Escape Winter in Calabria

Sea and palm trees along the sea walk Escape Winter in Calabria
The Lungomare or sea walk beside the ocean. Even on a cool day, it feels tropical and exotic.

As I slogged through the snow and slid my way across the icy sidewalk last winter, I vowed I would escape the cold next year. But where to go?

My criteria were simple

Warmth – I didn’t need heat but I wanted to be able to walk each day in lots of sunshine, with no more than a light jacket. I was even able to wear sandals once (though most of the populace stared pointedly at my feet and patently thought I was insane).

feet with sandals on
yup, I wore sandals one day

History and culture – I wanted to be in a place whose history and culture would provide plenty of fascinating opportunities for exploration

street with older buildings in Soverato
The main street of Soverato

Cost – budget was an inevitable consideration and this had to include the cost of insurance, no small expense as we get older.

broken piggy bank and coins

So I came to Italy. Not to Rome, or Venice, or Florence, but to Calabria.

rowsof olive trees stretch to the sea
Olive groves stretch to the sea in the distance

Now, most guidebooks give this southernmost part of Italy short shrift, and though many Northern Italians come here for their holidays, a relatively small number of non-Italians do. But in February and March, Calabria is glorious. The sun shines, the temperatures remain temperate and the people are charming. Most importantly, unlike the more cosmopolitan cities further north, Calabrian towns remain stubbornly Italian.

palm tree and houses
The view of sunrise from our terrace at Maison Girasole

Air B & B came through in the form of Maison Girasole – Sunflower House. How could I resist the name? We had been warned that accommodations might be sparsely furnished and lacking essentials like towels, toilet paper and soap. But our hosts, Lino and Maria Caterina, had gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure we had everything we could possibly need. We were surprised to find a washer, hair dryers, laundry detergent, and even essentials like tea, coffee, milk, sugar and olive oil. Of course, being Italian, there were two more essentials – a sweet little cheese grater and a corkscrew!

beach with boat in foreground
Even on a dull day, the beach is glorious

Soverato Marina has a long stretch of beach on the Ionian Sea. During our time here, we found that this same sea could look very different – gray, rough and menacing when the sky is overcast, and on sunny days, bright azure with gentle waves lapping the beach. A walk along the Lungomare – the sea walk – quickly became one of our favourite strolls. At several points along its length, we could walk up the street to one of several Dolci Cafes.

croissant with pistachio cream
Pistachio cream oozes from the centre of my croissant at Soverato Dolci

Indeed, an essential part of each day was a cappuccino and a dolci – a sweet. I kept finding new treats but one of favourites is called chiacchiere and is a special treat at Carnival time (Carnival or Mardi Gras festivals are common throughout Europe).

Chiachierre crispy fried dough dusted with powdered sugar
Chiachierre quickly became one of my favourite treats

Chiacchiere are light as air and crisp. Indeed, most dolci are small and not overly sweet, just a nice little treat to enjoy with coffee.

fresh vegetables in market stall

Friday is market day when local farmers bring their produce into town and people from miles around come to buy. There’s more than food – everything from housewares to long underwear (though I have to wonder why anyone needs long underwear here!). We bought fresh fish, veggies, lovely pecorino nero (black coated sheep milk cheese), delicate slices of prosciutto, and brined local olives. The eggs are delicious and their yolks here are an extraordinary orange yellow. The tomatoes are picked ripe, so the flavour of sunshine is packed into each tangy bite. Even the carrots and potatoes seemed sweet.

cheeses hanging outside a cheese stall
We loved the cheeses at the market, nearly all of which were local Calabrian products.

With all this emphasis on food, we haven’t gained an ounce. We walk everywhere and despite our lack of Italian, seem to have made friends all over. It’s not unusual to be given an extra orange at the market, or to find an occasional sample treat by our cappuccino in the cafe.

narrow street winding between houses
Typical narrow street in Soverato Superiore, the old town above the Marina.

