“Stupendous,” I say about 20 times en route from Reggio Calabria Airport up to the coastal town of Tropea.
But my husband, Ed, only glances at the views as he maneuvers the rented Fiat 500X along squirrelly roads pocked with holes.
Un altro mondo, a Tuscan friend told us. Calabria, another world. So far, what’s otherworldly is the beauty. Long, flour-white beaches bordering a sea shifting across the blue spectrum. The roadsides dizzy with wildflowers. Purple asters, face-size Queen Anne’s lace, pink morning glories, blurs of yellow, bursts of blooming cacti, and tumbles of vulgar magenta bougainvillea. Finally, we can pull over. Below lies the Tyrrhenian Sea.
Calabria’s location, on the (misshapen) toe of Italy’s boot poking far into the sea, determined that the land would be from the beginning of history an object of desire. Of the many invaders, the major influence is Greek; archaeological sites dotting the map show the extent of that colonization in what was known as Magna Graecia. Greek words remain in local dialects.
The landscape seems to underscore Calabria’s tumultuous history. The last upheavals of the Apennines striate the region, dropping straight into the sea and creating a sensation of geography in motion.
We reach Capovaticano Resort, just outside Tropea, as the sun drops down beside Stromboli, about 30 miles offshore. The volcanic island juts up from the water like a big brown fist. Streaks of rose gold exactly match my Aperol spritz, and sunset tessellates a path all the way to shore. The supercontemporary hotel sits right on lawns bordering the beach. Our sleek minimalist room and wraparound balcony don’t even try to compete with the view. Palms reflected in the long pool curving along the beach look like mirages. Maybe it’s all a mirage and I’m only imagining arriving at such a place.
We are here in Calabria for eight days. May the trip not peak on the first morning! Tropea rises dramatically out of the rocks 200 feet above a beach lapped by clear-to-the-bottom waters. There are flowery piazzas lined with umbrellas, crumbling three-story palazzi, and shops hung with braids of hot peppers and red Tropea onions. The buildings are just decadent enough to make me think this is one of the most romantic towns in Italy.
When we ask directions, a petite woman steps out of her shop to point. Then Ed asks about the strange shoebox-shaped holes all over the facades of many buildings. “Surely not for pigeons,” he says. She tells us her father was a grande muratore, a great stonemason. The buchi, he explained to her, were left to support scaffolding in the future, when the building needed repair. This seems odd—like using a crutch because you might break your leg. She says, too, that the buttercream-tinged-with-coral colors are mandatory, lest anyone try to intrude with green or gray. She’s proud of her enchanting town and many before have been as well: archaeological remains prove that this dreamy perch over the sea magnetized people as far back as memory goes.
The 12th-century duomo, a Norman and Romanesque structure compact as a loaf of bread, shows Arab traces in the windows and decorations. After, we stop in at Chiesa del Gesù. I’ve been in thousands of Italian churches. There are almost always quirky details. Here, flanking the altar with its fabulous twisted green columns, is a curious painting of Santo Saverio kneeling beside the sea as a crab offers him his long-missing crucifix in its claws. A crab!
Onward to lunch in a quiet piazza. We try the famous local sausage ’nduja—silent n—which derives from “andouille,” spreadable and rusty red from spicy peppers. Also on the antipasti platter, soppressata laced with fennel and hot pepperoncini, and capocollo, made from pork loin and cured for a hundred days. I love the pecorino del Monte Poro, a semihard cheese aged for a year. Oh, and pickled Tropea onions and ricotta affumicata, smoked over chestnut wood and herbs. Tropea onions dominate the menu. We order crisp frittelle, onion fritters, then Ed moves on to the frittelle di neonata, newborn fish. (Minnows!) I’m on firmer ground with big paccheri pasta with tomatoes and pesto.
