Calabria is at the toe of the boot, the extreme south of Italy. This region presents panoramas of incomparable beauty and vastness. From north to south, it is all a succession of wooded hills, high mountains, and coasts that plunge into the crystalline sea. To the enchanting scenery of nature must be added what man has created during centuries of civilization: cities, towns, churches, abbeys, castles … The ancient Greeks chose this land to create their own greater homeland, which they gave the name of “Magna Grecia”. Then followed the Roman domination and subsequently the barbarian invasions and, alternatively, the dominations of the Byzantines and the Lombards. On the Calabrian coast, it is possible to see numerous lookout and defense towers, erected by the Byzantines against the terrible incursions of the Saracen pirates. The Byzantine domination was replaced by the Norman domination and then the Spanish one, from the 16th century to the 18th century.
Calabria is surrounded by two seas: the Tyrrhenian Sea to the west and the Ionian Sea to the east. These two seas meet in the Strait of Messina, which separates Calabria from Sicily. Calabria is then crossed by mountains of various heights. They occupy most of the territory: the Calabrian Apennines rises in the Sila, extends into the Serre chain, and then rises again in front of the Strait of Messina, in the Aspromonte massif.
The Calabrian climate varies greatly according to the height and exposure of each area. Generally, it can be said that the climate of the Ionian side, facing Africa, is warmer than the Tyrrhenian one.
The Calabrians, tenaciously, and lovingly attached to their habits, have preserved many traditions of their life of the past. They have preserved them in the uses and customs, in language and songs, in dances, in music, and in feasts, in processions, in the ceremonies that accompany birth, marriage, death and other important events, in poems and legends.
Calabrian towns are open-air museums, real “treasures of beauty” with a remarkable artistic and cultural heritage. We are talking about medieval towns, born around castles, fiefdoms, churches and monasteries, with an enogastronomic and culinary wealth of simple, genuine and natural origins, whether they are peasant or maritime. Here you can taste the best agro-food production, discover the ancient Calabrian food and wine traditions and the territory, spend exciting and unforgettable convivial moments in the “catoj” (the ancient cellars of the houses) accompanied by sweets melodies of Mediterranean popular music and songs.
Things to Do in Calabria
This journey to discover the Ionian coast of Calabria begins in Lamezia Terme, where the most important airport in the region is located, connected to the main European cities. Once arrived here by plane, it will be advisable to rent a car with which to easily visit the area. The use of the car is in fact essential to better discover the towns of our itinerary.
Those who visit this corner of Calabria can enjoy an unspoiled coastline, with white beaches and a crystal clear blue sea and a fantastic hinterland, which is still a bit wild and till to be explored. Within a few kilometers, you can admire, walking through the alleys of millenary villages or visiting the “ruins” of ancient Greek and Roman cities, a remarkable artistic, cultural, and religious heritage, but also breathtaking landscapes and authentic naturalistic beauties.
The beaches of the Ionian coast are part of the beautiful natural promenade of over 150 km which, from the promontory of Copanello-Caminia (in the province of Catanzaro), extends along the entire Gulf of Squillace, up to Punta Stilo, in the province of Reggio Calabria. Mostly free and unspoiled beaches, where is still possible to admire turtles, dolphins and seahorses and were special birds are also nesting.
