Hilltop towns of Calabria are a highlight of this southern Italian region and they seem to pop up everywhere. Typically topped by a sturdy castle and handsome church, their tiled-roof houses appear to tumble down the hillsides.
Hilltop Towns of Calabria – Atmospheric Mountain Villages to Explore
Discovering the atmospheric hilltop towns of Calabria in southern Italy almost became the theme of our last road trip around the region. I used to get excited, studying the map, squinting my eyes to see if I could see a mountaintop village ahead in the distance, eagerly anticipating when one might pop up.
Perhaps it’s over the next rise? Or after we turn the next bend? I loved approaching the towns that sprawled over and around camel-humped mountains, each turn revealing more of these enigmatic villages and hamlets that spilled down steep slopes.
Then when we arrived – a joy for me, torture for Terence, who would have to negotiate the usually narrow and often one-way streets that always seemed too skinny for our hire car – I relished exploring the cobblestone lanes and peeking into the very private houses and imagining their secrets.
One of the first things we realised on the road trips around Calabria to research our guidebook, was that the people of Calabria have more cultural connections to other Mediterranean peoples, such as the Greeks, Cypriots, Turkish, Arabs, and North Africans than they do their northern compatriots of the Italian Lakes, for instance, or Venice.
Surrounded on three sides by the Mediterranean Sea, with a mountainous interior that is home to countless remote hilltop towns, Calabria has more in common with rugged Mediterranean islands such as Crete and Cyprus than most other Italian regions.
The Greeks established colonies on the Ionian coast of Calabria in the 8th century BC that became the great Magna Graecia civilisation and the remnants of their cultural influence is evident everywhere, but particularly in the language, customs and crafts, such as the techniques used to produce village pottery and the designs and patterns that decorate ceramics, jewellery and textiles.
The Arabs were also frequent visitors to Calabria, leaving their mark on the cuisine, language and textiles, while the legacy of the Normans lay in the magnificent castle and church architecture. So it’s natural that Calabrians should share similar cultural traditions, customs and rituals that revolve around village life, family, and community – from the traditional male-dominated café on the main piazza to the festivals focused around the rhythms of the seasons and celebrations of harvests.
Ironically, the region’s isolation, underdevelopment, poverty, uneven distribution of wealth, and the late arrival of a good road network, infrastructure, and media, have all contributed to preserving its wonderful and very enviable rural traditions and folk culture that can be found in the hilltop towns of Calabria.
Hilltop Towns of Calabria – Our Favourites
Of all the many hilltop towns of Calabria, Morano Calabro in the northernmost part of Cosenza province is my absolute favourite. It’s quite possibly the region’s most enchanting town. It’s the view that you see above, as you drive into town and also from the belvedere just outside town, of the village spilling down the hillside – its ramshackle stone buildings seemingly stacked upon each other – that is so compelling.
If the marvellous sight, above, looks familiar… you could be thinking of one of M C Escher’s magical lithographs and woodcuts from his Italian period. An enthusiastic hiker, the artist spent time in Calabria, including Morano Calabro, depicted here, in the early 1930s. (This is a fascinating read about Escher’s Morano Calabro woodcut.)
Despite its proximity to Pollino National Park, Morano Calabro nevertheless remains off the beaten track. When we first visited there was only one hotel in town (accommodation sites now list ten), several good restaurants, and a handful of shops, and it was this lack of modernity that made the medieval town so appealing and such fun to explore.
As we climbed the meandering alleys and stairways of the well-preserved village (stopping occasionally to enjoy the views) we would come across locals, momentarily flabbergasted, and then delighted to see foreigners exploring their steep streets. There was little that was sign-posted but getting lost was half the joy.
At the top of the town near the ruined fortress, which you can see in the photo, there’s a lovely grass belvedere and the Chiesa di Santi Pietro e Paolo (Church of Saints Peter and Paul) which is home to four beautiful statutes by Pietro Bernini. (If you’ve been to Rome, you would have seen Bernini’s Fontana della Barcaccia (Fountain of the Old Boat) at the foot of the Spanish Steps.) Don’t miss the fifteenth century Chiesa di San Bernadino (Church of Saint Bernard) in the lower part of town either.
