We spent almost half of our trip in Calabria discovering its hilltop villages (they are officially called towns, but to me they resemble more to the rural life, so I will keep to the “village” term). Hidden behind high mountains rocks and with access roads that sometimes test all your driving abilities, these solitary villages still preserve the traditions, crafts, architecture and cuisine of a somehow forgotten world.
Calabria’s history, to which these villages are very much linked, has been both tragic and dark. Marked by wars, foreign occupations, but also earthquakes, volcano eruptions and flooding, the area was a bit left behind in the national process of development. Some say it’s also due to the corrupt local authorities and to ’Ndrangheta, the local organized crime syndicate. Still, looking on the bright side of things, the result of all this misfortune can be seen today in Calabria’s raw beauty (still not much touched by a high number of tourists), culinary traditions and local culture.
What I would see as a bit of an irony is that the people of Calabria have more cultural connections to other Mediterranean peoples, such as the Greeks, Cypriots, Turkish, Arabs, and North Africans than with their Northern compatriots of the Italian Lakes, for instance, or Venice.
For example, The Greeks established colonies on the Ionian coast of Calabria in the 8th century BC that became the great Magna Graecia civilization. Evidences of this colonization can be seen even today particularly in the language, customs and crafts, such as the techniques used to produce village pottery and the designs and patterns that decorate ceramics, jewellery and textiles. Some of the remote villages still speak Greek even today.
The Arabs were also frequent visitors to Calabria, leaving their mark on the cuisine, language and textiles, while the legacy of the Normans lays in the magnificent castles and church architecture. Almost each of these villages still has the ruins of a Norman castle (sometimes open for visiting, sometimes inaccessible due to roads that have collapsed) and they all have a standing church right in the center of the village.
Here’s a list of the villages we visited during our Calabrian vacation. I sorted them based on the area they are included in. In some we spent only a few hours, having a walk on their streets, in some we stopped for the night and explored a bit more.
Villages in the Aspromonte National Park
Founded in the Neolithic Age (7th-8th century B.C.) and a Magna Graecia settlement since the 6th century, Bova is considered the capital of Hellenism in Calabria, the most important center of the Greek or Bovesia communities. It is a language island that includes Bova, Condofuri, Gallicianò, Roccaforte del Greco, Roghudi where they still speak a dialect of Greek origin and preserve the traditions of the Ancient East. Greek influence is still visible in textile production of brightly colored blankets and carpets.
Narrow streets sometimes no more than 1 meter wide, small churches, stone houses to keep cool during hot summer days, Bova has a beautiful village center very much worth exploring for at least a couple of hours.
A walk up to the Norman castle is a must. Even if you will only find some ruins, you will get a beautiful panoramic view over the village and the surroundings.
What’s really interesting about this village is that, considering that it’s still part of the Greek communities, most of the signs are also written in the Greek dialect and Greek alphabet.
Gerace is called the Holy Town for its many churches, convents and monasteries (once hosting no less than 128 churches).
It’s an enchanting medieval village on top of a high hill facing the Ionian Sea, surrounded by endless orchards of olive trees, olives and olive oil being the main source of income for the people still living here.
The old town, known as the borgo antico, is a warren of stone buildings, former palaces, churches, and old buildings that were carved right out of the rock of the hillside.
The remains of the Norman castle in Gerace dates from the 11th century and the original town developed around this castle.
For a nice view over the surrounding hills and the Sea, go to Porta Del Sole and Piazza del Tocco.
Accommodation: Casa Ferrari, a nice guesthouse with a rustic touch, friendly owners and Calabrian craft beers.
Eat at Azienda Agricola Barone Macri – a few kilometers away from Gerace, but in a remote and quiet area, with very tasty food.
Roghudi Vecchio is an abandoned, ghost village hidden between the peaks of the Aspromonte National Park.
The name of this village appears as early as the fifteenth century. Its name derives from the Greek word “richudi” which means rocky, full of crevasses, as if to emphasis the place where this village is located.
