Italy’s wildest, southernmost region remains a mystery to most Americans. Browsing a bookstore before the trip, I noticed that one of the main guidebooks — Frommer’s or Fodor’s, I can’t remember which — doesn’t even include a chapter on Calabria. This part of Italy is not manicured for tourists, not to mention for the people who live here.
I’m spending a week in the port city of Gioia Tauro, below, where my cousin has the use of a friend’s nicely renovated two-story, two-bedroom townhouse.
Familiar with Tuscany and the more commonly visited Italian cities, we were initially shocked at the unfinished and tumbledown houses, weedy parks and uncollected piles of garbage on the streets. All that has much to do, according to a 2012 New York Times article about Calabria, with organized crime and corruption.
But the city has its charms, including a small historic center with a 15th century church.
The traffic is as chaotic as they say, with awkwardly narrow lanes through town, confusing roundabouts, a dearth of stop signs and traffic lights, entirely different rules of driving engagement (the chief rule being “she who hesitates is lost”) and constant horn-honking.
We’re getting the hang of maneuvering our red rental car, a Fiat Panda, and finding our way around town. Though there’s not much in Gioia Tauro to find our way to: our program here is based on day trips to lovelier spots, and that’s how we spent our first three days.
I flew into Lamezia Terme, Calabria’s main airport, from Rome — a breeze — and met my cousin there. Driving south along Calabria’s western Costa Viola (“Violet Coast”), a less chic but equally stunning version of the Amalfi Coast, we stopped at the cliffside town of Pizzo, below (recommended by our rental car agent), for our first sea view, then meandered down stairways through narrow alleys from the requisite medieval castle on high to the port down below, and had our first pasta lunch at an outdoor cafe in the requisite piazza.
I say ‘requisite,’ because the next day, which was yesterday, we went to Scilla, below, another, even more beautiful cliffside fishing village with distinctive rock formations poking out of the lapping water, with its own castle and silken white beaches, empty at this time of year, and astonishing sea views.
On we went to Reggio Calabria, below, a well-kept city with an elegant seafront promenade and an outstanding archaeological museum centered around a pair of life-size 2,500-year-old Greek bronze statues, retrieved from the sea in the 1970s in virtually intact condition, missing only their shields and ivory eyes.
Calabria and Eastern Sicily, we learned, were part of what was called Magna Graecia in the Greek empire’s heyday, and there’s more here of Greek archaeological wonders than of Roman.
Today’s excursion took us across Calabria via highway and tunnels cut through the Aspromonte Mountains to the millennia-old hilltop fortification of Gerace, below, whose castle and two dozen stone churches — most closed, though we got peeks into a couple — seem to rise right out of the rock.
It was worth all the hairpin turns to get there. We traipsed through quiet streets of stone where people actually live and had coffee and gelato at a cafe in a deserted piazza. It seemed we were the only visitors in town.
The views east to the Ionian Sea and over the terraced hills of olives and grapes were stupendous, as green as Ireland. Our ride back to the western side of Calabria took us through national parkland thickly forested with cypresses and other evergreens.
The weather has been ideal, 60s and sunny. That I hope will not change. The food has been good but not great. That has to be rectified.