FROM the parapet of the little piazza at Tropea in Calabria, the limestone cliff drops perpendicularly 150 feet, and you see the sea gulls wheeling below you. Every pebble and rock outcrop on the deep bottom of the aquamarine sea is visible.

Such crystal-clear waters are an exception today off the European shores of the Mediterranean Sea. Yet Calabria, the rocky southwestern subpeninsula of the Italian peninsula, boasts many bays and coves that are still limpid. Many are now surrounded by condominium developments, shuttered most of the year, as well as by beach hotels and a plethora of recently built pizzerias. And more are abuilding from the Gulf of Policastro to the Straits of Messina.

Tropea, one of Calabria’s jewels, is framed by such modern developments and by campsites. But the ancient town, high up on its panoramic promontory, has retained a measure of authenticity, and the sea is still a palette of blues, from nearly green to azure to indigo. Happily, the annual ecological surveys of Italy’s 5,000 miles of seashore have up to now given the coastal waters here and in most of Calabria a clean bill of health.

That airy lookout, with its bronze cannon and its clusters of elderly men on the stone benches who discuss the catches brought in by the fishing boats and the national soccer championship, commands one of the greatest views of the Tyrrhenian coastline.

The fine sand on the beach at the foot of the towering cliff is white, in season dotted with gaudy umbrellas. A craggy rock just off Tropea, today linked to the mainland by a narrow strip of land, is crowned by an old Benedictine sanctuary, St.-Mary-of-the-Isle. A few miles to the south the green Cape Vaticano recalls the epoch five centuries ago when the papal state had its own fleet of galleys.

Continue reading the main story

On the horizon looms the cone of Stromboli, one of Europe’s few active volcanoes, a 3,040-foot-high younger cousin of Mount Etna in Sicily and Vesuvius near Naples. On clear days one can see the cloud of smoke that often hangs over the crater of the small circular island. Sunsets in Tropea have the color of amethyst.

The town, which today has a permanent population of 7,000, was successively Greek, Roman and Arabic, and through the ages had to endure the multifarious invaders who passed through Calabria or occupied it. The Normans, who drove out the Saracens in the 11th century, built Tropea’s remarkable cathedral with the sand-colored stone of the district.

If you hear English spoken in the narrow streets or at the cafe tables in the squares, the chances are they aren’t tourists but Americans visiting relatives; enormous numbers left the region for America early in the century. The Calabrians, unlike the lively Neapolitans, are often reserved; the visitor who approaches them civilly will be met with grave courtesy. A sojourn in Tropea is particularly pleasant because it’s not just a seaside resort but also a genuine old Calabrian town with an intense local life.

Many thousands of Italians from the north pour into Tropea and other Calabrian beach towns in August, the nation’s hallowed vacation period, when Milan, Turin and the other big cities become deserted.

During four visits to Calabria in spring 1998 and winter 1999, I avoided the summer crowds, enjoyed many sunny days, obtained favorable hotel rates and ate deliciously fresh seafood. I also saw owners of second homes on the coast who come over the weekends from Naples and Rome, and some early guests from northern Europe. At the end of April, when the sea must have still been quite chilly (I didn’t care to find out), Virgilio Ciccarelli, manager of the Virgilio Hotel in Tropea, where I stayed, told me: ”A Finnish travel group just left; they have been bathing in the sea every day.”

The international travel industry appears about to discover Calabria, which until now — together with the neighboring region of Basilicata — used to be the part of Italy least known to foreign tourists (and to millions of Italians too). Once the rush of August vacationers is over, the golden autumn along the Calabrian coasts is particularly gratifying, as I know from previous years.

In addition to the sea, there is the subtropical vegetation — tall palms, pines, cypresses, cactuses, fig and lemon trees and vines everywhere. A ruined castle scowls from almost every other hill, some of them like the one in Cirella, adapted as a setting for concerts, plays and other summer events. The rocky coastline is studded with ancient watchtowers that, until the early 19th century, would alert the villagers and townspeople when they sighted pirates.

