails wind down and around the slopes. They look old but they were in fact created for leisure use by the park authorities.
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Hiking in the Umbra Forest
We parked near the Rifugio Sfilzi. In ancient times the park refuges – basic stone shelters – were places where shepherds and other travellers could find food and rest as they passed through the park. Sfilzi still acts as a lodging today (although there may not be so many shepherds now). It also advertises the sale of local produce including olive oil and preserves.
Setting off down the track, we were alone apart from the birds (which we could hear but not see) and several butterflies flitting between the abundant spring flowers. Eventually we passed a lone cyclist pedalling up the hill; he must have been grateful for the shade!
We saw a few more cyclists and a couple of walkers but most of the time we had the park to ourselves. We sat on an old bridge to eat our picnic and to soak up the peace and quiet of the forest before tackling the upwards climb back to the car.
Not Just for Walkers
The park is just as popular with cyclists as it is with walkers. If the idea of cycling up hills puts you off, you could try an e-bike guided tour. Perhaps surprisingly, given the terrain, it is also seen as a place for running. The Gargano Running Week takes place here each year in April. This is a massive event with activities throughout the Gargano National Park, but including several forest runs. There are clearly many different ways to enjoy the tranquil open spaces of the Umbra Forest.