As you approach the northeastern tip of Calabria along the winding road southwest of Matera, the Ionian coastline welcomes you with open arms. To your left, the crashing waves of pure white fragment across the sea of sparkling teal. To your right, you pass underbrush and countless citrus groves.
Calabria is the forgotten region, even among Italians; ridiculed, mocked and in a world of its own, held back by emigration and a lack of regional support. But Calabria is a region so lush and rich, an untouched beauty. With a little extra effort and planning, an exceptional experience can be realised in this extraordinary, off-the-beaten-path paradise.
Calabria: getting there
Getting to Calabria can be accomplished both by car and aeroplane, depending on where you are departing from.
The main cities to fly to are Reggio Calabria (which is the bigger and more accessible airport) and Lamezia Terme. Flying from Rome to either is about one hour and 10 minutes. A flight from Milan is only slightly longer.
Reaching secret beaches and scenic wine destinations will not be easy or timely without a car, especially if you’re visiting from other cities such as Naples, Bari, Potenza or Matera.
The key routes into and through Calabria are the A3 and the SS18, connecting Naples to the north with Reggio Calabria at the tip of Italy’s toe.
There are plenty of car rental options in both Reggio Calabria and Lamezia Terme, and this is really an indispensable part of the Calabrian experience – the wild and untouched nature of the region is not in keeping with chauffeured tours.
You can easily take a train from Rome or Naples to the main cities (Paola, Cosenza, Reggio Calabria) in Calabria, and buses also run from Rome and Naples to key cities.
Calabria’s wine landscape
Calabrian wine production has a long history in the region, thought by many to be the first in Italy, although today it has the fourth-smallest production in Italy – higher only than Basilicata, Liguria and Valle D’Aosta – at just under 300,000hL per year.
Only 0.2% of Italy’s total wine production comes from Calabria, yet the spectrum of high quality, diverse wines from distinctive varieties unique to this region is startling and ripe for exploration. Since much of the region’s production doesn’t leave local hands, it’s a necessity to visit if you want to experience what it has to offer – and it certainly makes the trip feel special.
More than 90% of Calabrian wine is red, with Gaglioppo making up over half of this. Famed for its long tradition in the production of Cirò, from which the town also takes it name, this is usually what comes to mind when thinking of Calabrian wine. Greco Bianco (also known as Malvasia di Lipari and Malvasia di Sardegna) is the most planted white variety. It produces some fantastic wines in both dry and sweet styles. Stelitano, Ceratti and Cantine Luca are go-to names when looking to snag a bottle.
Calabria travel tip
Plan your day trips during the opening hours of 9 to 1 o’clock and 3 or 5 to 7 o’clock to avoid closures, as will be the case in most small towns.
Starting in the north
You’ll find yourself among the beautiful hilltop towns that line the way as you approach the northern part of the region. Rocca Imperiale is famous for being the city of lemons, which are exported to other parts of Italy as their vibrancy of flavour is so desirable. The maze of small pathways between the homes atop this cliff is so charming – and worth the priceless views that go with it.
Head towards Oriolo along the SS481. The view of this cliff-perched town is enough to stop you in your tracks. The quiet village has a historic castle and an amphitheatre used for plays and musical concerts during the summer months.
Next, visit Civita, winding up the aptly named Via della Montagna. Here, fairytale-like charm becomes real life. This town has it all: medieval homes, bridges, shops, local wine, a lively square, restaurants; the perfect place to spend a quiet night and enjoy the company of the warm, welcoming locals. Spend a few evenings in Il Comignolo di Sofia, a bed and breakfast run by Stefania and her daughter, Sofia. Stefania is the most wonderful host. She’ll welcome you into her home like family. In your rooftop apartment you’ll have access to a private balcony with a view over the town.
In town, dine at L’Antico Ulivo, steps from your accommodation, or the humble and delicious Ristorante Kamastra, just a few minutes away. You can shop for local products, see the historic sights and even try the village wine by Carlomagno.
Heading towards the Ionian coastline you’ll find the land of Cirò. Cirò takes its name from the ancient medieval village high above the coast, which has some of the most beautiful views around. The newer, more populous area is Cirò Marina, where you will also find the majority of the wines in this area. Plan for a two-hour drive from Civita.
Cirò in its rosé form reflects the character of Gaglioppo and works seamlessly with the local cuisine. Try a glass or two at a great little bistro right in Cirò Marina, A Casalura. Chef Giuseppe Pucci creates dishes with freshness and flavour, giving a true taste of the region. You can’t leave without trying his sardine and fennel pasta!
Calabria producers to know
Librandi is a must-see; a long-standing, well respected, quality-focused family winery that helped put Cirò on the map with its award-winning wines over the past few decades.
Luigi Scala is keeping up with tradition in his family winery, producing a range of wines including Cirò Bianco, Rosato and Rosso from his modern winery housed in the old farmhouse.
Francesco di Franco is admirable in his tastefully crafted, sustainable wines. Together with his wife Laura, they form ’A Vita and are making a Cirò Revolution in the way Calabrian wines are viewed, enjoyed and how the land is at one with every sip of their wines.
