My husband and I decided to take a motorcycle trip around the coast of Calabria for our August (“Ferragosto”) vacation. We have made short trips before, but this was going to be our first really big motorcycle excursion together. A few weeks before our trip, on a Saturday afternoon, my husband went out to run some ordinary mundane errands. While he was out, he sent me a text with a photo of a shiny new Harley Davidson with a simple message: “What do you think?” I said, well, I knew you were running errands, but didn’t know that was on your list! Fast forward a few days and we were back at the dealership test driving, picking out the color (blue), and signing on the dotted line. In a blink of an eye, we were now the proud owners of a HOG…in Italy of all places! Definitely not your ordinary day of running errands! I jokingly told my husband that I was turning him into a red blooded American and although the Harley was his idea, I wholeheartedly approve! We were now ready for our trip around Calabria. My Uncle, who is a Harley aficionado, would be proud!
Now I know Calabria is probably not top on your list of places to visit in Italy. In fact, if you tell a non-Calabrese you are taking your holiday to Calabria, most will look at you a little cockeyed with an incredulous look and ask you…”Ma perché?” (But why?). However, if you want to experience a candid and completely uncensored version of “la dolce vita” that hasn’t been gussied up for the tourists, then look no further. While Calabria has seen its share of misfortune, including wars, earthquakes, enduring poverty, and intense corruption, Calabria is a sun drenched land of raw beauty with wild and rugged mountains, ancient cliff side hugging villages, and a dramatic coastline with white sand beaches and shimmering turquoise waters. There is an unpretentious in your face colorfulness to the Calabrese culture. The food is similar in nature with its bold and robust flavors, from the spicy spreadable Nduja sausage to the piquant sardella (poor man’s caviar) as well as the famous sweet purple onions of Tropea. There is absolutely nothing meek about Calabria. Journey to Calabria and you will experience an Italy you never knew.
If you must pick one place to visit in Calabria, then put Tropea on your list. Tropea is a small ancient fort town with at most 7,000 full time residents that is perched atop a cliff high above the sparkling turquoise waters of the Tyrhhenian sea with stunning views of the volcanic Aeolian islands. Tropea is a maze of winding narrow streets and dusty old world charm. The town of Tropea dates back to medieval times, but civilization goes as far back as 4500 BC so there is a rich history to explore – old monastaries, palaces, fortifications, boats trips to the Aeolian islands.
Tropea comes alive during the summer months. Families spend their days at the beach, wading out to the caves under the Santa Maria dell’Isola, a monastery built on a speck of a peninsula at the foot of the town.
After a late afternoon gelato and maybe a bit of a siesta, families and couples take a pre-dinner evening stroll stopping in at the many boutiques lining the narrow streets then end up at the edge of town where the street suddenly stops and opens up into a small square lined with a set of metal railings that offers a dramatic view of the Tyrhhenian sea where you can watch the glowing orange Mediterranean sun dip into the glassy aquamarine sea.For a few days in August the sun is aligned in the perfect position as it appears to be sinking into the volcano opening on the island of Stromboli that you can see in the distance. It is a magnificent site and the skies around Tropea glows fuchsia and orange with streaks of violet. It is truly nature at its finest.
The coast is named “Costa degli Dei” or “Coast of the Gods.” You understand why when you set your eyes on it. The water is a shimmering turquoise, crystal clear and warm. The sand is stunningly white and the weather is perfect. The levels of marine pollution are practically non-existent due to the lack of industrial development making it a pristine natural paradise.
The food is simple, but the flavors are strong and vibrant. Highlights include the exceptionally fresh seafood, sweet local red onions, spicy local fare such as Nduja and sardella (known as poor man’s caviar) and a decadent local dessert called Tartuffo di Pizzo. My husband and I ate so well in Tropea, we couldn’t stop talking about it for the rest of the trip. The seafood was some of the freshest I have ever had.
