It was during a stopover leaving Colombia and returning to Canada that I met two Italians who were living in Canada. We had coffee together and started sharing stories from our travels. Although Canadian through and through, they had Italian roots. Roots that came from Calabria. A well-traveled adventurer, I had never heard of Calabria, Italy. My curious soul went on alert.
I bought a travel magazine at the airport and by chance – or was it? – there was a glossy article about Calabria. I went back to find my Italians and we studied the article together.
They spoke with deep passion about their region of Italy and pointed out the striking places in the photographs that I should visit.
Calabria is Italy off the beaten track at its best. It’s a very popular summer destination for Italians, but you won’t find many North Americans who have been to Calabria. That in itself attracted me a lot.
Where is Calabria? Calabria is literally at the tip of the Italian boot. The landscape of Calabria is magnificent. If you are an ocean lover, the 500 miles of coastline is sure to win you over. The area borders the Tyrrhenian Sea to the west and faces the Ionian Sea to the east. At the end of the boot, Calabria meets the Strait of Messina with Sicily a short ferry ride away.
If you are a mountaineer, the verdant green of the vertiginous Apennines will tighten your heart.
The long history of Calabria adds to the richness of a visit here. Formerly a colony of Greece (Magna Graecia) from the 8th to 5th centuries BC. AD, its culture has also been shaped over time by Spanish, Arab and Norman influences.
Here’s why you’ll fall in love with Calabria, Italy, just like me.
1. Tropea, Italy
Tropea’s breathtaking stretch of coastline isn’t called the ‘Coast of the Gods’ for nothing. Legend has it that Hercules founded the city. Tropea’s white sandy beaches dotted with colorful umbrellas and the crystal clear turquoise waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea make Tropea a beach lover’s paradise. The houses cling to the imposing rocky cliffs which serve as a backdrop for the remarkable beaches. Follow the stairs to the beach, rent an umbrella, eat seafood pasta dishes on the beach, and marvel at the beautiful rock formations.
Perched on an island is the Sanctuary of Maria dell ‘Isola, which has been a pilgrimage destination for centuries. Visit the sanctuary and spend some time in its garden among fig and olive trees admiring the breathtaking views of the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Aeolian Islands. Can you spot the Stromboli volcano?
The main street of Tropea, Corso Vittorio Emmanuele leads directly to a breathtaking view of the Tyrrhenian Sea. The maze of cobbled streets in this old part of town is full of cafes and old buildings. Sit in a cafe in Piazza Ercole, named after Hercules, and observe local life. The friendly interactions between locals and the relaxed pace of life provide the ultimate insight into the Calabrian way of life.
- Tropea is very busy in August with Italians on vacation.
- Tropea is about an hour’s drive from Lamezia Terme airport.
- Go down the stairs to Tropea beach, but after relaxing by the sea, save some energy to go up the 150 or so steps. Taxis are available if needed.
2. The opportunity to slow down
Don’t arrive in Calabria, Italy with a to-do list. Calabria demands that you slow down. Slow down your pace. Breathe the sea air. Take a riposo in the afternoon when all businesses are closed. Talk to the locals. People are watching.
You go back in time in Calabria. Your phone data will work sporadically. Maybe just turn it off. You have arrived in a corner of Italy where time seems to have stood still. Kiss him.
3. The Calabrians
When you slow down, it invites conversation and curiosity. This is how I managed to meet Calabrians. Sometimes it was through sign language that we communicated and other times luckily the Calabrians spoke English. They were warm and welcoming and so proud to talk about the area, eager to help lost strangers and wondering what brought me to Calabria.
Pro tip: I found it easy to strike up conversations with the vendors in Scilla Market and in Scilla Town Square. Often, shopkeepers and restaurant waiters were happy to strike up a conversation.
4. The culinary traditions of Calabria
The highlights of a trip to Italy always include tales of gastronomic adventures. Calabria is no exception! Here’s what to try:
Tropea Calabria is revered around the world for its sweet and sweet red onions. Yes, sweet onions. It is the only place in the world that produces them. You will find cipolle appearing in various ways on menus in Calabria and even find onion ice cream! Pop a jar of cipolle marmalade in your bag to take home!