Nearby, Cataldo Calabretta leaves nothing to hide in his raw, outspoken and down to earth wines that speak of grit, history and hands off winemaking in harmony with nature and with respect to his forefathers.
Sergio Arcuri is a small and dedicated producer with really special wines. Classy and focused yet quintessentially Gaglioppo, they show the potential this extraordinary region has to offer.
The village of Crucoli lies 10 minutes away from Cirò Marina and offers somewhere quieter to rest. Look up Le Case Nel Borgo – Eleonora and her family waited for me with a bottle of wine and charcuterie in the most tastefully done and clean medieval cottage I have stayed in. The view of the sunrise from her home is the best I have ever seen.
A short 15-minute drive away from the coast you’ll find Strongoli, which is another important wine area on the Ionian coast. Roberto Ceraudo and his family are doing some amazing things here and the wines speak for themselves. Gaglioppo is the usual suspect, along with Greco Nero, Magliocco Canino, Pecorello, Mantonico, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. The family also crafts other local products from the numerous olive, fruit and nut groves they have on the estate, and a rare passito, Doro Be, is available at their Michelin star restaurant Datillo (see above). With the completion of their boutique wine apartments, the family now provides a full agriturismo experience.
Heading away from the coast you approach the small town of Santa Severina, worth a stop if you have the time. Approaching the National Park of Sila, the cascading hillsides and craggy mountain tops adorned with wildflowers will leave you speechless: admire gentle slopes of purple and pink clover, yellow daisies, lavender, sweet peas and poppies. Calabria shines in the beauty pageant of Italy’s regions.
The roads here have lower speed limits than further north and there are no tolls on the autostrada, so take your time con calma and memorise the wonderful views.
As you move past Calabria’s capital, Catanzaro, down to Soverato along the coast towards the ‘toe’ of Italy, you’ll find yourself on the wild Costa dei Gelsomini (‘Jasmine Coast’), known for its beautiful white sand beaches, jagged cliffs and tree-covered hills, interspersed with open spaces and seaside towns.
There are plenty of historic places to add to your wishlist: Stilo, Bianco, Gerace and Bova, before reaching Pentedattilo. This old Greek town whose name means ‘five fingers’ boasts unimaginable views from both the parking area across town and within its medieval walls. The scent of bergamot fills the air – the area is world renowned for this bitter citrus. Seek out the Airbnb hosted by Rossella, overlooking the mountain drop and ocean if you wish to stay and explore the many trails nearby.
The National Park of Aspromonte fills out a large central portion of the ‘toe’ and is perfect for skiing and snowboarding during the winter months, and exploring peaks on foot during the summer.
Coming up the west coast, Reggio Calabria kisses the Messina Strait. It’s the most populous city of the region and features stunning views across the water to Sicily, seemingly within an arm’s length. Lungomare promenade is Calabria’s finest and begs for a day of long walks and snapshots. Don’t miss the opportunity to visit the Reggio Calabria Museo Nazionale, where you can view precious historic artefacts such as the Riace bronzes and the marble head of Apollo. Those itching to get some shopping in can find plenty of bargains to be had down the strip of Corso Garibaldi.
A short drive north brings you to the fishing village of Scilla. A once-secret hideaway, this little gem is quickly becoming a visitor hotspot thanks to its unmatched seafood, sparkling clean beaches and rows of houses along the shore.
Continue driving north and within 45 minutes you’ll be on La Costa degli Dei (‘the Coast of the Gods’). This stunning 34-mile stretch of coastline runs from Nicotera to Pizzo Calabro.
Stop at Tropea – surely a bucket list item for many beach seekers, and for good reason. This ancient village is perched up high on a cliff, overlooking the green and blue sea with bathtub temperatures, even in spring.
The town itself can be seen in a day, exploring its ancient walls, shops and places to eat in the dozens. Le Volpi e l’Uva is a quaint little spot among the winding roads to enjoy some rustic fare away from the tourist-lined main route. There are only four or so tables, so be sure to go early. Towards the sea, next to the ’A Linguata beach, a long staircase leads you up to the Santuario di Santa Maria dell’ Isola di Tropea. This Byzantine-style monastery, originally from the Middle Ages, occupies a rock jutting out into the Tyrrhenian sea; the very symbol of Tropea.
Just a three-minute drive south along the coast lies the boutique hotel of Rocca della Sena. Minimalist and unfussy, yet ahead of your every possible need, the staff is faultless, making your time here as comfortable and luxurious as possible. With an outdoor pool, fitness area and terrace, there’s no need to wander far. Be sure to splurge on the ocean-view suite: with a huge balcony and jacuzzi tub (overlooking the sea and the island of Vulcano) its million-dollar sunsets will make you feel your life is complete. The hotel is equipped with a wine cellar stocked with regional bottles as well as wines from around the rest of Italy and classical selections from across the globe – there’s sure to be something to suit your palate.
To find some quiet time away from the populous beaches of Tropea, the small nearby village of Marina di Zambrone has jaw-dropping private areas for swimming, sightseeing and just enjoying life.