One day we hiked up to the pretty town of Soverato Superiore (Upper Soverato) which is very old, with narrow winding streets. We went to visit the Church of Maria Santissima Addolorata to see the famous Gagini Pietà . Sculpted in 1521 by Antonello Gagini who worked with Michaelangelo, it was badly destroyed in an earthquake in 1763, and restored in Florence only a few decades ago. Mary’s face shows clearly her pain as she tenderly holds her dead son.

sculpture of a pieta - Mary holds her dead son, Jesus in her arms
The Pieta sculpted by Antonella Gagini in 1521 has an unusual base with St. Thomas Aquinas and Averroes (a Muslim scholar) in dialogue.

Our guide was the elderly parish priest who lovingly showed us around. What’s really remarkable, he said, is the Pietà’s base. Here are the figures of St. Thomas Aquinas and Averroes (also known as Ibn Rushd), a Muslim scholar who wrote about many subjects. I was amazed to learn from the priest that the two had dialogues in the early 12th century. Who knew that ecumenism was born that early!

From Soverato, there are lots of places to explore. Antonio D’Ippolitto, a local travel agent, kindly organized tours for us to nearby mountain villages. Indeed, he proved a gem as he speaks excellent English. (He’s also a great cook. Check his recipe for gnocchi).

selfie of three women and a man
Antonio with us – a selfie

In many ways Soverato was ideal.There is lots to explore nearby and Soverato in February and March – their winter – is relatively inexpensive. Most places have wifi so keeping in touch with snow-bound family and friends isn’t hard.

Places of interest nearby

Norman fort remains against the sky
The Norman fort at Gerace, built along the sides of a mountain, is a marvel of engineering.

Gerace: a mountaintop village in the Aspromonte. It dates to Paleolithic times but there is a wonderful Norman castle, mostly in ruins, which still stands. Built along the edge of the mountain so it stands above the peak, the mind boggles at this feat of construction!

Badolato, a town whose houses straddle the side of a mountain
The town of Badolato straddles the side of a mountain and made a name for offering homes to refugees.

Badolato: was heavily destroyed by an earthquake. Most of the houses in the 1,000-year-old village, 900 ft above the Mediterranean, had been abandoned more than four decades when a boatload of Kurdish refugees arrived in Italy from Turkey in 1997. The mayor offered the empty homes and the community helped the Kurds fix them so they could live there.

Old church with palm and lemon trees in the foreground
Mondo-X is a community which takes in addicts. It has been created in the remains of an old monastery near Badolato.

Most have moved on to find jobs in other parts of Italy but the same community welcomed Syrian refugees recently. And a local monastery, long abandoned too, now houses a community of religious and non-religious called Mondo-X. They take in addicts and help them find a new path in life through working in the gardens and restoring the old buildings.

A globe split in two andcovered in colourful ceramic tiles
One of the smaller ceramic creations at MuSaBa

MuSaBa: Nearly 50 years ago, Nik Spatari and Hiske Maas bought a crumbling monastery and began covering its stone walls with ceramic tiles in the most brilliant colours.

The walls of the monsatery are covered with colourful mosaic tiles

International acclaim brought other artists to contribute. It’s beautiful, full of light and colour. Everywhere one turns there is colour in the midst of this olive drab Calabrian landscape. Go to Musaba.org to see more of their creativity.

giant rock in the sea with pink sunset and clouds
The sun set lights the sky in pink at Pietra Grande

Pietro Grande: It just means Big Rock….and it is. But it’s a striking scene. About 10 km away, we opted to walk rather than take a bus. It was well worth the effort and before we had been on the beach 10 minutes, we already had an offer of a lift back to Soverato later in the day. Indeed, by day’s end we had two more offers from kind people.

Further afield

view of sea and coast with castle walls in foreground
View from the top of Castello Aragonas in Reggio di Calabria

Reggio di Calabria: the main town of the region is right at the bottom, opposite Sicily and easily accessed by train in about 90 minutes. Its history harks back to pre-Christian times. Indeed, evidence suggests that early man walked these mountains. Calabria has been invaded by Greeks, Turks, Saracens, Normans, the Byzantine Empire, and of course, the Roman and Neopolitan empires.

large stone with sculpted angels at either side
This stone is said to have burned spontaneously while St. Paul preached to the heathens in this area

In the Cathedral of Reggio Calabria, a stone can be found in St. Paul’s Chapel which is said to have burned with a flame, lighting the early Christian as he preached to the pagans.

