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Episode #130: How to spend a week in Calabria

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Calabria, in the toe of Italy’s boot, is a region where you can find spectacular beaches, mountains, gorgeous hilltop towns, unique and delicious food, and a rich cultural heritage – yet it’s rare for non-European visitors to head there,  other than on when passing through. With its infrastructure improving all the time, we hope to tempt people down there to experience the unspoiled beauty and a kind and generous Calabrese welcome. 

Show notes

We talk to author Karen Haid whose book Calabria: The Other Italy is one of the few English language resources you can find on the region and is not only unique but also extremely well researched and full of humor. Karen inherited her love of Italy from her parents, and fell in love with Calabria when she started teaching English in the region. She also runs a variety of group tours to the region each year.  She shares with us her tips and ideas for spending a week in Calabria – including ancient bronzes, sea monsters, and ghost towns, as well as onions, gelato balls, and licorice. 

What you’ll learn in this episode

  1. Karen ended up writing her book and then blog on Calabria having lived there and found no other English word resources on the subject. Even now, it’s not a region that many non-Italians or non-Europeans go to and it can even be believed that there is nothing there, as it’s simply written about so little. Karen was surprised at how much she did find – and that made her look even more and travel around the region to see what else she was missing.
  2. The food experiences in Calabria are both unique and incredible. The agriculture is amazing as pretty much anything can grow there.
  3. Calabria is surrounded by coastline, 500 miles of coastline in fact. On the West Coast, there is the Tyrrhenian Sea, and that’s mostly a rather dramatic terrain – so cliffs and beautiful blue-green water. Then on the East Coast, while there are also some cliffs, it is generally flatter, with sandier beaches, and with mountains running down the whole center of the region.
  4. There’s a lot of history in Calabria because it is the center of the Mediterranean and back in Greek and Roman times, in any maps that they would have had, it would have been smack in the center of their known world.
  5. Whilst not many outside of Italy visit Calabria in any great numbers, the Germans are really tuned in and there are lots of low-cost airlines, so you can go from perhaps Frankfurt or Munich directly to Lamezia Terme, which is the largest airport in the region. German holiday makers tend to love beaches and nature – which Calabria supplies gloriously. 
  6. You can see some things without a car, but it is more difficult and there’s a lot you can’t access without a car. You can’t rely on public transportation for many areas – not just because of slowness, but because it might not be there at all. 
  7. There is so much to see in Calabria, though things are a little bit spread out because it’s a large region but also because of the mountains. to get from one side to the other, you often can’t go straight across and you might have to go all the way up and around. Driving through the mountains with lots of twists and turns means it will often take a bit longer than what you’re expecting. 
  8. The other reason Calabria is popular with German/Europeans, this that they often have long vacations and so they have a lot of time, and so they can look for places that aren’t so expensive. Calabria is not on par with the Amalfi Coast costs – being at least half the price much of the time. A lot of the time, the quality of the food is also going to be a lot better than in many of the touristy areas because it’s not being mass-produced. 
  9. With the more reasonable prices, you will find that the tourist infrastructure is not what you’re going to find on the Amalfi Coast. You will need to try a little bit harder. You may need to brush up on some Italian as English is rarely spoken, though Tropea is one place they speak more English because there are a lot more tourists. But don’t let the language barrier put you off – people in Calabria are incredibly nice and welcoming and you’ll make yourself understood.
  10. Karen started the tours to Calabria because people kept asking her about tours as they could not find any. At first, it was difficult to come up with an itinerary and she quickly realized she couldn’t do it how she wanted in a week. The first one she did it in 10 days but now she’s got her tours perfectly balanced at either 11 or 12 days. Even then, of course, there were so many places and things that I’ve left out in the region, but sometimes had not included for some logistical reasons or simply because you just can’t do everything.
  11. On her tours she finds people comment that they don’t see other tourists except in Tropea or perhaps Pizzo When you’re walking down the street, almost everywhere. you go, you’re only surrounded by Italians. In Reggio, for example, they have their Corso, the main walking street, and every night it’s full of people – and they’re all local people. They’re not really even Italian tourists bar a few. So you really get a feel of the local culture. This is what the local people are doing. It’s perhaps what someone might have had 50 years ago in some of these other, more touristic places now.

Karen’s recommended week-long Calabria itinerary 

For this itinerary, we are going South to North – flying or ferrying in and then renting a car. You can of course do it the other way around, with a multitude of variations. 

Days One & Two

Reggio Calabria

The largest city in Calabria and on the Strait of Messina, Reggio Calabria looks over to Sicily and on a good day, you can even see Mount Etna (getting up early helps before the clouds descend). It’s a lovely place to spend some time and is a good first stop on your trip to Calabria. 

