Calabria is a narrow peninsula extending into the heart of the Mediterranean for three hundred kilometers, like the abutment of a bridge reaching towards the warm shores of Africa. And Africa’s blazing sun blunts the ardor of its rays here, creating a climate more agreeable for a restful visit. The luxuriant vegetation, in fact, is made even more splendid by the clear blue sky illuminated by reflected sunlight. All of Calabria is a dream, uncorrupted by the excesses of modernity; there is a fervor in the mechanical, day to day matters of living that reflects a kind of providential respect not just for the past but particularly towards those aspects revealing the particular nature of man and things.
About four hundred and fifty miles of level coastline, deep water and occasionally, surprisingly rocky shores, beaches covered with fine, dry sand – very nearly the last stretches of Mediterranean shore for tranquil rest and vacation. There is so much space that overcrowding, or even crowds, is practically impossibility. There will always be room for everyone here, and everyone will be able to enjoy the serene views of vast olive groves, the scent of the orange trees, bergamots and jasmine. All these elements bring to mind the sea Homer drew for us, a sea we never tire of also because the many seaside villages and hamlets lend it life, and through the distance appear to be creations of some unknown Artist, and the appearance of an occasional farmer riding his donkey, strangely survived from past eras, lends the whole a poetic aura. The sea, then, the most dominating element in the Region, has colors that change, that are peculiar to certain parts, that are brilliant, and the water is constantly clean and almost perfumed.
But if the sea is the greatest wealth Calabria has to offer to the anxious man from the North yearning for relief from endless months of fog or cold, we must also invite him to relax wandering among the sloping, almond-covered hills, near entire fields of colored oleander, and where olive trees, that ancient symbol of Virgilian peace and tranquility, can reach the proportions of an oak, and where centuries-old chestnut woods reveal the force of an ancient nature which, at one time, was the source of wealth and was the livelihood for all. Preferring greater altitudes, Calabria can offer various groups of mountains: the Pollino, the Sila, the Serre and Aspromonte. Four different aspects of the mountains, four groups that vary among themselves, although in a limited area, for native vegetation, and the crops cultivated, for the typical dwellings, for the climate, though they all have the same continental temperatures brought on the air currents from the two nearby seas. It’s customary to compare mountain chains, usually using as the point of reference the other European groups, but this is pointless because everything is different here, and the greatest point of divergence is that here, we are in the center of the warmest sea of Europe.
Calabria is a veritable mine of attractions for cultural tourism. The caves of Papasidero have preserved traces of the oldest human inhabitants in the Region; the Prehistoric drawings have been dated at twenty thousand years old. The ruins of the Mordillo Tower are from the Iron Age. There are archeological findings in great number from more prosperous epochs in these zones, and then there are monumental and historical ruins dating from the middle Ages to the present. And to this we must add those fabulous myths woven through the centuries around the Islands of Homer, and the legend of Scylla and Charybdis.
There are hundreds and hundreds of small workshops where artisans still practice their traditional arts: goldsmiths, women weaving covers and cloth of damask, woodcarvers, lute makers, potters, and craftsmen producing artistic wrought iron. These shops are characteristic of every part of the region and while they reveal great ingeniousness on the part of the workers, they also demonstrate loyalty to the old traditions, the same way folk customs that are hundreds of years old and still faithfully respected, do, or the costumed ceremonies and rituals that reach an almost Oriental magnificence in the Albanian towns where the Greek Orthodox rite is followed.
In its geographical formation, Calabria is a continent; it is an entire world in its cultural treasures; it is an endless stretch of unspoiled countryside, unobtrusive equipment studied to meet the needs of visitors who wish days of rest and relaxation.
Calabria’s beaches are characterized by having a varied exposure to the sun, so that there is, as it turns out, at least a beach for any particular tourist’s needs. Towards the East, along the Ionian are the warmest ones, the beaches are broader, the sand is fine, light and dry ready to meet the long slanting rays of the rising sun. On the Tyrrhenian, the beaches are cooler, have more of a breeze, the coast line itself is far more irregular and is dominated by steep, tree-covered hills.
Beaches upon beaches, following one another in a succession of broad spaces and massive rock formations, facing a sea that really is clean and inviting, where the sea bottom is shallow so that little children can play safely and where, farther out, there are sand banks where the fauna is abundant and inviting for underwater fishing, or even simply for great long swims through clear water.