In Cirella, 125 miles north of Tropea, I looked up old friends who have retired to Calabria from Virginia (they are of Northern Italian stock) to live in a pleasant whitewashed house with a flower garden and a terrace looking out on a tiny, privately owned offshore island.

My headquarters in Cirella was a new hotel, the Ducale, in a restored seaside villa that the dukes of the Gonzaga clan built for themselves in the 18th century. The noble complex vaunts a walled garden with palms, giant cactuses, shrubbery and flower beds, and a private beach. My large room, looking out on the garden, was soberly but comfortably furnished and had a modern bathroom.

The old, still-inhabited village of Cirella, a short distance from the shoreside resort, climbs a slope below the ruins of a hilltop town that Hannibal razed 2,200 years ago, and that in later centuries was rebuilt and destroyed again, the last time by a French fleet in 1806.

Nearby, a little to the south, is the beach resort of Diamante, with a tree-lined boardwalk. A jewelry trader from West 47th Street in Manhattan, who was spending a few weeks in Calabria, walked with me around the crooked streets, showing me the frescoes that contemporary local and foreign artists have painted on facades of the old buildings.

Another resort, eight miles to the north, Scalea, with ancient houses marching up a hill and a modern seaside neighborhood, has good hotels on either side of a rock with a restored medieval fortress on top; underneath are caves in which stone-age tools were found. The fortress and its fenced approaches are now privately owned.

During one of my recent trips to Calabria, I also revisited the inland city of Cosenza, 54 miles southeast. Its Old Town, a warren of lanes around the Gothic cathedral, huddles below a hill with a massive, square castle and an octagonal 13th-century tower. Modern Cosenza, with broad, regular streets, extends from the confluence of the Busento and Crati Rivers almost all the way to the village of Rende, the seat of the University of Calabria. Built in 1973, this state school is one of the very few Italian institutions of higher learning with dorms on campus.

Somewhere below the waters of the Busento the king of the Visigoths, Alaric, is supposed to be buried, along with a fabulous treasure. The barbarian conqueror died in A.D. 412 in or near Cosenza, and his warriors are said to have forced their prisoners to divert the river and dig a royal tomb, into which they lowered Alaric’s body together with spoils from their sack of Rome two years earlier. They then restored the original course of the Busento and massacred the prisoners, so that the site of the grave would remain secret.

During World War II the chief of the Nazi SS, Heinrich Himmler, dispatched a team of engineers and archeologists to Cosenza, hoping they would locate the secret tomb of the Germanic king and recover the Roman gold. They failed, as have other treasure hunters before and since.

Cosenza is the obvious starting point for exploring the sullenly mountainous Sila massif. During my latest visit, in January, when the icy wind known as the buran swept down the continent from Siberia and hit southern Italy, snow and ice on the roads made a foray into the forested heights inadvisable. During an earlier Calabrian tour, the Sila reminded me of the Alps.

The mountain area is an enormous, rugged block of granite, rising to an altitude of 6,332 feet in the Botte Donato heights, which are usually snowcapped until June. There are still patches of dense woods — pines, spruces, oaks, chestnuts and beeches — from which in antiquity the Greek city-states of Sicily and even the Athenians cut timber for their ships. Vast pastures cover the plateaus.

About 100 specimens of the light-gray Apennine wolf, a protected species, are known to be still living in the Sila, especially in its national park. A pair of wolves were sighted on the outskirts of Consenza in the coldest days of January, but I saw nothing more than a few timid stray dogs. Natural and artificial lakes in the thinly populated mountains supply the water for power plants. It’s a great environment for hiking, camping and, in the cold winters, skiing.

During my latest stay in Cosenza I reread chapters from Norman Douglas’s ”Old Calabria,” published in 1915. This intrepid and quirky Scottish traveler who, among other feats, traversed the Sila on foot, tells of villages without male adults — they had all emigrated to America — and of grinding poverty, brigandage, widespread malaria and even pockets of cholera.

