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Authentic & Awe-Inspiring
The much sought-after boot tip of Italy endured centuries of attacks and invasions, emerging scuffed but strong. As gaining a foothold in Calabria was once key for controlling the Mediterranean Basin, the Greeks, Byzantines, Hohenstaufen and Normans conquered the area in succession. Each occupier passed through and left a mark on the castles, fortresses, churches, abbeys and culture of the sun-soaked southern region. The populations that settled where the Apennine Mountains drop off into the sea developed a unique identity; tenacious yet welcoming, modern Calabrian society stands proudly amongst the rubble of antiquity. Linked by 800 kilometers of coastline between the Ionian and Tyrrhenian Seas, the remnants of one of the most important colonies of all time, the great Magna Grecia, can be seen in the ruins, legends and local dialect that still features Greek words. As one strolls along the stretches of sandy beaches, hikes the hills or dines on devilishly delectable dishes made with ‘nduja sausage, Tropea onions, fish and a good, healthy, spicy kick one can breathe easily and appreciate the beauty of a seemingly simple, slow-paced life. Calabria is authentic Italy. Untouched by mass tourism, visitors can find themselves off-the-grid with real people in real places. Most of the tourists there are Italians, escaping the heat of their cities farther north. In Calabria there is no preconceived lists of “musts” to check off; the destination is wherever one happens to be – on its aquamarine sea, wild mountains or ancient towns.
The pepperoncino is a staple ingredient in Calabrian cuisine, as well as an important cultural symbol in southern Italy. The museum in Maierà is unique in its dedication to the “diavolillo” (“little devil”) and is a part of the Associazione Nazionale Piccoli Musei (National Association of Small Museums). Its collection of art, objects and stories present visitors with the opportunity to more fully understand the peppers from around the world. The exhibit features information about their history, production, cultivation, varieties, use, role in art and superstition.
Pepperoncino enthusiasts can also check out the Pepperoncino Festival held each September in Diamante.
Few examples of full-size ancient Greek bronzes exist. The National Museum of the Magna Grecia in Reggio Calabria has a pair. Discovered by a diver off the coast of Riace in 1972, the superb works of circa 460 B.C. art were carefully restored, a feat that involved removing the marine deposits that had protected the men for centuries. Under the layers questions arose: Were they the work of a great artist or artists? How did the sculptures find their way to the seafloor? Did a ship capsize, or simply throw the heavy art overboard to ease the burden as a ship navigated a storm? Did it sink on purpose to avoid pirates? Where are their missing helmets and shields? The mysteries are unresolved, but one thing is certain. The sculptures represent a transitional period in art, as their contrapposto stance lends movement and realism to the idealized forms. The bronzes are amongst the most important sites to see in Calabria and the museum in which they are displayed essentially shows the history of the region through its objects, from the Neolithic times onward.
The ancient Greek city of Locri Epizefiri was founded in the 7th century BC and extended along the Ionian Coast as well as into the hills. As an important economic centre in the Mediterranean, it was one of the richest colonies of the Magna Graecia. The archaeological site offers visitors an impressive insight into this unique ancient culture uncovering the remains of the Ionic temple in the area called Marasà, along with the Sanctuary of Persephone, an impressive Greco-Roman theatre, and a necropolis. The area known as "Centocamere" (a hundred rooms) used to be the artisan quarter. With only a small part of ancient Locri Epizefiri having been excavated, a great part of its mysteries and culture still lies hidden below the surface waiting to be brought to light.
The on-site museum displays the many religious and artistic artefacts found on the site. Visitors can marvel at the great handiwork and advanced culture of Magna Graecia.
On a beach four kilometers from Pizzo is a grotto church carved into the tuff and made of the stuff of history and legend. The later two blend so seamlessly its story is told as a whole. It is said that a Neapolitan crew encountered an unexpected storm just off the shore of Pizzo. The sailors huddled together in the captain’s cabin around to wait out the storm. Fearing death, the men gathered around the painting of the Virgin Mary that hung there and vowed that if they lived they would build a chapel in the saint’s name. The ship sank but the sailors and the image survived. To keep their promise they hew the chapel into the rock and left the painting there. In 1880 a stationary shop owner began to enlarge the grotto, creating new rooms and filling them with statues. When he died his son continued the work. Though vandals destroyed some of the artwork, a nephew restored it to its original beauty in the late 1960s.
The small Byzantine church in Stilo is one of the best preserved examples of its kind in Italy. “Cattolica” was built in the ninth century and represents one of the most important pieces of architecture in Calabria. Its name comes from the Greek word “katholiki”, which means “church with a baptistery”, a recognition that placed the church in higher standing above others in the area. It is fitting, then, that it is also located on a hill overlooking the town swallowed in green below. The brick building is unassuming, yet its five domed towers and frescoes give insight into how Byzantine art developed in southern Italy.
