Tropea, Calabria: One Of Italy’s Most Underrated Areas
By John Henderson
GoNOMAD Senior Writer
I’ve just returned from one of the poorest provinces in Italy, which boasts one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, and I tell you that I don’t admire the Greek myths.
But I can really identify with one star of Greek mythology: Hercules. He has my taste, my sense of style, and my love of beauty. He rested in Tropea after all his hard work you read about in the myths.
I came to Tropea for a change of scenery from the writing desk in my living room. It is the region of Calabria one of Italy’s twenty regions I hadn’t visited yet.
The toe of Italy’s boot is considered the poorest, most rural, and least industrial region in the country. But it is also famous for beautiful beaches, unspoiled culture, and friendly people fiercely proud of their corner in Europe.
In June, the crowd doubles and so do the prices and temperature.
It is 380 miles (630 kilometers) south of Rome, and the train goes along the Tyrrhenian coastline. The sea became clearer the farther south I went interspersed with quaint villages to my right and sprawling green hills to my left. With one connection, I reached Tropea in 5 ½ hours.
I stayed at the Hotel Tropis, a four-star spa hotel at the top of the town a five-minute walk from the train station. It featured a swimming pool, Jacuzzi, massage rooms, and a full buffet breakfast. They gave me a room with a sea view and balcony, perfect for writing because I asked!
Tropea spreads out along the top of a cliff adorned by beaches and anchored by a beautiful marina.
The cliff overhangs the sea like one giant penthouse apartment. No hotel sits directly on the beach.
From my hotel, I strolled down the main drag of Corso Vittorio Emanuele III and realized Tropea is in experience the pearl of Calabria.
Any signs of Calabria’s backward poverty are a world away. I walked past piazzas with chock-a-block outdoor bars.
All the way down the street I passed gelaterias, trattorias, souvenir stands and one enoteca selling Calabria’s underrated white Ciro’ wine.
It emptied out into Largo Migliarese where I took a seat at Dal Barone, a cocktail bar with tables all pointing out to the sea. I ordered a glass of Ciro’ Bianco and joined well-dressed couples staring at the horizon through their designer sunglasses. They were all looking at the space between two bars, a lookout where a small crowd had gathered.
Italy’s Most Beautiful Village?
It was about 7:30 p.m. The sun sets at about 8:15. I put a coaster over my glass to investigate.
Laying before me was the next blown-up photo on my wall. The sun was a little orange fireball hanging over what looked like a small island with a sand-colored church covered in gables atop it.
A motorboat slowly floated into view. In the foreground, stretching along a gentle arc was a sandy beach.
I could see why Tropea topped Borgho dei Borghi’s list of “Italy’s Most Beautiful Village 2021.”
The church is Santa Maria dell’Isola, a medieval monastic church that back to the 7th century.
It was said to have been inhabited by hermits and their ascetic lifestyle before it became a monastery in the 11th century. At one time, this rock was its own island.
However, through the centuries the accumulation of silt formed a causeway and connected the island to the mainland.
Home Of Hermits
To reach it, I went to Largo Villetta high above the sea where people gathered at Bar dell’Isola and overdressed waiters served pastel-colored cocktails in tall glasses at tables with red tablecloths. The church hovered in the distance almost at eye level, looking like a sand castle on a rock.
I walked down 109 steps to the sea below, crossed the causeway, and walked up 89 steps to the church. Even in the mild 75 degrees I sweated. I can’t imagine how few people make it in July when every day is in the high 80. The outside of the church is more impressive than the inside. It has only 13 rows of pews, and the soft Gregorian chants over the loudspeaker were a nice touch.
Meeting A Local
Back in Largo Migliarese, I took a glass of wine at Carbone Cocktail Bar where pulsating rock music splashed the place with a young vibe.
I started chatting with two young local men in their early 20s. Severio Ruffa was an administrator who was born and raised in Tropea.
I told him the people in Tropea don’t match Calabria’s reputation for being poor and downtrodden.
Severio explained that “It’s the mentality here, you take a passeggiata (stroll), go to the beach see the sunset. Everyone’s cool.”
You don’t need to be in the sea to be cool here. On the way back to the hotel, I stopped at Emotion Bar, another outdoor cafe on a piazza.
Two singers with salt and pepper hair sang ‘90s Italian pop hits while I sipped a glass of red Magliocco wine. I was the only person at the table.
