Calabria is one of the last Italian regions not to have been brutalized by mass tourism. It’s the right place to not feel like a tourist, because there is no tourism. Eight hundred kilometers of coasts, mostly populated only by Calabrians on vacation, and mountains, less than an hour away from the sea, that are the envy of the Alps (indeed, they are). Or rather, two seas, the Tyhrennian and the Ionian. Calabria is beautiful, and until today only the Calabrians knew it: now Time magazine has inscribed it in the list of the world’s 50 greatest places of 2022–and it is the only Italian location to make this year’s edition. I had never been there, so I left Milan and I did it all, far and wide, for a 3,500 km road trip aboard a Panda. Alone and in the company of many travel companions met along the way.
“You pass Calabria to go to Sicily, or you stay there if Puglia is too full,” many repeat. Today, Calabria’s tourism is considered a waste, the place on which those who wanted to go elsewhere, in the most famous places, fall back. Incidentally, those who once arrived in the likes of Salento or Amalfi find themselves in the midst of too many people and too many souvenir shops, and so they search on Google (ironically) for the less touristy and more authentic places to experience Italy “like a local”. Here, in Calabria–I spoil the moral of the article–except for a few places, there is no risk of feeling like one of too many tourists. In Calabria, historical and cultural reasons have slowed down a process that is irreversible elsewhere, preserving it as virgin, inexperienced, wild, warm. Calabria is perhaps the last Italian coast for true travelers to immerse themselves in the local reality–not the postcard version represented ad hoc and a little folkloristic, but the real one, also made up of contradictions.
I came to Calabria on purpose with a tight program that included “minor places”, arousing amazement mixed with pride for the locals. They all want one thing only: that their land be told and told well. Beyond the ‘nduia, Tropea and the Bronzes of Riace. And to do that, I’m going to need a river of words.
The Tyrrhenian Coast: The Descent
The best way to travel around Calabria is to leave the motorway and rely on the state roads to enjoy the views. Coming from the north, along the Tirrenica Inferiore road, the first obligatory stop is the village of San Nicola Arcella for a sunset swim at the Arcomagno beach, a perfect synthesis of Calabria: it is wonderful, but there isn’t much information. To get there, you must go up and down an impervious path and carry everything you need with you. And then it is a spectacle with mysticism, especially after a 10-hour journey from Milan. I celebrated with an evening glass of wine from Il Vicolo Vineria & Libreria, which officially began the journey to the south.
The coast continues with Scalea and its all-inclusive tourist villages that are very 80s, the murals of Diamante (in the winter, home of the Calabrian cedro) and then gradually villages perched inland (as well as their more recently-built, seaside communes), with anonymous, often unfinished houses that make up Calabrian architecture, characterized by iron rods sprouting from the roofs under construction. A stop at the Sanctuary of San Francesco da Paola is a must, then a ride to Amantea and further down to Pizzo Calabro for the famous Pizzo Truffle–an ice cream filled with chocolate. Everyone prides themselves on making the best of the square, but in the end, I followed the advice of the locals and stopped by Gelateria Enrico instead, before entering the town.
Beyond Tropea: In the Real Agricultural Calabria
All the guides will tell you to stop in Tropea, the city of the onion, but above all an ancient bishopric, full of churches and elegant, noble palaces. It’s a perfect postcard of Calabria with its Sanctuary of Santa Maria dell’Isola, where you can take pictures at a spectacular sunset: above the city, it overlooks the sea and the beach below the Marina. I lasted half a day, however, because the reality is too many tourists, and I left the menus with spaghetti Bolognese behind so quickly. I also tried to visit Spilinga, the city of ‘nduia–a local, soft-cured meat based on pork and chili pepper, very spicy–to discover that despite the worldwide fame of the salami, there is not much in the town. For a meal, there is the pizzeria at Salumificio Monteporo, and you can go shopping at His Majesty il Porco, a local delicatessen.
Beyond Capo Vaticano, there is the village of Palmi (its Tonnara is now a beautiful and popular beach with zero tourists) and inland, the Piana di Gioia Tauro, an immense agricultural flatland. Here I stopped to sleep in a unique reality in the Calabrian countryside, Tenuta Acton. The large farm–owned by the descendants of an English family that settled in the 18th century in the then Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and later in Calabria–cultivates olive trees and kiwi plantations. Of the 40,000 initial hectares, today there are “only” 300 left, dotted with immense olive trees, very breathtaking, just behind the rooms obtained in the farmers’ lodgings. The structure is spread around the large tree-lined courtyard, complete with a manor house (where the descendants of the family and their children live, who manage the bed & breakfast) and a church, where mass is said morning and evening and everyone gets to know each other. Within 48 hours, you feel at home too, and it’s one of the most wonderful things that can happen to you on the road.
