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Calabria, Italy - Travel Feature

Unspoiled Beaches, Greek Ghost Towns and Tropea, the Pearl of the Thyrrenian Sea

By Sylvie Greil

Scilla, a fabled fishing village in Italy
Scilla, a fabled fishing village

Beyond the crowds on the Adriatic Sea, the clamor of Rome and the charmed but tourist-beleaguered Toscana lies an Italy yet undiscovered by many American travelers. South of Naples, in the "toe" area of Italy's boot, bound to the west by the Tyrrhenian Sea and to the east by the Ionian Sea, sits Calabria, a region of breathtaking coastlines hugging emerald waters and ancient villages that mirror their Greek past. The Calabrian beaches that stretch along the unspoiled west coast are among the most beautiful in all of Italy, where pristine waters in colors ranging from turquoise to deep purple lay nestled at the feet of rocky cliffs. Italians and other Europeans have been flocking to Calabria for decades, but it wasn't until recently that you could find top-of-the-line hotels and high-end boutiques.

Still, you will encounter a magical world where strings of chile peppers are hung on house walls to ward off evil, where it's bad luck to pay someone a compliment without also saying a blessing and where the cuisine is marked by a long history of poverty and famine — everything, from tuna to porcini mushrooms, capers, tomatoes and eggplant is preserved in olive oil, and chile plays a starring role on many menus.

Tropea

Tropea, the "pearl of the Thyrrenian Sea"
Tropea, the "pearl of the Thyrrenian Sea"

We recommend you make your home base in or near Tropea, the "pearl of the Thyrrenian Sea." According to local lore, this moniker is attributed to Hercules, who was said to have founded the city. It was under Greek rule until 1090, when Tropea was conquered by Roger the Norman, which marked a shift to Roman influences. Although it is perched high on a dramatic rock plateau above the sea, Tropea is both the most accessible and the most beautiful town on the Calabrian coast. Stay at Villa Paola, a remodeled convent with a gorgeous garden or the stylish Residenza della Spagnola.

A very compact medieval town, it offers a charming maze of stone palazzi, tiny alleys and passageways and endless small shops — some no larger than a closet — where you can browse ceramics and Calabrian food products like fig d'India jam, chili peppers, bergamot-flavored chocolate and liquor, nduja sausage and, of course, olives. There are tiny boutiques, cafés and restaurants galore. The Italian tourists and locals are very stylish and "urban" when compared to the rest of Calabria. That's because in-the-know travelers have discovered this spot. Allow yourself to drift through the narrow alleys that smell of ancient, dank cellars, even on warm summer days. Many people keep birds in cages on their balconies, making for a beautiful sound collage in the streets. The heart of Tropea's is so small that you'll inevitably come across the Romanesque-Norman Largo Duomo cathedral and the Santa Maria dell' Isola sanctuary, symbols of Tropea's unique history.

Like many Southern European places, Tropea really comes alive in the evening. Smartly placed lights bathe the tiny town in a magical glow, and it is as though the town awoke from a slumber — and it literally does after the long, hot siesta in the afternoon. The air is mild, the town sparkles in soft light and the ancient alleys and palazzi make you feel like you're in an enchanted city. Pick a small restaurant with tables away from the main square, Piazza Ercole, and linger over several courses of Calabrian cuisine and a bottle of local wine, Ciro. Tropea Vecchia offers great spaghetti with vongole, tasty cozze, scampi and gamberoni as well as a wonderful homemade tiramisu.

You'll want to head to the beaches in the area, which are gorgeous, not overcrowded, and most peaceful after-season in September when temperatures still reach 90 degrees. The waters are calm, incredibly clean and they shimmer with jewel-like hues. On most days, there's nary a cloud in the sky. You could easily turn this into a classic beach vacation, consisting of lounging, swimming and tasting Calabrian foods. But there's more to discover.

Coast of the Gods

South of Tropea, the coastline is stunning, in particular Costa Viola, the "violet coast" and Costa degli Dei, the "coast of the gods." The most worthwhile little dot on the Costa Viola is Scilla, a picturesque fishing village named after the fabled sea monster. According to legend, Scilla was a beautiful young girl who sat at the legendary rock jutting out high above the ocean. She drew the ire of a witch upon her, who turned Scilla into a violent sea creature. That rock is now occupied by the Castello dei Ruffo, which used to serve as a defense structure towards attacks from the sea. Farther south, visit the quiet fishing area of Chianalea. Stroll around, refresh yourself with a clear, bitter soda and lunch on sea snails at Alla Pescatora or swordfish at Grotta Azzurra. The Costa degli Dei is famous in the south for its turquoise waters and the gorgeous bays of the Capo Vaticano. The most popular beaches here are Santa Maria, Baia di Riace, Grotticelle and Torre Ruffa.

Pentedattilo and Gerace

Abandoned medieval village, Pentedattilo
Abandoned medieval village, Pentedattilo

The "Jasmine Coast," named after the many jasmine plantations here, begins about 25 kilometers south of Calabria's former regional capital, Reggio di Calabria. The unique landscape is home to the bergamot and the area delivers 95 percent of the world's needs for the yellow citrus fruit.

Surrounded by dry hills scented by wild fennel, eucalyptus and bergamot, wind your way to the ghost town Pentedattilo. Upon glimpsing the decaying village clawing dramatically to the sandstone hills, you will feel as though you have stepped back in time. It was founded by Byzantine Greeks in 15 B.C., and people lived here until the 1960s when the local government made every soul leave for fear of a major earthquake — which so far hasn't come. Soak in the mythical mood, a combination of history, silence and eerie solitude as you walk through the ruins and abandoned buildings baking in the unforgiving sun. When viewing Pentedattilo from a distance, you can make out the shape of a hand with five fingers (pente translates to "five" in Greek).

The Aspromonte Mountains beckon to the East, with their deep crevices and reputation of harboring hermits, religious sects, deserters and terrorists; but we will venture just to their foothills, to the medieval town of Gerace, "Le Firenze del Sud," set five hundred meters above sea level on a panoramic plateau from where you can glimpse the Ionic sea. Despite its nickname, it hardly has anything in common with Florence, except that it houses a high number of churches (the Byzantine St. Giovanello, Annunziata, St. Maria del Maestro and St. Maria di Monserrato) and has a serene beauty. It is a relaxed little town with beautiful doors, archways and well-kept medieval facades on which you find plastered poster-sized obituaries. Gerace is a place to soak in history quietly. You can easily slip into a meditative state gazing at the eleventh-century Cathedral of Gerace — feeling as though, here, time has stood still for centuries. Stop in at the small stores selling local crafts and foods, and have a taste of the delicious bergamot liquor or try a bottle of the local Vino Greco di Bianco.

For more information, visit the official Calabrian Tourism website or the site of the Italian Government Tourist Board

Images courtesy of www.italia.it

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