The Secret Charms of Calabria

Calabria, the rugged toe of Italy eternally poised to give Sicily a nudge, is little known even to a majority of Italians. Isolated until recently by poor transportation, this Connecticut-size region was also associated with the chronic poverty that drove millions of Calabrians to immigrate to the United States between 1876 (when Italy had a severe economic recession) and the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Savvy Roman and Milanese vacationers have long been aware, however, that Calabria contains many of the most beautiful beaches in Italy, along with some of the most spectacular ancient Greek ruins in the Mediterranean, plus dozens of charming villages perched on seaside cliffs or on mountaintops in the interior. Along with its excellent traditional cooking, Calabria has a growing number of Italy’s most inventive modern restaurants.

Calabria’s like the Amalfi Coast in the 1950s — glamorous but discreet and chic in a low-key way.

“Calabria’s like the Amalfi Coast in the 1950s — glamorous but discreet and chic in a low-key way,” said a Swedish expat who lives in Tropea when we fell into conversation in the bar of the local yacht club after a daylong boating expedition along the Costa degli Dei, the “Coast of the Gods,” an aptly named littoral lapped by the turquoise waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea. And as we discovered during a recent trip through the region, Calabria also now has several hotels that are delightful, distinctive and comfortable enough to be good bases for anyone who wants to combine a seaside vacation with day trips exploring this quiet and still authentic corner of Italy. Among the sights, beyond the superb museums in Crotone and Reggio Calabria, are the Norman churches at Stilo, Bivongi and Gerace; the sixth-century illuminated Gospels in Rossano; and paintings by Mattia Preti, Calabria’s famed artist and a follower of Caravaggio, in the museum in Rende. A week in Calabria is easily added to longer itineraries in southern Italy, which might include nearby Campania, Puglia, Basilicata and Sicily.

Costa degli Dei, or the “Coast of the Gods,” in Calabria, Italy
Costa degli Dei, or the “Coast of the Gods,” in Calabria, Italy - Naeblys/iStock/Getty Images

Having landed at Lamezia Terme, Calabria’s main airport, we were immediately surprised by the excellence of the region’s roads, which are well-maintained and clearly signed. We headed east through countryside marked by vineyards, fields of biscuit-colored wheat and prickly stands of barbary fig cactus, stopping for lunch at the restaurant Due Mari in the town of Tiriolo. Only a 15-minute detour from the highway, this family-owned establishment, built on steep slopes below the town’s 12th-century Norman castle, offers dramatic views and friendly service, as well as excellent traditional Calabrian cooking. There, we feasted on fettuccine with spicy chicken-liver ragu, paccheri (a large tubular pasta) in a swordfish sauce, veal scaloppine with porcini mushrooms, and a pine nut pastry drizzled with honey.

Calabria was colonized by the Greeks during the eighth and seventh centuries B.C., because its location in the center of the Mediterranean put it on many ancient trade routes and gave it strategic importance. The Greeks founded the cities of Reggio Calabria, Sibari, Crotone and Scilla, a pretty seaside town on the Strait of Messina that appears in Greek mythology in the tale of the sea monsters Scylla and Charybdis, nowadays a metaphor for having to choose between equally unappealing alternatives. When the Romans added the region to their empire in 132 B.C., they called it Magna Graecia (Great Greece). Later, it was successively occupied by the Lombards, Normans and Swabians, finally coming under Spanish domination, during which many of the region’s formidable fortresses, including those in Reggio Calabria and Crotone, were built.

Praia Art Resort

Isola di Capo Rizzuto

The beach at Praia Art Resort in Praialonga
The beach at Praia Art Resort in Praialonga - Gaetano De Girolamo Del Mauro

Much of Calabria’s history could be read on the landscapes that we traversed during the 50-mile drive from the airport to the pine-shaded hamlet of Praialonga, situated at the edge of the Isola di Capo Rizzuto marine reserve. There, the 30-room Praia Art Resort occupies a series of whitewashed villas, surrounded by immaculately tended gardens and ornamented by blazes of purple bougainvillea. The welcome was cordial and efficient, and a friendly young staff member offered us a brief tour of the property.

At the heart of the resort are a casual restaurant and a bar next to a large swimming pool shaded by umbrella pines. A residents-only beach club, set on a lovely stretch of pale sand, offers another bar and restaurant, plus several hammocks mounted on posts in the sea. Praia’s third restaurant is the Michelin one-star Pietramare Natural Food, one of the best restaurants in Calabria, which is open only for dinner.

Like the resort itself, our Elegance Suite displayed a relaxed, low-key chic, with a beamed cathedral ceiling, cool terra-cotta tile floors, a king-size bed made up in white cotton sheets, a leather sofa, excellent lighting and striking contemporary art. The bath came with a stall shower, double vanities and a polished cement floor. A Jacuzzi was situated next to sliding doors that led to a spacious terrace. The overall effect was original and confidently stylish.