There is a beautiful promenade, Lungomare, which the writer Gabriele D’Annunzio claimed to be the most beautiful kilometer of Italy. There’s a little public park that runs alongside.on one side and there’s a beach along the other side. This is where you’ll find the locals strolling of an evening and is a great place to wander any time of day. 

The Bronzes of Riace

The jewel in the crown of Reggio Calabria is the Archeological Museum. Even if you don’t like museums generally, this is an interesting place to visit with a particularly impressive local find on display. There are two ancient Greek statues from around 500 BC – which are truly spectacular. Made out of bronze, the statues are six foot, six inches tall statues – like nothing you will see anywhere else. They were found in 1972 off the coast of Calabria and are known as the Bronzes of Riace.

Bergamot

The area is famous for bergamot – a citrus plan which looks a little bit like a cross between a grapefruit and a lemon and is very bitter. The pulp is used in cakes and cookies, but more important is the oil from the skin which is a valued essential oil found in many perfumes. You can get bergamot gelato or various liqueurs so you should definitely look out for some bergamot-flavored goodies during your visit. 

Exploring and Shopping

The city has beautiful shopping street and of course, lot of churches. Even though it was founded many thousands of years ago, even before the Greeks, the city looks more modern because there have been various earthquakes over the centuries. So there is a lot of early 20th-century architecture, which make up a very attractive Old Town for Reggio Calabrio.

Scilla

If you had done a tour of Sicily, you would come over to Calabria by ferry to Villa San Giovanni, just a little north of Reggio Calabria. Near to Villa San Giovanni there is another place well worth visiting for the day from your stay in Reggio Calabria –  Scilla. Scilla is a gorgeous little town. Its old fishing village Chianalea is included in the I Borghi più belli d’Italia – the list of the most beautiful places to visit in Italy. The water would go right up to the houses at high tide, there’s a castle in the middle and a beach area on one side. The ancient Greek myth is that Scylla & Charybdis were ancient greek sea monsters who lived on either side of the Strait of Messina – hence the name Scilla – as Scyalla was the monster on the Calabrian side. 

There are lot of small, traditional-style fishing boats there. You’ll also see larger swordfish fishing boats as swordfish is popular in the area. These boats are very obvious because they have a really tall mast in the middle of the boat that someone stands standing on top of, looking out over the horizon to see the fish. Historically, even just 80-100 years ago, they used a boat that had an over 6ft high mast but where the boat itself was relatively small. But these days they are very large boats. Another great local food to try – there is sword fish on the menu from about May through the summer. It can be grilled, swordfish steaks with olive oil, lemon juice in various ways, maybe capers. In pasta – so just little pieces in a pasta dish, maybe with a tomato-based sauce or often you see Involtini di Pesce Spada – which is rolls of the swordfish. They take it in strips and then put breadcrumbs and other herbs inside, roll it up and you have your little pile of rolls on your plate. 

Day Three

The Ghost Town of Pentedattilo

In the morning of day through, head to the edge of the Aspromonte mountains to the town of Pentedattilo. The name of the town means five fingers (Penta is from the Greek for 5). Through earthquakes and landslides, they’re not quite five anymore, but you can see their forms from quite far away. 

Due to earthquakes and mudslides, the village was abandoned in the 16th century, but it dates back much earlier. Many buildings are Byzantine. It’s very old and it was also colonized by the Greeks at one point. It’s nice to just walk around amongst the mostly abandoned buildings. There’s now some artists there and a few little gift shops – that kind of thing. If you’re there in the middle of the winter on a Tuesday, you really will get the feeling that it’s a total ghost town. If you’re there in the summer, the height of tourist season, then there will be people around selling you a few things.  If you like hiking, this is also a great hiking in the area. It’s just really beautiful. A little bit eerie, a little picturesque, with nature on its doorstep. 

As you’re out in the country, an Agriturismo, farm-to-table type place is a great place to stop for lunch – there are many throughout the area. 

Gerace

In the afternoon head over to Gerace, which iis a medieval town up on a hill. In the summer lots of people go to the beach along the many of the towns along the beach, and then they go to the villages in the mountains to cool off or to have lunch – Gerace is the kind of place they head to. If you didn’t stop at an agriturismo you could also have lunch right in Gerace too with some great restaurant choices. Gerace is also one of the Bari Pupali d’italia – the most beautiful villages in Italy. It’s a very nice medieval old town with a great viewpoint.

The Cathedral is a Romanesque Norman Cathedral, and in the basement of the church there was a Byzantine structure that can you still see and there are ruins of a Norman Castle up there too. It’s also one of the places that still has traditional ceramics there – it used to be a big ceramic center. There still are some people spinning the wheel and creating wonderful things to buy and take home. It’s a lovely place to spend the afternoon.