Since then, Calabria has come a long way. It is as healthy now as the rest of Italy. Many Calabrians who emigrated to Germany as ”guest workers” in the 1950’s have returned and bought property or started businesses. The government has stepped up its fight against organized crime; some bandits still hold out in the Aspromonte, the rough, forest-clad mountain ranges in the toe of the Italian boot.

In comparison to affluent northern Italy, Calabria is less developed, especially the interior. Unemployment is high. But the region seems ready for an economic takeoff. The Rome government and the European Union have promised investment aid.

With the projected manufacturing plants, hotels and vacation villages, the big challenge is to keep the waters of Tropea and the other Calabrian bays and nooks as clean as they are today, and its landscape relatively uncluttered. I, for one, am reasonably confident that at least some of this beautiful coast will remain pristine; having been hooked on Calabria, I plan to return.

Hotels, restaurants, beaches

Getting There

There are several flights daily to Lamezia Terme’s Santa Eufemia Airport from Rome and Milan, and from Zurich via Rome or Milan. It is a six-hour trip by fast Inter-City (IC) train from Rome to Tropea; four hours to Scalea; five hours and change to Cosenza (changing trains at Paola). By car it is 268 to 276 miles from Rome on Autostrada A1 to Naples and from there by Autostrada A3 to the Lagonegro exit, proceeding by National Route No. 18 to Scalea, Cirella and Diamante. To Tropea, it is 398 miles by Autostradas A1 and A3 to the Pizzo exit, then to National Route No. 522. To reach Cosenza, it is a 325-mile drive on Autostradas A1 and A3 to the Cosenza Nord exit.

Where to Stay

TROPEA: Le Roccette Mare, Via Mare Piccolo, (39-0963) 61358, fax (39-0963) 61450, open from end of April to the end of October, is a beachside complex with a central building and bungalows. A double room that includes private bath, breakfast and dinner is $85 until August, when it increases to $165 for two.

Michelizia Tropea Resort: Via Del Carmine, 71 , is a boutique four star plus establishment, with restaurant, a five-minute walk from the rail station. Double rooms with private baths are $120 (including breakfast) except in August, when they go up to $200. Open all year.

 Mediterraneo, (39-0985) 20273, fax (39-0985), is on the beach a little outside the town, with comfortable rooms commanding a fine panorama, a swimming pool on a garden terrace, tennis court and private beach. There are 66 rooms. Doubles cost $100 in August, 25 to 30 percent less in the other months. Open from March 15 to Nov. 30.

CIRELLA: Hotel Ducale, 254 Via Vittorio Veneto, (39-0985) 86051, fax (39-0985) 86401, is a reconverted 18th-century villa in a palm garden, with a private beach. The 24 rooms are modernly furnished. Full board (breakfast and two meals) for two is $95 to $155 off season, $180 during the mid-August peak period; open May to September.

CETRARE: Grand Hotel San Michele, National Route No. 18, Kilometer 293 (17 miles south of Cirella), at 8-9 Localita Bosco, (39-0982) 91013, fax (39-0982) 97430, is a stately villa with 79 rooms on a cliff with an elevator to a small, sandy beach. Double room with breakfast and dinner, from $165 to $295.

Where to Eat

TROPEA: Pimm’s, 2 Corso Vittorio Emanuele, (39-0963) 666105, occupies the basement and a terrace of an old building at the edge of the cliffs. It offers spicily garnished pastas, fresh seafood and Calabrian wines. A ”Calabrian menu” at $17 a person (beverage extra) may include seafood salad, plump macaroni, and swordfish. Dinner a la carte for two, with local wine, will run to $80.

ZAMBRONE MARINA: For the best pizza and seafood the JARRA is a must visit if you are in the Zambrone Marina area 30 via de mare za

he Ciro from the Ionian coast is outstanding. Dinner for two, with wine, is about $90. Closed in August.

You have already added 0 property



Login Account

6 or more characters, letters and numbers. Must contain at least one number.

Invaild email address.