It was on a layover when I was leaving Colombia and returning to Canada when I met two Italians who lived in Canada. We drank coffee together and shared stories from our travels. Despite being Canadian through and through, they had Italian roots. Roots that came from Calabria. As a fairly well-traveled adventurer, I had never heard of Calabria in Italy. My curious soul was on high alert.
I took a travel magazine with me at the airport and by chance – or did I? – there was a glossy article about Calabria. I went looking for my Italians and we studied the article together.
They talked about their region of Italy with deep passion and pointed out striking places in the photos that I should visit.
Calabria is Italy at its best off the beaten path. 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 really appealed to me.
Where is Calabria located? Calabria literally sits at the top of Italy’s boots. The landscape of Calabria is breathtaking. If you are an ocean lover, the 500 mile coastline is sure to be attractive. The area borders the Tyrrhenian Sea to the west and the Ionian Sea to the east. At the top of the boot, Calabria meets the Strait of Messina with Sicily just a short ferry ride away.
If you are a mountain person, the verdant green of the towering Apennines will draw your heart.
The long history of Calabria adds to the richness of a visit here. Once a Greek colony (Magna Graecia) from the 8th to 5th centuries BC In the course of time, their culture was also shaped by Spanish, Arabic and Norman influences.
That’s why you’ll fall in love with Calabria, Italy just like me.
1. Tropea, Italy
Tropea’s breathtaking stretch of coast is not called the “Coast of the Gods” for nothing. According to legend, Hercules founded the city. Tropea’s white sandy beaches with colorful umbrellas and the turquoise clear water of the Tyrrhenian Sea make Tropea a paradise for beach lovers. Houses cling to the imposing rocky cliffs that provide a backdrop for the remarkable beaches. Follow the stairs down to the beach, rent an umbrella, eat seafood pasta dishes on the beach and marvel at the beautiful rock formations.
The pilgrimage church of Maria dell ‘Isola sits enthroned on an island and has been a place of pilgrimage for centuries. Visit the sanctuary and spend a little time in its garden surrounded by fig and olive trees and enjoy the breathtaking views of the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Aeolian Islands. Can you see the Stromboli volcano?
The main street in Tropea, Corso Vittorio Emmanuele, leads directly to a breathtaking view of the Tyrrhenian Sea. The maze of cobblestone 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 watch local life. The sociable atmosphere among the locals and the relaxed pace of life give the ultimate insight into the Calabrian way of life.
- Tropea gets pretty busy with Italians on vacation in August.
- Tropea is about an hour’s drive from Lamezia Terme Airport.
- Follow the stairs down to the beach in Tropea, but after relaxing by the sea, save some strength to climb the 150 or so steps again. Taxis are available if required.
2. The opportunity to slow down
Don’t arrive in Calabria, Italy with a list of things to do. Calabria requires you to slow down. Slow down your pace. Breathe in the sea air. Take a riposo in the afternoon when all shops are closed. Talk to the locals. People look.
You go on a journey through time in Calabria. Your phone data is working sporadically. Maybe just turn it off. You have arrived in a corner of Italy where time seems to have stood still. Embrace it.
3. The Calabria
When you slow down, it invites conversation and curiosity. In this way I managed to meet Calabria. Sometimes we communicated using sign language and sometimes the Calabria luckily spoke English. They were warm and hospitable and so proud to talk about the region, eager to help lost strangers, and wondered what had brought me to Calabria.
Pro tip: I found it easy to get into conversation with the market vendors in the Scilla market and in the Scilla market square. Often the shopkeepers and waiters in the restaurants enjoyed talking to each other.
4. The culinary traditions of Calabria
The highlights of a trip to Italy are always culinary adventure stories. Calabria is no exception! Here’s what to try:
Tropea Calabria is revered worldwide for its sweet, mild red onions. Yes, sweet onions. It’s the only place in the world that produces them. You will find it cipolle pop up on different menus in Calabria and even find onion-flavored ice cream! Pop a glass cipolle Jam in your pocket to take away!