In the evening, we dined at Pietramare Natural Food, where young chef Ciro Sicignano’s contemporary Italian cooking proved fresh and delicious. Notable dishes included langoustines from the Ionian Sea with eggplant and mozzarella, and roasted suckling pig with a reduction of green apples. Sicignano also offers a menu of traditional Calabrian dishes, prepared with a contemporary twist, while the wine list showcases bottles by Calabria’s excellent but little-known vintners.

The following day, we set out to explore the surrounding region, which is rich in ancient Greek archaeological sites. The glorious views of the sea from the ruins of the fifth-century B.C. temple of Hera Lacinia at Capo Colonna made it easy to understand why the Greeks chose this site for a sanctuary dedicated to Hera, the wife of Zeus and queen of the gods. Crotone, famous in the ancient world for a school founded by the philosopher Pythagoras, has unlovely industrial outskirts, but the unselfconscious seaside town itself has a sleepy charm. The intricate fifth-century B.C. diadem of golden leaves displayed in its small archaeological museum alone made a visit worthwhile. Miraculously well-preserved, it was discovered during excavations at Capo Colonna in 1910. After the museum visit, we enjoyed a lunch of shrimp tartare and spaghetti with sea urchins at Ristorante Da Ercole, an excellent restaurant on the palm tree-shaded seafront at the heart of the old town.

- Hotel at a Glance -

Praia Art Resort    92Andrew Harper Bird

Like

The outstanding cooking and service at Pietramare Natural Food restaurant; the beautiful private beach; the tranquil setting.

Dislike

Housekeeping failed to service our room one day until prompted; the level of English among staff members could be improved.

Good to Know

The best off-property restaurant within easy driving distance is Trattoria La Bussola in Le Castella, a relaxed and cozy place where locally caught seafood takes pride of place on the menu; children under 12 are not accepted.


Rates: Lowest Rate: Patio Room, $280; Editor’s Choice: Elegance Suite, $430
Address: Località Praialonga S.S. 106, Isola di Capo Rizzuto
Telephone: (39) 096-2190-2890

View Praia Art Resort Hotel Listing

A view of Gerace in Calabria
A view of Gerace in Calabria - Jan Mach/iStock/Getty Images

Leaving the Praia Art Resort with regret, we headed south to visit the villages of Stilo, with its ninth-century Byzantine church, and Gerace, a Norman stronghold perched on a 1,600-foot rock. We arrived at Santa Cristina d’Aspromonte in time for lunch at Michelin one-star Qafiz — the name refers to a traditional Arab unit of measurement for olive oil — one of the most lauded of the new generation of Calabrian restaurants, with just four tables. There, chef Nino Rossi offers succulent and imaginative dishes like pasta with raw artichokes, salt cod and bergamot, and amberjack à la plancha, with endive, mandarin orange and a clam sauce.

Porto Pirgos

Parghelia

The pool at Porto Pirgos in Parghelia
The pool at Porto Pirgos in Parghelia - Photo by Hideaway Report editor

On the advice of Roman friends who’ve been coming to Calabria every summer for the past 25 years, we checked into the 18-room Porto Pirgos in Parghelia. A robotic young woman who neglected to greet us provided a less than ideal introduction to the resort. Fortunately, the property itself, which was originally created from a private residence built on the ruins of a medieval Spanish watchtower, made a more favorable impression. (The view from the roof of the tower at sunset is unmissable.)

Some of the Deluxe Rooms with sea views have been recently renovated and should be specifically requested. Ours was comfortable and came with a well-equipped bath and a spacious private patio with two sun loungers. However, the remainder of the accommodations have a formal and dated appearance, with heraldic-print bedspreads, gilded headboards and ’60s and ’70s neo-baroque furniture. Overall, this old-fashioned décor is at odds with the lovely seaside setting.

Amenities at the property include an enormous and well-maintained pool. A second saltwater pool is located at the hotel’s private white-sand Mediterranean beach. It takes about 10 minutes to walk down to the beach from the hotel, but electric golf-cart transfers are available. The hotel also offers access to tennis courts and can arrange private boat trips along the coastline.

The restaurant serves well-prepared, uncomplicated cuisine, and we thoroughly enjoyed a dinner of spaghetti with shrimp, followed by grilled sea bass. Our first experience at the front desk proved untypical, and service at the hotel was consistently friendly and eager to please. The quiet and polite atmosphere of this property makes it a relaxing base from which to explore.

- Hotel at a Glance -

Porto Pirgos    89

Like

The charming service in the dining room and at the beach club; the wonderful swimming pools; the mesmerizing views of the Mediterranean.

Dislike

Many of the rooms and public areas would be more inviting if they had a less dated and grandmotherly décor.

