If you’re lucky enough to find a friend who seems to have a natural gift for discovering hidden travel gems, you say yes when they ask you to plan a weekend adventure. When they propose renting a car and driving down the Calabrian coast, you swiftly book your flights and worry about the details later. I didn’t know much about Calabria, outside of the instantly recognizable images of Tropea. So, when it came time to plan our four-day road trip down the western coast of the region, I had zero expectations. Calabria is one of my favorite surprises and made its mark on me, quite literally, but we’ll get there…
As we began planning our itinerary we committed to our first and last stops; the middle details of where we would go and what we would do in between were exciting surprises to be uncovered along the way. That’s the beauty of a road trip, you’re not confined to train schedules or ferry times. You pave your own way and make it up as you go along. We planned to fly into the Lamezia Terme, rent a car and drive down the coast before flying out of Reggio Calabria on Sunday. I asked a few Italian friends if they had visited before and consistently received a resounding “no.” It became apparent that many Romans prefer Sicily or Sardinia for their beach escapes. Filled with even more excitement to venture where no Italian friend of mine had ventured before, we finalized a skeleton itinerary and booked accommodation for the weekend. We decided on two nights in Tropea and one night in Scilla, and that was the extent of our planning.
Our adventure to the toe of the boot began with a short flight, a two-hour wait to pick up our rental car (word of advice: avoid Sicily by Car even if you’re tempted by the cheaper prices) and headed south. It became clear in an instant why Calabria is less frequented by tourists both domestic and international. The region is rugged and unapologetic. The highway south was narrow — calling it a two-lane road is a stretch — and oftentimes you’d head around a blind-corner with a honk and a prayer. I’ve been fortunate to visit the Amalfi Coast more times than I can count, and I’m still not desensitized to the large buses flying around the corners of the cliff-hugging highway barreling toward Sorrento. If that road is considered scary, the road in Calabria is gut-wrenchingly terrifying.
But just as fast as you squinted in fear, you opened your eyes wide, looked to your right and saw the most stunning array of blue and turquoise glistening waters beckoning you to dive in. About an hour later we safely arrived at our home base for the next two nights. The night before we booked a half-day boat excursion along the coast for €20 (a steal!), so we hastily dropped off our bags and headed toward the port. It was the middle of June — early for vacation by Italian standards — but the summer was in full-force. The waters had warmed enough for swimming and the beaches were spotted with colorful umbrellas. We set out with a small group for several blissful hours along the coast. After making a few stops to snorkel, we arrived at the main destination for the day, Capo Vaticano. Immediately, I was in awe. The waters were bright turquoise and crystal clear. Possibly the most stunning water I had ever seen in my life, pictures could never do it justice. The captain had to threaten leaving me there to get me back onto the boat.
Our second day unexpectedly required us to head back North, as the third member of our group had to change her plans last minute and arrived on Friday. We said our prayers and hopped back into our red Fiat 500L and made a plan to stop in Pizzo on our way to the airport. Pizzo is famous for its tartufo, a ball of ice cream filled with molten chocolate and dusted with cocoa. It’s a big decadent “per i miei gusti” (for my taste), but a perfect treat to share with a friend. We discovered that, like many Calabrian towns, Pizzo is perched up on the cliffside overlooking the Tyrrhenian sea. It’s size and location makes for a perfect spot to stop for a half-day visit. We explored for a few hours, cooled off in the glistening waters before scooping up the final member of our group up from the airport and heading back in the opposite direction back to Tropea.
Arriving in the early afternoon we headed down to the main beach, Mare Piccolo, famous for the colorful buildings seemingly erected from the earth itself built into the cliffside above. It was here where Calabria truly left its mark — in the form of a jellyfish sting on the backside of my right hand. I tracked down a bagnino who, unphased, sprayed my hand and recommended I stay out of the water until the medicated spray had dried. I was informed that as it was early in the season (and because we had an unseasonably cold May), there were quite a few jellyfish as the water hadn’t warmed enough to send them out further from the coastline. After feeling briefly betrayed by the sea itself and slightly frightened for another encounter with a dangerous purple devil, our weekend carried on, while my hand continued to swell.
Our third day we said our goodbyes to Tropea and continued our journey south, destination Scilla. Our Google Maps sent us on an adventure away from the cliffside highway, across hills and through farms on roads that had been untouched for decades made apparent by the chicken-poxed potholes every few meters. We stopped in Capo Vaticano to share the magic with our friend who had missed our boat excursion, only to find that the waters had been infested with jellyfish. We rented a paddle boat to keep our distance from the jellies before deciding to continue our road trip.
After a leisurely yet rickety drive, we arrived in Scilla with mouths agape. It was equally, if not more stunning than Tropea. Split in two by a large cliff speckled with buildings and the upper-level of the town; one side with the port and colorful buildings curling along the coast, on the other the main beach and lush green vegetation. I felt like I had stepped onto another plant, something other-worldly. I was brought back down to Italian earth when we checked into our accommodation, run by a warm Calabrian couple. The signora, with her voice that conveyed decades of smoking before we ever saw her light up, offered us a glass of refreshing latte di mandorla and showed us to our room.
After chatting with our host, we headed to the main beach through a tunnel carved into the outstretched cliff. We settled in on the rocky beach, but attempting to ignore the throbbing pain and increased swelling in my hand was becoming less efficient as the hours passed. A quick search revealed that the only open pharmacy would require us to hike to the top of the town. As we climbed toward the fortress perched atop the cliff, we were met with sweeping views of the town, and across the Strait of Medina a glimpse of Sicily in the distance.
After only a few hours in Scilla, we all had the same thought; Calabria is extra special. We soaked up every ounce of its authentic irreverence for our last 24 hours. We indulged in delicious swordfish pasta and panini and waited until the last possible moment to leave for the airport on Sunday. We were sad to leave, but swore we’d return.
I can’t say another region or trip throughout Italy has had as much of an impact on me as this road trip did. Those four days had a mystical, almost spiritual air to them. Calabria is a diamond in the rough. It’s one of those places you want to share with the world so others will know of its magic, but simultaneously feel compelled to keep to yourself to preserve and protect it. It’s a catch-22. The region would most-certainly benefit from increased tourism and the money it provides to support locals, but with large crowds and demands from tourists the region would surely soften some of its rougher edges that make it unique. So, if you visit, don’t scoff at the potholes or buildings in need of a facelift don’t leave a negative review for your bnb host who hasn’t had the funds to update the furniture, and certainly don’t try to change Calabria. It’s perfectly imperfect and we’d like to keep it that way.