Published: January 2011
In the very south of Italy, GARETH DAVIS explores little known and neglected Calabria...
When scrutinising a map of Italy, how often do our eyes settle on the actual foot of the Mediterranean boot? I bet almost never. As holidaymakers, once we’ve scanned south to Naples and the Amalfi Coast, the next stop is naturally Sicily. What’s in-between is a no man’s land; time to introduce Calabria.
This region consists of the actual ball and toe of the Italian foot, the bit that seems all set to kick Sicily into touch, and there’s no denying it’s edgy. This is Italy at its poorest. There’s a fly blown quality about the place, particularly as you drive through the interior where hill tops are spotted with ghost towns whose inhabitants all upped sticks in their thousands in the post-war period and headed for the States.
Today, along the southern coast, reams of flat roofed concrete houses stand unfinished, girders poking up to the sky in anticipation of the addition of that other floor when sons and daughters return from their work and studies in the north. They rarely do. The depopulation of Calabria continues.
What’s left is the local mafia, the ‘ndrangheta, a criminal organisation that’s increasingly influential. As I discovered, you question it at your peril. People here are very protective of what some see as a far more acceptable and efficient means of organising than what’s on offer from central government. Of the latter, Calabrians can be very distrustful.
So far and what I’m describing hardly seems likely to tempt tourists. Well, how about this. Picture instead standing on the very toenail of the peninsula gazing across the narrow Straits of Messina, all 3km of them, and there looming in front of you is Sicily. It’s there, right there. So near and yet... You can imagine how frustrated Spartacus felt as he waited in vain for those transports that never came. The straits are no English channel with France invisible, beyond the horizon. And the impact is heightened when an unusual phenomenon locally known as a fata morgana or mirage, takes place. The sea is rendered as still as a millpond and you suddenly feel as if you were standing on a lakeshore in Switzerland; Sicily looms like the Alps. It’s probably the most breath-taking sight from the waterfront of Reggio di Calabria, the regional capital.
With 200,000 people, Reggio is the province’s biggest city (a comment on the size of the population in general). It’s the birthplace of Gianni Versace but visually, it’s no great shakes. Founded by Greeks, earthquakes in 1783, 1905 and 1908 destroyed 90% of what there was. The result is a fairly soulless place bar those stunning views over the straits. The main street, Corso Garibaldi, however is a beautiful broad avenue, low story, strewn with early 20th century neo-classical buildings, their balconies jutting out over boutiques and cafes. And the Archaeological Museum (currently closed for renovation – due to reopen in March 2011) is a destination in its own right, housing some of the best examples of classical Greek sculpture, the most famous being the Bronzi di Riace. These two 5th century bronzes discovered in 1972 are currently housed at the Palazzo Campanello.
90% of Calabria is mountainous, dotted with all those deserted towns I mentioned earlier. Some aren’t as empty as they look. Gerace is a good example of a half-in-half place; 3,000 inhabitants, lots of holiday homes and others just abandoned. Locals call Gerace “The Calabrian Florence”. Lord knows what they’re on. At one point there were 80 churches. That’s down to 27 but they still attract tourists – apparently. I visited late afternoon when streets were as quiet as a siesta, the odd visitor sat at a cafe, old men murmured to the clack of our sandals on the cobbles. The odd sign for an albergo and restaurant whisper of a tourist trade. It was June. “It must be a lot busier in the summer.” I say to our guide. “No, same as this” she answers. Calabria slumbers.
In all honesty it’s the 800km of coastline that draws the region’s small tourist crowd. Forget the bit that curves around the ball of Italy’s foot however, a bleak stretch of gravel sands, cacti, and windswept grasses. The focus is the west coast which itself is split into a series of Costas with magical names like Coast of the Gods, Orange Coast, Citrus Coast, and Violet Coast.
The latter is the southernmost and nearest Reggio where you’ll find the famous town of Scilla, named after the six headed monster from Homer’s Odyssey who along with the whirlpool Charybdis, terrorised the straits in ancient times. Today Scilla is a shabby chic resort town tumbling down a cliff that’s topped by a small castle. To the one side is an immaculate stretch of sand with beach clubs that is still pretty primitive by northern Italian standards. On the other is the oldest quarter, Chianalea, a maze of narrow pebbled streets which slant this way and that, directly into the sea. Fishermen pull up their boats or spadara to their door steps. May through July is their busiest time. It’s swordfish season when the sea is dotted with masts, and lookouts keep their eyes peeled for fish that can weigh as much as 600 kilos. Walking through Chianalea is a joy though not for those with mobility issues. There are splashes of vivid colour amongst the houses, immaculate flower pots and window boxes interspersed with a lot that’s far from manicured.
Heading north, the landscape crepes as mountains tumble into the sea. This isn’t easy country. Northern Italians may poke fun at southerners, calling them “terroni” (literally “of the earth”) by which they mean peasants, but you have to admire local grit. And then you come to Capo Vaticano, a small peninsula that juts out into the sea green waters and Calabria seems suddenly very far away. This is Beverly Hills, all pristine villas, small hotels, restaurants, tumbling bougainvillea and manicured gardens. And the views are stunning. They’re not called belvederes for nothing. Beaches curve in little green-backed coves like Praia i Focu. Cliff and rock stumble to the sea and access is by steep stairs only. The whole effect is enchanting.
On the other side of the cape is Calabria’s one true resort, Tropaea. It’s another coastal town that tumbles down towards the sea, then catches a breath before cliffs plunge down to a promenade and series of gem-like beaches. Seen from the cliff top, these are small perfect puffs of white sand that look as if they’ve been squeezed shape-perfect out of an icing bag, and fringed in aqua blue.
Tropaea itself is a Chinese puzzle of alleys, cobbled tunnels, avenues and lanes lined with souvenir shops. But don’t let the spots of seaside tat fool you. They merely punctuate genuinely pretty ceramic shops, wine cellars, outlets for local produce and some fantastic restaurants. Up above, palaces are crumbling and all around, there’s a general air of dilapidation. Tropaea is well and truly raddled but that doesn’t detract a jot from the gorgeous cluttered piazzas where you can sit out over gelati and watch the world go by. Just as God intended Italy to be.
Tropaea isn’t some manicured Tuscan beach model but a gutsy experienced seductress with a very fruity laugh. And as the sun goes down on summer nights the place is hopping with an electric vibe. Passaggiaters of all ages crowd the streets, some off to bars and clubs, other just taking in the air, or like me, enjoying everyone else’s bustle.
Tropaea is the promise of Calabria. Not something cut, tucked, and polished within an inch of its life but a genuinely populist resort town with tons of character. By now you’ll have gathered this region isn’t a destination for the faint-hearted, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to first-timers to Italy. But if you’re a die-hard Italiophile who’s so over Tuscany, tired of Venice, bored of Rome, then Calabria could be just the ticket to re-tune that pasta-loving chianti-craving raydar that got you to Italy in the first place. And mark my words. As neighbouring Puglia slowly establishes itself as a stylish Italian alternative, it won’t be long before Calabria slips into the brochures. My advice is get there while it’s still rough around the edges, and breathe in the untempered air of Italy.
Gareth has been with TRAVEL CHANNEL since its launch in 1994. He has produced and presented on TRAVEL LIVE and THE TRAVEL BUG, produced ESSENTIAL... and reports on TRAVEL TODAY. He is a regular contributor to the website. In 2010 he produced the hit series THE HOLIDAY SHOW which he also co-presented with Ginny Buckley. Gareth’s passions are history, culture, food & drink.