Our favourite Calabria road trips are those that take us through bucolic countryside and wild rugged landscapes to remote villages and atmospheric hilltop towns. The best thing about travelling in Calabria is that it doesn’t take long before you’re off the beaten track.
Good freeways and highways may well criss-cross Italy’s southernmost mainland region, Calabria, yet just a short distance from those busy thoroughfares, as the crow flies, are somnolent villages that seem to be lost in time, tranquil lakeside cottages that appear to be abandoned, walking trails through wooded forests, and overgrown roads that appear to lead nowhere.
It may be hard to comprehend how parts of Calabria could be considered remote. Yet Italy’s most southern mainland region boasts areas seemingly untouched by mankind, from the craggy and often forbidding mountains of Aspromonte and Pollino National Parks to empty beaches accessible only by boat.
Travellers keen on getting away from it all in Calabria should begin by hiring a car for some of these off the beaten track drives. Aside from the weekend, when the whole of Calabria seems to take to the road for a Sunday drive, you’ll see surprisingly few other people once you get off the main roads. There are some routes you can cruise where you won’t see another soul for hours.
Calabria Road Trips – A Journey Through Wild Rugged Landscapes
Sila National Park Road Trip
This drive through pristine forested mountains, around Sila National Park’s three main lakes, is our favourite of all Calabria road trips.
This gentle drive, beginning in Cosenza and ending in Camigliatello, snakes through Sila National Park’s most scenic landscapes. Like most Calabrian mountain roads, those through the Sila are narrow and winding, yet the routes here are less challenging than those in the Aspromonte and Serra San Bruno. While the distances aren’t great, the continual meandering means it’s slow going.
Allow 5-6 hours for this drive, including stops to explore and enjoy lunch. From the base of Cosenza’s centro storico, take Lungo Crati della Pieta adjacent to the river, Fiume Crati. Follow the signs for Pedace.
Starts: Cosenza to Pedace
At this charming village, stop on the main piazza where old men doze, to admire the stone Chiesa SS Apostoli Pietro e Paolo. The beautifully restored interior features elaborately decorated chapels, exquisitely painted ceilings, and a pretty blue cupola. Note the separate bell tower outside.
Follow the signs to Pietrafritta and Aprigliano. Just out of Pedace, stop to savour the vistas of the hilltop town. Once through Aprigliano, follow the signs for San Giovanni in Fiore. You’ll soon arrive at Sila National Park, sign-posted. At the first intersection, turn left for Lorica.
Lago Arvo and Lorica
Take in the idyllic countryside around this glassy lake. Once at Lorica, take a stroll along the ‘passegiatta panoramica’ skirting the lake and take in the tranquil scene from the strategically placed benches.
Stroll around the lake or follow ‘lungo di lago’ signs for the lakeside drive. At the town of Rovale, follow the San Giovanni in Fiore signs. Or turn right to continue to explore Lago Arvo, returning to this intersection when you’re done. At the next t-intersection, turn right to visit Lago Ampollino.
Lovely Lago Ampollino is surrounded by thick pine forests and skirted by beaches, so you can kick about on the sand or hire a boat for a row on the lake. At the lake’s end, turn around, head back across the bridge over the dam walls and follow the signs to San Giovanni in Fiore.
San Giovanni in Fiore
San Giovanni in Fiore’s dreadful traffic, confusing layout and bad signage can be off-putting. Most travellers drive straight through, however, if you can find a parking space, this historic town better reveals itself to visitors on a stroll around the centro storico. When you’re finished, follow the signs for Germano, then once at Germano, for Fossiata, then the signs for Camigliatello.
Miles of log fences greet your approach to Lake Cecita. There is less dense forest and more cleared farmland on the banks and this lake has a different feel again to the others. When you’re done, follow the Camigliatello signs.
First visit La Nave della Sila, ‘the Ship of Sila’, a superb museum of immigration, to gain an appreciation of the extent of the mass emigration from Calabria. Pick up some delicious treats from the mouthwatering shops in this Alpine-like town then settle in front of a fire somewhere.
After, continue on this road to Parco Old Calabria at Torre Camigliati, where you can check in to one of their atmospheric rooms and make like a grand tourist as Norman Douglas did and mosey around the wild gardens at this wonderful literary park, or simply settle in by the fire.
Calabria Road Trips – Off the Beaten Track Drives
Our favourite Calabria road trips are those that take us to some of the more off the beaten track spots and remote villages.
In the Aspromonte, one of the least travelled routes begins at the turnoff from the town of Mélito di Porto Salvo, on the coast 30 kms south of Reggio, and passes through the villages of Chorio, Bagaladi and Cant Croce di Romeo, taking you along an extremely narrow and very winding road with lots of hairpin turns.
While you’ll occasionally pass a farmer on a tractor or a shepherd guiding his sheep, the route appeared to get used little when we last drove through. Weeds were growing through cracks in the bitumen and the bends in the road were overgrown with long grass. The scenery is spectacular.
Another little-travelled road is that which runs along the perimeter of the Pollino from Belvedere Maríttimo, via San Agato di Ésaro, San Sosti, and Acquaformosa, to Lungro. Here the highlight is the impenetrable vegetation, almost rainforest-like in parts, and the multitude of wildflowers. Wind down your window and breathe in the fragrant aromas.