Inland to the southeast is the Regional Park of Serre. It’s given much less hype than the other parks but is absolutely worth the drive and stay. Only one hour by car, the town of Serra San Bruno, located at 900 metres above sea level within the forest, is a refreshing change from the warmer seaside. The famous restaurant, Zenzero is tucked away by the town square, off Via Roma, and the service and local dishes are unmatched. There are many great places to window shop in Serra San Bruno, while history buffs will enjoy a visit too: no less than two popes have come from this historically important town, with 10 churches and museums.
The Regional Park of Serre is known for its hiking and excursions, so be sure to stay in one of Mario’s bed and breakfasts, situated above his clothing shop, Punto 1, on your right up Corso Umberto I, off the small roundabout. Mario is the president of the hiking association and can guide you on any experience you may seek. With food vouchers, welcome gifts, and the central location and hospitality, his accommodation cannot be beaten.
An hour north of Serre lies Lamezia Terme, and another hour or so will see you arrive at Cosenza. A bustling city full of university students, Cosenza is worth the stop for its charming art and culture, shopping and nightlife.
After a break in Cosenza, head north for a further hour to Pollino National Park (Italy’s largest protected area). Here, you will find yourself in the heart of wine production. While Calabrian history and culture is a melding of Greek, Spanish, Arabic and Norman, this northern part of the region holds on to a unique Albanian heritage that’s still present in the local dialect and customs.
Near the beautiful town of Altomonte you’ll find the family winery of Farneto del Principe. Brothers Francesco and Giulio now run this estate founded by their father 20 years ago, crafting organic wines of precision, poise and soul that speak of their unique area. Malvasia, Montonico, Guarnaccia, Castiglione, Magliocco Dolce and Calabrese (Nero d’Avola) are the stars here. It’s possible to enjoy a tour with them through the vineyards by quad bike, followed by a tasting experience at the winery.
You’ll find the perfect place to base yourself during your north Calabrian winery visits just 15 minutes away: Tenute Pacelli is a small, family-owned winery run by husband and wife team, Francesco and Clara, with their two daughters, Carla and Laura. They craft characterful wines from local varieties such as Magliocco Dolce, plus international varieties such as Riesling for their metodo classico sparkling wine. Francesco and Clara are the most warm lovely people. Stay in one of the apartments they have converted for guests in their winery, overlooking the vineyard, and enjoy dinner with their wines as you share a few laughs together.
A few short minutes away you’ll find the natural wine king of Pollino, Dino Briglio Nigro of L’Acino. Coming not from a wine background but one of a historian, his wines are cool, calm, coaxing and captivating. He crafts fresh and expressive examples from local and non-native varieties including Guarnaccia Nera, Magliocco Dolce, Calabrese, Barbera, Montonico and Trebbiano. With curious vision and a rebellious sense of humour, he experiments with Mulberry tree barrels for ageing his wines. He says that this wider type of grain allows for a greater flow of oxygen. There is a method to his madness and the wines are pure fun – and pure magic.
Finally, follow the winding road for 15 miles to the stunningly beautiful town of Saracena and its surroundings. It’s the land of Moscato di Saracena and home to Cantine Viola. With an annual production of only 15,000 bottles, this small family winery is making serious wines while preserving the traditions of the area. The crown jewel in their lineup is the Moscato Passito di Saracena, comprised of Guarnaccia, Malvasia, Moscato Bianco and Addoraca. With exotic notes of chestnut, honey, star anise, orange blossom, yellow cherries, almond skins and raisin cookies, it doesn’t disappoint. With scarce availability, this family estate is worth the visit to experience and appreciate their talents first hand.
During your time in the far south, or ‘Mezzogiorno’ of Italy, there is a vast array of unique regional dishes to be enjoyed. Peperoncino and its numerous forms of chilli oil, along with ’Nduja, are two of the most well known and widely available specialties. A spicy spreadable sausage comprised of pork meat, fat, chillies, red peppers, salt and spices, ’Nduja can accompany anything from bread to pasta.
Tropea is world renowned for its sweet red onions, which can be enjoyed in countless dishes, including soup. It can be canned, or even made into jam. It matches perfectly with the local sheep’s milk cheese Pecorino, or Caciocavallo from the Sila Mountains.
Chickpeas and fava beans are common in many dishes, as is the use of fennel, anise and liquorice. Aubergine, tomatoes and other fresh produce are readily available, along with every kind of citrus fruit. Swordfish, sardines, tuna, red mullet and anchovies are the specialities of the sea.
As you head west to the coast and then north, you’ll pass through the beautiful seaside towns of Diamanté, Scalea and Praia a Mare as you make your way out of Calabria. The Arcomagno beach just up from Scalea is a spectacular stop along this Citron Riviera of Calabria’s northwest, while the small Isola di Dino, just off the coast at Praia a Mare, is worth a visit for its magnificent caves accessible from the sea: Grotta Azzurra and Grotta del Leone.
Between the shores of Calabria is a land of remarkable beauty and great contrasts – seas, mountains, canyons, peaks, caves, lakes, forests and vineyards. Remote and isolated, a kaleidoscope of sites and experiences is waiting to be had, offering plenty of culture, history and untapped wine potential. Those seeking adventure and simplicity should visit Calabria!