Calabria was always meant to be a secret. It has always followed the universal rule of hiding in plain sight to avoid any sort of mass attention. Let alone a booming or overcrowded tourist scene. Or that’s what I continued to tell myself, wondering as I sat there staring joyfully out my balcony terrace, hearing the cicadas grow louder as the morning sun started to expand its loving warmth over the verdant mountains and onto an empty Isola Di Dino. As I took another bite of warm bread covered with fresh fig and ricotta and washed it down with a crisp sip of Brasilena, I instantly smirked and almost laughed. I was lucky to be here. Lucky to be just two hours away from Naples, in a place that permeated with raw beauty and provided utterly delicious, yet delicate flavors on artisanal goods from the countryside. All the while, the thousands of tired unaware travelers disembarked from the sweaty arrivals section at the Napoli airport for overcrowded beaches and tourist trap restaurants in the Amalfi Coast.
To be clear, I adore La Costiera Amalfitana. It is essential, to say the least, and is world-renowned for a reason. It is about as Italanità as the sacred act of “La Scarpetta” or drinking late night negroni and listening to Mina while strolling the cobblestone alleys of Trastevere. But to be in 2021 and not highlight the Riviera dei Cedri as one of Italy’s last remaining secrets is almost a sin. After all, it is in the Riviera dei Cedri that you dramatically enter Calabria from its northern border. An enchanting and one of the last undiscovered historical regions that for better and for worse is consistently labeled by most Italians north of its border as sternly “old-fashioned”.
The Citron Coast as it is translated in English is named after the extremely rare Diamante citron, revered in these parts. The fragrant and delicious fruit has been cultivated for thousands of years and only grows on the sundrenched hillsides along Calabria’s northern Tyrrhenian coastline. This 40 mile stretch of virgin waterfront towns that begins in Tortora in the north to Cetraro in the south produces the extremely symbolic cedro fruit. Rare, ancient, unknown and delightful to the eyes, heart, and naturally the palette.
So, in this instance, being “old-fashioned” is good. It’s necessary and it’s beautiful and likely the Riviera dei Cedri’s saving grace. This is essentially what has allowed it to remain anonymous in a time where hyper tourism is abundant. You combine its old-fashionedness with its extremely mountainous topography and its geographic position a couple of hours south from an international airport, and you somehow get the recipe for a place still stuck in time.
And it’s evident when you finally arrive.
Taking the long winding road down from Napoli, wind in hair, driving through mountains and along the coast you almost feel guilty. Like you’re entering a forbidden place — somewhere you’re not supposed to be. You flinch a little driving past the exit signs for the Amalfi. You continue to drive, driving to the unknown south. Going farther and farther away from what’s familiar. You go past Sorrento, one of the last recognizable places and then finally you pass Paestum and its absurdly well preserved Greek temples. You continue driving through tunnel after tunnel, rock on one side and an endless jungle of blue on the other. And just when you thought it couldn’t get any better you reach Maratea’s black sand beaches — and you feel IT.
Why are there no crowds? You whisper under your breath. Wait, what is the name of this town? These internal questions will naturally swirl as you pass seaside town after seaside town and nearly become enraged that its existence wasn’t revealed to you by some Instagram influencer or Travel Channel special.
Then you finally cross the rocky, almost mars-like bridge over Fiume Noce and have arrived. You seem to float over the land, you seem to finally understand that Calabria was and still is Italy’s real gem. It’s where any true Italophile can drink homemade natural wines in ancient hillside villages and seemingly can drive undisturbed along the coast and through the mountains feeling endlessly above the clouds. Or where film aficionados and artists can find local emerging street art in up and coming seaside towns and go to pepper festivals or visit 14th-century ethnic Albanian villages that have retained their culture and more importantly, their cuisine. But plain and simple, it’s a place just about any traveler could find something uncharted — something unspoiled. It’s where you not only come to hike down the cliffs at Arcomagno and swim under arguably one of the most beautiful natural arches in the world, but then somehow end up questioning whether or not you could find another place that compares to it at all.
So where do we begin? And how can we encapsulate the Riviera dei Cedri in all its grandeur on paper?
For me, it’s simple. If you want to escape the crowds, if you want to not hear English or see Instagram photoshoots, or if you want to get away from it all, this is for you. If you truly love cuisine and want to eat some of the spiciest peppers in the world and then slurp down one of the rarest citrus fruits in the world to cool your tongue afterward, you come here. If you want the Italy of the past or if you want to be able to go white water rafting in remote mountain gorges and swim inside empty blue grotto’s the same day in the summer; and go skiing in Italy’s largest national park in winter, you come here. If you want to be happy, truly happy and want to feel the freedom of empty beaches and turquoise waters and almost feel guilty about how beautiful it is, you buy the ticket and take the ride.
But there’s a catch. I feel like I’ve already given up too much info. If the Riviera dei Cedri is to remain a secret, I cannot just loosely spell out all of its best towns or sites, could I? Sure, it’s easy to do a plug and highlight the restaurants that serve endangered hinterland cuisine from the early 1900s or tell you which town to stay in so you can make day trips down the coast and see the best tarantella performances in the summer months. But I think that is unfair. It is unfair to me; a Calabrian that wants to share his homeland with you but doesn’t want to see it perversely being taken advantage of by tourism — and yet it’s also unfair to you. It’s unfair to you because the real beauty of the Riviera is not just its people, nor its unique cuisine, or even its empty and sapphire shores. It’s the promise that something else remains.
An Italy that lets you rewind time and actually enjoy what la dolce vita was meant to be.
An Italy still worth going the extra mile for.
Sure, Calabria is not perfect. And yes, cell phones and modern-day problems do exist there, but for somebody willing to go the extra mile, the Citron Coast is a place where you can exist, in true simplicity. And after being cooped up for a year with COVID, many of us inside small apartments in major cities, the thought of eating fresh sardines with Calabrian bread and nduja with a loved one staring out into the endless sea, sounds like an utter dream.
So, for you, the real conundrum is whether or not you are truly up for it. The adventure, the unknown, and something different. In a world so connected, last frontiers are difficult to come by. But when the opportunity arises, those that can recognize its potential usually grasp it after it’s too late.