Good to Know

For families, this hotel is a good base from which to visit Tropea.


Rates: Lowest Rate: Superior Room, $490; Editor’s Choice: Deluxe Room with Sea View, $550
Address: Località Marina di Bordila, S.S. 522, Parghelia
Telephone: (39) 096-360-0458

Porto Pirgos

After breakfast the following morning, we headed to nearby Tropea (population 6,500), the perched village that, according to legend, was founded by the Roman god Hercules. Today, medieval Tropea is one of the best-preserved towns in southern Italy, and one that should be discovered on foot. Its Norman cathedral contains a notable Byzantine painting of the Virgin Mary of Romania, Tropea’s patron saint. And it is definitely worth the steep climb up to the church of Santa Maria dell’Isola for spectacular views of the town and adjacent coastline.

A view of the beach in Tropea
A view of the beach in Tropea - Photo by Hideaway Report editor

For a timeout during a walking tour of Tropea, head to Gelati Tonino (Corso Vittorio Emanuele 50) for an ice cream cone, where the options include such offbeat flavors as red onion, squid ink and ’nduja (the soft pork sausage tinted red by fiery peppers, one of Calabria’s signature condiments).

Villa Paola

Tropea

Villa Paola in Tropea, Italy
Villa Paola in Tropea, Italy - Photo by Hideaway Report editor

Having indulged in an excellent lunch of tuna tartare, seafood pasta and grilled swordfish with sweet red onions (the famous cipolle rossa di Tropea) on the dappled terrace at La Pergola restaurant (Via Annunziata), we drove to the nearby 11-room Villa Paola. Created from a 16th-century convent, the handsome clifftop villa was remodeled at the end of the 19th century and is now painted a striking oxblood red with smart white trim. Set amid magnificent terraced gardens, it overlooks the Marina di Tropea.

Inside, a mix of antique and contemporary furniture, bookcases and stylish artwork gives the property the aura of a private home owned by a cultivated Italian family. Our cozy suite came with parquet floors, a large marble coffee table and a sitting area with a white cotton canvas-upholstered sofa. Having unpacked, we relaxed on our spacious private terrace and gazed at the stunning view of the town, which formed a backdrop for the extensive orchards and gardens that supply the villa’s dining room. (Dinner is available by advanced request, and the food is simple but well-prepared.)

A patio at Villa Paola - Photo by Hideaway Report editor
A view from a terrace at Villa Paola - Photo by Hideaway Report editor
An Executive Room at Villa Paola  - Eric Cuvillier
A seating area on a terrace at Villa Paola - Eric Cuvillier
Our suite at Villa Paola - Photo by Hideaway Report editor
The seating area in our suite at Villa Paola - Photo by Hideaway Report editor
The pool at Villa Paola  - Eric Cuvillier

The following day, the hotel’s affable front desk staff arranged an excursion aboard a private yacht along the azure Costa degli Dei. Once out at sea, we lounged on cushions, gazing back to shore and listening to the captain’s recitation of the local landmarks and attractions. Eventually, he dropped anchor, and we dived overboard for an invigorating swim. Back on board, we discovered that local canapés and chilled Spumante had been set out. Sometimes life can seem hard to improve.

- Hotel at a Glance -

Villa Paola    94Andrew Harper Bird

Like

The magnificent gardens with private terraces overlooking the Mediterranean; the stylish contemporary décor; the friendly and obliging staff.

Dislike

The beauty of the villa and its setting warrant more-elevated cooking in the restaurant.

Good to Know

Tropea is best visited with a private guide booked through CST Tropea (csttropea.it); spa days at the nearby Capovaticano Resort Thalasso & Spa can be arranged; guests under age 18 are not accepted.


Rates: Lowest Rate: Superior Room, $290; Editor’s Choice: Executive Room, $580
Address: Contrada Paola, Tropea
Telephone: (39) 096-361-769

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Italy has long been the most popular country in the world for Hideaway Report members, but nowadays, many of the classic cities and regions can be badly overcrowded. So, over the past two to three years, we have undertaken several journeys in order to explore lesser-known areas such as Puglia, Abruzzo, Basilicata and, now, Calabria. These trips have been intensely rewarding, and we have discovered a gratifying number of recommendable hideaways. In addition, we have wined and dined extraordinarily well, gazed at indelible landscapes and become immersed in the area’s deep and fascinating cultural history. For many Americans, southern Italy was a land from which their ancestors fled at a time of great hardship. But today, it is a wonderful region in which to enjoy the traditional pleasures of travel in this most beautiful of all countries.


Read more about our editor’s trip to Calabria

By Hideaway Report Editor Hideaway Report editors travel the world anonymously to give you the unvarnished truth about luxury hotels. Hotels have no idea who the editors are, so they are treated exactly as you might be.
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