Forming the toe of the Italian boot, Calabria borders Basilicata to the north but is otherwise surrounded by sea. This is a rugged, rural region, much of which has remained remarkably unchanged over the course of two or three millennia. Of course, nowhere in Europe is completely ignored by the march of 'progress' these days and investment in Calabria, both by the Italian government and by foreign developers, is beginning to make a difference. Sadly, this means some traditions will fade, some environmental damage will be done and the region will lose some of its unique charm. However, for the people who live in Calabria, it's about time action was taken to alleviate their poverty and bring them more into line with the comfort and affluence of the north of Italy.
National and regional nature parks (see below) provide protection for a large proportion of the region's land and forests. Within their boundaries are not only stunning landscapes and wildlife habitats but also many ancient villages, castles and sanctuaries, as well as archaeological and paleontological sites.
Calabria is separated from Sicily by the Strait of Messina which, at its narrowest point, is two miles wide. Plans to build a bridge across this turbulent stretch of water have been discussed for centuries but are now finally going ahead. It's an extremely ambitious project because the bridge will have to be able to withstand high winds and possible earthquakes. If and when it's completed, the structure will be almost twice the length of the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge in Japan, currently the longest suspension bridge in the world. For the moment, if you want to go to Sicily from Calabria, you can take a ferry or hydrofoil.
What to see and do in Calabria
Enjoy the mountains
Calabria is a mountainous region, with four different though connecting ranges, which are protected by three national parks and one regional one. The parks are all great for hiking, biking, riding and other sports and activities. They are also home to some fantastic flora and fauna.
In the north of Calabria, along the border with Basilicata, is the Pollino Massif, now part of the Parco Nazionale del Pollino, one of the biggest national parks in Italy. In the middle of the region are the Sila mountains and the small but wonderful Parco Nazionale della Sila. Then come the Serre mountains and the regional Parco delle Serre and, further south, the southern section of the Apennines is covered by the Parco Nazionale dell'Aspromonte.
Enjoy the sea
No part of Calabria is more than about thirty miles from the sea, and most of it is a lot closer. As in Basilicata, the Tyrrhenian coast is more popular with holidaymakers than the Ionian side, although it is steeper and rockier. The water around Calabria is clean, bluey-green and inviting. If you're a keen swimmer and/or into snorkelling, scuba diving or windsurfing, this is a good place to go.
Investment in Calabria is focused mainly on promoting tourism to the region. Since tourists tend to congregate at the seaside, the coastal resorts are quite a bit more developed than the inland areas are.
The best known (and most touristy) Calabrian beach destination is Tropea, on the Tyrrhenian coast. This is a beautiful old town on top of a cliff, with some wonderful sandy beaches around it.
Praia a Mare, in the north of the region, is an interesting little town with a good beach. Just off here is the Isola di Dino. You can hire a boat and circumnavigate this little island (it's about a mile round), exploring its grottoes.
Scilla, just north along the coast from the Strait of Messina, is famous as the home of the sea-monster Scylla of Greek mythology. Legend has it that sailors had to steer a careful (impossible) middle course between the equal dangers of Scylla and Charybdis, the monster on the other side of the strait. Today, it's all much safer! The marina has been developed for tourists and there are some nice restaurants where you can eat some great seafood after your swim.
On the Ionian coast, Soverato is quite a big and happening resort. Further north, Caminia has a particularly good beach and some dramatic scenery.
Explore the cities and towns
Catanzaro, the regional capital, is built on three hills at the far southern end of the Sila mountains, overlooking the Ionian Sea. It has several nice churches, some Greco-Roman ruins and an impressive bridge. For something a bit different, you might also like to visit its carriage museum. Below the old town is Catanzaro Lido - beach and harbour.
Reggio Calabria, with a population of just over 185 thousand, is by far the biggest city in the region. Since its foundation by the Greeks in the eighth century BC, Reggio has been washed by wave after wave of invaders, including Goths, Byzantines, Arabs and Normans. It has also suffered plague, earthquakes, World-War-Two bombing and the degenerating effects of major organised crime. Today, it is best known and most visited as a port, the gateway to Sicily. However, along with a big cathedral and an Aragonese castle, Reggio has an excellent museum of Magna Grecia, several beaches and an elegantly refurbished seafront.
Cosenza is another ancient city, with a particularly well preserved centro storico. Layers of history can be clearly seen in the cathedral, the Swabian castle and the carefully restored everyday buildings of the streets and piazzas. This is a cultural town, full of theatres, museums and an amazing number of libraries - an obvious choice to host the University of Calabria that was established in 1972. An open-air art gallery exhibits a range of modern sculptures, donated to the city by the Italian-American businessman and art collector, Carlo Bilotti.
Take a ferry to Sicily
From Reggio Calabria and Villa San Giovanni, there is a frequent ferry service over to Messina in Sicily. It's easy but it does get busy and you should allow a lot of time to make the crossing, simply because of the volume of traffic.
Eating and drinking in Calabria
As in the neighbouring regions of Southern Italy (though completely unlike the north of the country), Calabria enjoys a spicy cuisine. The ubiquitous little red chili pepper known as peperoncino packs a punch, so be warned!
With so much coastline, you can expect lots of excellent fish - tuna, swordfish, sardines and anchovies all feature prominently. The principal meat is pork, which appears in many forms, but sheep and goats also graze the fields of Calabria and provide both meat and cheese.
Aubergines grow particularly well throughout the region, as do olives. Tomatoes and garlic abound. In and around Tropea, a special type of sweet red onion is cultivated. This is used in sauces, breads, paté and jam, as well as being eaten raw in salads and even, amazingly, made into ice cream! Citrus fruits thrive in Calabria, including the wonderful bergamot orange.
Figs, almonds and honey all play a part in Calabrian cooking, revealing the lasting legacy of the Greeks who invaded the region all those centuries ago.
Calabria produces some good wines - mainly red but also some nice, dry whites such as Cirò Bianco. Unfortunately, they are not widely exported, so make the most of them while you are there! Do also try the local sweet wine, Greco di Bianco or the similar Greco di Gerace.
For more information about Calabria...
Buy a guide book for travelling around Calabria.
Check out this website:
Turiscalabria.it - official tourism website