On a recent road trip around Calabria’s Ionian coast, Amy McPherson discovers there are still parts of Italy where towns are authentic and beaches are quiet.
I am in Italy, staying on a beach front hotel along a stretch of faultless white sand. It was a cloudless morning. 25C. Perfect beach weather.
And yet… as I inched my way into the lapping water of the Ionian Sea, with seagulls circling overhead, the only other lifeform were two fishermen by their wooden boat plucking their catch off their net into a bucket too large for their hull.
Otherwise, it was silence.
A forgotten paradise.
It’s hard to think with such perfect conditions that this stretch of paradise had no tourists, but here I was, on the eastern coast of Calabria, away from the fancy resorts of Tropea of the west coast, enjoying this serene moment alone.
I came here quite by accident, on a trip that was supposed to be following the course of a professional cycling race that was cancelled. As usual, sometimes, great discoveries are best served on unexpected journeys, and with a cancelled race meant there was time to explore some of the lesser known parts of this corner of Calabria.on a road trip around Calabria’s Ionian Coast.
We stayed the first nights in Hotel Melissa in the small town of Torre Melissa, a hotel that is right on the beach, mostly fitted with an 80s nostalgia of lacquered furniture, brass handles and floral sofas. There is the atmosphere of a forgotten resort. It is friendly and comfortable, and you can tell they were once the glamourous hotspots for sun seekers, and have faded with time, while other destinations competed for the desperately needed tourism in this part of Italy.
It’s hard to get to, with no major airport nor fast train connections, you need to get here by car. And that’s the beauty of it, when it comes to having the beach all to yourselves, as well as a great base to explore some of the history and heritage along the coast.
The port town of Crotone
To explore the area in four days, we begin from the town of Crotone, about an hour’s drive from our base in Torre Melissa.
As a port town with the 9th Century Castello di Carlo V fortress towering over the narrow web of streets that leak down the slope towards the coast, Crotone is possibly the most buzzing of towns on this side of Calabria giving off the vibes of Naples. The main traffic junction of Piazza Pitagora is surrounded by buildings that would have looked a part in a glamourous film of a grand Italian holiday and much of Crotone’s history protrude out of the ground or hidden behind communal walls like forgotten relics waiting to be discovered.
From the castle, a short walk among the trees in the public park took us down to the sea. This is a lovely place to relax and see the views across the harbour, complete with a little book swap booth and a community project café with outdoor spaces for a cuppa and bicycles to rent out.
Much of the town’s beauty is along the harbour, lined with plenty of cafes to while the time away or a boardwalk perfect for a stroll or a bike ride. For sea enthusiasts, Crotone is also a gateway to visit the Marine Protected Area Capo Rizzuto for snorkelling or scuba diving.
The hilltop town of Corigliano
A couple of hours drive north from Crotone is a sort of typical hilltop town with honeycombs of houses that crawl its way up to the castle above. Although, unlike similar towns in Umbria, Tuscany or even nearby Puglia, Corigliano seems to have been off the radar of mass tourism and stayed an authentic southern Italian belle.
We join a tour of the Ducal Castle of Corigliano, which was built as a military fortress in 1073 by the Normans, later became the Duke’s residence. Over the years, as the ownership of the castle changes, through historical political events, several periods of renovation made the castle what it is today. Complete with delicate fittings and beautiful paintings, it is considered one of the best preserved castles in southern Italy.
It is also here, on the roof of the castle through a beautifully crafted spiral staircase, you can see the best views of the surrounding plain of Sibari and the sea beyond, a patchwork of small communes laced with olive groves. There is better sight of Calabrian countryside than this.
Back in town later in the afternoon, the street market is in full swing and locals mingle and traded gossip as much as bread and flowers. It is one of those places that you really feel the Italianess portrayed in old films, with stone buildings cracked and faded with time, and cobble stone streets that rumble underneath as you drive very carefully between the small gap left from double parked cars. Community noticeboards are the place to find out new babies that had been born and those who had passed away and the population faithfully attend mass at the local church, that houses thousand year old relics.
A Liquorice heritage
Of all Italian produce that could be thought of, there was one surprise that I had not expected. At the Giorgio Amarelli Liquorice Museum, housed in the 15th century residence of the Amarelli family, I learn that liquorice has been officially produced by the family since the 18th Century, although the full story goes all the way back to the 11th. The museum uses documents, ledgers, photographs and agricultural equipment to display a timeline of the company’s production and growth, with a little boutique that sells the full range of the liquorice styles and flavours.
A Taste of Ciro Wine
The last day of my road trip around Calabria’s Ionian coast, we stay at the De Mare Wine Resort on the far edge of the Ciro village. With a couple of hours to spare in the afternoon before sundown, we hired bikes to enjoy some quiet riding around the nearby pine forest reserve then followed the coastline into the village of Cirò marina, a place that is, how it always feels to be to be in southern Italy, full of vibrant chaos, and a lot more so in these parts where things doesn’t seem to have changed for the past twenty years.
Back in the resort and before dinner, we were given an experience to taste the wines by the resident wine consultant. Cirò, as we learned, Cirò DOC is Calabria’s first and oldest wine sub-region, with production dating as far back as when the region was called Magna Graecia, a Roman name for Greek speaking Italian regions. The Greeks brought wine making to the region, and the appellation is unique in its geolocation of being by the sea with soil rich in mineral deposits.
There is a lot more detail to learn, but the most important lesson is that the wine is good. Given the circumstances that this road trip around Calabria’s Ionian coast was an accidental itinerary, it has been full of such pleasant surprises.
Imagaes (C) Amy McPherson and Hester van Delden.(Wine tasting).
Tell Me More About A Road Trip around Calabria
The closest airport for a road trip around Calabria’s Ionian coast is the Lamezia Terme International Airport, 1.5 hours drive to and from Crotone, with a daily Ryan Air flight from London Stansted.
The airport has various car rental representatives, including international operators like Hertz, Avis and Europcar.
Where To Stay
Hotel Melissa A no fuss hotel right on the quiet beach of Torre Melissa, with comfortable rooms with sea view and free guest off street parking.
Hotel Melissa, Via Pontino, 40, 88814 Melissa KR, Italy T+39 0962 865570
De Mare Wine Resort is relatively new in a hidden corner of Cirò village, perfect for those looking for a quiet place to stay. The resort’s kitchen serves up fantastic local cuisines and has its own wine production of the local Ciro wines.
De Mare Wine Resort Via Madonna di Mare, 88811 Ciro’ Marina KR, Italy T +39 366 383 9771
Where To Eat
For great beachside dining with excellent regional seafood dishes and wine selection, make a point to stop at Lula Paluza at Rossano. It even has its own private beach should you want to stay for relaxing post meal drinks and enjoy a seaside afternoon.