It’s worth timing your visit to coincide with a lively local festival such as the medieval Festa della Bandiera (Festival of the Banner-waving; late July), which centres around three days of re-enactments of an early medieval battle against the Saracens, with processions of bands and costumed folks on horseback parading through the decorated village. And of course there is much flag-waving and banner-waving and afterwards, eating, drinking, and fireworks. We arrived right in the middle of it, not knowing it was on, which is always fun.
Stay alert for a spot to pull the car over on your approach to Civita. This is one of the most breathtaking hilltop towns of Calabria. The views of the small village of stone houses, sprawled across a ridge beneath a rock of a mountain, beside the Raganello gorge, are truly gobsmacking.
Civita, a compact well-preserved village, is also a real delight to discover. The main square, Piazza Municipio, is flanked by stone houses and a few elegant palazzos and, on your right as you enter the square, the Etnico Arbëresch Museum (Ethnic Museum of Albanian Culture).
The 17th century Chiesa di Santa Maria Assunta with its splendid gold mosaics and icons is also worth a look, as is Ponte del Diavolo (the Devil’s Bridge), just outside of the village. If you miss the sign, ask the locals to steer you in the right direction.
On edge of Pollino National Park, and 12kms from Castrovillari, Civita is ideally located for exploring the national park, and when we last visited they were planting the seeds for the development of a small agritourismo industry (tourism centred on agriculture). A number of Bed & Breakfasts were opening in Civita’s atmospheric centro storico (historic centre) and scattered around the surrounding valley when we were there.
Being so close to Pollino, the village is a great base for hikers, and guides can be arranged in the village; ask at the tourist office (be warned, they keep erratic hours) or shops on the main piazza.
Civita is one of 34 villages in Calabria of Albanian heritage that are working hard to maintain their traditions, still practice their unique customs, and speak their own language. There are bilingual signs here and in other towns, such as Frascineto, Spezzano Albanese, and Lungro – the spiritual centre of Albanians in Calabria since 15th century.
Ran by the Gennaro Placco Cultural Association (which in effect seemed to be one and the same family), the Ethnic Museum of Albanian Culture is a tiny two-storey museum documenting the history of Albanian migrations to Calabria that began in the 1400s.
There’s a fascinating exhibition of every day items, household implements, farming tools, a loom, handicrafts, costumes, historical records, and photographs. It’s haphazardly organised yet intriguing, the staff are friendly, and the small insight it provides into Albanian culture in Calabria makes it easily worth a half hour of your time.
One of the most sophisticated of the hilltop towns of Calabria, charming Altomonte is regarded as Calabria’s ‘Spoleto’, thanks to its busy calendar of food, music and arts festivals.
The beautifully preserved village of stone houses seem to crawl across the lush hilltop and spill down the mountain slopes. You’ll need to park at the bottom of the centro storico, as it’s resident-only parking in the historic centre, and hike up the narrow cobblestone streets to explore.
Most of the main attractions – there are only a few – are around the central square, along with spectacular views of the rooftops of the village and the surrounding fertile valley, which has become an important centre for agritourismo.
The highlight of Altomonte is its splendid 14th century Church of Santa Maria della Consolazione on the main piazza. Dating from the Angevin period, the church has beautiful French Gothic features. Inside the mostly Baroque interior are fine sculptures and paintings, predominantly from the 14th and 15th centuries, including work by Simone Martini and Bartolomeo Daddi.
That Altomonte is a town of aristocrats is evident by the elaborate tombs inside the church. On the far left aisle you’ll notice the impressive tomb of the nobleman Filippo Sangineto, along with the tombs of the Ruffo family and monuments belonging to the Sanseverino family.
Don’t miss the pretty cloisters of the former monastery adjoining the church, now belonging to the local municipality, and from the courtyard behind the church, magnificent mountain vistas.
One of the most enjoyable of the hilltop towns of Calabria is Amantea, which has a lively modern seaside town below, and, hugging the cliffs of a rocky hill above it, one of the region’s most alluring historic centres, accessed by wide marble staircases that hint at its aristocratic past.
