The toe of the Italian landmass is a curious place. For many, Calabria is the underdeveloped, little promoted, poverty stricken area they pass through as quickly as possible to get to Sicily, or avoid altogether. Only the adventurous, or the better informed venture to explore this area.
A different place and time
The charms of Calabria are not for everyone. In previous decades, reports of constant Mafia activity scared away any trickle of tourism entering the region and even in the more peaceful recent years, the memories are enough to keep people away. Even without the receding spectre of the Mafia, for many, the area is uncomfortably unlike the rest of Italy.
Here, there are no grandiose museums and pretentious art galleries. The historic ruins and breathtaking gems from an earlier age often lie empty and desolate in the overgrown fields and orchards, cared for only by the patient farmer. There are no trendy coffee Starbucks coffee bars or outrageously expensive five star hotels. The dining places are simple establishments serving unpretentious local cuisine and the accommodations are often spartan and scattered. There are no glamorous international jet setters and celebrities, or hordes of package tour transients.
But for those who come, there are unforgettable vistas across sharp-edged mountains vividly etched against the cerulean sky. There is the breathtaking coastline with its pristine, empty beaches of white sand, with water so crystal clear a boat seems to float on air. There are twisted ancient olive trees growing thick and lush between orchards of precious bergamot. There are the ancient ruins — Byzantine, Greek, Roman and more — half glimpsed on cliffs overlooking the tortuously twisted mountain roads. There are the villagers, who wear traditional costumes seen nowhere else as part of their daily life and follow the ancient way of life. There is the hearty, mouth-watering cuisine, with its freshly caught seafood and just plucked vegetables, newly made cheese and freshly cured sausage. There is all this and more, waiting for the traveller willing to go out of his way.
The Towns of Calabria
The most cosmopolitan of Calabria’s offerings is in Catanzaro, the region’s capital. It is in this sleepy city that the region’s diverse and ancient history is first felt. Despite its provincial air today, Calabria was once one of the most cosmopolitan centres of the ancient Mediterranean world, an integral part of the Greater Greek Empire and home of the Graecanico culture. Centuries of constant interactions, invasions and migrations have gifted the Calabrese with traces of Greek, Albanian and Byzantine influence. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Provincial Museum, where splendid archaeological finds from the Neolithic Period to the modern age bespeak a long tradition of high culture and far reaching trade. A particularly poignant exhibit are the world famous Bronzes of Riace, two great statues of warriors from the fifth century.
But the real character of Calabria, its heart, soul and strongest bastion of its fading traditions, lies in the villages and small towns dotting the landscape. In these quiet places, there are still villagers who speak Albanian and Greek influenced variants of the Italian tongue. Almost everyone still wears their traditional costumes as a matter of course, with long, full skirts and colourful blouses, simple dark trousers and long sleeves shirts. Many of the festivals and the customs are unique, products of the complex Calabrese heritage and found nowhere else in the country.
Bathed in the liquid Italian sunlight, these villages and towns lie timeless and serene, seemingly free from the progress of the modern world. Most of the houses are ancient, with carvings above the doors ward off the dark side and the “evil eye”. Every evening, old men gather to play cards at tables in the main squares. Grandmothers sit on their doorsteps knitting, or cluster in groups around the minerals springs that bless many towns with their clean, invigorating waters. Children play in the streets and small flocks of goats wander in and out of the village borders, tended by a slow moving herder or a sweltering sheepdog. Only the general absence of young men and women, who leave the towns to make their fortunes in the richer cities to the north, seem to mar the tranquil scene.
There are countless such towns and villages to explore, many of which grew up over or near splendid ruins, of watchtowers and towns, temples and castles, built by civilizations long gone to dust. One of the most poignant remnants of Calabria’s Graecanico heritage can still be seen at Capo Colonna. This windswept cape was once home of the temple to Greek goddess Hera Lacinia, known throughout the ancient world and now a desolate ruin. The site is best seen in the early morning, when the single remaining column stands starkly against the Ionian Sea and the rising sun.
Then there is the fishing village of Scilla, home to an episode of the Greek classic The Odyssey, in which the hero Ulysses struggles to pass the dreaded monster Scylla and the whirlpool Charybdis. Nowadays, this perilous stretch of water is known as the Straits of Messina and separates Italy from Sicily. Though science attributes the ancient dangers to the violence of the currents in the straits and its rocky sea floor, the straits still fascinates many who gaze on its blue waters. When the atmospheric conditions are right, the Fata Morgana appears, an eerie mirage in which the shadows thrown off by the houses and lights of Messina stretch out over the water to join those given off from the Calabrese shores, making everything seem like one immense city.
Secluded Beaches and An Empty Expanse of Snow
Interacting with the local inhabitants adds a sense of place and culture integral to understanding the history of Calabria, but many visitors blissfully pass the days exchanging little more than a smile and a simple ‘Buongiorno’ to passer-bys without ever feeling a lack of connection. For these people, experiencing the sublime surrounding is enough.
The Italians call the south Il Mezzogiorno — the midday — in tribute to the brilliant liquid sunshine beloved of artists and sun worshippers. The best place to experience this most beloved of Italian tributes is the beach and there is no better place to go to the beach than Calabria. The rocky coastline of the south brings with it high cliffs and jagged promontories, enclosing secluded beaches and calm bays. Calabria is blessed with the cleanest, most pristine beaches and waters in all of Italy (even certified as such by the Ministry of Health) and best of all, they are almost completely free of tourists. Some of the best beaches are said to be between Tropea and Nicotera, especially in the areas around Parghelia and Capo Vaticano, but there are many isolated stretches of beach where the only observer is a seagull or two, gliding slowly along the shore.
Calabria also offers one of the most untouched and exotic alpine wonderlands in Europe. The highlands of La Sila Grande, with its snow capped mountains and endless forest of dark pines, is more reminiscent of a Norwegian fjord than it is of sunlit Italy. This area is often called, among the few who know of it, the Switzerland of the South. In the summer, the area is popular for hikes and horseback rides through the verdant woodlands and picnics beside the streams.
The most popular tract of woodland for such activities is the Bosco di Fallistro, just outside of the alpine village of Camigliatello, known for its huge giganti della Sila trees, over 500 years old, six feet across and 130 feet tall Here there are still wild deer half-glimpsed beneath the trees and occasionally, a grey wolf stalking the deer. In winter, the powdery snow beckons even the novice for downhill and cross-country skiing. There are a number of small ski resorts scattered about the area, but there is also plenty of space available for those who would rather enjoy the snow without crowds of whooping skiers flying by.
There is far more the Calabria than meets the eye. The luscious landscape, the warm, friendly people, the timeless villages and tragic ruins; words can describe them, but true appreciation requires a visit in person. Only then — with the strong Italian sun above and the towering mountains in the distance, surrounded by the gentle sound of the surf and faced the prospect of a hearty meal in the not too distant future — can a visitor truly appreciate the beauty of Calabria.