Cattolica di Stilo, Calabria – simply called La Cattolica by locals – is a splendid ninth century Byzantine church that clings to the slopes of craggy Mount Consolino, part of the Serre Calabresi range, in the Valley of the Stilaro in southwest Calabria. It’s the reason that most people visit Stilo.

I remember seeing an image of Calabria’s Cattolica di Stilo long before we went to Calabria in Southern Italy to write the first contemporary English-language guidebook to the region. It wasn’t the first as Calabria had been a stop on the Italian grand tour for the most intrepid grand tourists, some of whom had written early guidebooks of sorts.

I can’t even recall where I had first seen an image of the church – perhaps in a travel magazine or travel section of a newspaper. But wherever I saw the photo of Calabria’s Cattolica di Stilo, it stuck in my mind for years and was one of the reasons I jumped at the chance to write a Calabria guidebook when it was offered. I just had to see that church perched on the mountainside.

These days the equivalent would be spotting an Insta-worthy place on Instagram. For many travel lovers, Instagram is a main source of travel inspiration and aspiration. Only when some ’grammers arrive at an Insta-worthy destination – whether it’s a street art mural, a swing in the sea on a sandy beach, a majestic temple in a jungle forest, or a church hugging a hillside, the motivation for their journey often serves merely as a photogenic backdrop rather than a window into the past and society in that place.

What’s important is that travellers are there, contributing to an economy in tough times when so many tourist destinations around the world are suffering from the current global political turmoil. Historic churches and cathedrals in particular are struggling to survive, due to the decline of Christianity in Europe, and the rest of the world. In England alone in 2015 there were some 16,000 empty churches. Cathedrals and churches emptied of congregations means church-goer contributions, some of which would go to church maintenance, are also down.

Yet Europe’s cathedrals and churches are some of the world’s most significant architectural monuments and engineering achievements of their times. No more so than in Italy, where the country’s cathedrals and churches also host some of the world’s most magnificent works of art and sculpture. Which is why it’s okay if you’re not religious and you just want to visit a church as you might an art gallery or museum.

So go see Cattolica di Stilo and the other splendid churches and cathedrals in Calabria, and Italy and Europe – just as you would visit Hindu and Buddhist sites, such as Angkor Wat in Cambodia or Borobudur in Java, and Islamic mosques in Istanbul and Marrakech. Take your photos, but also make sure to pay the photography fee or make a donation. It doesn’t matter if you’re religious or not, what matters is the survival of these wonderful monuments and their sublime works of art.

Cattolica di Stilo Calabria and Why You Should Visit Churches in Europe

Sprawled across the lower slopes of a squat rocky mountain called Mount Consolino, 15kms inland from the coastal E90 road, the village of Stilo is famous for two things. La Cattolica di Stilo, an exquisite ninth century Byzantine church, and the Ribusa Palio, a medieval fair on the first Sunday in August, featuring banner-waving ‘knights’ on horseback competing in equestrian tournaments, drummers and trumpeters in processions, jesters and fortune-tellers, and banquets with court music.

Founded in the seventh century by coastal inhabitants looking for a safe haven from the pillaging Saracens, Stilo would go on to become a key city in Calabria’s history, securing autonomy under the Normans and maintaining some power and influence throughout the Swabian, Angevin and Aragonese dominations.

Stilo was the birthplace of a number of revered Calabrians, including artist Francesco Cozza, philosopher Tommaso Campanella, and cartographer Domenico Vigliarolo, inventor of a sundial with a compass.

Handily placed for a visit on the way to Serra San Bruno, accessed via a meandering mountain road through picturesque forest, Stilo has several sights worth absorbing including the eerie mountaintop ruins of a Norman castle, a number of splendid churches, a pretty Arab-influenced fountain, Fontana Gebbia, and the remains of majestic medieval walls and town gates.

The first church you’ll see on the left as you enter town is the Renaissance-era Chiesa San Francesco, dating to 1450, and part of a complex of Baroque buildings from that period. Further along the main street of Viale Dei Martiri, on Piazza San Giovanni, the late-Renaissance Chiesa San Giovanni, built in 1625, is in a Baroque style typical of Calabrian churches.

If you backtrack a little and stroll up Via Tommaso Campanella and then along Via Luigi Cunsolo into the atmospheric heart of the old town, you’ll arrive at the imposing Duomo, a cathedral constructed in 1300 featuring a Roman-Gothic portal and precious alter inside.

In the labyrinthine streets behind the Duomo is the 17th century Church of San Domenico. Most people, however, make a beeline for the iconic church which graces many a Calabrian postcard.

Cattolica di Stilo is a diminutive, square brick Byzantine church, with five round domes that look like big chimneys and vivid frescoes within. In an architectural style more typically found in Greece, Cattolica di Stilo is the only church of its kind in Calabria and it’s the incongruity of La Cattolica’s location in this mountainous part of southern Italy that is so alluring.

Scramble up to the rise above the cobblestone path and you can capture a picture-postcard – or Instagram-worthy – image of the captivating church framed by enormous agave cacti with the historic stone village in the background.

This is the shot that most travellers make the pilgrimage for but once inside you can also marvel at the vivid Byzantine frescoes, illuminated by small windows in the five domes. There is also a kiosk and café tables off the car park before the church from where you can savour stupendous views over the village and valley.

If you like the look of La Cattolica di Calabria, then consider hiring a car and doing a Calabrian road trip that takes in some of the region’s many atmospheric hilltop towns, as most of these will have a handsome church overlooking a square or perched on the top of a hill. See our Calabria itineraries for more ideas, but don’t leave it too late, because Calabria is the new Puglia and everyone will be heading here soon.

La Cattolica di Stilo, Via Cattolica, near Piazza San Giovanni. Open: 8am-8pm daily.

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