The region of Calabria is largely untouched by tourism. This seems impossible considering that Italy is one of the most visited countries in the entire world. However, tourism in Italy is largely concentrated around major cities such as Rome, Venice and Florence.
This Southern region may not be what is considered conventionally beautiful but If you know where to look, you will discover that it’s a diamond in the rough. This dreamy short film ‘Calabria, Terra Mia’ or ‘Calabria, My Land’ was made by Italian director Gabriele Muccino for the 2020 Rome film festival. Unfortunately there’s no English subtitles but it’s easy to imagine the dialogue between the couple as the explore all of the jewels of the region.
Like many descendants from immigrant families, my great grandparents were born in Calabria. When living in the North of Italy I was always met with concerned looks when I mention my interest in Calabria to my Northern Italian friends. Despite their efforts to dissuade me, I made the long journey South to find the very small town of my ancestors. I found that their original home and farm still exist. My experience there and the relatives I met, completely changed my perception of Calabria. As a result, I ended up moving to the region (again to the horror of the Northern Italians) and lived in the city of Reggio Calabria for over a year.
Calabria merits more attention than it receives. It’s less than desirable reputation is not entirely warranted. Yes, some of the stereotypes are true. The area is not kept in pristine condition and there isn’t much infrastructure. However, there are plenty of positives that outweigh the negatives. It’s important to first have realistic expectations and an understanding of the culture.
Competition from Southern Neighbours
The neighbouring regions of Sicily and Puglia have managed to outshine Calabria and entice travellers seeking a coastal escape. Calabria lacks Puglia’s trulli and whitewashed villages. It lacks Sicily’s accessibility and vibrant capital city of Palermo. Calabria is more suited to the traveller who feels like they’ve seen all that Italy has to offer and still wants more.
If you’re all about seeking the road less travelled, then this is it. Firstly, you won’t easily find transportation. Secondly, you won’t easily find hotels outside of the very few frequented areas. Thirdly, don’t think you’ll find many guidebooks or websites to help you research. Fourthly, if you think you’re going to get by speaking English you’re very wrong. You can try to get by with basic Italian but even the accent and dialects in Calabria are distinctly different and unique. Lastly, the main airports are Lamezia Terme and Reggio Calabria but unfortunately they have minimal service. Driving is not for the faint hearted with the poor road conditions making it one of the most dangerous regions to drive in Europe. This however, is all part of the adventure…
The region’s mystery stems from a great deal of it being left abandoned. This is due to poverty and a strong mafia presence known as N’drangheta. As a result, poor living conditions and a high unemployment rate forced many generations to seek work in Northern Italy and abroad. Although the mafia is still very much alive in this part of the world, it’s unlikely to affect your holiday in any way. While the mafia is associated with American movies and New York gangsters it’s no joking matter in Southern Italy. Think twice before discussing it lightly with locals. The truth is that there are dangers that come with living in a society controlled by mafia and this is unfortunately their daily reality.
So why go to Calabria? Because it’s unlike anywhere else in Italy.
On the flipside, Calabria is a place that has remained as authentic as they come. If you can look past the lack of accommodation, transport and tourist facilities, you will find natural beauty, welcoming people and a pure example of Southern Italian culture. Think charming villages, empty beaches and rustic cuisine. Many of the coastal towns are picturesque and like something straight from a postcard.
One place that really is found on postcards is Tropea. Located on the Costa degli Dei or ‘Coast of the Gods’ the name speaks for itself. This stretch of the coast is characterised by steep cliffs, crystal clear waters and idyllic villages. It’s the most well-kept area and the easiest to access from Lamezia airport. This is the most frequented area by travellers and the best place to start, especially if you’re short on time and still want souvenir stores and an abundance of cute restaurants and beach facilities.
Venture inland for a different world among the wild cactus and rocky mountains. Olive groves, wheat fields, vineyards, citrus farms and grand old villas lie tucked away in the country side amongst completely abandoned towns.
Some of the most interesting historic sites of the region include Capo Colonna; an ancient Greek column from 440 BC that stands alone on a cliffs edge where a whole empire was once built.
Isola Le Castella di Capo Rizzuto; a 13th century castle ‘ floats’ on water. A fortress built to defend the coastline, it sits on a tiny island that can be reached on foot.
The Riace Bronzes; two of the few surviving full-size ancient Greek bronze statues. The naked bearded warriors were cast in 460–450 BC. They were discovered in the sea just off of Riace in 1972. Now they can be found in the Museo Nazionale della Magna Grecia in Reggio Calabria.
Even after seeing these ancient artefacts, the images and memories that stayed with me after leaving Calabria were more so the little every day things. Clean washing hung out to dry along the back wall of a church. Driving on a remote dirt road where an elderly man sells home-made olive oil from the boot of his old Fiat 500. The view from my rooftop in Reggio Calabria where the sun would set behind Sicily’s smoking Etna volcano. Local farmers at the produce market with deep wrinkles and rough hands, speaking dialect between missing teeth.
With all of Calabria’s grit comes a whole lot of unimaginable rustic beauty. Without over generalising, the people there are some of the most warm and welcoming that I’d come across. They are interested to know your story and immediately open their arms and homes to you. The hospitality I received in Calabria has left a mark on my heart forever. This is a side to Italy that many will never venture to see. It’s definitely not for everyone, but I’m forever grateful for the time I had there and seek every opportunity to return.