Calabria s road less travelled
Calabria: Le Castella castle cove.

The autostradas that mesh the country dwindle the further south you go and below Naples there is just one. It stops at Reggio Calabria.

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Only Rome is older than Reggio but the city has few old buildings, for too many earthquakes have levelled it, like the one in 1908 when 25,000 citizens died. Nevertheless, it is a place with great charm, notably along its seafront promenade that the poet D'Annunzio called "the most beautiful kilometre in Italy".

Sicily lies before it, and sometimes more magical vistas, for Reggio is home to the fata morgana. The Normans, who once ruled here, gave the Morgan le Fay name to this extraordinary mirage phenomenon over water.

We parked on the promenade and asked two policewomen where to find the famous Bronzes of Riace. They'd been temporarily moved from the museum to Palazzo Campanella, 15 minutes' walk away.


THE PALAZZO

The palazzo turned out to be the futuristic regional council building. In its foyer, behind a glass partition, experts in white coats were working on the bronzes. The twin statues, Greek heroes or gods from about 430BC, are as fine as any you might ever see.

Half an hour beyond Reggio, under Italy's big toe, is Pentedattilo, whose Greek name means five fingers. Abandoned in the 1960s because of the risk of erosion and earthquakes, it crouches under five overhanging pinnacles. But although the houses were empty and many were tumbling down, we found this not to be a creepy place at all, especially not with singing coming from Mass being held in the single church there. At the top, a ruined castle looked out over the Ionian Sea. Pentedattilo each year hosts a film festival.

A series of tight bends took us to the top of the medieval town of Gerace, on a mesa. Between the carpark and an imposing Norman castle was a children's playground, deserted but with spectacular views. Cobbled streets led down into the equally spectacular town.


THE CATHEDRAL

The cathedral, Calabria's largest church, is 1000 years old and is entered via a crypt, filled with religious treasures. We went up steps into the main part and found we had it totally to ourselves, not even a cleric in evidence. We then walked a short distance to where the town fell perilously away, to a restaurant with a low vaulted roof and homemade pasta.

Stilo, further along the coast, also has a Norman castle but this was an hour's trek almost vertically overhead. Instead, we visited the Cattolica, a tiny red-brick monastic structure from the 10th century, now under restoration.

A large man in a wheelchair directed us to the main piazza where we had conversed over coffee with a man called Alfonso, having identified Graziano as our wheelchair man.

"Do you know Angela from Australia, in the next village of Bivongi?" Of course. He proved that by phoning her at once. She was at home, he would take us there, insisting we climb into his Fiat 500, and that we not do up our seatbelts: "Nobody does that here!" The drive was short but scary, and the encounter with Angela at her art gallery was pleasant.

Back in Stilo, there were cheerful farewells, with Graziano participating: he presented us with ceramic replicas of the Cattolica that he had made. He crippled himself in a car accident, Alfonso confided, and he himself had had a bad one the previous year.


LE CASTELLA

After pausing at a fabulous little castle protruding into the turquoise waters of the Ionian Sea at Le Castella, we turned inland, towards the Sila which fills the province of Cosenza, almost coast to coast, and is where Calabria's sizeable Albanian population, refugees from the Ottomans five centuries ago, mainly live.

Frascineto was the first town we visited where Arberesh - a dialect of Albanian - is the local tongue. It shares with Italian all the marble street signs, and the town hall reads: Bashkia/ Municipio.

We visited a museum of icons with ancient ones on display as well as techniques for making new ones, for icons are still being created. The curator urged us to drop in to nearby Civita, another Albanian town. We were glad we did for it not only has a lot of character but is also set in hills above an extraordinary canyon.

We ventured then into the Sila Greca, so called because the Albanians are Greek Orthodox. San Giorgio Albanese, one of many villages dotting these ridges, was quiet, with men sitting in groups outside the cafes, curious about us and friendly.


PIAZZA

Near the main square three ladies sitting on steps greeted us. Arberesh, they told us, is spoken by all of the old but few of the young; it is taught and it endures but who knows for how long. They recommended we visit the main church. Here we found the town's patron saint, St George, and a church interior full of shining icons.

Hairpin bends soon took us down to the plain of Sibari, to the archaeological site of Sybaris near the modern town of Sibari. The orginal city, a byword for luxury, was destroyed by the people of nearby Croton who in 510BC diverted a river over it to finish the job. A Greek city and then a Roman one were built there later but, the guide pointed out, a pump must work 24/7 to keep the high water table from flooding the site once again.

Our last night in Calabria was outside the fortress town of Rocca Imperiale and once again we were staying at an agriturismo. This is a farm that offers tourist accommodation, one of thousands in Italy. We left Calabria next morning still reflecting on why tourists shun this lovely region. Perhaps because of its reputation, or its lack of infrastructure, or poor promotion.

The first is a fallacy - the local Mafia has never targeted tourists, and travellers are as safe there as anywhere. The second and third do seem valid: there are few good hotels or highways, and the wonders of the place are not well advertised. But if you travel by hire car, as we did, opt for farm stays and - this is important - have good planning and research beforehand, then beautiful Calabria delivers on its promise.

Rory Steele was born and part raised in WA, and was Australia's ambassador to Italy from 1997-2001.

The West Australian

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