There’s plenty of natural beauty in southwestern Calabria, at the tippy-toe of Italy’s boot. Views from on high of dramatic green hills dropping into the glittering Tyrrhenian Sea are a dime a dozen. As for man-made beauty, not so much. The city of Gioia Tauro, where my cousin and I are based for a week, reminds me of Italian neo-realist movies (The Bicycle Thief) of the early postwar years. The city’s state of disrepair makes for evocative photos but grim surroundings.
So — we headed off to Taormina, below, on Sicily’s eastern coast, a posh and popular destination for at least the past couple hundred years. We drove an hour south to board a car ferry across the Strait of Messina, drove a bit more, and made for the town’s chief site: a 3rd century B.C. Greek amphitheatre where Aeschylus is said to have seen his own plays performed. Partly restored over the centuries, to the point where it’s now used for concerts and film screenings, it’s in a stunning location with sea views in all directions. (Mt. Etna, Europe’s largest active volcano, which usually forms a backdrop, was obscured by clouds.)
We climbed still higher into the hills of Taormina in search of a guest house where Tennessee Williams and other literati stayed, finally locating it and enjoying its air of decayed romance, though it’s not yet open for the season. Having made a classic newbie error, we missed lunch at the local restaurants (they close at 3 until dinnertime, which begins around 7). Instead we ordered negronis on the terrace of the fancy Hotel Villa Belvedere, where they plied us with enough nuts and crudités to tide us over.
We strolled through the city’s lush public garden, a curious combination of formal hedgerows with cacti, palms and follies of timber and brick, masterminded in the late 19th century by a Scots woman, Lady Florence Trevelyan, and owned by the city of Taormina since 1922.
We did a little bit of shopping on the main pedestrian drag, which features the usual fine Italian leather and jewelry shops. Bottom line: Taormina is a thoroughly charming place, uncrowded in March.
On returning to Gioia Tauro, we happily discovered (thank you, Trip Advisor) what is surely the most sophisticated restaurant in town, Trattoria Vico Scuro, tucked behind a wine store in an 18th century building with vaulted brick ceilings and archways. We sampled four of their pasta dishes, including a flat noodle with tomato and eggplant sauce; angel hair with truffles; a delicate eggplant parmagiana; and gnocchi with pesto, celery and almonds (which we both found weird), along with a fine bottle of Calabrese red.
We returned there the very next night for swordfish, a local specialty, which we had to pre-order, grilled on an open flame. The youngish people who run the place are sweet as can be, as is most everyone we’ve met.
A long walk through Gioia Tauro, above, affirmed our impression that there’s not much here to see, just a sad sense of unrealized potential. Were it not for the population losses of the early 20th century, when so many Calabrians took off for America, the stranglehold of organized crime on industry and commerce, government mismanagement and new tariff issues keeping the port from operating at capacity, Gioia Tauro might be thriving instead of struggling.
Hopping once more into our red Fiat, we drove down the coast in the afternoon to Lido di Palmi, above, for more gasp-inducing sea views, a walk along the water and a restorative cup of espresso macchiato at the one open establishment.
With two days to go, we were rapidly running out of things to do. Fortunately, we still had Tropea, above, in reserve. A hilly beach resort whose Old Town is full of pock-mocked 19th century palazzos, it’s architecturally reminiscent of Nice, though in much poorer repair. An hour’s drive through valleys of olive groves took us there. No doubt Tropea is more inspiring in bright sunshine. I tried to imagine spirited European families enjoying the beautiful beach in high season, bringing life and color to the scene.
As it was, the town was nearly deserted and we had trouble finding a lunch spot. Our Lonely Planet recommendation was not yet open for the season. We ended up in one of the few operating restaurants, but my fresh pasta — pachetti (“packets”) with the sweet red onions of the region and nothing else (except oil, of course) was scrumptious.
Santa Maria dell’Isola, a monastery on an outcropping in the sea, is an impressive sight. Workmen had set up barricades and it appeared closed; in any case, we didn’t have the wherewithal to climb all the way up and find out. Just walking down to the beach and back totaled 17 flights on my trusty step counter.
Traveling in Calabria is not for the faint-hearted.