The town used to be inhabited by a small community of Calabrian Greeks until 1973, when after two successive severe flooding, people had to leave this place for good. They moved to Roghudi Nuovo, closer to the sea and in a less remote area.
The village is now completely abandoned, the houses have broken doors and windows. When wondering on its streets all you can hear is a creaking here and there, to make you feel like you’re in a horror movie with ghosts.
Getting to this village is not an easy job for sure. The bumpy road and the serpentine that go up and down will test your patience and driving abilities.
The village is not a touristic attraction, in its traditional meaning, but it’s worth paying this place a visit, if you’re in the mood for an adventure.
Scilla was one of our favorite villages for this vacation, mostly because it has a beautiful beach with perfect blue waters and not so many people around.
Scilla seems to be the pearl of this area of Calabria and for good reason. Scilla enchants visitors with its Castle overlooking the sea, the colorful houses leaning on each other, the views of the Strait of Messina and Sicily.
Scilla is a village of three parts: the beach resort of Marina Grande, the castle and administrative centre, San Giorgio, on the higher ground behind, and the fishermen’s district, Chianalea.
Scilla is proud of its fishing heritage, specializing in catching swordfish (pesce spada). In the harbour you can see the fishing boats which hasten out to sea when swordfish are spotted. If you are lucky you may see the fleet arriving back in Scilla with their catch. You’ll see the swordfish motif around the village.
Accommodation – B&B La Finlandia – perfect location next to the beach and the train station (plus parking nearby), low prices, clean rooms and a good tasty breakfast.
Eat @ Il Casato – tasty sea food and very nice view over the sea.
The Serre Regional Park
When we got to Badolato on a early and sunny Monday morning, we found a peaceful village, with no one around, except for some workers renovating an old building. We enjoyed the quiet we found here and took advantage of it while wondering on the narrow streets of this beautiful village.
The village has Medieval roots, dating back to the 10th century, being built with a defensive purpose, as confirmed by the outside walls and the castle.
Several Bizantine churches are to be found around the village and a church that is very much worth paying a visit is The Franciscan Monastery of Santa Maria degli Angeli set on a hill opposite the village – it will give you a beautiful panoramic view over the village and the surroundings.
In the beginning of the 80s, Badolato was also an abandoned village, but after putting an add up that the village is for sale, many Italians from the North and people from the rest of Western Europe started buying houses here and retire in this quiet and relaxed place.
The village is now, not only again inhabited, but the people who have moved in here have taken over the traditions and crafts of the village, making sure that nothing is lost in time.
In Pizzo we only got one afternoon for a couple of hours, looking for a recommended restaurant to have dinner. We did walk around the village a bit, but we found it way too crowded for what we were looking for, so we had a gelato, enjoy a bit the view over the village and the sea and went for dinner.
Pizzo is a fishing village and a known holiday resort in Calabria, so this is most probably why it was already packed with people, even if it wasn’t high season yet.
Eat @ La Lampara – one of the best places we checked out, in terms of sea food.
This small Byzantine town, included on Italy’s list of the Most Beautiful Villages, is located a few kilometers from the Ionian coast in the province of Reggio Calabria. Sitting at an altitude of around 700 m, Stilo overlooks an impressive landscape of olive and vine-draped hills down to the Ionian Sea.
Of Greek origin, and subsequently under the dominion of the Byzantines, Stilo became the most important Byzantine centre of southern Calabria in the 10th century.
Stilo it is characterized by one of the main evidences of the Byzantine period: the Cattolica, a beautiful temple of 10th century. It is one of the most important monuments in the region, which is miraculously intact.
The village is dominated by the ruins of what was once a Norman Castle and there is a path that theoretically takes you to these ruins. We did follow the path up the mountain, but we didn’t manage to get to the castle. Still you get a very nice view over the village and the surroundings once up there.
The village center is also not to be missed. With churches built in the Middle Ages, with paved paths to hide from the hot summer sun, with small boutiques and friendly people – it’s for sure a nice walk for a couple of hours.