Along all the 450 miles of coast, more or less, the countryside behind the beaches is a triumph of nature reflected in the sea and illuminated by the sun which blesses this land for nine months of the year. Cultivated fields, brightly colored orange orchards, olive groves and the typical sylvan vegetation of the Mediterranean, interrupted by the presence of towers, reminders of the dangerous times when watches were needed and that at the same time bring to mind this pastoral civilization and that makes the choice of these lands even more desirable. There is a considerable hotel organization ready to meet any tourist requirements. But the Calabria beaches have a unique privilege: that overcrowding that creates discomfort is impossible here, even on the most popular beaches: the space each person has is such that he can be perfectly comfortable, even when we are in groups, we feel as through the beach were private. This situation becomes increasingly important as the receptive and entertainment and sports facilities recently constructed and organized, become larger. The panorama offered for a vacation here is so rich that even listing bare details can stimulate the desire to get to know this land. Beneath a Medieval Castle, almost whole and entire, the beach Roseto, calm and tranquil, stretches out towards a rocky corner and goes down to Sibari; it is a prelude, this angle of beach, to a flourishing seaside resort, equipped with everything the tourist might need or want in order to enjoy his vacation to the fullest. At Sibari the width of the beach benefits from the contrast of an equally wide and equally long pine forest immediately behind it. Beyond this, are the ruins of that most famous city where the practice of relaxation and diversion became an art. Farther towards Corigliano and Rossano – where the Sila begins – down to Cariati and Crucoli, there are solitary hotels protecting the visits of those who thirst for sun, rest and tranquility. After Crotone, a lively city and resort in far off times, going on to Capo Colonna, where this tourism will absorb some Grecian aura, on to Castella where the manor is in the middle after for rheumatism cures. Down towards to Catanzaro Lido at Copanello and Soveranto, where there are racetracks and facilities from hotels to camping grounds that follow the coast down to Bianco, where the jasmine Coast begins to end at Bova, and this is also the coast preferred for underwater fishing.
From Reggio, center of sailing activities, down to Scylla, there is the unique panorama of the Sicilian coast, to end at the start of the Violet Coast along which are the resorts Bagnara and Palmi. The coast, from Nicotera to Briatico, to Capo Vaticano is a series of spectacular views, enjoys unique beauty in sheer cliffs dropping into the sea and offers exceptional underwater fishing.
Without any interruptions, the Tyrrhenian coast in Calabria offers an overabundance even to those who wish a lengthy stay on the coast. Besides numerous tourists’ villages, camping grounds and hotels, entertainment centers, there are motorboat facilities at Cetraro, Diamante, Scalea and Praia a Mare. At Paola, home of St Francis, summer tourism is a consequence of religious pilgrimages that bring the faithful from all parts of the world throughout the year. There is a spa for rheumatic and respiratory cures at Guardia Piemontese.
In spite of the length of its coastline, and of the plains of Sibari, of the Marchesato di Crotone and of Gioia, Calabria is above all a mountainous region. It is linked to the rest of the peninsula by the Apennine chain and its single borderline id through the massif called Pollino, always a bulwark of communications and now greatly exploited for both summer and winter tourism. That chain that branches into the Highlands of the Sila – the most extensive such formation in Europe – and that, working through a most complex series of mountainous transformations reaches the Serre, with its overabundant and spectacular woods, develops finally into the tree-covered Aspromonte. Calabrian mountains are famous hunting preserves, both for permanent and migratory game birds, so much so that they have become a veritable hunters’ paradise famous all through Italy. The mountains where the game is particularly abundant are those above Castrovillari, Morano and Lungro on the Western slopes of the Appenines; the entire Sila; the Serre between Chiaravalle and Polia; the area around Zomaro extending from Cittanova to Mammola to Oppido Mamertina, and finally Aspromonte. In the Sila, deer, boar and rabbit hunting as well as bird hunting in general is coupled with trout fishing, not only in the many clear, swift streams, but also in each of the three artificial lakes, as well as in the others now planned.
After the first September rains, the Sila and the Serre become a Mecca for the populations of entire towns who swarm through the hills looking for mushrooms. The purpose is not simply the useful employment of free time, gathering a basket of mushrooms and healthful exercise as well. It is instead often a means of bolstering the village economy
Also to be considered are those pastures described by Virgil, where herds of sheep and cows graze, producing milk to be used for an exquisite kind of cheese, a considerable economic source in the agro-tourism which has already instilled new life in the Sila.
The Sila, the biggest mountain system in Calabria, strongly characteristic of the Region, has become its emblem. Not simply for historical reasons. It is today the best equipped center in Calabria for winter sports. There are ski-lifts and trails at Fago del Soldato, at Camigliatello, at Lorica, at Villaggio Mancuso that attract skiers each year from other Regions of Italy, Many Sicilians frequent Gambarie on Aspromonte, where the slopes are very near the hotels.