The Cattolica di Stilo can easily be done in combination with a visit to the Charterhouse in Serra San Bruno.
The Certosa di Serra San Bruno was founded in 1090 by Saint Bruno from Cologne, Germany. It was the second abbey of the Carthusian Order, with the first in the Chartreuse Mountains near Grenoble. As the monastery is in the Serre Mountains, a rainy area, the stone walls seem cooler on those gray days. The hermitage was constructed with a series of cells where cloistered monks could devote themselves to silence, solitude and prayer. Brothers also had a living area and would do manual work around the area to help support the work the monastery. Nowadays visitors can visit a museum there, where a few monks still live. The display includes wood carvings, beautiful frescoes and century-old texts. The Chapel of Santa Maria del Bosco, the small lake Laghetto di San Bruno and the Grottoes of San Bruno are within a few hundred meters of the charterhouse.
The first town on the Costa degli Dei (Coast of the Gods) is Pizzo, located at the center of the Gulf of Sant’Eufemia on the Tyrrhenian Sea. The ancient resort area is where Cicero once stayed, where Saint Peter stopped to rest on his journey to Rome and where Ulysses supposedly stopped for supplies. Its fifteenth century Aragon castle, the Castello Murat, was the place that Joachim Murat, Napoleon’s brother-in-law and King of Naples, was imprisoned and executed. Tuna fishing has always played an important part in the economy, as has the production of a unique ice cream delight known as the tartufo (truffle). The local ice cream makers popularized the round dessert that looks like the tuber, but tastes of hazelnut and chocolate. A perfect way to end a tour!
Reggio Calabria, the largest city in the region, is located on the Gulf of Messina. From the shore, one can see Sicily, as only three kilometers of water separate the mainland from the island. The strategic area on the straits meant that the centuries old city has undergone various transformations and name changes reflecting the long series of its occupiers. The old town includes vestiges of the populations that passed through it. Visitors can stop at the archeological sites, ancient buildings and Aragonese Castle that survived the early twentieth earthquake. Following the disaster much of the city was rebuilt in the Italian Liberty style. In the center there is a historic cathedral, numerous cafés and restaurants along the bustling shopping streets like Corso Garibaldi, renowned for its bergamot shops. The flowery seaside promenade, the “Lungomare”, is considered to be one of the most beautiful kilometers in the country. If the conditions are right, visitors can see the mystifying Fatamorgana. The mirage that appears as stacked bands on the horizon is an optical phenomenon named after the Arthurian sorceress Morgan le Fay, who was believed to create fairy castles in the air to lure sailors to their deaths. For a visual of the area from above, a walk through the Aspromonte National Park affords panoramic views of Mount Etna, the Aeolian Islands and the shimmering coastline below, scattered with colorful beach umbrellas.
Located on a panoramic promontory over a sea of ever-changing blues, Tropea is the ideal place to lounge on sandy beaches and see spectacular sunsets. Beyond the cliff’s edge, in the horizon,visitors can glimpse the volcanic Sicilian island of Stromboli thirty miles offshore. The old town is a maze of small streets brimming with shops and cafés. The Norman-built cathedral is dedicated to the Our Lady of Romania, who is said to have protected the church during World War II when two bombs failed to explode there. The bombs now flank the entrance and a painting of the town’s patron saint hangs above the simple altar. History buffs and beach enthusiasts come together to relax in the beautiful town, enjoying the specialities made from its most notable contribution to Italian cuisine: the sweet red Tropea onion.
Capo Colonna is a single column, standing alone on a hill overlooking the deep blue of the surrounding sea. The column was once a part of a temple dedicated to Hera Lacinia, the goddess of female fertility and sister/wife of Zeus. The site was once one of the most sacred spots on the Mediterranean and drew devotees to worship there. It is thought that the Italiota League, a confederation of western Greek colonies, was located there. Hannibal, the Roman enemy left from there to return to Carthage. Just ten kilometers from Crotone, the area formerly known as Cape Lacinio now includes the National Archaeological Museum at the park’s entrance. Though little remains of the sanctuary, many of the votive gifts found on the grounds are displayed at the museum along with models of how the temple complex would have been. The underwater archeology section of the museum shows some of the amazing discoveries found in the sea nearby.