From Lamezia Terme, you then take the “road of the two seas” in the direction of Catanzaro, which rises a few kilometers from the Ionian coast and the Sila mountains. In Catanzaro, you can visit the Cathedral, dating back to the century. XII, it was rebuilt in the XVI century and then restored in 1600. After the destruction of the earthquake of the XVIII century, it was rebuilt in the XIX century. The Norman Tower: the square and crenelated tower is what remains of a Norman castle. Villa Trieste: a building surrounded by splendid gardens with rare plants. Inside you can admire the marble busts of famous people from the region. The Belvedere: a panoramic point at the end of Corso Mazzini from which you can enjoy a wonderful view over the Fiumarella valley and the Gulf of Squillace. The Provincial Museum, located in the Villa Comunale, collects prehistoric finds and valuable collections of ancient coins. The modern Politeama Theater, located in the historic center. The Catanzaro bridge or Bisantis bridge considered one of the symbols of the city. The Military History Museum, located in the Mediterranean Biodiversity Park, presents a vast collection of weapons, military equipment, and period maps from the 1600s to the Second World War. The “MARCA” (Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art of Catanzaro), with its many works of art. The Museum of carriages, a large medieval-style building houses the collection of precious carriages used for the filming of numerous Italian and foreign films including “Gone with the Wind”; annexed to the building is another museum on peasant civilization. The Risorgimento Museum, with various relics, weapons from the Garibaldi period, and from the wars of Africa and Spain, conspiracy papers, war diaries, and Mazzinian documents. The Silk Museum presents instead collections of equipment and documentation of the processing and marketing of silk. The Diocesan Museum, at the Archbishopric, guests works of art from the cathedral and other churches. And finally the “Mediterranean Biodiversity Park”, a vast park comprising lawn areas, an Italian botanical garden (including 20,000 hedge plants, 2,000 tall trees and 200 species) and two ponds. There are also numerous species of Mediterranean birds.
Scolacium Archaeological Park
Continue your journey in a southerly direction, taking the “Jonica” State Road 106, until you reach the “Scolacium” Archaeological Park, located in Roccelletta di Borgia. The site is very important: it preserves the remains of the Roman town with parts of roads, aqueducts, mausoleums, theater, and amphitheater.
“Scolacium” represents the ancient Magna Graecia colony of “Skylletion”, which later became “Minervia Scolacium” in Roman times. Not many testimonies remain of the town; the remains mainly visible in the site show the layout of the Roman colony with the most important monuments, such as some sections of paved streets, remains of aqueducts, mausoleums, sepulchres and a thermal plant. The theater, built during the first century and then subsequently remodeled, rests on the natural slope of the hill and could accommodate about 5000 spectators. Most of the recovered finds guested in the local museum come from the excavations in the theater area, such as sculptural groups and some architectural elements. Near the theater are the remains of the amphitheater. The term “Roccelletta” indicates the abbey church of Santa Maria della Roccella, a large ruined building at the entrance to the park. It was built by the will of the Normans, during the XII century and was probably never completed but over time it served as a fortification, so much so that it is still referred to today as “the castle”.
Once the visit of the Archaeological Park is over, you can go further inland to visit the ancient town of Squillace, which stands at about 344 meters above sea level, a few kilometers from the sea. The origins of Squillace are lost in the myth: the legend attributes the foundation of the town to Ulysses. In the historic centre there are many monuments and churches: the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, the Norman Castle, the Town Hall and the Museum of Folklore. An extensive restoration work has made the castle accessible to tourists, who can finally enjoy the wonderful view. Pottery has been one of Squillace’s symbols for centuries, and you can see it from the many shops that still work the clay today. Also worth seeing are the Bishop’s Palace, the medieval Devil’s Bridge, the Church of San Pietro Apostolo, the Church of San Nicola delle Donne or of the Immaculate Conception (deconsecrated), the church of San Matteo, the Church of San Giorgio, the Sanctuary of Madonna del Ponte, the church of the Madonna della Catena (deconsecrated), the Gothic church of Santa Maria della Pietà (deconsecrated), the Monastery of Santa Chiara (destroyed by the earthquake in 1783), the noble Pepe Palace (now the Town Hall), the second Pepe Palace (with fresco on the portico, with the coat of arms of the Pepe family), Palmisani Palace, Baldaya Palace and Maida-Chillà Palace.
Continue along the state road 106 and turn off towards the town of Gasperina, which rises high on a hill. It can be reached by climbing from Montepaone Lido in about 10 minutes by car. Like many other Calabrian towns, the first nucleus of Gasperina was built around the VII-VIII centuries AD by coastal populations who, to escape the raids of Saracen pirates, moved from the coast, finding refuge in the most hidden parts of the hills from which it was easier to see the enemy, without being seen and, therefore, to provide for defense. The position of the town is splendid and enviable: it stands on the top of a hill and is a real terrace overlooking the sea. On clear days you can see the extreme points of the Gulf of Squillace: Capo Colonna and Punta Stilo. Before entering the town, it is a must to stop at the Sanctuary of Maria Santissima dei Termini, one of the most characteristic churches of the municipality also because of its suggestive location: on top of the hill with a wonderful view of the Gulf of Squillace. There is no definite information on the origin of the small church, but it is likely that the building was built on an older ruin in the shape of a tower.
