A beginner's guide to Calabria, Italy

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Tried Sicily and Puglia? Now discover southern Italy's most enticing region and explore Calabria's 500 miles of coastline and rugged interior. Between its landscapes, wild beauty and superb food, you have the ingredients for an unforgettable holiday.

A beginner's guide to Calabria, Italy © Jovannig - Fotolia.com
A beginner's guide to Calabria, Italy © Jovannig - Fotolia.com

Clinging to the edge of Italy's toe, Calabria is an unsung region that deserves to be better known, and with new holidays from TUI for summer 2019*, this could start to change. Get to know this land of fantastic beaches, pretty hilltop villages and some of Italy's hottest cuisine.

1. You'll be in beach heaven

Surrounded by the Tyrrhenian and Ionian seas, Calabria has some of the most beautiful beaches in Italy - and some of the most remote. Unless you're there in August when it seems that the entire Italian population is on holiday, you won't find the crowds that fill up the resorts in other parts of the country.

Check out the sandy coves that make up Capo Vaticano* on Calabria's Tyrrhenian coast, where you can rent a sunlounger or scramble on the rocks to a more secluded corner.

Carry on north towards Basilicata, and you'll have a huge choice of resorts that are strung out along a 60-mile sandy coastline. Amantea is a good bet if you want plenty of space. You can even beach-hop by taking the train that trundles all along the coast from Naples to Reggio Calabria in the south.

Over on the Ionian side, sandy beaches smother the coastline and offer a dizzying number of resorts, including Soverato and Santa Caterina dello Ionio.

Four star Hotel Villaggio Il Gabbiano, Capo Vaticano, Calabria - photo courtesy of TUI
Four star Hotel Villaggio Il Gabbiano, Capo Vaticano, Calabria - photo courtesy of TUI

2. Be charmed by its towns and villages

If you arrive at Calabria's airport at Lamezia Terme, you're not far from two of the region's most beguiling towns. Pizzo* sits high on a cliff overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea, with a beach below and the 15th-century Castello Murat in between.

Stop at Bar Gelateria Ercole in Piazza della Repubblica to try Pizzo's contribution to Calabrian food: tartufo. It's like a giant chocolate truffle but filled with ice cream, and it's divine.

Pizzo is a lovely prelude to Tropea, which is probably the only town in Calabria that can be called chic. Stand on the beach below to get one of the most dramatic views of the town's houses that seem to melt into the high cliff. Opposite is a promontory where you can stroll through olive groves to the church of Santa Maria dell'Isola.

There's more prettiness further down the coast at Scilla, where pastel-coloured cottages cover the hillside between the wide sandy beach and the main village on top. Take in panoramic views from Castello Ruffo, which is marooned on a promontory.

3. It's the spice of life

The further south in Italy you go, the spicier the cuisine. And you can't get hotter than Calabria, where the long thin red chilli peppers known as peperoncini light the flame of the region's food.

It flavours everything from cured meats to ice cream, but one of the best ways to enjoy it is in 'nduja. The vivid red colour of this spreadable sausage gives a slight clue as to the heat within - but it's a warm glow rather than a blow-your-head-off experience. Look out for fileja con 'nduja, in which thin spirals of pasta are covered in the spicy stuff.

Spicy Calabrian 'nduja sausage © Centaur - Fotolia.com
Spicy Calabrian 'nduja sausage © Centaur - Fotolia.com

If you need to cool off, there's always gelato - especially the tartufo from Pizzo. Try the pistachio version for an extra wallop of flavour.

4. Head to the hills

Only 10% of Calabria is flat, which isn't surprising when you see that the Apennine Mountains snake their way down to the foot of the region. It's not only the coast that's full of rocky cliffs looming over the sea.

Inland there are three national parks of soaring mountains and thick forests - Aspromonte in the deep south, Sila in the centre and Pollino in the north. If you want an active break, visit the ski resort in Sila, which turns into an outdoor adventure park in the summer.

5. Go back to ancient times

History buffs will want to see Calabria's most celebrated works of art - the Riace bronzes. These giant statues dating from the 5th,century BCE were discovered in the Ionian Sea near the town of Riace in 1972, and now hold pride of place in the archaeological museum in Reggio Calabria.

For more recent history - that is, the 16th century - visit the Aragonese Fortress on the tip of the village of Le Castella facing the Ionian Sea. You'll get wonderful views of the coast from the top of this forbidding fortification that looks like an oversized sandcastle.

6. Join the party at some unusual festivals

Like the rest of Italy, Calabria likes a good party - especially when it's in the mood to celebrate anything to do with food.

Not surprisingly, chilli peppers have their own festival in the town of Diamante on Calabria's northern coast towards Basilicata. Over five days in September, Il Festival del Peperoncino fills the town with colourful (and mouthwatering) food stalls, cooking demos and live music.

Right at the southern tip of Calabria is the Pentedattilo Film Festival, which takes place every August. Tiny Pentedattilo, tucked into craggy granite cliffs, was one of Italy's ghost villages and all but abandoned.

Over recent years, artists and artisans started buying the derelict cottages and restoring life to the village. During the festival, films are screened in the atmospheric amphitheatre at the foot of the village, which is also the setting for summertime concerts.

7. Get a tantalising taste of Sicily

Barely two miles separate Calabria from Sicily across the Strait of Messina. If you want an entertaining way to visit Sicily, take one of the daily boat trips from Tropea harbour across to Stromboli in the Aeolian Islands.

Returning from a day trip to Stromboli © Maudanros - Fotolia.com
Returning from a day trip to Stromboli © Maudanros - Fotolia.com

Spend the afternoon exploring this beguiling spot where Stromboli's volcano constantly smoulders in the background. It's an uncanny place, with black sandy beaches and toy-like cottages. Then, as the boat makes its return journey, you can watch Stromboli's continuous lava flow light up the mountain in a fiery orange spectacle.

Does Calabria sounds like your kind of Italy? TUI is now offering holidays to Calabria direct from both London Gatwick and Manchester from May 2019, so check out the latest deals and online offers to book your escape for less today. Remember, you can also find out more about the weather in Calabria, and see when we think is the best time to go.

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Mary Novakovich

Mary Novakovich

Mary Novakovich is an award-winning journalist, travel writer and author. She often writes about Croatia, France, Italy and Greece for the likes of The Independent, The Guardian and The Telegraph. Mary has also written numerous guidebooks and a travel memoir, "My Family and Other Enemies: Life and Travels in Croatia's Hinterland".

Posted on Monday 30th July 2018 in: Europe Excursions Summer TUI

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