In the afternoon lull, I notice the angle of the Benedictine church Santa Maria dell’Isola against the sea, twisted streets only two donkeys wide, small carved masks hung on palazzi to scare off the evil eye, shadows of palms printed on the streets. The strong sun of the south beats down a tranquil somnolence over the whole town. “Sunscreen,” I say. “Number 70.” Tropea, an hour, a day, a lifetime.
The Ionian coast
We reluctantly leave the resort’s blue, blue views and the spa’s seawater pools of warm and cold, striking out from the Tyrrhenian to the Ionian side of Calabria at its narrowest crossing, only about 20 miles away through groves of citrus trees. I’m a fan of the quirky 19th-century English traveler George Gissing, who wrote By the Ionian Sea. A classicist, he traveled alone in search of remnants of Greece. One quest was Capo Colonna, a lone Doric column extant from a lost temple to Hera, on the easternmost promontory of Calabria. Gissing became terribly ill, and much of the book focuses on how devastated he was not to reach the column. He’s led me here. How easy now, via a land approach and a path lined with myrtle bushes. This lonely marker, circa fifth century B.C., rises from the poppy-strewn rubble of antiquity, outlined against the same sky that once arched over the largest temple in Magna Graecia. The temple remained intact until the 16th century, when it was raided for building projects and city walls for nearby Crotone.
Spooky, the one column standing. A stray cat wraps around my ankle. I feel a quick chill: the cat’s sinuous tail, or the single column’s mighty symbolism of Calabria’s history?
We check into an agriturismo, a farm-stay inn, with an overgrown garden and a pool. The owner, hair flying, comes out wiping her hands on her apron. She’s busy putting up blackberry jam and waves us upstairs. If I imagine I am Italian and visiting Great Aunt Maria in the country, this room looks the part. Antique chests, faded prints, draped bed with a whiff of damp. Bedside lamps with Christmas-tree wattage. Vintage bath but perfectly clean and large. Through the olive groves and down a lane, we find a deserted stretch with golden sand and blue water, quiet as a cat lapping milk. What a luxury—a Blue Flag beach to ourselves.
Beaches and Byzantines
Besides la costa jonica, the Ionian coast, what else draws us to eastern Calabria? Food. Two of the most lauded and starred Calabrian restaurants are nearby. Tonight, we’re at Praia Art Resort, a small and luxe beachside hotel and its restaurant, Pietramare, helmed by the young and gifted Ciro Sicignano. We’re seated in a simpatico room anchored by an olive tree. I especially love the flatbread incorporating slivers of vegetables and the basket of house-made breads served with wood-smoked olive oil. The Gravello Val di Neto, a blend of the local gaglioppo grape and Cabernet Sauvignon, is a gift with its big, mouthy fruit. The freshest fish, the tenderest pork, and a fine finish—cherry soufflés served in individual copper pans beside a scoop of cherry gelato. Probably because we’re enthusiastic about every bite, the waiter brings over the owner and the chef. There are toasts all around and photos. We leave with their gifts of pastas and local honey.
Early in the morning we drive into rugged hills to the Byzantine turned Norman town of Santa Severina, set on high tufa rocks like a foundered ship. But inside, we find flower-festooned houses with crocheted curtains and, just below the centro, the exquisite, tiny Byzantine church of Santa Filomena, topped by a cupcake-shaped cupola ringed with 16 slender columns.
The second night on the Ionian side, we dine at Ristorante Abbruzzino. Chef Luca Abbruzzino shows us the kitchen, which provides a flash of insight into how calm and organized he is. All guests are served the same lavish antipasto, five seafood courses representing different areas of Calabria. Each one is on rounds, trays, or blocks of wood, each one so artfully presented that I feel obliged to take photos of all, even the glasses of paired Rosaneti rosé, a local, lively spumante. Every morsel that follows is carefully crafted—ravioli with truffles; tortelli filled with ricotta, almonds, and mackerel; pigeon with plums. What a talented young chef, with big intentions. He wants to know what we didn’t like. We loved everything.