The main church of Gasperina is the one dedicated to San Nicola Vescovo di Bari, divided into three naves by twelve octagonal granite columns and with an ancient altar made with precious marble. Walking through the historic centre of the town, you can also admire the churches of Santa Caterina and San Giuseppe. The latter is known because inside it houses a valuable half-length wooden statue of San Giuseppe (St. Joseph). Do not miss the old fountains: Brisi, Pruppu and Vrantoni, located near the town.
The evening and night life of the town is mainly linked to the events scheduled in the historic centre. In the area there are youth associations that very often organize cultural and folkloristic events. In the evenings, especially the summer ones, you can sing and dance to the rhythm of the music of the street artists who perform; in addition, various tastings are organized.
After the visit of Gasperina, we reach the nearby Montauro. Before entering the town, however, you need to make a short detour and visit the ruins of the Monastery of S. Giacomo, also known as the “Grancia di Sant’Anna”, from the name of the hill on which it was built, from which you can enjoy a beautiful view of the sea . The complex, dating back to the end of the 11th century, is located halfway between Montauro and Gasperina. Although in a state of ruins due to the terrible earthquake of 1783, it constitutes the most important, as well as the most impressive, attestation of the past Carthusian monastic presence in the territory.
You then reach the characteristic town of Montauro. The noble palaces are the main feature of this small town overlooking the Ionian Sea from which you can enjoy a fabulous panoramic view. These ancient buildings are scattered here and there in the historic centre. The main access to these ancient noble palaces is characterized by a stone portal that leads into an entrance hall and the staircase placed either in the center or at the corners of the entrance hall gives access to the upper floor. Among the most important palaces to see, mostly dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries, we remember Barberi Palace , Terracini Palace, Pellegrini Palace, Spadea Palace and Teti Palace. Also very interesting is the main church of the town dedicated to San Pantaleone which represents, together with the Grangia, the second most important late medieval architecture in the Montauro. The external appearance of the building, with a large tower at the north-west corner and numerous loopholes, is much more similar to that of a fortress than to that of a church. It underwent several alterations during the centuries, as reported on the external facade of the building with the dates carved on the portal (1519) and on the access stairway (1609).
The marine area of Montauro constitutes a single urban agglomeration with Montepaone Lido and are today two renowned tourist resorts.
Taking again the car, you reach Stalettì, which is only 4 km from Montauro. This small town was founded by the Romans, probably for military reasons, since also from this hill you can enjoy a panorama that goes from Isola Capo Rizzuto to Stilo (extreme north and south of the Gulf of Squillace). You can admire the remains of the “Mother Church” of the XV century destroyed during the earthquake of 1783, which damaged most of the neighboring municipalities. The convent of San Gregorio Taumaturgo, dating back to the XI century, was once a Basilian monastery. Inside, under the main altar, it houses the relics of the patron saint. The walks in the ancient town on summer evenings are very pleasant, where you can often enjoy a light breeze even on the hottest days of the year.
Leaving the town of Stalettì, go down towards the sea and reach Pietragrande, a fraction of the municipality of Montauro, characterized by dark rock that plunges into the blue of the sea, and then re-emerges twenty meters from the coast, with a rock about 12 meters high. This huge rock gave the place its name: Pietragrande (Great rock) precisely. The rock can be easily climbed and from its top you can dive into the sea, where, then, with a dinving mask you can admire the seabed, full of a wide variety of small fish.
Adjacent to Pietragrande is the seaside resort called Caminia, which falls within the municipality of Stalettì. It is a bay nestled between two rocky mountains that sink into the crystal clear sea. We recommend hiring an aquatic vehicle (boat, jet ski, canoe or pedal boat) with which to discover the magical places around the bay. Also very beautiful is the walk on the old state road, which once connected Catanzaro to Soverato, currently closed to traffic and accessible by bike or on foot and which offers spectacular views.
