Calabria is located at the 'toe' of the Italian peninsula. It is bounded to the north by Basilicata, to the south-west by Sicily, to the west by the Tyrrhenian Sea, and to the east by the Ionian Sea. The region covers 15,081 square kilometres and has a population of 2.9 million. The capital of Calabria is Catanzaro, although Reggio di Calabria is by far the most populated, with 2.5 times more residents than the capital. The provinces are: Catanzaro, Cosenza, Crotone, Reggio Calabria and Vibo Valentia. Calabria stretches from north to south for 248 kilometres, with a maximum width of 110 kilometres.
It is separated from Sicily by the Strait of Messina, where the narrowest point between Capo Peloro in Sicily and Punta Pezzo in Calabria is only 3.2 kilometres.
For a long time Calabria was one of the poorer areas in Italy, but more recently the government has stimulated the economy through land reform, the introduction of new crops, and the promotion of tourism. Farming is still the main occupation with olives, plums, grapes, citrus fruit, and wheat being the main crops. Sheep and goats are also raised. Fishing is well developed along the Strait of Messina.
Calabria is well-known for its beautiful seaside resorts, its long, white sandy beaches with warm, crystal clear water and the colourful nightlife to be found in the many bars and restaurants of the region. Away from the coast, it is mainly a mountainous region. There are three ranges: The Pollino, The Sila and Aspromonte. All three have been designated as National Parks with their own unique flora and fauna. The Pollino Mountains in the north of the region are rugged and form a natural barrier separating Calabria from the rest of Italy.
La Sila is a vast mountainous plateau, about 1,200 metres above sea level, stretching for nearly 2,000 square kilometres along the central part of Calabria. Also a national park, the area boasts numerous lakes and dense coniferous forests and is more reminiscent of Switzerland or Canada than most peoples' perceptions of southern Italy. The most famous part is the Bosco di Fallistro, just outside Camigliatello where you can see the 'Giganti della Sila', trees which are over 500 years old, six feet across and 130 feet tall.
The Aspromonte National Park forms the southernmost tip of the Italian peninsula surrounded by the sea on three sides. Its highest point is Montalto Uffugo, at 1,995 metres.
The region is known for being more rustic than other areas of Italy. In fact, 42% of the land is mountainous. Only 9% of the land is flat. As a result, this part of Italy is sparsely populated. As its main national park is also protected, the lack of human dwellings affords visitors a unique opportunity to witness nature in its natural setting, devoid of much man-made activity. Whilst there are small villages and settlements, development in these are restricted to largely pre-twenty-first century.
Nature lovers will rejoice in travelling around Calabria. La Sila and Aspromonte Mountains offer an incredible natural landscape for skiers, with the latter offering 7km of slopes. Calabria also contains some of the most beautiful places in Italy. Highlights are the incredibly charming medieval towns and hamlets of Oriolo, Santa Severina and Fiumefreddo Bruzio. The seaside resort of Tropea is also a must-visit and was named 2021’s ‘most beautiful village in Italy’.
The Pollino National Park (Parco del Pollino) is Italy’s largest national park. It also contains Europe’s oldest tree, which is over 1,200 years old. The park expands into Calabria from over the border in Basilicata and covers almost 2,000 square kilometres. Its highest points are located at Serra Dolcedorme (2,267m) and Monte Pollino (2,248m). La Sila, meanwhile, is known as ‘the great wood of Italy’ and is also known for Europe’s purest air.
Nature has played a crucial part in the Calabria of today, and not all of it is uplifting. The 1905 Calabrian earthquake was the first major natural disaster of the 20th century. The earthquake destroyed 25 villages and 14,000 homes, with the exact death count unknown.
The name Calabria comes from the Hebrew 'kaleb', meaning ‘land of resin or woods’. Calabria has one of the oldest records of human presence in Italy, which can be dated back to around 700,000 BC. The Ice Age then cleared the area of humans until their return during the Stone Age, where they left behind the 12,000-year-old “Bos Primigenius,” a perfectly-proportioned rock engraving of a bull perched on a cliff. The etching is still there to visit today. The first villages were then developed in 3500 BC, the Neolithic period when humans turned from hunter to farmer.
From 800 BC the Greeks occupied the region, calling the area Magna Grecia, or ‘Great Greece’. They introduced not only politics and laws but an abundance of figs, olives and grapes. Of the latter, the gaglioppo became the base for Cirò wine. Calabria’s flagship wine, it is also one of the oldest named wines in the world.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, like so many other Italian regions, the area fell into the hands of the Byzantines, then Saracens and Normans. The period of the Byzantines brought great wealth and status. The Saracens introduced exotic vegetables and spices from the Arab lands such as aubergines, nutmeg and cloves.
Calabria came under Spanish rule in the 15th century, falling into disrepair with feuding farmers, disease and heavy taxes. The 18th and 19th century saw the Austrians, Bourbons and French rule the land. However, the citizens were getting tired and yearned for independence. Calabria then became part of the Italian Kingdom in 1861.
Although Calabria’s status throughout Italy is some way behind that of neighbouring regions, there is optimism for its future in exports and tourism.
The peak time for tourism is in August, which sees the region’s roads frequently gridlocked with traffic and ATMs running out of cash. April-June and September-November are the perfect months for tourists to visit.
Calabria’s unofficial regional symbol is the horn-shaped red Calabrian chilli pepper. Whilst only small, they ooze flavour and give tasters a warming heat as opposed to an intense burn. ‘Nduja, another Calabrian speciality, suffered a popularity boom in the UK and US in 2015-16. It’s a spicy, spreadable pork sausage which actually contains roasted Calabrian chillies.
All of these can be used in a typical Calabrian dish, Pasta Con ‘Nduja. Cook spaghetti or pasta al dente (use fileja pasta from the Calabrian province of Vibo Valentia) and mix with a Calabrian sauce consisting of a hot Calabrian pepper paste, tomato passata and ‘nduja. Then top with fresh basil, olive oil and aged Cacioricotta.
The area has a reputation for its morning food markets, which close around noon. Soverato and Catanzaro have thriving Farmers’ markets, selling a huge array of fresh fruit and vegetables local to the area, as well as meats and baked goods.
Other speciality food and drink to try is fresh fish (particularly swordfish), and the outstanding sweet red onions (cipolle rosse). Red onion jams and gelatos are frequently seen around the area. You can finish a seafood dinner with a Calabrian digestivo. Vecchio Amaro del Capo is an incredible local liquor with 29 different Calabrian herbs, which is a lot less sweet than limoncello.
You can buy amazing pizza in Calabria, but restauranteurs will only fire up the wood-fired oven in the evenings. Most of the year, outside of the summer season, you’ll find most areas will not open up for lunch at all. Calabria has their own version of a siesta from 1-4 pm, called riposo.
Public transportation across Calabria is good and reliable, although the trains only stick to the coast. If you wish to venture further inland, you may choose to catch the bus or rent a manual car. If you do drive, make sure you have the correct papers. Americans will need an International Driving Permit (IDP).
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