Scilla takes its name from the nymph turned monster, Scylla. In Greek mythology she was said to have devoured some of Ulysses’ men, plucking them from the violet colored water. Though the tale is just a story, made famous in Homer’s “Odyssey” and Virgil’s “Aeneid”, the purple water is real. The town is considered the “pearl” of the Costa Viola, an area in Calabria that has an underwater plant that lends a special hue to the depths. A stroll on the magical, pebbly beaches or a refreshing dip in the sea will both relax and inspire visitors.
The picturesque, medieval hill town of Gerace gives jaw-dropping views of the mountains inland and the Ionian Sea. Its history, however, goes further back. In the seventh century the inhabitants of the seaside town of Locris fled to the hills to escape the Saracen raids. Its culinary specialties reflect its ancient past: alatucia (pork rinds); curcurdia (a traditional variation of polenta); goat meats and cheeses; stuffed, dried figs; and costee (dried pears) – all made with old recipes. The wines, liquers and olive oil extracted from the fruits of centuries old trees are one of the most important fonts of income for the area. The most impressive sites in the town are the many churches, convents and monasteries. The eleventh century Norman cathedral is the largest in Calabria and it resembles a castle in its construction. Each of its columns is unique, hinting that many must have been taken from Locri when the Greek town was destroyed by earthquakes. Its interior features Byzantine artwork and mosaics, as well as a crypt and a twelfth century Templar cross from Jerusalem. Gerace is a lovely inland town that gives insight on how the area developed.
Crotone was a powerful city-state founded in 710 B.C. According to Ovid’s legend the city received its name from Hercules, who created it in the name of his friend who the half-god accidentally killed. From 500 B.C. on Crotone gained fame both for its generations of victors in Olympic and Panhellenic Games and for the school Pythagoras founded there. Today visitors can enjoy a walk through the laid-back town, escorted by expert guides who detail the rich history of its past.
Winding one’s way inland from the seas – past the citrus trees the Arabs brought with them during their tenth and eleventh century rule – going further inside the boot and ascending the hills, visitors arrive at Sila National Park. Offering a different feel from the coastal towns, the densely forested granite mountains climb to an altitude of 6,332 feet at the Botte Donate heights, which are covered in snow until June. Surprisingly good hiking and skiing can be found this far south. The less developed interior serves as a place where those who dwell at sea can find reprieve from the calient heat. Though the strong link to its maritime identity is never far from sight or mind; even the Greeks who inhabited Calabria during the Magna Grecia period came to source timber for their ships from the woods in Sila. Most start in Cosenza, a town southeast of the massif. Cosenza is, itself, a fascinating stop. Below the Busento River that passes through its old town, King Alaric of the Visigoths is said to have been buried with the Roman spoils he took two years prior to his death in 412 A.D. The Nazi SS Heinrich Himmler believed the tale. During World War II he sent engineers and archeologists to dig for the secret royal tomb and treasures, but nothing was found.
During the 1500s as the Saracens attacked the Crotone coast, nearly destroying the promontory of Capo Colonna. The area featured a number of ancient Greek temples as well as a small sanctuary with a painting of the Virgin Mary. Though the church was set on fire, the image – miraculously – did not burn, but glowed. To celebrate the event in Crotone an array of special masses are held and a midnight pilgrimage leading to Capo Lacinio takes place. The “Festival dell’Aurora” (the Festival of the Dawn) includes concerts and events as the audience awaits daybreak on the promontory together.
On Good Friday, the “Naca” is celebrated in Catanzaro. The impressive event includes a procession dat¬ing back to the 17th century. “Naca” is a Greek word, that translates into “cradle”, which is used in reference to the decorated catafalque in which the figure of Jesus is laid. Local authorities carry the Jesus through the town.
The little fishing village of Diamante hosts the annual Pepperoncino Festival at the beginning of September. The peppers adorn balconies, terraces and the streets. Packed with food kiosks that offer an array of delicious local specialities featuring the spicy ingredient, visitors can mingle with locals as they try the creative concoctions with a kick of capsicum. The festival also stages a unique three-evening event of satire, where artists are called to compete in front of a live audience. The two competitors hear the theme for their round and have three minutes to prepare a comic. The images are then projected on two screens. The winner of the fiery duel is decided by which one gets more laughter. There are also exhibits, shows, street performances and music to complete the festival.
The enchanting village of Stilo features some incredibly beautiful examples of medieval architecture and battlements. To revive the spirit of the old city during the first weekend of August locals host an event with all the flare of the Middle Ages. Complete with knights, acrobats, jugglers, jesters, fire-eaters, snake charmers, falconers, fortune tellers, puppeteers, musicians, dancers, drummers and craftsmen, the Palio di Ribusa offers a marvelous experience. Throughout the weekend various shows take place, with the re-enactment of a historical duel as the highlight.