Also in the municipality of Stalettì, on the border with the municipality of Squillace, stands the locality of Copanello: a mixture of steep rocks quilted by notable archaeological presences, such as the ancient Cassiodoro tanks and the ruins of the church of San Martino.
Another interesting detour could be the one that leads to Montepaone, a town perched on the top of a hill, overlooking the clear scenery of the Ionian Sea, between Copanello and Soverato. Montepaone was known in the past for the skillful art of weaving wicker to create the typical basket called “Crivu” and for making a typical and exclusive nougat: the “Cupeta”, made up of sesame, honey, flour and cooked wine. Not to forget, then, the art of embroidery, traditionally spread to prepare the “dowry” that is the trousseau and the art of weaving. The women of Montepaone were skilled spinners and weavers. Silk was produced locally because, once upon a time, the silkworm was raised there. Even linen was a widely used yarn. The main productive activities, therefore, are agriculture, crafts, breeding, but also fishing and hunting. However, seaside tourism remains the main economic source for Montepaone, thanks to the development of the modern marine area. This town, like most of those in this region, also suffered serious damage from the earthquakes of 1659 and 1783. To see the parish church Maria S.S. Immacolata and the Tree of Liberty, planted in 1799 in Immacolata Square, during the period of the Neapolitan Republic, to symbolize the end of the Bourbon kingdom.
Once you leave the hills, continue along the coast and arrive in Soverato, a modern city, which rises on the shores of the Ionian Sea, with a promenade about 4 kilometers long, for long stretches exclusively for pedestrians. Soverato is the most important tourist center on the Ionian coast and for its beauty it is defined “the pearl of the Ionian Sea”.
From the famous promenade of Soverato it is possible to admire how the blue and crystalline waters of the sea creep into the coast, while, after sunset, it is possible to observe the reflections of the lights of the localities overlooking the bay.
Soverato is an ideal place for cycling, in total serenity, thanks to the quiet and maximum safety offered by the wide stretches closed to road traffic.
The Soverato promenade, during the summer, is the epicenter of social life, as well as for the large spaces available, also for the rich and varied offer of clubs and restaurants, which during the day enliven the stay on the beach with their services entertainment and catering, while in the evening they also offer the opportunity to dine, taste cocktails, listen to live music and dance the most varied musical genres, from Latin American to house music, passing through ballroom dancing.
The social life in Soverato is not limited only to the seafront, but also extends to a large number of clubs in the areas adjacent to it.
A few kilometers from the coast, on a panoramic hill, is the village of Soverato Superiore, in whose church of Maria SS. Addolorata is housed a work of art of considerable value: the Pietà by Gagini, made in 1521.
A little beyond Soverato Superiore we find what remains of the old Soverato (Soverato Vecchia), which was destroyed by the earthquake of 1783.
Sant’Andrea Apostolo dello Ionio
Continuing further south you reach Sant’Andrea Apostolo dello Ionio, a town with 4 km of coastline. It consists of a marine strip, flat and mainly cultivated with citrus and olive groves; and a hilly area with olive groves, vineyards and vegetable gardens. The sea is extremely clean and clear, the beaches are wide and white. Sant ‘Andrea Centro Storico and Sant’ Andrea Marina are the two inhabited centers. The first is very well preserved, with its characteristic of a medieval town, in a tangle of narrow alleys and very suggestive streets, some still have the floor with granite slabs. Worth seeing are the small church of S. Nicola di Cammerota, the church of S. Andrea and the ruins of the Grangia of Carthusians.
A little further on we find Badolato, a pretty town on the Ionian coast perched on a hill 240 meters above sea level, about 20 km from Soverato. This place still retains its ancient charm intact, given by the 14 churches witnessing the passage of monks from different brotherhoods, by the historic buildings with beautiful granite portals and by its characteristic alleys that take you back in time. Also this town was severely damaged during its history by the earthquakes of 1640, 1659 and 1783.
Like other inland towns of the region, Badolato has also suffered a slow depopulation since the 1950s. The town begins to come back to life thanks to the landings that took place in 1997 with almost 350 Kurdish refugees who find hospitality in some houses made available by the municipality and by private individuals.
