Calabria's lawless reputation has kept it well and truly off the tourist map. Undeterred, Clare Longrigg discovers what we've been missing out on down the centuries
In the heyday of that marvellous tradition, the Grand Tour, most travellers to the south of Italy filled their journals with the splendours of Naples and then took a boat straight to Sicily, skipping Calabria altogether. The southernmost region of Italy had a reputation for earthquakes, terrible roads and ferocious bandits who lived in mountain caves and ambushed travellers. The few writers who braved getting robbed or washed away by landslides, most notably Edward Lear and Norman Douglas, were inspired by a combination of landscape, history and terrifying folklore.
On that score, little has changed. The ruins of Magna Graecia, Norman castles and Byzantine cathedrals are sited in panoramic positions, where the juxtaposition of mountain and coastal scenery is breathtaking. The recent history of the region, with hair-raising tales of kidnappings and blood feuds which have wiped out the male population of entire towns, fuels the fevered imagination.
A combination of corruption and an increasingly urban culture means that the mountainous national parks of Calabria remain largely undeveloped for tourism. With a guide or a compass (trekking maps are hard to find), you can walk all day through the forests, following mountain streams and waterfalls, without seeing another soul, let alone a bandit. For anyone who has tried trekking in the Alps, greeting other walkers every five minutes along the way and longing for the days before mass tourism, this solitude is a great prize.
In the Sila Grande mountains, with a local guide who, in true southern Italian renaissance tradition, is not only a naturalist but also a lawyer and an author, we watched for wolves and eagles and discussed the Sublime. We climbed through a forest of ancient beech and pine trees dripping with lichen and moss. (Norman Douglas describes the larice pine: "High-perched upon some lonely granite boulder, with roots writhing over the bare stone like the arms of an octopus, it sits firm and unmoved, deriding the tempest and flinging fantastic limbs into the air.") We emerged on to the edge of a high plain which in spring is covered with wild flowers; in September, it was alight with gold thistles (very recently, the slopes had been alight with actual fire - the work of local arsonists). In three hours' walking we saw only one other person, a cowherd who invited us back to his summer home: a hut on the edge of the forest, where he lives with his pigs and his dog from May to December (winter and spring he spends at his village down on the plain). We shared a plastic cup of his vinegary wine, watched by 10 squealing piglets.
An excellent base from which to explore the Sila is Torre Camigliati, near Cosenza, a beautiful mansion set in its own parkland. Most of Calabria's baronial piles are now ruins, museums or council offices, but this place is still owned by Baron Barracco and his wife, who have recently restored the house and turned it into an elegant, comfortable hotel and cultural centre. You can even bring your own horses.
Just below the Sila mountain range, the old town of Rende is perched on a hilltop, its winding cobbled streets heavy with jasmine. At Pantagruel nella Vecchia Rende, the chef, Tonino Napoli, is a former fishmonger, and cooks only fish, neither writing, nor following recipes. He doesn't offer a menu, but appears beside your table - a magnificent figure with a big belly and chef's hat perched eccentrically on his head - to hear what you like, and how much you want to eat. A succession of small, excellent dishes then appear - langoustine with aniseed, prawns with zucchini flowers - and continue - smoked swordfish, jellied octopus - until you beg him to stop.
There is a passion in Calabria for authentic local cuisine: thick, hand-rolled macaroni in dishes aromatic with sage and fennel, or piccante with peperoncini. People still talk about how their grandmother would spend five hours on a Sunday making the ragù ; these days they spend Sunday reliving the effect of traditional home cooking at upscale, rustic-style restaurants.
My host at Pantagruel was a publisher, teacher and writer who somehow finds time to be the mayor of the little town in the mountains where he grew up. He has been involved in a stand-off like something out of the wild west with the local mafia boss, who owns several houses right across the street from the town hall. This capomafia, who wields considerable authority, has just been deposed as patron of the town's feast day - the most important religious festival of the year. But there are other pressing matters for the mayor besides putting mafiosi in their place. A little old lady was recently crushed to death by a massive stone cross. This event caused some merriment: a pious old woman, killed by the cross? What better way to go?
Although such casual attitudes to death caused consternation among the travellers on the Grand Tour, in these parts the ability to shrug off one's troubles is an essential part of life. It is pointless, for example, to dwell on the horrible new developments that have sprung up all over Calabria, the unfinished concrete houses that litter the coastline, the rubbish dumped beside the roads. Getting around is now easy and fast, thanks to some dramatic mountain road-building, with viaducts that pass through the rock and seem to sail out over the sea. Steeling your nerve to overtake lorries and keeping an eye on your rear-view mirror for Mercedes travelling at 120mph which appear from nowhere to sit six inches behind you until you move over, you can make it from one stunning spot to the next without getting bogged down in the Plight of the South.