While in Tropea I had a delicious penne pasta adorned with these beautiful onions. It was perfectly al dente pasted enveloped in deeply flavorful onion broth studded with pieces of these onions that were sweet and melted in my mouth. Simple and delicious.
Tartuffo a Pizzico
An ice cream dessert originating from the town of Pizzo just up the road from Tropea. It was invented in 1952 by Carlotta Travaglini for an aristocrat’s wedding. It is usually composed of two flavors of gelato (with the traditional flavors being chocolate and hazelnut). It is formed into a spherical shape with a liquid dark chocolate center. The handed molded sphere is then rolled in cocoa powder with the result making it look like a tartufo or truffle, hence the name.
The old town has no specific tourist attractions, just a maze of lovely winding, narrow streets, small piazzas, boutiques, and cafes to meander through. It has a lovely warm faded feel of a sleepy Italian seaside town. It doesn’t attract large tour groups, which allows you to experience southern Italy in all its unfiltered and laid back glory.
Tropea is big enough and interesting enough to use as a base when visiting Calabria for a longer holiday. The local railway and boat trips allow you to explore without renting a car if that’s not for you. One of the highlights of a stay in Tropea is to take a day trip to visit two or three of the Aeolian islands or an evening excursion to view the eruptions of Stromboli, an active volcano. Tropea is not hard to get to. The nearest airport is in Lamezia Terme and there is a scenic train route to Tropea that winds around the coast that takes about an hour.
Little hidden squares where you will find restaurants tables set up. It is truly magical.
The nearest airport to Tropea is at Lamezia Terme. From the airport, catch a bus or take a taxi to Lamezia Terme station. The train journey to Tropea takes about an hour and costs around €3. Tropea is on a scenic little railway line which branches off from the main Naples – Reggio di Calabria route at Lamezia Terme and follows the coast around Capo Vaticano before meeting up with the mainline again at Rosarno. Tropea railway station is a short walk uphill from the centre of town. There is a ticket machine at the station which sells tickets for local journeys, and there are timetables on the platform. The walk to the old town takes around fifteen minutes.
Along the Calabrian coast, and easily reachable by the local trains, are several other appealing resorts. Scilla, to the south, is an extremely picturesque fishing town with an impressive castle on a headland. Pizzo, to the north, is a cheerful seaside town famous for its chocolate truffle ice cream. Reggio Calabria is further away, but it is worth the train journey to see the two famous Greek statues – the Riace Bronzes – displayed in the town’s excellent archaeological museum, and to admire the views over the Straits of Messina to Sicily.
Where to Stay in Tropea
My husband and I stayed in a truly wonderful B&B in the heart of the old town right off one of the main piazza called B&B Il Barone.I can not say enough about how wonderful this place is and the family that owns and runs it are the perfect hosts: profession, friendly and full of useful information and assistance including reserving beachside umbrellas and chairs, various excursions you can take, and the best places to eat in town. The B&B is locate din a charming renovated plaza in the heart of the old town. It has 6 beautiful rooms and suites and a wonderful breakfast with homemade pastries and fresh fruit is served on a rooftop terrace with spectacular views of the town and sea.
Where to Eat
While we were in Tropea, the owners of our B&B gave us a few suggestions of where to eat. The first evening we tried one of them: Ristorante Vecchia Tropea. The restaurant was just outside our B&B with tables set up in the courtyard. Normally, we like to try different restaurants when we are traveling, but we had such a delightfully delicious meal of seafood that we went back on our second night as well. We asked the owner of our B&B to make our reservation for our second and last evening in Tropea. We indicated that we would love to have fresh fish. We came to find out that this family run restaurant also has fisherman in their family who deliver fresh seafood every afternoon. We were delighted to able to pick out our our fish as it came in from the boat just a couple of hours before the dinner service. You can’t beat that!
So, if you decide you want to get off the beaten path a bit and explore the untamed side of Italy, then Calabria is definitely for you!