Tropea’s Many Beaches
Tropea sticks out on a peninsula protruding into the Tyrrhenian Sea like a bump atop the toe of Italy’s boot. A string of golden sand stretches the length of the town for miles. Only 60 miles (100 kilometers) to the south is Sicily. The weather in Tropea is mild nearly all year except for two summer months when the 7% humidity is more appropriate for African violets than human life.
On a perfect 72-degree day under clear, sunny skies, I took the hotel’s shuttle– it’s about 10 minutes to its private beach. Spiaggia Rocca Nettuno is a long stretch of sand with three widely spaced restaurants. A beach chair and umbrella were included in the shuttle. The blue-green water, as still as a lake, was free.
The water this far south in Italy is clean enough for scuba diving. I looked farther out to sea and the water had turned to turquoise similar to what I saw in French Polynesia. The only difference is I had to precariously maneuver across a strip of jagged rocks to the water where the temperature of 69 degrees takes somewhat of a hearty soul.
Walking past the sanctity of my private beach, with “TROPIS” emblazoned on the lounge chairs, I heard a few foreign voices on the public beach. Before summer, Tropea is still an Italian destination. May in Tropea is the perfect time for ocean bliss.
Tropea is not a party town. Nightlife revolves around the outdoor cafes where tall cocktails and glasses of wine fly around tables until after midnight. Being alone, I gravitated to Hosteria Italiana. Its outdoor seating is anchored by a huge screen where they showed Italian soccer games at night.
Food And Wine
Calabrian cuisine is the Tex Mex of the Italian kitchen. It’s spicy, full-flavored. Its headliner is a sausage called ‘nduja. Its pork sausage is made from various meat cuts, fat, and Calabrian chili peppers. Originating from the village of Spilinga, 10 miles inland from Tropea, they’re mixed together and smoked.
It is served in slices as an antipasto and as a rich, fiery sauce in pasta. In fact, they even managed to convince local Burger King and Mcdonald’s outlets to serve ‘nduja.
At La Lamia, in a cute enclosure on a back alley, I had fileja da ‘nduja e burrata, long, twisty pasta in ‘nduja sauce with mozzarella and cream. It’s the spiciest pasta you’ll ever have but the sauce is terrific to scoop up with fresh homemade bread.
Rosse di Tropea
Calabria’s other trademark food is Cipolle Rosse di Tropea, Tropea Onions. I found these big, fat purple onions with long stems sold out of the backs of trucks all through the countryside and on pedestrian streets in Tropea.
Locally known as Regina Rossa (Red Queen), they grow along the rich coastline near Tropea. They sell for only €2 a kilo and are served in shaved ribbons on an aperitivo tray.
They are among the sweetest onions in the world and I ate them like olives every night.
You can’t leave Calabria without a Calabrian pizza. Locals told me La Pergola had the best pizza in town, I had La Faccia del Vecchio (The Old Face). It was covered in mozzarella, tomatoes, black olives and Tropea onions. It was light but so tangy, unlike anything I’ve had before in Italy.
Besides the huge bucket of inexpensive mussels, I had at Nino e Marcella and Osteria del Pescatore, probably the best meal I had was at Le Volpe e L’Uva. Unusually called The Foxes and the Grapes, it was tiny. It had only six tables inside and only a few outside the building dates back to 1500. I also had the paccheri rosati allo spada pomodori e pinoli (wide tube pasta with swordfish in a tomato sauce and covered in pine nuts).
It blended perfectly with a glass of Ciro’ Classico which belies Calabria’s reputation as Italy’s wasteland of wine backwash. Only 4% of all Calabrian wine products are DOC (Designation of Controlled Origin), the label indicating the second-highest quality level behind DOCG.
About 95% of Calabrian wines are Gaglioppo red. It’s passable for a table wine but most Calabrian wines are shipped north to use in blends. The white Ciro’, however, is gaining some credit internationally and I bought a bottle in a wine store for only €12.
Finding Your Way To Tropea …
You can get a train from Trenitalia to Rome it costs €58 one way and the trip is about two to seven hours long. Consider staying in hotels that have a free airport shuttle, Hotel Tropis and Contrada Fontana Via Nuova, 39-09-63-607-162, www.tropis.it, email@example.com.