When it comes to tourism, for many people southern Italy is still a “black hole”. But that is precisely what makes Calabria and Basilicata so interesting. Still with few hotel complexes and seaside resorts, mass tourism is unknown in this part of the world. Instead, there is ample choice of holiday flats, bungalows and “Agriturismi”, which refers to rural tourism that has guests actively participate in a rural lifestyle.
I own a small house in Appennino Lucano in the Basilicata region and travel regularly to southern Italy. So I know my way around in southern Campania and Basilicata, where tourists are treated as guests and not as a part of a business scheme. The region is home to surprising landscapes and edifices.
An Italian-style day
Every corner is a place of interest in this part of the world. Not a village without at least two churches and some castle ruins. Holiday planning is very simple: make yourself comfortable in nice lodgings by the sea. Then throw a dart at a map and visit whichever village the dart hits. Because every village is a hit. Your day will be spent as follows:
Get up early and take off on a half-day trip that includes lunch or brunch. Make sure you don’t overeat, so as to be sufficiently awake to enjoy the afternoon. Be back by about three thirty and spend a relaxing few hours at the beach. The highlight of the day: a late dinner in a restaurant on a village square, a cosy courtyard or by the seafront. Despite all health recommendations, I personally relish these late meals and never skimp on portions. This is a holiday after all. By the way, making dinner reservations is recommended.
Arrival in Lamezia, stay in Squillace
The city centre of Lamezia Terme (“Terme” refers to the thermal springs) is nothing to rave about and full of traffic. My recommendation for first-time visitors is to stay in one of the more touristy coastal towns. We have chosen a hotel in Squillace Lido situated on the south coast and a thirty minute drive from the airport. As well as a nice beach resort, it is ideally situated for daily excursions.
As an alternative to the suggested dart approach, let me recommend some specific places to visit. The first “must-see” is the small town of Squillace. Situated on a hill roughly four miles inland, it features great scenic views and the ruins of a Norman castle. The local shops offer arts and crafts. There are also pottery and other courses on offer giving visitors the chance to try their own hand at some craftwork. Calabria‘s partly densely wooded mountains are an invitation to hike and bike. Cycling is a great way to explore the region’s typical mountain villages more extensively. However, the hilly terrain does require a decent level of fitness. Since that does not apply to everyone in our group, it is not for us. Girifalco is another visit-worthy village and can be reached in twenty minutes by car. Its long alleyways lead to the “Parco di Monte Covello” where, like almost everywhere else in southern Italy, local festivities are held in August. Our eyes are set on a restaurant next to the cooling forest. The enticing menu includes fine delicacies from the land and the sea.
Adventure and history
The small town of Sierra San Bruno is situated on a high plateau. As well as three baroque churches, it also has a treat in store for adrenaline junkies: the “Parco Avventura Adrenalina Verde” is a rope and climbing adventure park suitable for the entire family. A special park highlight: zip-lining from treetop to treetop in Tarzan-like fashion. History and culture aficionados should be sure to visit the charterhouse “Santo Stefano del Bosco” that also houses a museum. The origins of this monastery can be traced back to the eleventh century. The remains of a façade and an arcade are a real eye-catcher. As is true of many museums and archaeological sites in Italy, the entrance fee of four Euros is to be deemed symbolic.
I am drawn magically to ancient buildings, or rather, to the remains thereof. Not far from our Squillace Lido lodgings, the relics of the ancient Roman settlement of Scolacium are currently being excavated. In 2010, nothing was yet to be seen of the large amphitheatre. The seat rows of the smaller theatre are sea-facing and built into the rock. For heat-related reasons, this site should be visited before brunch.
Diving in clear water
The suggested half-day excursions can easily be combined with a subsequent siesta on the sandy beach of Caminia on the Ionian coast. The pizzeria “La Cabana” by the beach opens at 8 pm and is part of a larger complex that also includes several bungalows and a brightly coloured diving school, the look of which resembles a favela. The water here is crystal clear. Experienced scuba divers can expect to see the most beautiful marine life in the region. Caminia would also make a good base for a holiday in Calabria.
An alternative way to admire the underwater flora and fauna without getting wet is from a glass-bottom boat. Such boats depart from Le Castella which is an hour east of Caminia. Le Castella is also home to ruins of an impressive Aragonese castle that has served as a backdrop for several movies.
Tropea and Stromboli volcano
The area surrounding Tropea on the Tyrrhenian Sea is picture-perfect: steep rocks, a sandy beach, promenades and clear blue water. The town centre with its slew of old buildings is perched majestically on top of a cliff overlooking the sea. The alleyways, small shops, ice cream parlours and bars are an alluring invitation to saunter, browse and linger.
Located on the eponymous island, the Stromboli volcano is another “must-see”. Boats to the island depart from Tropea, among other places. Boasting an average of one eruption every five minutes, Stromboli is the world’s most active volcano. This spectacle of nature is especially impressive at night when the glowing lava is strikingly visible. Due to the lava streams, the ascent to the viewing point is only possible with a guide.