As for the other sports practiced in the mountains, sailing races are held alternate years on the lake of Lorica. Villaggio Mancuso offers equitation, and it is possible to rent a horse to ride in the forests of the Fossiata. This is all accessible now because of a chain of hotels which has been built throughout the highlands. This means that not only is it possible to find lodging in the traditional tourist centers, such as Camigliatello, Lorica, Silvana Mansio, Croce di Magaro, Villaggio Mancuso, Racisi, it is now possible to find a pleasant hotel along the many roads that cross the Sila in every direction, overlooking panoramas or in solitary spots where the countryside has preserved its untouched sylvan silence.
Hotel services are not guaranteed just in the Sila, on Serre or on Aspromonte. Besides those that permit a pleasant visit in the Pollino, there is frequently the chance for lodgings for a night or for a visit, as it is possible to find restaurants at the main crossroads and junctures along the roads that go towards the mountains. All the roads can be travelled with the certainty of finding what is needed for a serene and enjoyable stay.
There is no need to say that in any one of these places there is always a place or building that deserves a special visit, such as the monumental structure above Fagnano Castello, as the Lake of the Two Men; above Luzzi at the Abbey of Sambucina, or at Celico at the birthplace of the Abbot Joachim, in the Serre to the fountains of Polia, the ruins of Soriano, the Ferdinanca and to Mongiana, to the beautiful Town Hall of Civitanova, the engravings of Poro in the Zungri caves, the most substantial evidence of the cliff dweller civilization in Calabria; the Greek town along the southern slopes of Aspromonte.
A special characteristic of the Calabrian Mountains, apart from its climate and well preserved ecology, is its nearness to the sea. The numerous regional highways that cross the area permit one to go from a very high point in the mountains to the shore of one of the two seas in much less than an hour.
Not yet sufficiently famous, Calabria is revealing a great artistic heritage that has roots in every small center, witness of an ancient cultural life that is again beginning to stir. Buildings that deserve mention in tourist guides, sculptures housed in both public and private collections, paintings from many centuries and from every School make up a wealth of artistic expression that is turning out to be one of the most consistent in Italy. It could well be said that Calabria is a land of art, since both the scholar and the visitor will find every expectation filled.
Then that minor art that is artisanry, or handcrafts: the manifestation of popular intelligence and taste in not ordinary style meeting the daily and disparate requirements of the people’s life as well as the desire to adorn, within the modest limits of current conditions, both houses and persons. These crafts are plied today to satisfy the requests of increasing numbers of visitors to the Region, and are giving Calabria the fame of preserving those arts which, like the lute maker of Bisignano, have given the Region an international name. Responding to consistent requests in every area and in every epoch, there are master potters and ceramists in every zone and some zones have become and are still famous. The same is true of gold workers, who have surpassed the limits of a minor art and are delving into the realm of authentic artistic expression to reach the skill of the medieval masters. Wrought iron is specially forged in the mountain villages where it has an ancient tradition and where it is elaborately used for railings and chandeliers.
Woodcarving is practiced by masters skilled in chiseling decorated pieces of furniture. All these add a continuity of tradition to the map of Calabria, and of varied activities, including that of those women who still use old looms in weaving covers, drapery and shawls with wool or silk in simple or figured designs.
Getting down a bit to details, and following the Ionian-Tyrrhenian coast, we find ourselves in a zone which could be called the rug center. The area starts at Cariati, where in the mid 1500’s the Christians, fleeing Turkish slavery, brought the use of Oriental colors and figures. It continues on to Longobucco, Bocchigliero, Campana and Crucoli. Environmental differences, the fruit of age-old custom, protect the use of home looms for the production not only of rugs, covers and tapestries, but of linen. This activity is viable in all three provinces: in Mesoraca, in Tiriolo, famous for the “vancali”, in Centrache, in Fabrizia, in Gerace, in Casignana, Melito, Delianuova, Seminara, Polistena, Rombiolo, Vibo, Filadelfia, Maida, Nocera, Cerzeto where the design is reminiscent of the patriotic-religious themes of the Albanians. This is the single handcraft where only women work, even through in many other crafts she collaborates with men, as in the production of baskets for all kinds of uses, in infinite forms and sizes. This is generally seasonal work, in the province of Reggio in Seminara and Delianuova; in Catanzaro in Cartizzi, Soriano and Conflenti; in Cosenza only in Celico while in Spezzano in the Sila the art of making straw covering for flasks survives. It is mostly in central Calabria where ceramics, terracotta’s and metal pots are made, in the province of Catanzaro in Santa Flora, Squillace, Sant’Andrea, Soriano, Paravati, Nicotera, Tropea, Vibo, Capistrano and Lamezia. The potters of Bisignano, San Marco and Rende in the province of Cosenza are famous, and in the province of Reggio only those of Seminara are still active, but they are the most famous of all. The artisans of Calabria show a particular kind of taste in the building of furniture and chairs made in Oppido Mamertina, San Constantino, Serra San Bruno, Serrastretta, Soveria Mannelli, Rogliano, Rossano, Fagnano, Orsomarso and Firmo.