Hot pepper – peperoncino – grows well in Calabria and is found in all kinds of dishes. You will even find it on the table, dry, cool or standing in oil to add even more spice to your meal! Another great gift to take home.
Framed by the seas, it’s no surprise that Calabrian menus are filled with seafood. Pesce spada (swordfish) is a delicious local specialty to savor. Pasta dishes served with clams (à la vongole) and mussels (con the cozze) will leave you begging for more!
But where’s the pizza? Calabria offers exceptional pizzas cooked over a wood fire. Mmm. Again, don’t miss out and take a gastronomic risk by ordering it with local toppings!
You will find tartufo on menus all over Calabria. This decadent frozen treat hails from Pizzo, Calabria. The round scoop of hazelnut and vanilla ice cream sprinkled with cocoa powder is alluring on its own, but the melted chocolate hidden in the center makes this frozen treat a record book entry!
It’s common in Italy to have a “digestif” after a meal, so while in Calabria why not try one of the many local dishes? The best known of Calabria is Vecchio Amaro del Capo. Make sure it is served very, very cold and in a frozen glass. The freezing temperature reveals the complex flavors of mint, anise, orange and licorice.
5. Chianalea in Scilla
Scilla (pronounced Sheila) is a small fishing village with a castle. You will wish you had planned to stay longer. Scilla Calabria tests your ability to slow down. Stroll to the beach, strike up a conversation with a Calabrian in the main plaza, gaze out at Sicily (or reach out and touch it) and the Ionian Islands, but don’t miss Chianalea. Known as the Venice of the South, this little district of Scilla instantly charms. It’s a jumble of tiny alleys, houses falling into the sea, colorful linen flapping in the wind and curious cats lazing in the sun. The perfect image of an Italian ethnic neighborhood.
In Scilla, be sure to explore the tall towers of fishing boats that tell about the centuries-old tradition of swordfish fishing in the Strait of Medina.
6. Sunsets over the Tyrrhenian Sea
Every evening, at the viewpoint at the end of Corso Vittorio Emanuele in Tropea, a gathering of locals and tourists come to witness the spectacular sunsets. Glorious hues of orange and red light up the sky, framing the Stromboli volcano submerged in the Tyrrhenian Sea. It’s unforgettable.
7. The lighthouse of Capo Vaticano (Il Faro)
Just 4 miles south of Tropea is Capo Vaticano. Drive for the remarkable views from the lookout. Mother Nature has outdone herself. Steep cliffs drop into the blue-green sea and secluded beaches beg to be explored. If you are up for a hike to explore the coastline, follow the narrow path. It is steep and rocky so be sure to wear proper running shoes or hiking shoes. Bring plenty of water.
How to get to Calabria, Italy
Calabria is served by two small airports, Lamezia Terme Airport and Reggio Calabria Airport. Lamezia Terme is the main airport served by many European cities. Check the Easyjet and Ryanair timetables. There are also direct flights from Toronto (scheduled for spring 2022).
How to get around Calabria Italy
Having a rental car allows you to explore and go exactly where you want while exploring Calabria. Many car rentals are available at Lamezia Terme Airport. Reserve in advance. I highly recommend having a detailed map of southern Italy and not relying on GPS. I made this mistake and got very confused.
There is a coastal train service in Calabria, but that won’t give you as much flexibility with your route. Trains run from Lamezia Terme to Tropea several times a day. There is a shuttle bus between the airport and the train station.
Where to eat in Calabria
In Tropea: Located in the historic heart of Tropea, Il Convivio was my favorite. The ambiance, the service, the delicious food and the exquisite bergamot sorbet make it worth going back.
The Incipit restaurant is also remarkable. Reserve a table outside.
In Scilla: In the charming district of Chianalea, find the Ristorante Bleu de Toi where the tables are seated by the sea and the food is amazing. I came back a second night as the lovely waiter and chef made the evenings so memorable.
Where to stay in Calabria
In Tropea: Try the Bella Tropea accommodation. This family-run guesthouse, a short walk from the old town, is a charm and the owners go out of their way to make your stay perfect.
There is also A Casa di Alessandro. Located in the historic center of Tropea, this Bed & Breakfast is an ideal place to relax after a day spent exploring Tropea.
In Scilla: Casa Vacanze Panorama is an apartment with stunning sea views.