Calabria has it all – fascinating history, a tradition of slow and real food, spectacular national parks, and an earthy charm compared to its more sophisticated cousins in the north.
We are heading from Florence to Naples by fast train to spend a week in Calabria. In silent business class (which isn’t because an Italian businessman spends the 3 hour trip on his phone). A group of 4 young male Japanese ‘backpackers’ board with their superlarge suitcases, and spend the next 15 minutes working out how they will fit in the overhead compartments. They end up under their feet under the table, because the guard abruptly indicates to move their bags out of the walkway.
Arriving in Naples from Florence is like leaving your great aunt to stay with the wild younger male cousin no one in the family wants to talk about.”
43 million people visit Italy every year, the fifth most visited country in the world (after France, US, Spain, and China). Only 13% get down south (mezzogiorno), less even into Calabria.
Why you should come to Calabria
Naples is noisy, filthy, reeks of all things naughty and way too much fun. There are cigarette butts everywhere, and it looks like someone hasn’t picked up the trash in a looong time.
Here’s why…. once the ‘Mafia’ realized how lucrative waste disposal was, they cornered the market on all government contracts, and then proceeded to illegally bury an estimated 10 million tons of toxic garbage in landfills in or near Naples. The three towns of Nola, Acerea and Marigliano are referred to as the ‘Triangle of Death’ – scientists found breast cancer rates 47% higher than national average and birth defects an eyewatering 80% above national average.
And about 50% of Naples is run by the mafia. Some would use a capital M, but this suggests more vertical integration than truly exists. There are 4 groups that are the ‘Mafia’ in Naples, which has spread into Calabria. For the tourist, the most noticeable evidence of this, besides the trash, is when you decide to use a taxi. Each area is run by a local capo, and woe betide if you attempt to circumvent this system. Forget Grab here.
We stayed long enough to eat at an amazing pescatera (see above photo), and enjoy the only Michelin star pizzeria in the world.
We didn’t feel threatened at all – but then we weren’t restaurants with garbage disposal issues.
But I think the driving may be the real reason for the lack of interest in southern Italy. Because you have to drive Calabria to see all its wonders. We managed to get out of Naples losing only one side mirror (not ours, the other car). My husband drove.
The problem with driving in Calabria
Issue 1: You drive on the right side of the road. If you are British, Australian, Singaporean, or pretty much any part of the former Commonwealth, this is known as the ‘wrong’ side of the road. BTW, we are in the minority.
Issue 2: Almost impossible to find automatic cars, because you need manual to rally drive around hairpin turns, up steep hills, and to avoid the greatest danger of all – Italian drivers.
Issue 3: Arising from Issue 1 and 2, you and your partner will fight. Most of the time, until one of you can figure out the triggers, and then over a glass of very nice rose (something Calabria does very well), humorously discuss how you can avoid these in the future.
Calabria has not had rain in 3 years, Italy is in drought. Their water comes from aquafiers deep inside the mountains, which are fed by snow from the mountains. This is now running dangerously low.
We drive down the Calabrian coastline, a metaphor for the region. Roads winding and sometimes no more than one car width, jaw dropping views of emerald waters, sheer cliffs, majestic mountains, and fires everywhere. We watch a helicopter drop water onto fires, quickly head down to the coast, dragging its water chute through the emerald sea and then slowly make its way to the top of the mountains. We discover my husband gets car sick.
We stop at a small town on the way down past the Sorrento coast, known for its buffalo mozzarella. Just south of the famous Sorrento peninsula, and a mile inland, exists Paestum – a haunting archaeological site where Greek temples stand in the middle of the countryside. Paestum is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It has the most extensive remains of Magna Graeci period outside of the Parthenon. Originally known as Poseidonia, it was built by Greek colonists from Sybaris, an earlier Greek city in southern Italy, in around 600BC. In 410BC the town was conquered by the Lucanians, a native Italian people. In 273BC the Romans took over, changed the name to Paestum. As the Roman Empire collapsed, Paestum crumbled. Malari and Saracen raids led to the near-abandonment of the town and the development of Capaccio, a safer hillside settlement. Like something out of a Game of Thrones episode.
Agritourism and Calabria
After Paestum, we arrive into Amantea 7 hours later, with a 2 hour detour due to the fires in the mountains. Our first stop officially in Calabria.