Cities from the Greeks to Spring
Calabria is a land of myths. Legend has it that in Scilla, a sea monster, so evil as to sink passing boats, lived. This is precisely the Scylla sung by Homer in the Odyssey: a place essential to Mediterranean history, especially when Calabria was the cradle of civilization at the time of Magna Graecia. Today, instead of shelters for boats in the village of Chianalea, under the fortress, there are delicious restaurants and they do not kill passing tourists. Reggio Calabria, Sibari, Locri and Crotone were flourishing cities under the Greek dominion and still today host archaeological areas and museums. The most famous is that of the Archaeological Museum of Reggio Calabria, which houses the two large statues that took the name of Riace Bronzes from the city where they were found. While waiting for the construction of the Museum of the Mediterranean, designed by Zaha Hadid, Reggio Calabria remains a destination to visit. For the museums, but above all for the city life that literally flows along the pedestrian Corso Garibaldi.
In summer, everything here comes alive after five in the afternoon, as soon as the sun begins to go down, when the shops reopen and people pour into the street. On the Lungomare Falcomatà, there are those who walk, those who go by bike, those who eat a cone of the famous Gelateria Cesare. At the beginning of the 20th century, the poet Gabriele D’Annunzio had defined it as the most beautiful kilometer in Italy: a pity that it then fell into decay for almost a century until the nineties, when it returned to the glories of the past with palm trees and gardens on one side and beach on the other. Today, it is named after the mayor who created what has been called the “primavera di Reggio” (“the spring of Reggio”) and sitting down for a drink at the Piro Piro, overlooking the sea, makes you breathe a contemporary cross-section of a region that is always too painted as backward. If, during the holidays, everyone goes to the beach, looking for relaxation in places that come alive just for the span of a season, it is in cities like this, as well as Cosenza and Catanzaro, that life is concentrated throughout the rest of the year.
The Aspromonte and Sila Woods
The postcards of Calabria all depict the sea, yet 80% of the territory is mountainous, technically (geologically speaking) even alpine. Aspromonte is a national park: its highest peak, Montalto, reaches almost 2,000 meters. There are chalets, it snows and you can ski. It has a certain effect because this is not the typical image of southern Italy, but above all because 30 road curves are enough to go from swimsuit to sweatshirt. Chef Nino Rossi took me to pick sea fennel from Marinella di Palmi and then silver fir and juniper. Self-taught, he went from wedding banquets to a Michelin star in what used to be his family home, now transformed into an elegant restaurant with a few rooms. It is called Qafiz, an Arabic name that derives from an ancient unit of measurement for oil (about 17 liters), also used in Calabria. They made him ambassador of the Aspromonte National Park, and so on Sunday morning, he takes me through the woods while groups and families get ready for the trek and farmers set up product stalls along the road. He comes to forage and gather herbs for his Aspro cocktail bar and for dishes like risotto, which is a marriage between the mountains and the sea. Carnaroli rice, roasted porcini mushrooms, seafood sauce, nepetella, sheep kidney and its fat.
In the woods, I also end up with Antonio Biafora, chef of the starred restaurant Hyle in the Sila mountains. One hundred and fifty thousand hectares of cultivated plateaus and woods made famous by the Giants of the Sila, 50 specimens of ancient pines that survived when, after the Second World War, 90,000 hectares were demolished to pay war debt to the allies. The forest that can be seen today is therefore relatively young, tidy and covered with snow for months during the winter and with a scenery that is more reminiscent of Trentino than Southern Italy. The bucolic lakes with alpine faces are actually artificial and were created to generate electricity, but they are now tourist attractions in places like Lorica, where you can ski and do water sports in the summer. The local economy, however, is primarily linked to sheep farming and cultivation, and Antonio takes me to his cheese suppliers at La Sorgente dairy, where they also plant organic red fruits in the vegetable garden of Le Delizie di Marianna, who grows dozens of varieties of fruit and vegetables. You can also stop here for lunch; Marianna cooks what she collects and you’re unable to choose your dishes, which is a bit of the leitmotif of Calabria: strive where there is little choice. Antonio Biafora does somewhat of the same thing. Growing up in the kitchen with his brother, while mom was cooking and dad was thinking about the dining room, he transformed the restaurant year after year into a small resort with an adjoining spa; they set up banquets and weddings in the scarce two months of mild climate and in winter, they dedicate themselves to the gourmet restaurant that makes mountain cuisine with few ingredients: heart of local Podolica cow, risotto with tenacious leaves of wild chicory, wild boar ravioli with morels–all accompanied by a Calabrian wine list, the widest and most fun encountered in the region.