Outside the national parks
Pentedatillo is also a ghost village, almost at all inhabited, but in a better condition than Roghudi Vecchio. It’s one of the main highlights of Calabria and for us one of the most beautiful places we’ve seen during the trip.
Pentedattilo is situated somehow in a hand of rock, whose fingers are gigantic towers – hence the imaginative name of the village, from the Greek ‘penta’ and ‘daktylos’, meaning “five fingers”.
The village was completely abandoned in the 60s, but national organization and volunteers put all the efforts, starting the 80s, to bring this village back to life.
Some of the buildings have been renovated and in the summer and on weekends, the visitor can get a cup of coffee and browse in a few gift shops selling local wares. A summer highlight is the International Pentedattilo Film Festival of short films.
Squillace was the first village we visited during our trip in Calabria. It was surprising to see how these villages stand tall on top of high hills, with their houses gathered together, as if to hide the beauty within.
Squillace stands a few kilometers far from the coast, overlooking a deep gorge. It was called Skilletion by the Greeks and Minervia Augusta Scolacium by the Romans, though the origins of the village are probably more ancient.
One of the representative characteristics of Squillace is its ceramic handcraft tradition. This tradition is very ancient and flourishing and Squillace has been included among the 27 Italian certified manufacturing villages and towns. The very ancient art probably dates to Magna Graecia times.
The castle of Squillace is one of the most visited attractions in the village. The castle was first built during the Byzantine era in the region and was later taken over by the Saracens. Over the centuries it was reconstructed by the Normans and several changes have been made to it. From the castle visitors can enjoy beautiful views of the coast as well as of Catanzaro.
In Tropea we spent 3 of the 7 nights of this trip and mainly for one good reason. The beaches in this area are the most beautiful from Calabria and it was very convenient to drive each morning to a new beach. Plus it’s quite close to the Lamezia Terme Airport and it was easy for us in the last day to drive there as well.
Legend has it that this picturesque little town was originally founded by Hercules, therefore the port is called Hercules Port. The name Tropea dates back to the 5th Century after Christ and suffered for several hundred years under the constant attacks of the Saracens.
From the Norman era and on, the independent town of Tropea became the popular nest of noble families who constructed their palaces on the spectacular cliff above the sea.
The various churches, palaces and decorated front doors are free to be discovered in every corner of the town. Just walk around, get lost on the small alleys behind the main streets and enjoy a sunset with a beautiful view over the sea and the beach.
Tropea is the most know summer destination for people coming to Calabria, so we found a crowded and noisy town when getting there. Still, we managed to make room for enjoying a nice dinner and a traditional onions icecream (“cipolla gelato”) .
We should have given Reggio Calabria a bit more time for visiting, but we were a bit on a hurry so we only spent a couple of hours in the city.
Reggio Calabria is a coastal city in southern Italy, separated from Sicily by the Strait of Messina. It stands in a splendid position along the Eastern coast of the Strait of Messina. The bright promenade, is the historical memory of the town. It is in fact adorned with the monuments of famous local people, remains of the Greek walls (4th century B.C.) and Roman thermal baths with black and white mosaic floor.
The National Archaeological Museum houses the Riace Bronzes, a pair of ancient, life-size Greek statues, discovered in the area. Unfortunately we didn’t get a chance to visit the museum, but everywhere I read about the city, the museum was the first recommendation.
The Aragonese Castle is also very much worth a visit – the main building still stands still and inside you will find an art gallery. On the roof top you’ll get a perfect view over the surroundings.
Eat @ U Pilu’nta l’Ovu – traditional Calabrese cuisine.
This is how our trip in a few of the Calabrian villages looked like. If it’s something I would do different in a future trip would be to spend more time in each of these places. Maybe even spend the night and at least one day to dive deeper into the village’s life, into its stories and culture. I would chose more “agrituristic” guesthouses for a more authentic taste. But for sure Calabria is still on our travel list. There’s still more to see in this area still so authentic and untouched by massive tourism.
A very useful website when planning a trip in Calabria is Turiscalabria.it – it gives you all the info you need about every place to visit in the region.