Seafront with statue and pretty tiles
The Lungomare in Reggio di Calabria

There’s a pretty beach and Lungomare (seafront walk) here too.

Pizzo: this small seaside town on the West coast of Italy, famous for its gelato. Our favourite was Chez Toi, where Maurino has been making creamy gelato since 1973!

I love pistachio gelato and this one even has pieces of nut in it. We watched him make a flaming volcano for one customer and their signature tartuffo for another.

stairs in a narrow alleyway
Stairs, stairs and more stairs – it’s a good way to work off the gelato

The gelato provided much-needed sustenance – I’ve never climbed or descended so many steps. The town is built, as are so many Calabrian towns, along a mountainside. The piazza near the top is lovely with open air cafes and shops. I figure the inhabitants must be pretty fit – those that don’t smoke, of course. Smoking is ubiquitous in Italy!

a castle stands high above the town
This was the castle of Murat, King of Naples and brother-in-law of Napoleon

Of course, there’s a castle built by Napoleon’s brother-in-law, Murat, who was briefly King of Naples. And pretty churches pop up at every turn.

man holding tinwares beside a table of tin goods
Rocco Lino followed in his father’s footsteps and makes all sorts of things from tin.

We stumbled onto a tiny tin maker’s shop near the old fountain. Rocco Lico fashions pots, scoops, and more out of tin, a craft he learned from his father.

surf on rocks through a hole in the cliff wall
Blue sea and white rocks with lots of sandy beach make Tropea a popular summer spot with Italians

Tropea: Very much a resort town on the breathtaking coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea – also known as the “Coast of the Gods” – Tropea is beautiful. But as with Pizzo, there are lots of stairs as the city straggles along the side of the mountain.

Homemade spaghetti with rose shrimp at La Villetta in Tropea

Only one restaurant was open at lunch and it proved a gem. La Villetta’s chef, Antonio Salamó, makes his own pasta and the rose shrimp tossed into my simple garlic scented spaghetti was fresh and sweet.

Most remarkable here is Santa Maria dell’Isola, a 4th century monastery perched high up on a cliff out over the sea.

monastery building perched on a hilltop in Tropea
It looks like anew doll house but this monastery originally dates back to the 4th century.

Visible from almost everywhere, it’s only accessible by climbing up a winding flight carved right into the cliff. It looks almost like a tiny doll house when viewed from the main piazza.

Tips for Coping with Calabrian Life

  • People are friendly. Make a point of learning basic greetings and smile. You will make friends readily.
  • The water is very clean here but contains an excess of calcium. Even the locals drink bottled water because so much calcium can result in kidney stones.
  • Everything (EVERYTHING) closes by about 12:30 p.m. and doesn’t re-open until at least 4 p.m. This is rest time. Families gather for the midday meal and a rest afterwards. This is one of the hardest things to become accustomed to managing. Plan ahead. I ran out of water and couldn’t even make a cuppa because the grocer was shut!
  • Time is fluid. People might say 4 p.m. and turn up at 4:30 p.m.
  • Many restaurants don’t open at lunch and start evening service at 7 p.m. at the earliest.
  • Supermarkets are great, but watch street corners, where you’ll often find cute little Ape (pronounced ah pay) vehicles (essentially these are motorcycles with a two-wheeled pickup truck rear part). From these the driver sells fresh fruit that’s often cheaper and fresher. If you like a particular vendor, ask when he comes.
  • Dining out is inexpensive but note that if you go to a coffee shop and sit down, you have opted for table service. The price can rise from €1.20 to €1.50 for a cup of cappuccino. You’re paying a little more for the privilege of someone clearing up after you. The good news is that tipping isn’t necessary; it’s already included in the cost of the meal.
  • Did you know that health care in Italy is completely free? I know this for a fact, as one of the Canadians here became very ill and even required emergency surgery. She was transported by ambulance to a larger health centre and had all the tests (including CT scans) and the surgery. There was no charge at all. But note, that it might be worthwhile to obtain health insurance to transport you home in such a situation.

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