After Gerace, you can either stay in the area or head off at the end of the night to a base in Tropea or Pizzo. 

Day Four & Five

Tropea

It’s well worth spending a couple of days in gorgeous Tropea, which is also one of the Borghi più belli d’Italia, one of the most beautiful places in Italy. In fact, last year Tropea had the honor of being the Borgo de Borghi – the village of all villages. An honor voted by Italians. This is no only about the visuals of a place, but to be eligible for it, you have to have an interesting history (which isn’t too hard in Italy), but also a culinary history is important. In Tropea, they have quite a few culinary specialties. There is the Tropea onion, which is a red, very sweet onion. It’s grown in the area and they serve it in many different ways, as a marmalade, on it’s own with meat, etc. Nduja, a spicy spreadable sausage made in the area is another specialty, as is Amaro del Capo – an amaro drink.

The old town is full of medieval buildings – churches, etc but what really makes it so beautiful is that the old town comes up to the edge of a cliff. When you’re on the edge of the cliff, and you look out, you see the beautiful water and a little beach, and then across from there an island with a church on it – Santa Maria dell’Isola (St. Mary of the island). It’s ridiculously picturesque. When you’re down on the beach and then you look back up, the cliff and building are very high up above you – you see a straight wall of rock and then these buildings on top – looming before you. Tropea is the most famous spot in Calabria for a reason – because it is unquestionably special. You could then stay in Tropea itself in a B&B in the old town, there aren’t really large hotels there, but there are smaller hotels, beach hotels or places out in the countryside.

The beach on the bay of Tropea is a very sandy beach and the sea is just a gorgeous turquoise color, so the swimming is great there. You can take a boat ride. If you’re staying long enough, you can take a boat ride to the Aeolian Islands. Stromboli is straight across from Calabria and the trip takes about an hour and a half, as although the Aeolian Islands are considered off Sicily, Stromboli is pretty far north of Sicily and closer to Calabria. It’s an active volcano so you can do a night tour where you go around and see the fire – it’s a beautiful scene. 

Tropea is the only spot in Calabria that you have to worry about driving in the ZTL driving zones, so make sure that you don’t drive right in the center so you don’t get a ticket (find out more about ZTL zones here).

Pizzo is just to the north of Tropea. It’s a historic town and also has a beach. It also has a castle where Morat, Napoleon’s brother-in-law was executed in the 19th century. 

A specialty Pizzo is known for is a special gelato ball called tartufo. They come in many different flavors, though the classic flavor is chocolate and hazelnut ice cream with a center of liquid chocolate. They’re handmade – they literally make them in their hands. They have gloves on (though historically wouldn’t have of course). The making process is incredibly quick. The balls are bigger than a tennis ball, so a good size. Other flavors include a lemon one that has limoncello in the center and they have delicious strawberry ice cream. It’s very popular for Italian tourists – every visitor should make sure that they get their Tartufo Di Pizzo in Pizzo. 

The area is also known for tuna fishing. Right now they can’t fish right off the coast, so the fish is brought in but if you want designer tuna in jars or in cans – the really expensive stuff’s – this is the place to try/buy it. 

Day Six & Seven

It really depends at this point where you’re going next, if you’re going to be flying out or you’re going to be continuing driving up the coast or down the coast – so we have a few options. 

If you’re going to be returning to the airport in Lamezia Terme with your rental car, then head up to the Scilla Mountains, in the center of the region, which is often called the lungs of Europe. They’ve done tests and they’ve found that it has the cleanest air in all of Europe. There’s a lovely walk there – which is along a sort of a boardwalk because they don’t want people to go off the path and disturb the ground. There are centuries-old pine trees, called Giganti di Fallistro, which add to the magical feel of a walk there.  Afterward your walk, Karen would suggest lunch in the charming mountain town of Camigliatello Silano.

If you then are returning back to the area north of Tropea or going back to the airport, but want to do something else, consider a stop in Cozensa, another one of the provincial capitals. It has another really lovely old town and then perhaps stay overnight right by the airport.

If you were headed north, perhaps before heading over to Puglia or Basilicata, then stop off in Rossano. Another food agricultural product that Calabria is known for is wild licorice. In Rossano there is a very interesting Licorice Museum as the famous Amarelli family’s company is based there. There’s also a museum in the town that has a 6th-century illuminated manuscript as the main piece in the museum. t’s a Codex referred to in English as the Rossano Gospel and is really beautiful. A must for anyone who’s interested in ancient religious artifacts.