Back we go, back into the inky dark to Great Aunt Maria’s guest room, with its dim lights and dip in the bed. At breakfast, the owner reminisces about her own travels in Calabria. “Go to Sila National Park. Go inland,” she insists. Like many coastal dwellers, she loves the mountains. As we leave, she brings us a jar of her blackberry jam.
The Ionian coast offers a series of beach towns: Soverato, Sant’Andrea Apostolo dello Ionio, Isca sullo Ionio, Riace, Siderno, on and on. Though generally not attractive towns—lots of concrete—they have weekly markets; pastry, cheese, and pasta shops; good butchers; and palm-lined walks where people stroll in the evening, pausing at beach bars and gelato stands.
We stop at Monasterace, where our agriturismo is situated above a lighthouse. It’s new and furnished serenely in white. A grassy bluff looks out to the horizon, and below us lie the stony remains of Kaulon, a notable Greek ruin. In the Museo Archeologico dell’Antica Kaulon, we get to see a large sea dragon mosaic pulled off the floor of a long-lost dining room. And from this base we head to the inland towns of Stilo and Gerace.
I’m excited to see Cattolica di Stilo. The earliest Byzantine structure in Calabria was built by hermits who lived in the hills. The little church is so small it seems like a model for something much bigger. Looking at the four brick cupolas around a larger one, I wish for paper, colored pencils, and a rudimentary sense of perspective. The roofs are made of bricks rippled like crimped pie crusts. Inside, a miniature Greek–cross plan with jagged fragments of frescoes, some writing, and four spolia (repurposed from another site) columns. Asphodels spring up all around. Stilo is otherwise closed, its dozens of monuments and churches sleeping away the morning. We follow a path to La Madonna della Pastorella, one of the rupestrian grottoes not uncommon in the south of Italy—caves decorated with religious images. The early art has eroded but the reward is a charming painting, not old, of the Virgin and Child. Pilgrims have left notes, candles, religious cards, photos, rosaries, and fake flowers.
In the morning, an early walk in the olive grove, coffee outside, with an Ionian breeze George Gissing would describe in three pages, and time to read about the convoluted history of Calabria. Having been seized, attacked, colonized, and fought over, the sad remainder of such strife is the brutal Calabrian mafia. Unlike in Sicily, people we meet speak openly, acknowledging how their lives are tamped by the continuing hold of crime lords. As a tourist, you only see abandoned, unfinished buildings, the road that narrows to one lane at a bridge, piles of garbage—all infrastructure problems involving contracts paid, money absconded, internecine clashes. Regardless, everyone we’ve encountered has been cordial and available, curious about us, and eager to talk.
In Gerace, one of the most beguiling towns in Calabria, the first thing we do is sit outside at Bar Cattedrale, overlooking the largest church in the region. We seem more interested in the flavors of granita, which carry a whiff of Arab heritage: bergamot, almond, pistachio, peach, fig, fichi d’india (prickly pear), and more di gelso (black mulberry). We’ve already been served crisp cat’s tongue pastries and tarts with marmalade of bergamot. Yes, the Norman church (circa 1045) is grand. When we finally go in, we see how grand. A majestic double row of columns, supporting two lines of arches, advances down the length of the church. Each column is different, suggesting that some or all were taken from the nearby site of Locri, a former Greek town. Historically, Gerace was all about churches. Of the 128, many were shaken down by earthquakes; many now are closed. Especially atmospheric is the Piazza delle Tre Chiese, three churches, one of which, San Francesco, has altars of polychrome intarsia. The intricate designs are significant for ushering the baroque into Calabria.
Back on the Tyrrhenian coast
By late afternoon we are back on the Tyrrhenian side, the siren side from the myth—Scylla, the nymph turned monster, devoured several of Ulysses’ men—the side with the views of Sicily across violet-tinted water. The faint color comes from an undersea plant. And Sicily looks so close that you could swim there. We check into Altafiumara Resort above the sea, a green respite of extensive gardens. We chose it for a bit of luxe at the end of the trip and for its proximity to Scilla. Below us, in Villa San Giovanni, you can catch boats to Messina and the Aeolian Islands.
