Calabria is the New Puglia – Italy’s Last Frontier for Travellers
Calabria is the new Puglia. I’ve been saying this for eight years, but the toe of Italy still remains something of a secret carefully guarded by Italians. Boasting brilliant beaches, atmospheric hilltop towns, and fantastic food and wine, it’s begging to be explored and is at its best during the European summer.
Calabria is the New Puglia – Italy’s Last Frontier for Travellers
Twisting roads through pristine forest to remote mountain lakes. Hilltop towns with stone castles and sumptuous churches on cobbled streets. Stunning seaside resorts perched in improbable cliff-top locations. Unspoilt beaches skirted by azure waters, fabulous fresh fish and seriously spicy food, not to mention a low-key vibe and laid-back locals. These are just some of the things about Italy’s Calabria that captivated us on our first trip.
We became smitten with the mysterious region back in 2008 when we spent time there researching and writing the first English guidebook to the region, now out of print. “Calabria is the new Puglia!” I wrote on my old blog soon after the book’s release. I predicted that once our book was out, with Terence’s beautiful images, more English guidebooks would quickly follow, travel writers would soon be making a beeline for the undiscovered region, and intrepid travellers would start exploring the alluring mountains and enchanting coast of Calabria.
Instead, they flocked to Puglia. Now don’t get us wrong, we adore Puglia. But the region that’s famous for its whitewashed conical trulli, fairytale town of Alberobello, and its beloved orecchiette, has featured in every travel magazine and on every travel blog this year. Surely it’s had enough coverage and it’s finally Calabria’s turn?
The most southern part of mainland Italy, Calabria forms the ankle to toe of Italy’s ‘boot’. A rugged peninsula of legend since Homer’s time, it’s been an enviable prize for invaders and provided a safe haven for settlers – all adding to the intriguing mix of architecture, cuisines, and accents. There are dialects in Calabria that even Calabrians don’t understand.
Calabria really is Italy’s last frontier when it comes to travel and tourism, with beaches, towns, cities, and mountains rarely visited by foreigners. Italians, on the other hand, have long been in on the secret. Not everyone goes to the Italian Lakes in August. During the European summer, Calabria’s beaches, resorts, holiday houses, and camping grounds are crammed with holidaying Italians. The weather is absolutely glorious and the beaches and towns gorgeous in the golden light. It really is the best time of year to go. Unless you hate crowds.
Come September, however, things start to quieten right down. Autumn is lovely with the colours of the changing season on display and naturally warmer than the north. Winter in Calabria is also wonderful, when there is a clarity to the light that can’t be compared, and Spring is dazzling when wildflowers blanket the mountains.
That Calabria is such a great year-round destination is a big part of its appeal. This month and next you can swim in crystal clear waters, in autumn you can enjoy beautiful national parks, and in winter you can snowboard and ski in the mountains, and go hiking or horse riding as the snow abates – all with barely a tourist bus in sight. All year long, you can explore hilltop towns and do road trips through breathtaking countryside.
Of course you can eat and drink your way around the country all year round. While you’ll often have to pinch yourself as you travel around Calabria to remind yourself you’re still in Italy, once the food and wine arrive, there’ll be no doubt. Food and wine make Italy one of the most rewarding European countries to visit and Calabria is no exception. Expect a rustic cuisine distinguished by home-made sausage, freshly picked mushrooms, strong cheeses, preserves of all persuasions, and robust wines
While grapes, figs and olives grow easily, the dry heat of summer and the cold of winter have forced those who have chosen to settle here to be self-sufficient. Not to mention the threat of invasion. Over the centuries, a continual stream of aggressors saw locals literally heading for the hills to create new communities on precarious precipices, making conquest difficult and life hard.
The fact that Calabria has endured assorted invasions, earthquakes, and other disasters speaks volumes about the resilience of the people. And it’s the things that ensured Calabria’s survival over the centuries – that resilience, self-sufficiency, the remoteness of its many towns and villages, and its ability to turn adversity into an asset, that make the region special.
Calabria Highlights – Our Picks
With its pastel coloured palazzos perched atop sheer chalky cliffs facing a crystal clear aquamarine sea and white sand beaches, for us Tropea is Calabria’s most seaside town.
An elegant piazza lined with gelaterias selling Pizzo’s famous tartuffo ice-cream and an enchanting old town of narrow alleyways, Pizzo is our next favourite destination.
On one side of a castle-topped headland lies a long wide white-sand beach backed by seafood tavernas, on the other faded palazzi suspended over the sea. Scilla, above, is just gorgeous.
Calabria’s Hilltop Towns
Ramshackle villages such as Altomonte and Belmonte sprawl charmingly across hilltops and delightfully tumble down mountains.
Camigliatello and the Sila
A little Alpine-like mountain town is a gastronomic paradise and a centre for grand-touring, walking, horseriding, skiing and fishing.
Aspromonte National Park
It may only be a short drive from the regional capital Reggio di Calabria, but this beautiful mountain area with its thick wooded forests seems world’s away.
The narrow alleyways of Calabria’s most dramatically situated and most splendidly preserved medieval hilltop town are a delight to explore – only competing with the enchanting vistas of the town itself.
An elegant old town clings prettily to the mountain above a lively modern town, while the wide beach nearby buzzes in summer.
Calabrian Food and Wine
The region’s rich, spicy and rustic cuisine is well-matched by its honest and robust wines, the best from Ciro Marina.
The Museo Nazionale
The handsome Bronzi di Riace statues steal the show here, but Calabria’s National Archaeological Museum has a wealth of other fascinating finds on display.
Do appreciate that Calabria is a region you need to actively explore – we highly recommend a Calabria road trip – in order to get the most out of it but getting around isn’t always easy. But the rewards are great if you’re willing to take the time to truly discover Italy’s last travel frontier. More to come on Calabria.