If you were going to go up the other coast as you were perhaps headed to the Amalfi Coast, consider a stop in Diamante. Diamante has two nicknames – Peperoncino City and the other one is Murals City. Calabria is home to the pepperoncini pepper, of course -and you can find it everywhere in Diamante. People grow up in their backyard and it’s a famous spot for it. They even have a pepperoncino festival in September every year. Diamante is on the water and it has a really lovely old town with murals painted all over and makes a great stop on your way up on the west coast. Scalea is also worth a stop. Beautiful place, that was in the latest Bond movie and has the Spiaggia dell’Arcomagno – a beautiful natural arch – an incredible natural wonder.

About our guest – Karen Haid

karen haid calabria

Knowing the meaning of al dente before it was in vogue, Karen Haid inherited her love of Italy and its traditions from her parents. She went on to study the Italian language and culture at schools in Rome, Florence, Lucca, Sorrento, Taormina and Reggio Calabria, and earned Dante Alighieri Society’s Advanced Certification of mother tongue equivalency, as well as credentials to teach the Italian language and culture from Reggio Calabria’s University for Foreigners. Her first book Calabria: The Other Italy grew out of a four-year immersion, living, teaching and traveling throughout the beautiful Calabria region. She continues her exploration of the bel paese with her My Italian Blog and upcoming book Basilicata: Authentic Italy.

Described as “charming and refreshingly honest” by Ambassador magazine, her Calabria book is “the perfect combination of personal experiences with Calabrians, and the history and culture of the region.” Karen brings this knowledge and enthusiasm to her tours of Southern Italy with her company Karen’s Travel LLC.

You can find Karen on these channels:

Places mentioned in the show

  • Strait of Messina – a narrow strait between the eastern tip of Sicily and the western tip of Calabria
  • Lamezia Terme – largest airport in Calabria
  • Reggio Calabria – the largest city in Calabria 
  • Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Reggio Calabria – archeological museum in Reggio Calabria also known as Museo Nazionale della Magna Grecia
  • Villa San Giovanni –  just a little north of Reggio Calabra, is where the ferries from Sicily arrive
  • Scilla – gorgeous down just north of Villa San Giovanni, with a fishing village included in the Borghi più belli d’italia for historical interest
  • Ionian Sea – an elongated bay of the Mediterranean Sea, connecting to the Adriatic Sea, Southern Italy, southern Albania and the west coast of Greece
  • Pentedattilo – ​​ghost town in Calabria
  • Aspromonte – mountain in Calabria, with the literal translation of the name means “rough mountain”
  • Gerace – hill town in Calabria and anotherBorghi più belli d’italia 
  • Locri – town in Calabria whose name derives from that of the ancient Greek region of Locris
  • Soverato – the wealthiest town per capita in Calabria and somewhere the Calabrians themselves like to vacation
  • Pizzo – a seaport in the province of Vibo Valentia, Calabria
  • Tropea – a seaside resort with sandy beaches, located on Italy’s west coast, on the Gulf of Saint Euphemia – beautiful old town – a Borghi più belli d’italia 
  • Santa Maria dell’Isola – meaning St. Mary of the island, a church you view from Tropea
  • Camigliatello Silano – small town in the mountains
  • Cosenza – a city in Calabria with the ancient town being the seat of one of the oldest academies of philosophical and literary studies in Italy and Europe.
  • Rossano – a town in northern Calabria known for its licorice and has a licorice museum
  • Diamante – a coastal town in the province of Cosenza, known as both the Peperoncino City and the other one is Murals City
  • Scalea – a gorgeous coastal town featured in the most recent Bond movie
  • Spiaggia dell’Arcomagno – natural arch near Scalea

Food & Drink

  • bergamot – a bitter fruit used in cooking but also for its incredible essential oil
  • Involtini di Pesce Spada – rolls of swordfish
  • Tropea onion – a special, sweet red onion
  • nduja – spicy spreadable sausage made in the area near Tropea
  • Amaro del Capo – an amaro drink from the area of Tropea
  • tartufo – meaning “truffle”) is a dessert  from Pizzo of gelato in the form of a ball, often with melted chocolate inserted into the center or either fruit syrup or frozen fruit
  • pepperoncini – peppers from Calabria
  • wild licorice – famous sweet from Rossano

Resources

  • La Sapienza – the University of Rome
  • luce – light in Italian
  • Gabriele D’Annunzio – poet, playwright, orator, journalist, aristocrat and politician 
  • Riace bronzes – (Bronzi di Riace) amazing statues from 500 BC 
  • Borghi più belli d’italia an association of small Italian towns of historical interest
  • Scylla & Charybdis – ancient greek sea monsters who lived on either side of the Strait of Messina
  • Joachim Murat  – Napolean’s brother-in-law who was executed in Pizzo in 1815
  • Giganti di Fallistro – the huge trees found in Scilla mountain walk 400 old, with trunks up to 2 meters in diameter

Resources from Untold Italy

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