Hiking at almost 2000 metres’ altitude
Also referred to as “Piccola Svizzera” (Little Switzerland), the Sila National Park is situated on a mountainous plateau and shaped by wild coniferous forests, dense beech forests and idyllic mountain lakes. It is also inhabited by wolves and snakes. Thanks to the high altitude and cooler temperatures, hiking in the park is possible in summer too. The visitor centre at “Lago di Cecita” is a recommended starting point for visitors who are new to the park. Due to a rather underdeveloped bus network, tours are limited to circular hikes, around “Lago Ariamacina” for instance, or to “Monte Botte Donato” that rises to almost 2000 metres and also offers opportunities to ski. Even Mount Etna can be seen from its summit. Visitors must bring their own provisions as there are no restaurants. But that is a small price to pay for the beauty of the park’s trails. What makes this region so fascinating is the contrast between coastal areas and mountains.
In the footsteps of the Greeks and the Albanians
Calabria, per se, offers more than enough for a two-week holiday. However, I am eager to show my friends other regions as well, which is why I want them to see Basilicata, north of Calabria. After a week in Squillace, we take off on our road trip. This outback part of southern Italy has recently awakened to tourism and offers a growing number of small hotels and Bed & Breakfasts. Finding accommodation is, thus, not a problem. Temperatures are also suitable for camping. However, it can get cool in the mountains at night time, even at the height of summer.
Our first stop is the municipality of Spezzano Albanese which is still in Calabria. The drive to this regional centre takes us ninety minutes. We travel on the new A2 motorway – the “Autostrada del Mediterraneo” as the former A3 is now officially called. Christian Albanians settled in this region after fleeing from the Ottoman conquerors in the Middle Ages. And a form of Albanian is still spoken there today. A castle with two towers and the “Madonna delle Grazie” cathedral provide for some architectural highlights. As said earlier: ruins and churches are widespread in southern Italy. If –as in our case–a visit to Paestum is already part and parcel of your holiday programme, the excavation sites of Sybaris, also a city of Greek origin, can be omitted. Sybaris also has a museum with excavated objects on display.
An Arab town
Matera is the second-largest city in Basilicata and was long considered poor and backward. Before the forced relocation of the 1970s, many people still lived in cave-like dwellings, known as “Sassi”, with no running water. Today, the “Sassi” are UNESCO protected sites and, paired with Matera’s beautiful historical centre, drawing an increasing number of visitors to Matera. A real boom is expected in 2019, when the town can call itself the European Capital of Culture for one year. This explains the current frenzy of renovating and cleaning. Thanks to its Middle Eastern flair, Matera has served as a substitute for Jerusalem in numerous movies, including in Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ”. The area is similarly barren, the gorge deep, the streets narrow and the rooftops flat.
Zip-lining in the Dolomites of southern Italy
We arrive in Pietrapertosa after a long drive involving an infinite number of hairpin bends. My fellow travellers are awestruck by the beauty of this picturesque little place, which also happens to be the highest village in Basilicata. They are also amazed to hear me speak Swiss-German to the manager of the “Ristorante Il Frantoio”. Nicola Perticara grew up in Winterthur and later moved to Pietrapertosa, where his family is originally from. We complete our visit in Pietrapertosa with a unique highlight: a “flight” along the “Volo dell’ Angelo” zip-line.
The Middle Ages and Tibetan rope bridges
We drive past Potenza, the capital of Basilicata with a pedestrian zone that features an almost chain-store-free shopping street, and arrive in Brienza. This small mountain village has also preserved its medieval structure over the centuries. Unfortunately, there are considerable time restrictions to access the restored medieval centre. However, once registered for a tour, it is shown with pride. Every year on the first weekend of August, a large medieval festival with costumes, music, a parade and gun salutes is held here. A special highlight awaits adventurous visitors in the neighbouring village of Sasso di Castalda, in the form of a Tibetan rope bridge across a gorge. The bridge can only be crossed with a safety attachment and is exclusively for the brave and vertigo-free.
Opting to drive on side roads through the wilderness of southern Italy is synonymous with a jungle adventure and involves substantial distances between the various locations. The unexpected should be expected, such as landslides that have seriously damaged the road but repair efforts have yet to be made. Although not essential, they are fun travel routes. Had we chosen to take the A2, we would have reached the coast of Paestum in an hour.
Poseidon, Hera and Athena
There are plenty of hotels in every category along the beach of Paestum. Our focus is on the three Greek temples of Paestum situated in the heart of the otherwise sparse remains of the Roman, formerly Greek city. The Temple of Hera II, also called the Temple of Neptune, is one of the best preserved Greek temples in the world, which is why it was featured, inter alia, in the movie “Sissi – Fateful Years of an Empress” as a Greek setting. The feeling when standing in the centre aisle of the temple is –to put it bluntly– magnificent.
The nicest leg of our road trip is the stretch along the coast of Cilento from Agropoli to Maratea. Parts of this coastal road have been hewn out of the vertical rock. Needless to say, there are faster inland routes to travel on, but these two hours are tantamount to pure pleasure – and a similar experience to travelling on Chapman’s Peak Drive at the Cape of Good Hope, just much longer. The route also includes a scary stretch near Pisciotta, through a former single-tracked railway tunnel.
Maratea is a place of pilgrimage where a large statue of Christ the Redeemer is prominently perched on top of a mountain. Seen from the right perspective, it could pass for the statue of the same name in Rio (so does that mean I have seen and done Rio too?). The statue can be reached by car via an estimated 100 or so hairpin bends.
The drive from Maratea back to Lamezia Terme Airport takes two hours. We save time by opting for the A2 and, thus, get to cross another highlight. Standing 250 metres tall, the “Viadotto Italia” near Laino is the second-highest bridge in Europe.
My fellow travellers agree with me: we have seen almost the entire world in two weeks.