The Sila National Park offers up a number of driving routes that pass beneath canopies of overhanging trees, skirt the shores of serene lakes, and cruise through scenic pastoral settings, but one of the least-travelled roads is just outside the national park.
From San Giovanni in Fiore, a narrow twisting road meanders along the mountainside via Savelli, Verzino and Umbriático to Ciro, passing through splendid, wild country and ramshackle old villages that see few foreigners passing through. Here, people will stop and stare at you, but return their hostile glares with a wave and you might be pleasantly surprised to receive a smile in return.
Calabria Road Trips – Routes to Remote Mountain Villages
Calabria’s ‘remote’ mountain villages might not be that far-flung and they are not as isolated as far as distances are concerned, especially if compared to Australia. But they are worlds away in terms of their everyday culture and lifestyle when compared to the region’s cities and seaside resorts.
Many older Calabrians would argue that it’s only in the villages where you’ll find the ‘real’ Calabria and an authentic way of life.
In southern Calabria, in lightly populated stone villages such as Roghudi in the Aspromonte, time moves at a snail’s pace, while in nearby hamlets such as Casalnuovo, a virtual ghost town, tiny Staiti and diminiture Condofuri, time seems to stand completely still.
You can drive to these quaint villages along extremely narrow, meandering roads, and while it’s rewarding to trek between them, there are very few facilities in the villages themselves and they are not used to welcoming strangers.
Further north, on the backroads between Amantea and Cosenza, you’ll find a similar sense of isolation and a certain charm in the alluring villages of Terrati, Lago and Potame, all of which perch dramatically on mountainsides overlooking spectacular scenery, yet you won’t experience the same kind of hostility.
Here, old village women wear headscarves and long skirts and comb the hills in search of wild herbs while their elderly husbands carry firewood down the road on the backs of donkeys.
Again, very few of these villages are equipped to cater to tourists. It’s rare they’ll have a local shop to provide them with their basic necessities, let alone a restaurant where you might buy lunch or a service station to refuel, so ensure you have a full tank of petrol and plan your day accordingly.
While they might not seem far away as the crow flies, the distances can be deceptive, especially if you’re climbing to high altitudes, and the going will be slow on many of the more meandering roads.
If these communities are a little too rustic and remote for you, yet you still want to get a feel for Calabrian village life, visit the slightly larger hamlets and towns that are closer to cities and therefore more developed.
The captivating medieval village of Santa Severina, not far from Crotone, boasts a lovely piazza and splendid cathedral and castle, while the hilltop towns and Albanian villages of Cosenza region are also worth exploring, such as San Demetrio Corone, which is home to impressive Norman-Byzantine architecture, and boasts stunning vistas of the surrounding lush countryside.
Calabria Road Trips – Our Tips
There’s no question that travelling around Calabria is best (and most easily) done by car and a holiday structured around a handful of Calabria road trips, punctuated by breaks by the beach or in hilltop towns will make for a rewarding one. Travelling by car in Calabria is considerably more convenient than taking trains and busses, especially if you take into account the convenience of the autostrada.
There are four main ways to drive to Calabria. The Autostrada A3 from Naples runs right down to Reggio Calabria and is an excellent road. A coastal road roughly hugs the west coast down to Reggio, as does a similar road down the less visited east coast.
If you’re planning on embarking on some Calabria road trips, it’s always best to book rental cars in advance for Calabria, as cars in each category are often thin on the ground. Also, booking your hire car when you book your flight and this is often a good way to get a discounted daily rate.
EU licensed drivers need only their own current drivers license, however, drivers from other countries need to check with the rental agency as to whether they need an International Driving Permit, usually available through you local automobile club.
For any mountainous drives, it’s important to rent an economy-sized car with some get up and go. The car needs to be powerful because you’ll encounter lots of winding roads with steep gradients and sharp corners to negotiate.
The car also needs to be small because many of the routes turn into one way roads when they are high in the mountains (especially in the Aspromonte) and if you plan on pulling over at all (which you should), you’ll need a small car to ensure you’re completely off the road.
All too often a main road that takes you through a village will quickly become a narrow one-way alley that is barely wide enough for one car, let alone two. Once in the historic centre of a medieval village, there will generally be a few tight squeezes and it will be next to impossible to turn around if you get in a jam.
Minor roads zigzag their way through the mountainous national parks making Calabria road trips exhilarating if you love to drive. But while picturesque, these should be tackled in small doses – in no small part because of the locals’ habit of choosing the best line through these twisting roads rather than sticking to their own side of the road. Ensure that your hire car has a working horn!
Generally, the more minor the road, the slower you’ll go, and the more minor the road the less maintenance it will have received. If you are heading into the mountains, hire a car with a decent amount of horsepower – but don’t forget that a narrow economy-sized vehicle is far better for navigating village streets that were literally made for a donkey and cart to pass through.
In Italy you drive on the right side of the road. When on an autostrada, keep to the right to allow faster vehicles to pass on the left. Unless you are on a roundabout (where those already on the roundabout have right of way), vehicles on your right have right of way. Speed limits are 130km/h on the autostradas, 110 km/h on freeways, 90km/h on rural roads and 50km/h through residential areas. The blood-alcohol content limit is 0.5gr.
Have you driven around the region? What are your favourite Calabria road trips? Do let us know in the comments below. We’d love to hear your tips.