The pipes made in Melito Porto Salvo and in Villa San Giovanni are further proof of the particular taste of Calabrian artisans. But it is working gold that they show the ancient refinement and delicacy of their touch, particularly in Caccuri, Castelsilano, and San Giovanni in Fiore and Crotone, known internationally by now.
Its most striking attraction is still Calabria’s folklore, a direct expression of its extraordinarily rich heritage. Not only the great variety of women’s dress, brilliant in the Oriental use of gold as was typical of their Albanian historical homes, triumphantly showy in the vivid colors used in some areas of the mountain villages, but all, everywhere, accentuate the typical beauty of the women of Calabria.
The ostentation is remarkable particularly in the repetition of some representations which place at fixed dates, such as the various “Pigghiate” and “affruntate” (scourging and meetings) that take place during the passion play. Among these is the “Giudaica” by Laino, repeated according to an ancient text on alternate dates ever since the 1500’s and in which nearly the entire population of the town takes part; or the Christmas celebrations where “tableaux vivants” are organized either in the open or monumental constructions are set up inside the Churches, occasionally with real shepherds on the spot.
But the religious spirit of the people of the towns has always found a way to graft onto this age-old manifestation of the Faith, those newer needs of the very young – those who at the beginning of the year, on New Years’ Day, go from house to house, knocking at the door and singing a rigama-role involving each member of the family – and that, when you get right down to it, is simply an invitation to be generous with those who have so generously offered their wit and best wishes for the New Year. In the mountain villages especially, it is still the custom to celebrate the Death of Carnival. The ritual is entirely entrusted to the whim of the actors who, when they do not follow the scheme of some old scenario follow instead the tradition of the Comedian dell’Arte. In those towns that have Albanian origins, the scene is different – there the representation is based on the lament for the lost fatherland and on the glorification of Scanderbeg, the national hero. At Castelvillari this festival is given even broader scope and there is in fact an international folklore festival.
A celebration that recurs on a set date is the one called “Primavera Albanese”, that is, Albanian Springtime; the Albanian towns in the province of Cosenza celebrate this holiday collectively in a grandiose costumed festival, with scenes and representations tying together the military traditions and the patriotic feelings still alive among the Albanians in Calabria.
Beyond these curious series of celebrations, there are other more particular celebrations giving the Region a kind of exclusivity with regard to typical rites and rituals, like the hunting festival celebrated each year at the end of June in San Roberto at the close of the season or the Mushroom Festival that takes place in various centers of the Sila and the Serre.
These are all popular celebrations where the happy spirit of all the people finds a way to express its spontaneous enthusiasm for tradition in an ingenuous form of the art of the conditions of its very existence.
Calabrian dishes are, as they have always been, based on the agricultural produce of the Region. The recipes, however, are extremely imaginative, as is to be expected of a population which has had to satisfy the most particular tastes and needs which were developed through the centuries under the influence and in the presence of peoples of the most diverse origins, used to the most varied ways of preparing the most varied dishes.
Homemade pasta, prepared with a refinement which borders on the artistic, and cooked vegetables, form the predominant dishes. Meat – who is to deny the pleasure of good kid roasted with potatoes, generously sprinkled with pepper – is most usually prepared with sauce or roasted, using barely those spices and herbs traditional in each area, but always generously seasoned with good, local pepper, freshly ground and cooked, strong or mild according to taste. Salame and sausage meat as well as the cheeses are, because of their variety and many specialties, a perfect complement to the most refined meal.
And what makes the Calabrian cuisine even more qualified, is that only these dishes can accompany the most ancient wines the world knows. These are Ciro or Greco, wines which in those most remote times and in every part of the Region, stimulated the cultivation of grapevines, so that wines were produced of the most differing quality and taste, each characteristic, if not of a town or village, then at least of an entire zone.