Amantea has a fascinating history that revealed itself through the strength of character of the people we met. Bronze and Iron Age relics and other archaeological discoveries in the area, especially near the mouth of River Savuto, suggest that Amantea was heavily settled by the Bruttii, Calabria’s native people. A tribe of strapping warriors whose courage and endurance is legendary, it’s thought the Bruttii kept the Greeks at bay for decades.
Amantea’s history as a city dates to the Romans who established a large port that put Amantea on the map. After the Roman Empire’s fall, the region was split between the Byzantines and Longobardian, with the border passing Amantea, hence the imposing Byzantine castle established to protect the city.
Not that it helped them against the Arabs, who captured the city in 839, making it an emirate or city-state. ‘Amantea’ is actually Arabic in origin, from ‘Al Mantiah’, meaning ‘stronghold’. The Normans followed the Arabs and Byzantines, however, their reputation as a people to be reckoned with was cemented following their uprising against the Angevines in 1269, and a long resistance against Joseph Bonaparte’s troops, who tried to capture their castle, from 1806 to 1807.
The ruins of Amantea’s castle – known as la Rocca because it sits atop the rock that the centro storico clings to – is accessed by steep narrow stairs and paths beginning near the Baroque Duomo or Chiesa Matrice (Mother Church), itself entered via a grand staircase. The Gothic Chiesa di San Bernardino (Church of San Bernardino) dating to 1436 is also worth a look.
The centro storico is the best reason to visit Amantea and it’s great fun to explore, with its elegant old pastel-coloured palazzos perched on the cliffs above the city, such as the grand 17th century Palazzo Mirabelli and Palazzo Le Clarisse, now a restaurant with charming accommodation upstairs. Even if you’re not staying it’s possible to knock on the door and ask to see inside.
Amantea’s modern centre, like those in Reggio di Calabria, Cosenza and Vibo Valentia, is also a lovely place to spend some time, especially during a Sunday afternoon passeggiatta in the warmer months, when the main street and the waterfront promenade really come alive.
More Hilltop Towns of Calabria to Visit
There’s little to actually hold your attention in these Calabrian hilltop towns, below, however, they’re definitely worth dropping into to amble around for an hour or so if you’re doing a road trip through the region.
Belmonte Calabro, not far from Amantea, from where you can see it sprawl prettily across the mountain, is easily one of the most beautiful hilltop towns of Calabria. Its twisting alleyways, lined with a hotchpotch of medieval and modern architecture, are worth an hour’s exploration in the early morning or late afternoon, when its best for photography.
From Belmonte Calabro to Lago
Driving the backroads to Cosenza from Belmonte Calabro via Lago is like travelling to the past in a time machine. Don’t be surprised if you see old men carting firewood on the back of a mule accompanied by their elderly wives in long skirts and head scarves carrying axes. The people here lead enviably simple lives.
The scenery is absolutely gorgeous on this route. Crumbling stone houses are scattered across the hills, each seeming to boast a small vineyard. Lush green hills are smattered with birch forests, sprinkled with vibrant wildflowers, and peppered with flowering cacti bushes. Vines tangle themselves around tree trunks. There’s the sound of birdsong, the sweet fragrance of honeysuckle, and lime green lizards dart across the road. Lago itself is another lovely hilltop village.
From Potame to Dománico
The tiny village of Potame, which had a population of less than 100 when we passed through, sits splendidly on a small plateau, making it one of prettiest hilltop towns of Calabria. After Potame a series of switchbacks take you to slightly higher ground where you’re likely to see birds of prey circling, signs for cow crossings (although no cows when we drove through), snow in winter, and locals filling plastic water bottles with fresh icy water from natural spring fountains by the side of the road.
Dománico is a slightly larger and more affluent village with smart stone houses with neatly tiled rooftops and a well-kept school. Its elderly citizens wear suit jackets and hats and socialise in the small main square.
The last interesting stop before the descent to the provincial capital, Cosenza, Carolei is a large village that sprawls attractively across a mountaintop. The doors of its grand old buildings open directly on to the street and wash hangs from lines struck across the wrought iron balconies.
Have you explored the hilltop towns of Calabria and, if so, do you have a favourite? There are so many scattered across the region’s mountain peaks, do let us know of any villages we’ve overlooked that are worth a visit.