The hot chilli pepper – peperoncino – grows well in Calabria and finds its way into all kinds of dishes. You can even find it on the table, dry, fresh or dormant in oil to add even more flavor to your meal! Another great takeaway gift.
Framed by the sea, it’s no surprise that the Calabrian menus are filled with seafood. Pesce spada (Swordfish) is a delicious local delicacy. Pasta dishes with mussels (a la vongole) and mussels (con le cozze) makes you ask for more!
But where is the pizza? Calabria has excellent pizza cooked in wood-fired ovens. Mmm. Don’t miss out and take a gastronomic risk by ordering it with local toppings!
You will find it Tartufo on the menus all over Calabria. This decadent frozen treat hails from Pizzo, Calabria. The round ball of hazelnut and vanilla ice cream dusted with cocoa powder is delightful in itself, but the melted chocolate hidden in the middle makes this frozen treat a record-breaking treat!
In Italy it is customary to have a “digestif” after a meal. So why not try one of the many local ones in Calabria? The most famous from Calabria is Vecchio Amaro del Capo. Make sure it is served very, very cold and in a frozen glass. The ice-cold temperature reveals the complex aromas of mint, anise, orange and liquorice.
5. Chianalea in Scilla
Scilla (pronounced Sheila) is a small fishing village with a castle. You will wish you had stayed longer. Scilla Calabria tests your ability to slow down. Stroll to the beach, chat with a Calabrian in the main square, stare (or touch) Sicily and the Ionian Islands, but don’t miss Chianalea. Known as the Venice of the South, this little district of Scilla enchants instantly. It’s a jumble of tiny alleys, houses tumbling into the sea, colored linen fluttering in the wind and curious cats lazing around in the sun. The perfect picture of an ethnic Italian neighborhood.
In Scilla, be sure to explore the tall towers of the fishing boats that tell of the centuries-old tradition of swordfish fishing in the Medina Strait.
6. Sunsets over the Tyrrhenian Sea
At the viewpoint at the end of Corso Vittorio Emanuele in Tropea, a gathering of locals and tourists comes every night to watch the spectacular sunsets. Magnificent orange and red tones light up the sky and frame the Stromboli volcano embedded in the Tyrrhenian Sea. It’s unforgettable.
7. The lighthouse of Capo Vaticano (Il Faro)
Only 6.4 km south of Tropea is Capo Vaticano. Take the drive to the remarkable views from the lookout point. Mother nature has surpassed itself. Steep cliffs fall into the green-blue sea and lonely beaches invite you to explore. If you want to take a hike to explore the coast, follow the narrow path. It’s steep and rocky, so be sure to wear runners or suitable walking shoes. Bring plenty of water.
How to get to Calabria, Italy
There are two small airports serving Calabria, Lamezia Terme and Reggio Calabria. Lamezia Terme is the main airport with connections from many European cities. Check out Easyjet and Ryanair flight schedules. There are also direct flights from Toronto (scheduled for spring 2022).
How to travel through Calabria Italy
With a rental car you can explore Calabria and go exactly where you want. There are many car rental companies at Lamezia Terme Airport. Book in advance. I strongly recommend having a detailed map of southern Italy and not relying on GPS. I made this mistake and was very lost.
There is a coastal train service in Calabria, but this one doesn’t offer as much flexibility with your itinerary. Trains run from Lamezia Terme to Tropea several times a day. A shuttle bus runs 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 ambience, the service, the delicious food and the exquisite bergamot sorbet were worth going back there.
Incipit restaurant is also excellent. Reserve a table outside.
In Scilla: In the charming neighborhood of Chianalea you will find Ristorante Bleu de Toi where the tables sit by the sea and the food is amazing. I returned on a second evening as the charming waiter and chef made the evenings so memorable.
Accommodation in Calabria
In Tropea: Attempt Accommodation in Bella Tropea. This family-run bed and breakfast, just a few minutes’ walk from the old town, is a charmer and the owners go out of their way to make your stay perfect.
There are also A Casa di Alessandro. Located in the historic center of Tropea, this bed and breakfast is a great place to relax after a busy day in Tropea.
In Scilla: Casa Vacanze Panorama is an apartment with a breathtaking view of the sea.