Tropea was the first town we fell head over heels in love with in Calabria. It’s known as ‘the Positano of Southern Italy’ because it’s breathtakingly beautiful. That means it’s also one of the most popular destinations in Calabria in summer, which is why autumn, spring and winter are wonderful times to go.
Tropea, Calabria’s Positano of Southern Italy
Elegant pastel-coloured palazzos with balconies dripping with bougainvillea, atmospheric cobblestone streets, and spectacular sea vistas… Tropea is the region’s most gobsmackingly gorgeous town and its sandy stretches of sand are some of Calabria’s most beautiful beaches.
Stunningly located on the Tyrrenhian Sea, at the foot of Mount Poro, which separates the Gulf of Gioia Tauro from the Gulf of San Eufemia, Tropea sits atop an enormous sandstone rock, called La Rupe (the cliff) or Il Scoglio (the rock).
The town’s splendid old sandstone palazzos seamlessly blend with the sheer cliffs, which dramatically drop down to the coastal road and sea. From the beach below it appears as if Tropea has been carved out of the very rock that it’s perched upon.
L’Isola Bella and The Convent of Santa Maria dell’Isola
To add to the drama of Tropea’s setting, a smaller rock, L’Isola Bella (the beautiful island) strikingly juts into the sea, with the splendid convent, Santa Maria dell’Isola standing on top.
Set in a luxuriant garden that sprawls across the top of the outcrop, the convent is centuries old, established under the auspices of the Benedictine Abbey of Montecassino, near Naples, in 1077, to which it had been assigned by Pope Urban II and consecrated in 1397.
A house of religious worship had stood on this spot since the fourth century, when a Byzantine monastery was founded by Saint Basil the Great, who was responsible for hundreds of monastic communities in Calabria.
Like so many of the region’s great buildings, the old convent was devastated during the 1905 earthquake and rebuilt in a Gothic style. Unfortunately it was closed for restoration when we were last in Tropea.
History of Tropea
Legend has it that Hercules founded Tropea when he stopped to delight in a garden here and so taken was he with the area that he built a port and name the place after himself, Port Ercole.
The ancient Roman author Pliny the Elder supports this story, however, other stories have a victorious Sextus Pompeius, having won a battle again Octavius Augustus, celebrate his triumph (trofaea) by founding a town called… Trofaea.
The Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Saracens, Normans, Swabians, Angevins, Aragons and Bourbons all settled in Tropea at some point, however, it was under the Norman occupation that the town assumed a strategic maritime role under Ruggero II Guiscardo, a Duke of Calabria and Puglia.
Then there’s another story that attributes Tropea’s name to the words tropee and trupia, still used by local mariners to refer to the strong dangerous currents that characterise the sea around Tropea.
Where to Find Traces of Tropea’s History
In the well-preserved centre of Tropea, traces of many different historic periods are much more apparent than in other towns and cities in Calabria, probably because Tropea managed to escape the degree of earthquake damage other Calabrian towns experienced.
During the Renaissance era, Tropea was a great literary centre and enjoyed a period of splendour that’s still evident in those stately palazzos, which belonged to aristocratics. As you wander around, you’ll see the coats of arms belonging to noble families still gracing some buildings.
On your ambles, you’ll get to peek into attractive cobblestone courtyards with pretty tinkling fountains, gawk at the grand 11th century Norman cathedral, pop into myriad churches, and slip under the massive Baroque, Arab and Gothic granite and sandstone portals around the town.
Exploring the enchanting warren of alleyways that is Tropea’s old town is one of the reasons to stay in Tropea itself, rather than by the beach.
One of our great pleasures when we have been in Tropea has been to wake early in the morning for a saunter through the tranquil pedestrian-only streets to one of the belvederes (lookouts) to take in the sparkling sea, visible from a number of vantage points.
A stroll through the breezy lanes in the late afternoon when the buildings take on a golden-orange hue is something of a ritual with the locals, who always seem to have a gelato in hand.
And a walk after dinner is a perfect end to the day, when the moodily lit lanes and gleaming cobblestones will remind you of Rome.
You can easily wander about Tropea at your own will, or you can do my walking tour, which I created when we were last in town that takes in the best sights and the most brilliant views.
Tropea Walking Tour
This easy saunter around Tropea’s enchanting centro storico (old town) takes in the main attractions, atmospheric alleyways, marvellous palazzi, magnificent churches, and the alluring sea vistas from its popular belvederes. It begins and ends on the main square, Piazza Ercole, and takes about an hour, longer with stops for gelato and beers. It’s best done in the late afternoon.
This lovely piazza is lined with gelaterias and cafés with terraces, where you can sit in the sun and try Tropea’s famed locally made gelato. Buy one before beginning your walk.
From Piazza Ercole follow Corso Vittorio Emanuele to Piazza Mercato to visit Chiesa Santa Caterina.
Chiesa Santa Caterina
Following the destruction of the Dominican church in the 1783 earthquake, restoration work incorporated the old church ruins within the new structure. Pop inside to check out the beautiful paintings.
Return along Corso Vittorio Emanuele to Piazza Ercole. Turn right on Via Roma, a charming shopping street, to Largo Duomo.
This imposing Norman Cathedral is one of Calabria’s finest, bearing the marks of several historical periods due to its piecemeal construction, as much as its rebuilding after earthquake damage. Inside, two unexploded American bombs from World War II are displayed – with a grateful prayer to the Madonna attached.
Cross Largo Duomo to admire the views from the belvedere of the port and sea. Return to the corner of Largo Duomo and Via Boiano, and follow this alley to Largo Gallupi.
Largo Galluppi and Largo Municipio
This square was named after philosopher Pasquale Galluppi (1770-1846), born nearby on Largo di Francia, who became a professor at the University of Naples from 1831. Note the impressive portals, one Baroque and one Gothic. The Municipal Square is surrounded by splendid buildings, including Ex Convento dei Francescani Conventuali, Congrega dei Nobili, and Ex Collegio Del PP Gesuiti.
Cross Largo Padre V M Netta to Chiesa del Gesu, on your right.
Chiesa del Gesu
This imposing 18th century Jesuit church was built upon the ruins of a 17th century cathedral, dating to Early Christian and Byzantine times. Inside are precious relics, ornaments and vestments, an ornate Baroque altar, and valuable paintings.
Follow narrow Via D’Aquino across Piazza Toraldo Grimaldi and along Via Aragona. Turn right on Dardano, cross Vico Delle Pentite, turn left on Largo Sannio and right on Via Pelliccia.
This belvedere boasts the most spectacular views in Tropea, looking directly onto the crystal clear sea and white sand beach, known as Mar Piccolo (little sea), and the stunning Santa Maria della’Isola convent on the headland on the left. Savour these sublime vistas before continuing the walk.
Follow Corso Vittorio Emanuele toward Piazza Ercole then turn right on Via Pietro Vianeo to Via Indipendeza
This small square off Largo Porta Vaticana is the spot to watch the sunset. Buy a beer from the café-bar and join the locals on a bench for this daily ritual. On a clear day you can see the volcanic island, Stromboli, in the distance. And you can always take in the splendid views of Santa Maria della’Isola on the craggy outcrop above the aquamarine sea.
Cross the square and follow Via Indipendenza to Piazza Ercole.
This atmospheric lane is lined with delightful shops crammed with delicious local specialties such as Tropea onions, preserves, liquorice liqueurs, and olive oils. Take time to browse on the way back to Piazza Ercole.