If you are hankering for a European tour, why not consider the Calabria region of southern Italy on the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Ionian Sea? Calabria is the toe of the Italian boot. You will find some excellent tourist attractions. You won’t have to fight crowds, but you may have to fight hot, hot summers. With a little luck you’ll avoid tourist traps, and come back home with the feeling that you have truly visited Italy. This article examines tourist attractions in southern Calabria. Be sure to read our companion article on northern Calabria.
We begin our tour of southern Calabria at Pizzo on the western Tyrrhenian coast. We proceed south and west along the coast to Tropea. Then we continue mostly south along the coast to the capital, Reggio di Calabria. We leave the coast to visit the Aspromonte mountains and then continue east and north to Locri on the eastern Ionian coast. We head inland to Gerace and then go and west along the coast before finishing our tour a bit inland at Stilo. In this part of the world directions are always approximate; you have to go where the roads go.
Pizzo, population about eight thousand, is a seaport and resort situated on a steep cliff overlooking the Gulf of Santa Eufemia. Its main attractions are the Baroque Church of San Giorgio (St. George’s Church) and the Castle in which the French general Murat, an ex-king of Naples, was killed in 1815 after an unsuccessful attempt to rouse the populace against the Bourbon kings.
Tropea, population about seven thousand, is one of the most beautiful seaside towns in Calabria. It lies in between the gulfs of Sant’ Eufemia and Gioa overlooking the sea. And yet it is still relatively undiscovered. You’ll love its untamed white sandy beaches, old houses, and ancient churches. Its Norman Cathedral has a special feature, unexploded U.S. bombs from the Second World War, each bearing a note of thanks to the Madonna. Near the main square is the medieval Santa Maria della Isola church and monastery, remodeled in Gothic style and touched up a bit after an earthquake slightly over one hundred years ago. If you fall in love with the town you may want to sign up for some Italian language classes. And don’t forget the onions, the local onions are so good that Italians call red onions Cipolla di Tropea (Tropea Onion).
The city’s most famous citizen, Umberto Anastasio, was born in 1902 but left for New York City about 1919. There he lived under the name Alberto Anastasia, a leader of Murder, Incorporated. He died in a hotel barbershop in an imposing hail of bullets. Anastasia’s fictionalized story was a part of the Oscar winning movie On The Waterfront.
Reggio di Calabria, population approximately two hundred thousand, is the oldest and largest city in Calabria. It sits at the base of a long mountain range running through the center of the region. Over the centuries the area has been subjected to multiple several earthquakes and tsunamis. Furthermore, the soil is quite difficult to till. This city was founded by Greek colonists in the Eighth Century B. C. and passed from one hand to another over the centuries. Interestingly enough it was home to the first dated Hebrew book, printed in 1475. The worst earthquakes were in 1783 and then in 1908 when an estimated 80% of its buildings collapsed and thousands of people were killed. It took about one generation for the city to recover.
Reggio di Calabria contains many interesting sights. We will start with arguably the most unexpected one, the Museo Nazionale della Magna Grecia (The National Museum of Greater Greece), a very important archeological museum. Make sure that you see the two Bronzi di Riace (Riace Bronze) statues of bearded warriors whose origin is subject to debate among the experts. While they were discovered by an amateur scuba diver in 1972, they didn’t go on display for almost ten years.
The famous poet Gabriele D’Annunzio called the Falcomata promenade by the sea the most beautiful kilometer in Italy, and, believe me, it has a lot of competition. The old city is proud of its Greek walls; the section near the promenade dates back to the Fourth Century B.C. There are also Roman baths. Other sights include the church of Saint Gaetano Catanoso, named for the first saint from Calabria in five hundred years, and the Byzantine-Norman Chiesa degli Ottimati (Church of the Optimates) initially destroyed by the Saracens towards the end of the Sixteenth Century. Make sure to see the Venetian-style Villa Zerbi and the Pinoteco Comunale (Town Art Gallery).
The mile-high (actually more, about two kilometer-high) Aspromonte mountain range affords a definite change of pace from the Calabria seacoasts. What a view. The name means “sour mountains.” As you may well imagine its steep terrain and rocky soil are difficult to cultivate. You can find a ski resort at Gambarie east of Reggio di Calabria and an absolutely spectacular sanctuary Madonna di Polsi with an annual fair in late August and early September. Would you believe that many locals still speak a Greek dialect? Perhaps not surprisingly the local grape is Greco. Accompanied by some three thousand volunteers the hero of the struggle for Italian unification, Giuseppe Garibaldi, was defeated and captured in 1862 in the Battle of Aspromonte. But he had the last laugh a few years later.
Locri, whose population is some thirteen thousand, was founded about twenty-seven hundred years ago by a Greek tribe. Its famous lawmaker was the first to devise the written Greek code of law. He suggested that someone who proposed changing a law should have a noose about his or her neck, and be hanged if the amendment failed to pass. Talk about a sense of justice. The original city was abandoned in the Fifth Century and later destroyed. You can see some of the city walls and ruins of a Greek theater.
Gerace, whose population is approximately three thousand, sits on a hill composed of sixty-million-year old fossils from the sea. The site has probably been populated for about ten thousand years. Believe it or not, this little town once contained more than one hundred twenty churches. Among those remaining churches are the Norman Cathedral, the largest church in Calabria includes the Eleventh Century Prison of the Five Martyrs of Gerace, the Thirteenth Century Church of St. Francis with a beautiful Baroque altar, and the Tenth Century San Giovannello (Little St. John). You’ll enjoy Gerace’s medieval town and what remains of an old castle, that probably dates from the Tenth Century.
Stilo, population three thousand, was founded by the Greeks. In 1940 this area was the site of the Battle of Calabria, also known as the Battle of Punta Stilo, one of the biggest naval encounters of World War II. The Italian navy and the combined forces of the British and Australian navies both claimed victory but the battle was considered to be a draw.
This town’s most impressive sight is the Ninth Century Byzantine Cattolica di Stilo which is quite beautiful both inside and out. Other churches include the Cathedral, the Church of San Domenico, and the Church of San Nicola da Tolentino. And don’t forget to visit the Norman Castle and the Fountain of the Dolphins.
What about food? There’s lots of it in Calabria. Reggio di Calabria ‘s best gelateria, Tonino in the Corso, makes a red onion ice cream (as well as others based on squid ink and nduja, the local spicy salami). Let’s suggest a sample menu, one of many. Start with Spaghetti al Ragu di Totano (Spaghetti with Squid and Tomato Sauce). Then enjoy some Cinghiale all’aspromonte (Wild boar Aspromonte style). For dessert indulge yourself with Passulate (Spicy Nut and Sultana Biscuits.) Be sure to increase your dining pleasure by including local wines with your meal.
We’ll conclude with a quick look at Calabria wine. Calabria devotes some sixty thousand acres to grapevines; it ranks number 13 among the 20 Italian regions for the acreage devoted to wine grapes. About 91% of its wine is red or ros?leaving 9% for white. The region produces twelve DOC wines. DOC stands for Denominazione di Origine Controllata, which may be translated as Denomination of Controlled Origin, presumably a high-quality wine. Only 2.4% of Calabria wine carries the DOC designation.
Most Calabria wine comes from the northern part of the region. If you can find it, you should try the sweet Greco di Bianco DOC wine grown from a southern Calabria version of the Greco grape, and the similar non-DOC Greco di Gerace.