The Abandoned Villages
Calabria is the economically poorest region of Italy with an immense territory populated by less than two million inhabitants: it is natural that there are few people around. Many emigrated to the north during the 20th century and continue to emigrate even today in search of work. The number of abandoned villages in the hinterland proves it: Campana, Roghudi, Nicastriello are just some of the perched villages that no longer count any inhabitants. And then there is Pentedattilo, which instead is trying to be reborn thanks to some artisan shops and a restaurant, and the Vaccarizzo village, which has become a prototype of social regeneration. Partially thanks to the MIT of Boston and Belmonte Calabro, which have given life to a real revolution, the faculty of Architecture of London Metropolitan University (who call themselves seppie, or cuttlefish) organize a summer school here. In short, not everyone runs away.
There are those like Wlady Nigro, who has decided to put a degree in Tourism Sciences to good use to promote her region. I found her on Instagram thanks to the @calabriafoodporn account, I became a follower of hers and like any good groupie, I wanted to meet her. She gave me an appointment at Mi’Ndujo, a Calabrian fast food joint with several restaurants in Cosenza and Rome. A local phenomenon, the spot is one of the most genuine expressions of typical cuisine to be found, together with Brezza, the fish bar of the young, starred chef Luca Abbruzzino in Soverato, the beach of the Catanzaro people. It’s a restaurant format to be copied, a format based on friselle (a typical dry bread bruschetta), seafood sandwiches (raw and fried) and late opening hours. It seems catapulted here from Miami, and in fact aims to be sent elsewhere to share this version of an unprecedented Calabria. No stereotypes or clichés, just good food with Bergamot craft beer.
The beauty of a non-touristy destination is that you don’t feel like tourists, but it is also true that there are no structures, services, marked itineraries and organized districts. Here, tourism is dictated by the law of return, which in summer and during the holidays brings Calabrians scattered throughout Italy and the world back to the land of their fathers. In the 80s, some tour operators built tourist villages in Scalea and Capo Rizzuto, now closed or, let’s say, decaying. Little else has been built along the coast, not even the eco monsters. There are no hotels of large international chains, and luxury tourism has not yet arrived in a big way.
The one-of-its-kind Praia Art Resort, however, has five-star design and international taste, with elegance and luxury from the Costa Smeralda, but at Calabrian prices. A jewel created right on the edge of an area of holiday homes, along the beach of Praialonga on the Ionian coast, by the local tycoon Raffaele Vrenna. Entrepreneur, president of Confindustria Crotone and local idol for having brought Crotone to Serie A, he abandoned investments in local TV and waste disposal to give himself to tourism. Private pools, tubs on the terrace, hammocks in which to swing over the waves of the sea. He has built a small, Made in Crotone universe which is an outpost of regional tourism growth. In July, the works of the new Blu’70 nightclub were about to be finished, a historic club of Crotone nightlife which Vrenna started to make Crotone an international destination.
Calabria Coast to Coast
If the Tyrrhenian coast is blue and green with the mountains reaching the sea (in some places with Jurassic Park style views), the Ionian coast is barren and Mediterranean with a shallow and clear sea. You can see the two seas either by driving along State Highway 106, which leads from Reggio Calabria to the southernmost point in mainland Italy and then back north again via Locri, Siderno, Roccella Ionica… or by cutting cleanly through the region along the Ionian-Tyrrhenian highway or by driving along the scenic State Highway 1 and descending at the Mercante Pass. Everyone rides in Panda 4X4s, either very old or the latest models, and between narrow streets and steep slopes, I feel perfectly camouflaged with the environment. Mountains, woods, huge rocks (renamed the Southern Dolomites) dominate the landscape of the interior. Going along the coast instead, for miles and miles, you drive with the sea on one side and a few houses here and there on the other.
A little further north of Praia Art Resort on Isola di Capo Rizzuto, there is the largest marine reserve in Europe; in Capo Colonna, the Greek ruins; Crotone was the birthplace of Pythagoras and in the small archaeological museum, there are artifacts that would have an entire dedicated wing in the Louvre and would attract visitors from all over the world. For now, only Calabrian wine travels abroad successfully, an important business card of the area. If you are looking for information and guides on Calabria, you find little.
You can read more about the revolution of the Cirò Boys, who at the end of the 90s began to enhance the native vine, the gaglioppo, and made it into a wine of identity–the grapes are used in purity, not for blending. Those who taste it fall in love with it, just like all of Calabria.