I Love Touring Italy – Northern Calabria

If you are planning a European tourist destination, why don’t you consider the Calabria region of southern Italy on the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Ionian Sea? Calabria forms the toe of the Italian boot. It boasts excellent tourist attractions, and you won’t have to fight crowds, but you may have to fight hot, hot summers. With a little luck you can avoid tourist traps, and come back home with the feeling that you visited the real Italy. This article examines tourist attractions in northern Calabria. Be sure to read our companion article on southern Calabria.

Our tour of northern Calabria starts in Diamante, on the western Tyrrhenian coast. Then we head south along the coast as far as Paola and a bit east to Rende. Theoretically we proceed in almost a straight line east, except that the roads are hardly straight and that’s part of the fun, to Cosenza, pop up a bit north to the Parco Nazionale della Calabria, and then southwest to Crotone on the eastern Ionic coast. We follow the coastal road north and east to the little town of Cerchiara di Calabria. We turn left (east) and finish our tour in Castrovillari, about forty-five miles (seventy kilometers) northeast of our starting point.

Diamante (can you guess what the name means?) is a beautiful fishing village of about five thousand situated on a protective rock along the Mediterranean Sea. Unlike so much of southern Italy, its climate is sunny and yet mild. It’s quite an artist colony, boasting plenty of narrow streets and alleys. Diamante’s walls are covered with murals, an old tradition that still holds forth. You’ll love the century-old stucco houses and their balconies. You’ll never believe what little red objects are hung out to dry on the clotheslines in late summer, red-hot chili peppers. These peperoncini are so much a local specialty that in early September the city holds a Festival de Peperoncini, called “The South’s Carnival” that attracts one hundred thousand visitors. There is dancing in the street, men on stilts, traditional music, and plenty of peroncini-flavored food.

Rende is home to the University of Calabria in the green hills of suburban Cosenza (see below). The city itself has a population of about thirty-five thousand, but the university population is about twenty-five thousand. Stop by on your way to Cosenza, you’ll appreciate the cobblestone streets even if you get a bit winded negotiating the staircases and escalators.

Cosenza’s population is about seventy thousand but almost triples when you consider the urban area including the University. It is located at the confluence of two rivers: the Crathis and the Busento, home of the legend of the Visigoth King Alaric who in the year 410 captured Rome, the first to do so in over eight hundred years. Naturally he amassed quite some treasure. Two years later he died under unclear circumstances. He was buried with his horse and his treasure under the riverbed; the Busento was temporarily turned aside from its course during the grave digging. Once the tomb was completed, the river was returned to its original site and the tomb covered with water. To ensure that no one would reveal this location Alaric’s troops killed all of the slaves. Perhaps not surprisingly his grave and his treasure have never been found. If you like history you can learn about the multiple occupations of this beautiful city and how it was destroyed and rebuilt on several occasions during the first millennium and the following centuries.

Cosenza was once known as the Athens of Calabria. Its academy was founded almost five hundred years ago making it one of the first in Italy. To this day Cosenza is home to numerous libraries, museums, and theatres. It is a very picturesque city about seven hundred feet (two hundred forty meters) above sea level. You’ll love the castle and the old town. The Castello Svevo is mostly in ruins, but not for the reasons that you might imagine. First came several earthquakes. Then a lucky (unlucky) lightning strike set off gunpowder stored on the premises.

Nobody is sure when the Duomo (Cathedral) was first built, but estimates favor the mid-Twelfth Century. At that time Calabria was a feudal Norman dukedom and Cosenza was its capital. An earthquake destroyed the cathedral in 1184 and it was rebuilt within forty years. It is one of the most interesting such buildings in southern Italy. Over the years there have been many additions (and subtractions) in a multitude of styles including Baroque, Gothic, and Provencal Gothic.

Be sure to visit the Fifteenth Century Church of San Domenico which combines Renaissance and Medieval elements. Don’t miss the rose window with tufa (limestone) columns, the wooden portal decorated with floral motifs, and the high altar made of polychrome marble. Nearby stands the “Convent of the Virgins” which boasts many historic paintings. Other Cosenza churches include the Church and Monastery of Saint Francis of Assisi, and the Sixteenth Century Church of Sant’Agostino, also known as the Spirito Santo. In this area in 1844 the famous Italian patriots, the Bandiera Brothers, were executed during the struggle for Italian independence.

Of course the new city isn’t going to be as interesting as the old town. But it includes an open-air museum Museo all’aperto Bilotti which was named for the guy with the checkbook. The sculptures include Saint George and the Dragon by Salvador Dalì.

Would you believe that there’s lots of good skiing in southern Italy? The Sila is a vast forested kilometer high plateau in the Calabrian interior. This is the largest such formation in all Europe. It is split into three parts and forms the Parco Nazionale della Calabria (Calabria National Park) whose largest section is east of Consenza. Most of the forest has been replanted and, as a sign of ecological health, the park’s symbol the wolf is on the way back. As you may well imagine, local farmers are not overjoyed.

Crotone, population about sixty thousand, was a major city in the days of the Greeks. The famous philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras founded a school here about twenty five hundred years ago. Be sure to see the Ninth to Eleventh Century neo-classical Cathedral home to an icon of the Black Madonna said to come from the East in the early days of the Christian era. Then go by foot to the island and its Sixteenth Century Castle of Charles V, home to the archeological Town Museum.

Cerchiara di Calabria is a town of about three thousand located on the eastern coast of the Ionian Sea. The site has been settled since the days of the Ancient Greeks. It is best known for the Tenth Century Sanctuary of S. Maria delle Armi, which includes a historic pilgrim hospice. The streets are cobblestone, the view is stupendous, and I’m told that the La Locanda di Alia restaurant is out of this world, if you watch the spices.

Castrovillari is the last stop in our tour of northern Calabria. Its population is about twenty two thousand. There is a historic synagogue, a Spanish castle, and a Sixteenth Century Church. Castrovillari is a gateway to the national park mentioned above. But one of the major reasons that people stop by is to visit the La Locanda di Alia restaurant. Next time I’m in the region…

What about food? The Sila mountain range that somewhat resembles the Swiss Alps is famous for its mushrooms, especially porcini and truffles, and Caciocavallo Silano cheese. As good as that sounds, I think I’d like the wild boar even better.

Let’s suggest a sample menu, one of many. Start with Macco di Fave (Broadbean Soup). Then try Costolette d’agnello alla calabrese (Lamb Chops with Olive Oil, Tomatoes, Sweet Peppers, and Olives). For dessert indulge yourself with Mostaccioli (Anise-flavored Biscuits.) Be sure to increase your dining pleasure by including local wines with your meal.

We’ll conclude with a quick look at Calabria wine. Calabria devotes about sixty thousand acres to grapevines; it ranks 13th among the 20 Italian regions for the acreage devoted to wine grapes. About 91% of its wine is red or rose, leaving 9% for white. The region produces twelve DOC wines. DOC stands for Denominazione di Origine Controllata, which may be translated as Denomination of Controlled Origin, presumably a high-quality wine. Only 2.4% of Calabria wine carries the DOC designation.

The best-known red wine is Ciro, which some say is the oldest wine in the world. Given the region’s high altitude, temperate climate, and poor-quality soil one can hope for excellent wines. Right now, it’s a question of hope. But sooner or later, as in other regions of southern Italy, Calabria wines should step forward.

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