The starting point for the exploration of Badolato Superiore is Piazza Castello (Castle Square), built at the time of King Roberto Il Guiscardo, of which no trace now exists, except for the ancient gateway to the town. Leave your car here, cross the entire Corso Umberto I up to the XVII century bell tower, used to sound the alarm against attacks by Saracen ships. The tower, built-in 1539 and then renovated in 2001, is one of the few testimonies of the medieval period. It is located on the main street which cuts the town exactly in half.
From here, continue until you reach the Church of the Immaculate Conception from the 1600s, out from the town and with an enviable view over the entire Ionian coast. Certainly, the most beautiful part of the church is the dome with its blue and gold decorations. Also not to be missed is the Church of Santa Caterina. In the surroundings of the town you will notice the characteristic “catoj”, that is old warehouses used for the conservation of food supplies and today the seat of tastings, especially during the summer.
After visiting the town of Badolato, take the provincial road back to Serra San Bruno to visit the former Franciscan Convent of S. Maria degli Angeli, now home to a lay community.
The hamlet of Badolato Marina welcomes instead flows of visitors especially in the summer, being able to offer wide free beaches and crystal clear sea.
Serra San Bruno
The last stop on our itinerary is Serra San Bruno, a town located inland, among the Serre mountains. It can be reached from Badolato along the provincial road nr. 43. Serra San Bruno is a favorite destination for religious tourism: it boasts nine churches in addition to the Charterhouse and the Sanctuary of Santa Maria del Bosco. Founded around 1095 to house the workers who worked at the Charterhouse of Santo Stefano and for the Sanctuary of Santa Maria nel Bosco, the town remains strongly linked to the presence of the monastery, which it becomes its symbol. The historic centre retains numerous Baroque churches, including the Church of San Biagio, which is the largest in the town and has three naves inside; along the side corridors you can see the statues of Santo Stefano, San Bruno, San Giovanni Battista and the Madonna with Child. On the main street, in front of the war memorial, you will find the Church of the Addolorata. The centre of Serra is divided into two areas, the oldest one (Terravecchia) and the new one (Spinetto) built after the earthquake of 1783. Both districts have their own church dedicated to Maria SS. Assunta.
Naturally, the main monument in importance is precisely the Charterhouse of Santo Stefano, one of the few Carthusian abbeys still active in Italy. It was founded by Saint Bruno of Cologne in 1091, following the land donation by King Ruggero d’Altavilla.
Damaged by numerous earthquakes (in particular in 1783), the Carthusian monastery of Serra San Bruno, located one kilometer from the historic center, was reduced to a pile of rubble, to be rebuilt in 1889 according to a project based on the Romanesque and Baroque style, with new rooms and the restructuring of the sixteenth-century pre-existing structures still standing: the Refectory, the Chapter Hall, the Library and the Chapel of the relics. If until a few years ago it could only be visited by men, today the Charterhouse can only be seen from the outside, to respect the monks’ seclusion. To get an idea of the everyday life of the Carthusian monks you can visit the Museum of the Charterhouse. In the museum, opened since 1994, the monks’ cell, the church, and the environments of Carthusian everyday life have been faithfully reconstructed. There are also many panels that tell the story and journey of Saint Bruno from Grenoble to Calabria.
After visiting the Charterhouse, move to the nearby Santa Maria del Bosco, a very characteristic place where you can see the “Pond of Miracles” with the statue of Saint Bruno. It is here that the first Charterhouse was founded and where Saint Bruno lived his last ten years and died. After crossing the characteristic granite staircase you can visit the Sanctuary of Santa Maria del Bosco, rebuilt following the earthquake of 1783 where the ancient church erected by Saint Bruno once stood. Inside it preserves some works of art that come from the Charterhouse and the statue of the Madonna of Santa Maria del Bosco. In front of the Sanctuary, you will find the dormitory where there is a statue that depicts Saint Bruno while he rests.
Serra San Bruno is also the “town of mushrooms”. Every year the mushroom festival is organized, with mycological excursions, a market where you can buy typical and artisanal products and lunches at special prices in local farmhouses and restaurants.