After dinner on the terrace, we order liquore al bergamotto. This is the land of bergamot, the most fascinating of the many flourishing and abundant citrus varieties. It’s a flavor in Earl Grey tea, a fragrance in colognes such as Acqua di Parma. Though the flesh is bitter, the juice is drunk for its healthy properties. Not sure the liquore falls into the healthy category, but it’s a bracing after-dinner drink.
Nearby Scilla has three parts: the pleasant upper residential town and castle; the broad crescent beach, Marina Grande, with restaurants and concessions; and the Chianalèa district of narrow lanes and fishermen’s cottages right on the water, with launch slits that plunge into the sea.
We leave our car at the beach and walk around the bend to Chianalèa. A bride and her groom in full carabinieri uniform precede us, and I want to pick up her long train dragging across the damp stones. They pause every few steps for photos. Pretty as she is, he’s resplendent, with his red braid and gold buttons gleaming. And why not—the police uniforms were designed by Valentino. Picturesque Chinalèa we explore quickly. Time for an aperitivo at a busy wine bar, then dinner overlooking the sea. Swordfish, of course, here in swordfish central. We fall into conversation with a young couple on holiday from Modena. By the end of the evening, we’ve more or less dined together. Walking back through the stony little village late at night, it’s quiet and dark. Everyone sleeping. Possibly dreaming watery dreams.
On our last day, we drive to Reggio Calabria to visit the Museo Archeologico Nazionale, one of the best in Italy. First, a walk on the fabulous seaside promenade along Lungomare Falcomatà. Reggio Calabria, destroyed in an earthquake in 1908, then heavily bombed by the Allies in World War II, still retains the atmosphere of a tropical, laid-back port with its twisted banyan and blooming jacaranda trees. We stop into Sottozero Cremeria, 125 flavors of gelato and counting. An elderly man wanders among the tables, chatting to customers. When he comes to ours, we meet Tito, the owner, who started making gelato in 1974. He signals the waiter to bring over a coupe of almond gelato between chocolate wafers. We’ve already tried the hazelnut, coffee, and lemon. He gives us a jar of annona di Reggio sauce. “A special fruit that only grows here,” he claims. “Try it.” These generous gifts! All over Calabria, we’ve been given sauces, pastas, jams, honey.
Inside the handsome 1932 museum: the entire history of Calabria in objects, from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age and onward. Impossible to describe the treasures. “Astonishing” is hardly adequate when facing a dolium, a six-foot-high olive oil storage jar from 1150 B.C. Or a 300 B.C. child’s tomb in the shape of a sandaled foot. And all the finds from the Greek sites—terra-cotta ex-votos, written tablets, roof tiles and drains, a gold crown, as well as magnificent sculptural groups. A Hellenistic grave of a young woman yielded delicate ram’s-head earrings set with gems, a scarab ring, and, inside her mouth, a gold coin, perhaps to pay for her passage to another world, but unspent. We wander, dazzled. We arrive at the bronze Riace Warriors. Two glorious nude men, 6'6'' and 6'5'' in height, fixed on seismic bases in a controlled atmosphere. Found in 1972 at a depth of only 23 to 26 feet of water, just off Riace in the Ionian Sea, they might have been jettisoned from a Greek ship in distress. Warrior A and Warrior B are their pedestrian names. No one really knows their origins. Fifth century B.C.? Some scholars argue that they’re later.
But here they are. They show their teeth. Silver, along with silver eyelashes and ivory irises, copper mouths and nipples. Their buttocks are taut, their beards groomed, their poses powerful. Un altro mondo, another world, I was told. These mysterious visitors from the beginning symbolize Calabria. Sensuous and aloof. Ancient. Fierce and proud.
Frances Mayes’s See You in the Piazza: New Places to Discover in Italy was published in March by Crown. Her most recent novel is Women in Sunlight. Follow her on Instagram.
This story was originally published in the April/May 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveler.