Divine Italy - why you should visit Calabria

Cathy Winston discovers a little visited corner of southern Italy where myths come to life


Tropea (Photo: Unsplash)

A cloud of shimmering silvery-blue fish floated tamely around me, the aquamarine water of the Tyrrhenian Sea so clear that you could see them without needing to follow my example and pull on a mask and snorkel.

They call this part of Calabria the “coast of the gods”, thanks to the myths and legends woven into its history, but there’s no doubt that the name is apt; the toe of Italy’s boot is quite simply divine.

Yet most tourists stick to the Amalfi Coast to the north, or fly straight on to Sicily to the south, rather than discovering what lies in between. The crowds that do visit in the peak summer months are mostly from northern Italy, the US and Canada, leaving Calabria oddly undiscovered by UK visitors — arrive in May or September and you’ll barely have to share the twisting streets of pretty Tropea and the tiny coves of the coast around Capo Vaticano.

Named one of Italy’s most beautiful villages, Tropea itself was founded by Hercules (or so the story goes) once he’d finished with his 12 Labours.

Above the tourist office, the remains of a crumbling stone shield shows the legendary hero represented by a lion holding a club, surrounded by two of his vanquished foes, while another tale tells of him rescuing the people of the region by blinding a giant that was terrorising them.

Today, Tropea’s golden stone alleys seem far removed from any menace, lined with 18th-century palazzi and little shops selling souvenirs and local food, especially jars of condiments using the area’s sweet red onions and countless twists of fileja pasta — traditionally the dish of the poor, it’s made from just flour and water, wrapped around a wooden stick to give it its gently twisted shape.

Elsewhere ceramic nasocchio, traditional big-nosed figures of protection and good luck, stare out from windows.

But over the years, this area has been conquered by everyone from the Romans, the Byzantines and the Normans to the Spanish, until eventually the citizens of Tropea were forced to buy their city from the local nobility in the 17th century.

Tucked away at the back of the town’s cathedral sit two unexploded Second World War bombs; dropped by Allied forces, Tropea’s escape is one of the miracles attributed to Our Lady of Romania, whose icon hangs in the church.

Geography – or geology – has proved another enemy over the centuries; Calabria’s other nickname, la terra ballerina, or the “dancing country”, is down to the area’s seismic activity.

The smoking, sparking cone of Stromboli’s volcano on the horizon is one reminder, grumbling away as regular as clockwork, while two tectonic plates meet under the straits of Messina; Sicily on the African plate, Calabria on the Eurasian plate.

This is the inspiration, perhaps, for another of the area’s legends. The twin monsters of Scylla and Charybdis are said to lurk at either side of the narrow sea between the mainland and Sicily.

There was nothing more ferocious than a seagull lurking on the waves during our boat trip with SeaSports Tropea, where tales of Odysseus and ancient oracles kept us entertained between spotting a ruined Roman harbour, vertiginous staircases leading down to isolated white sand beaches and caves bored through the rocks by the beat of the waves.

As we gazed up at Tropea from the sea, spotting the lines of protective arches helping support the vanilla and peach houses clinging to the cliffs, our captain Michele pointed out the lovers’ cave – invisible from land, inside you’d be hidden from all others.

Although if a particularly determined set of parents did track you down for a shotgun wedding, he added, the monastery of Santa Maria dell’Isola sits on the opposite side of the spike of rock known as Isola Bella.

No longer an island, the church still clings precariously to the highest point. Rebuilt repeatedly over the centuries after earthquake damage, it now looks down upon sun-worshippers relaxing on the beaches on either side.

My personal favourite spot to lounge had its own view of Tropea, at luxurious Villa Paola along the coast.

Set in a converted 16th-century monastery, the cloisters and sense of peace remain, but the monks almost certainly had fewer jasmine-scented corners to relax in with a bergamot spritz or an infinity pool to cool off from the heat of the Italian sun.

With only 12 rooms, it’s easy to feel like this secluded spot is all yours — and, in fact, you can hire the whole place if you wanted to, including for wedding receptions and blessing ceremonies with a backdrop of sparkling blue sea and a soundtrack provided by the swifts flitting overhead.

Food for the restaurant De’ Minimi is grown on site, in the fields between the boutique hotel and the marina, with the tasting menu inspired by the monks’ (mostly) vegetarian diets; while the ingredients might be simple, the result is unforgettable — giant fennel breadsticks, cauliflower with truffle and hazelnut, a broad bean and sardine pasta dish and the lightest tiramisu could easily have graced a Michelin-starred menu.

On the other side of Tropea, sister property Capovaticano Resort Thalasso Spa shares the emphasis on local suppliers and sustainability, but with a beach club vibe that wouldn’t be out of place in Florida, plus a saltwater pool, watersports, ebikes to hire, and tennis courts.

There’s also another beach-front property in the group, nearby Baia del Sole, aimed principally at families.

As Capovaticano Resort’s name suggests, the focus here is on wellness with its Thalasso spa, indoor-outdoor spa pool and the kind of relaxing massages that make you stare dreamily into the distance for the rest of the day.

At least until cocktails at sunset. A DJ plays by the pool bar on Saturdays but there’s always the chance to enjoy views of the Aeolian islands on the horizon otherwise, before discovering the constantly changing choices at dinner.

Perfectly seared tuna was one stand-out, as was a vegetarian extravaganza featuring one of the local red onions stuffed with cheese and porcini mushrooms.

If you don’t think this local delicacy is anything to get excited about, a visit to the farm at Furchi Wine is a deliciously good way to change your mind.

Marco Furchi, the fourth generation of the family to farm here, really knows his onions – and vines – and explains why the sandy soil, combined with the dry winters and hot summers, all contribute to a sweet onion that only grows in this 20-kilometre radius. They won’t even make you cry when you chop them, he insists.

Still a family business – his uncle drives past in a tractor, his sister Federica helps with the tasting, while mamma and papa also pass through and wave – the heaps of tiny black onion seeds are Tropea’s own black gold.

As well as growing several different types of onion, with much of the planting still done by hand, the family cultivates grapes.

These include a white Greco Bianco, a red Calabrese (better known by its Sicilian name, Nero d’Avola) to make rosé wine, and Shiraz, mixed with the Calabrese and Sangiovese to create a deep, fruity red.

All of which you can sample as part of the experience, either at sunset among the vines, or at lunchtime in the courtyard of the family house – accompanied, naturally, by a sweet onion salad, an onion mousse, caramelised onion chutney and a tomatoey pesto containing more onions, to name a few, alongside pecorino cheese from the sheep that graze on the mountain behind Tropea, and pasta with tomatoes from the garden.

It might not be nectar and ambrosia, but if the gods happened to stop in, I don’t think they’d have been disappointed.

​Getting There

Direct flights from Stansted to Lamezia Terme cost from around £60 return with Ryanair.

Rooms at Villa Paola cost from £285 per night B&B.

Rooms at Capovaticano Resort Thalasso Spa cost from £210 per night B&B.

For more information about boat tours, visit SeaSports Tropea, and Furchi Wine for Onion Experiences.

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive