The elongated toe of southern Italy is one of the country’s least-known regions which is a shame because there is so much to discover.
Italians, on the other hand, spend August swarming around Calabria’s Tyrrhenian and Ionian coasts. Come September, even though schools wouldn’t be opening until the middle of the month, many sunloungers are packed away in defiance of the 28C heat and clear blue sea almost as warm as a bath. But despite the out-of-season atmosphere, late September and October is an excellent time to explore this underrated and often misunderstood region – and savour some of the spiciest cuisine in Italy, thanks to the ubiquitous red peperoncino (chilli).
History hasn’t been particularly kind to Calabria, which the ancient Greeks colonised in eighth century BC. Others followed – Romans, Saracens, Byzantines, Normans, Spanish and French among them – who were rather less benign than the Greeks. Feudalism was officially abolished in 1806, but a form of it lasted until well into the 20th century. Mass emigration has been a problem for generations, and the region is still among the very poorest in Italy.
It’s also one of the most beguiling – a warm-hearted antidote to the glitz of the Amalfi coast further north. Within minutes of leaving Lamezia airport I was heading south on the Tyrrhenian coast road that eventually goes past two of Calabria’s most attractive towns, Pizzo and Tropea. The latter is in a dramatic spot on a cliff where the houses seem to blend into the rock face. One of the town’s beaches catches the sun between the cliff and the rocky promontory where the church of Santa Maria dell’Isola sits in a lofty grove of olive trees and prickly pear cactus.
Calabria’s backbone is the southern stretch of the Apennine mountain range that curves down to the tip of Sicily. You can’t escape the hills here: only 10% of the region is flat. The mountains gave refuge to people fleeing Saracen attacks and the malarial marshes that used to cover the coasts. Now much of the thickly forested range has been designated as national parks, from Pollino in the north via Sila near the centre and Aspromonte in the south.
Away from the major cities of Reggio Calabria and Catanzaro – where life can be as frenzied as any place where you might find Italians behind the wheel of a car – the pace trickles to a pleasantly slow one. Squiggly roads snake through countless olive groves towards hilltop villages with ruins of Norman fortresses and castles, such as the one that lords it over Squillace and its numerous ceramics shops. Near the southernmost tip is the strange ghost village of Pentedattilo, which was abandoned in the 1960s and is slowly coming back to life. Craftspeople are buying some of the empty stone houses; some day, perhaps, the village’s sole year-round resident – a woman in her 80s – might have a permanent neighbour. Since 2006 Pentedattilo has hosted an annual film festival dedicated, its organisers say, to people “whose talent is screaming to be recognised” – rather like Calabria itself.
What to do
Calabria is known for its variety of beaches – from long sandy stretches to pebbly coves. It has about 500 miles of coastline, which takes in all the geographical variations of the Tyrrhenian and Ionian seas.
Follow the twisting Via Grotticelle near Capo Vaticano’s lighthouse for a selection of beaches tucked into the curves of the Tyrrhenian coast, the final one reached by wading between the rocks. There’s a decent combination of public beaches and commercial ones, with sunloungers for hire. The daily rate for two loungers and an umbrella is €10.
Further up the Tyrrhenian coast, towards the border with the Basilicata region, is an almost unbroken stretch of beach resorts covering more than 60 miles. Amantea is old-fashioned seaside fun, with fine sand and play areas for children. The train from Naples to Reggio Calabria stops here, which makes for a good day trip if you’re staying in Tropea or Pizzo.
The Ionian side has just as bewildering a choice. Caminia shelters beneath the cliffs of the Pietra Grande, with fine gravel sand and an abrupt dip into deeper water. Another five miles south is larger and livelier Soverato, where colourful fishing boats break up the neat lines of sunloungers.
Castello Ruffo, Scilla
Six of Odysseus’s crew met a sticky end at the hands of a six-headed monster at Scylla, as this pretty Tyrrhenian coastal village was called in classical times. Nowadays, the wide sandy beach is the scene of gentler action, with pastel-coloured houses winding up to the main village at the top of the hill. At the edge is a high promontory, where the imposing Castello Ruffo has panoramic views.
scilla.asmenet.it, open daily 8.30am-7.30pm, entry €1.50
Castello Aragonese, Le Castella
What looks like a giant sandcastle at the end of a spit of land is a mainly 16th-century Aragon fortress used to repel attacks from the Ottoman Turks. There are a few historical displays inside, but the main attraction is the view from the top. The village of Le Castell has a beach of pale ochre sand and is architecturally more charming than many of the Ionian coast resorts.
crotoneturismo.it, entry €3
Riace bronzes, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Reggio Calabria
The stars of the national museum are two bronze statues of Greek warriors dating from the fifth century BC that were found in the Ionian Sea near Riace in 1972. They’re compelling works of art, and it’s rare to find such large statues in such good condition. Apart from a few other statues and some temporary exhibitions, there’s little else on show until the collection is completed next year.
Where to eat
A trip to Calabria isn’t complete without tasting nduja, a soft sausage that’s packed with chilli. It can be spread on bread, and turns up in pasta dishes such as fileja con nduja.
Quei Bravi Ragazzi, Tropea
This tree-shaded restaurant facing a quiet piazza is in the thick of the action during Tropea’s biannual blues festival (which returns this weekend until 11 October). Musical backdrop or no, it serves good solid Calabrese pasta dishes, including fileja con nduja and spaghetti with mild red Tropea onions, as well as grilled spicy sausages and pizzas.
Via Vittorio Veneto 2, +39 03473 832185, dishes from €4.50
Le Chicche di Calabria, Pizzo
It’s easy to miss this little cafe and deli among the bright umbrellas in Piazza della Repubblica. There’s only a handful of tables outside, so get there early to taste generous portions of Calabrese antipasti. The degustazione plate is an excellent introduction to the cuisine, starti
ng with mixed meats such as schiacciata and soppressata, cheeses, then bruschetta and grilled meats. It’s incredible value at €10.
Piazza della Repubblica 19, from €5
La Scogliera, Le Castella
Plentiful fresh fish and seafood with a sea view to match don’t come cheap at La Scogliera, which means cliff. The seafood antipasti are on the expensive side for Calabria (€14 to €15), but you get big plates of fresh octopus, prawns and marinated anchovies. Pasta dishes include classics such as linguine with clams or mussels, for a reasonable €10.
Via Scogliera, +39 0692 795071, ristorantelascogliera.it, dishes from €8
Bleu de Toi, Scilla
It’s hard to find a more romantic spot on the Tyrrhenian Sea than this restaurant in Scilla’s waterside district of Chianalea, north of the castle. A platform juts out over the water where fresh seafood – including a lot of swordfish – is served. You’re a bit stuck if you don’t like seafood, but the spaghetti with sea urchins or prawn linguine might convert you. When the weather won’t play ball, there’s a cosy interior with a vaulted stone ceiling.
Via Grotte, +39 0965 790585, bleudetoi.it, mains from €15
Where to drink
Bar Gelateria Ercole, Pizzo
Handily located next door to Le Chicche di Calabria (see above) is this bar that reportedly makes the best tartufo in Pizzo. It’s like a giant ice-cream version of a chocolate truffle, although the version with pistachio ice-cream and an oozing chocolate syrupy centre is quite extraordinary. Its terrace hums all day, the morning cappuccino eventually replaced by the late-afternoon prosecco.
Piazza della Repubblica 18, barecole.com
Caffè del Corso, Tropea
A cheery “Ciao, bello!” from the owner greets you in this prime people-watching bar in Tropea’s pedestrianised old town. A few tables outside the entrance are filled with Tropeani having their morning coffee. The larger terrace opposite is the place to settle down and watch the evening passeggiata – preferably with a dish of sharp and cooling mandarin granita.
Corso Vittorio Emanuele 14
Il Pescatore, Le Castella
Huge picture windows offer views of the beach on one side and the Aragonese castle on the other in this lively seaside bar that’s a major meeting point. The sea views will no doubt distract you from the plain interior, but do look out for the fascinating wall of photos of villagers taken over the past half-century.
Via Duomo 4
Where to stay
Le Carolee, Pianopoli
The hospitable Gaetano family run this peaceful agriturismo on an olive farm in the hills 14 miles east of Lamezia airport. An 18th-century fortress-like building houses seven bedrooms furnished in Italian country style with heavy furniture and tiled floors. Pomegranate, lemon and fig trees frame the pool, and on clear days you can see the Tyrrhenian Sea. The food here is exquisite – homemade pasta with nduja, swordfish and slow-cooked veal. On Sundays it’s rammed with families lingering over five-courses.
+39 0968 24076, lecarolee.com, doubles from £96 B&B, half board from £59pp
Piccolo Grand Hotel, Pizzo
This smart boutique hotel is only a few minutes’ walk from the main Piazza della Repubblica. Bold, funky design mixes a bit of 1950s modular furniture with exposed stone arches and blue motifs. On warm days, breakfast is served on the roof terrace with glorious views of the sea. Some rooms have their own balconies or terraces, and a little electric shuttle is on hand to take guests down to the beach.
+39 0963 533293, piccolograndhotel.com, doubles from €138 B&B
Hotel Rocca della Sena, Tropea
A 10-minute walk from Tropea’s centre is this small, comfortable modern hotel on a cliff overlooking the town’s westernmost beaches. A staircase leads to the beach for those who don’t mind a bit of a climb. Contemporary rooms have a vaguely African theme, and many come with sea-facing balconies. The garden terrace is the place for sunset drinks, with Stromboli smouldering in the distance.
+39 0963 62374, hotelroccadellasenna.it, doubles from €120 B&B
Costa Azzurra, Capo Vaticano
One of Capo Vaticano’s loveliest beaches is a 15-minute walk down the hill from this resort hotel (there’s a shuttle bus if you don’t fancy the uphill walk back). Rooms are basic, but the big draws are the large pool, sea views and beautifully tended gardens of banana, palm and lemon trees. There’s also a two-bedroom self-catering cottage with a barbecue area.
+39 0963 663179, hotelcostazzurra.com, doubles from €50 B&B and €80 half board
The trip was arranged by Long Travel (01694 722193, long-travel.co.uk), which offers a week’s half-board at Il Casale (Le Carolee) from £351pp and at Costa Azzurra from £241pp (two sharing) excluding flights. Ryanair flies to Lamezia from Stansted from £46 return. Carrentals.co.uk has a week’s car hire from Lamezia airport starting at £11 a day. More information from turiscalabria.it and italiantouristboard.co.uk