Far below the mountain road, the coastline winds away southwards; a queue of ships waits to unload their cargo at Gioia Tauro. (It was here that carabinieri recently intercepted a massive haul of cocaine hidden in hollowed-out slabs of marble; they were alerted when someone wondered why an Italian would want to import Colombian marble.) The clear, blue, sparkling water looked too good to resist, so I headed down to dip my toes in the surf at Tropea. By covering stretches of the coast in concrete, building anything everywhere, the Calabresi have reduced their chances of it becoming one of Europe's great holiday destinations, but the beaches at Tropea are stunning, the water clean and clear, and after a day in the mountains looking down over the glittering sea, you can quench your longing for rolling waves.
To reach the Ionian shore, one crosses the saddle of Aspromonte, beguilingly lovely for a place with its fearsome reputation (the name translates as "bitter mountain"). Forests that look postcard-pretty still hold a dark fascination for their double role of protecting mafiosi on the run, and imprisoning innocent victims. There are still towns dominated by the local mafia called Ndrangheta: San Luca, Locri, Platì - places where, in the 60s and 70s, kidnap victims were chained up in caves.
In the midst of places most idle travellers fear to tread, the elegant historic town of Gerace stands on a high rock, where people come from miles around for the Sunday passeggiata, enjoying views of the mountains, and the olive groves. Dominated by a ruined Norman castle, Gerace has a lovely Byzantine cathedral, and several smaller churches within arm's reach. The town's narrow, cobbled streets wind up and down little stairways, beneath arches and into many little courtyards where balconies bloom with geranium and jasmine. Behind the main square, an old baronial house has been converted into a luxurious hotel and restaurant, the Casa di Gianna, where 10 rooms are arranged around a central atrium, with drawing rooms and a balcony for the beau monde to dine in summer.
Many of the roads into the mountains from the Ionian coast end at half-deserted mountain villages, but one, an ancient pilgrimage route, leads from San Luca into the heart of the range, to the Santuario della Madonna di Polsi. Every year in early September, thousands of people drive, walk or crawl for miles to bring offerings to the Madonna, for the festival of prayer, dancing and feasting. The Santuario lies hidden in a deep valley of the Aspromonte, and on a normal weekday, the quiet is profound: the only people we meet are a couple of old boys with baskets on their arms, collecting mushrooms. The mountainsides are covered with oak and beech, inhabited by wild boar, wolf and deer; one can walk for miles through the forests, and the only sound is the cry of wheeling birds of prey.
Not long ago, carabinieri raided a shepherd's house in these mountains and found a mafioso who had been in hiding for 14 years. In all that time, he had never left his home village in Aspromonte. It's not hard to understand why.
ambush - wciągnąć w zasadzkę
aniseed - anyż, nasienie anyżu
arsonist - podpalać
beguilingly - czarująco, mamiąco, złudnie
bird of prey. – ptak drapieżny
bog - ugrzęznąć
cobbled - brukowany
concrete - beton
cowherd - pastuch
crawl- czołgać się
depose - usuwać, dymisjonować
deride - wyszydzać, drwić
drip - ściekać, sączyć się; kapanie
dump - śmieci, wysypisko
dwell on - rozmyślać o
eagle - orzeł
fennel - koper
ferocious - okrutny, zażarty
feud- niezgoda, waśń; kłócić się
fishmonger - sprzedawca
hair-raising - powodujący, że włosy stają dęba
haul - zdobycz
heyday - okres pełnego rozkwitu
idle - bezczynny, leniwy
intercept - przechwytywać
jellied- w galarecie
juxtaposition - porównanie
keep an eye on - mieć na oku
landslide - obsunięcie się ziemi
lichen - porost
litter - zaśmiecać, zawalać
merriment - wesołość, rozbawienie
octopus - ośmiornica
overtake - wyprzedzać
passeggiata - spacer (włoski)
piccante - pikantny
pilgrimage - pielgrzymka
pious - pobożny
prawn - krewetka
quench - gasić (pragnienie)
rear-view mirror - lusterko wsteczne
sage - szałwia
shrug off - ignorować
slab - płyta (kamienia)
smoked - wędzony
southernmost - najbardziej wysunięty na południe
sparkle - iskrzyć, migotać
spring up - niespodziewanie się pojawiać
squeal - kwiczeć
stand-off - impas, sytuacja bez wyjścia
steeling one’s nerve
stunning - oszałamiający
swordfish- miecznik (ryba)
thistle - oset
wheel- krążyć, kołować
wield - dzierżyć, utrzymywać