Agritourism (http://www.agriturismo.it) is where you stay in or near working farms. Some will be vineyards, others will have donkeys, pigs, goats, chickens, tomatoes and even bees. Sometimes they are simply rooms in the farm house, or a large family estate mansion that has been converted. We opted for the mansion. Room for 30 guests, their specialities – the famous Calabrian black pig, and their own honey.
My husband is Italian, mother from Calabria. He spoke Calabrian before he spoke English. He speaks, eyes and arms open wide. An aperitif overlooking the valley. Some fresh cheese and salami (from the farm, of course). Dinner was our first real Calabrian meal – Real, honest food – eggplant melanzane, tomatoes that taste sweet, zucchini flowers with ricotta cheese. Salami, pork and bacon are the staple meats. Some goat. Meat is too expensive, and Calabria has not moved far from its agricultural roots.
We leave the next day to head to our next destination, a gift of their honey from Rob’s newest best friend in our suitcase.
Our next stop is a 16th century castle, the Relais Chateau De Caccuri about 5 kms from San Giovanni De Fiore. Near the Sila National Park, known for its lakes and ancient pine forest. Towns rise up out of mountain tops, always with a church and a castle to top them off.
Our castella had historical peculiarities. We had to leave our car in the town square, and be transported up as the roads into the castle fit a fiat bambino (just) or a donkey cart. It had a majestic tower, built to hide the water well the aristocracy of the time had discovered.
When your host couple, young well educated professionals from well to do families, who gave up careers in law (the castle was going to be sold, as the parents had gotten too old to care for it), suggested dinner on the castle rooftop, we could not resist. We sip Rose, eat 4 courses, contemplate life looking over mountains dotted with limestone caves, which hold precious pecorino cheese curing at just the right temperature.
A private tour of the property and chapel, also the result of Rob’s Italian, where we see paintings by old Renaissance masters, 400 year old chapel robes. And understand the dilemma facing so many old places in Italy – restoration or refresh? Restoration is more expensive than refresh, but the former involves pride, the other efficiency. We see the pride in the paintings, frescoes, but funds required are substantial (a larger example – $32 million euro to clean the Colesseum, and another $380 mill euro to restore).
We continue our journey down the west coast of Calabria, stopping at Greek and Roman ruins of Cape Colonna and then turning right to head over to the east coast of Calabria, Tropea and its famous waters.
Tropea is in the Vibo Valentia region, and our final destination.
The legend says it was Hercules who, returning from Spain, stood on the Coast of Gods and made Tropea one of his ports.
Due to its peculiar position as a terrace on the sea, Tropea played an important role during Roman, Norman and Argonese times. In the surrounding areas have been found tombs dating back to the Magna Graecia period.
It has stunning white sand beaches. It is the holiday destination for Italians in the summer. You will be pressed to find a foreign tourist. Beyond Tropea are more white sand beaches that do not have beach umbrellas sitting cheek by jowl. The water is emerald and blue together, I snorkel an ancient Roman fort, see impossibly steep walkways down to secluded beaches, with only one or two people on them. Italians love their inflatable water toys, you will endlessly amused with how they use them in the water.
Many villages in the Vibo Valentia area produce a red onion known as cipolla di Tropea (“Tropea onion”) – they have become an Italian synonym for all red onions. They taste sweet, so sweet that one of the gelaterias in Tropea town, Tonino in the Corso, makes a red onion ice cream.
Our last meal in Calabria was pizza (Napoli style) with ndya salama (a local speciality), a calabrese salad (involving cucumbers, iceberg lettuce, onions and tomatoes), and some rose, of course.
We have fallen a little in love with Calabria, its people and its food – we leave nostalgic and planning our next return. As we depart via Lamezia airport for our plane back to Rome and then Singapore, I hear Calabria calling – don’t you forget about me (non ti scordar de me).
TIPS FOR CHILLED TRAVELLING IN CALABRIA
TIP NO 1: Travel by train, buy business class, and make sure that your bags do fit in overhead compartments or face the wrath of your guards.
TIP NO 2: Everyone in Southern Italy smokes – everywhere. Get used to it, stop complaining, this won’t help, and might get you missing. DON’T TAKE IT UP THOUGH.
TIP NO 3: Keep your 50 cent and 1 EU coins – you will need them for public toilets and tollways. And they are pretty clean.
TIP NO 4: Download a Italian language app. Brush up, and you will be rewarded.
TIP NO 5: Always, always ask a local for the best place to eat. You will never go wrong.
An edited version of this article appeared in the November 2017 edition of the ANZA Singapore monthly magazine.