Whenever you embark on something new, there’s that level of uncertainty until it’s all over and you can sit back and reflect on how it went. You want everything to be perfect and you do everything in your power to make that happen. As owner of my new travel company Karen’s Travel LLC, I ran my first Calabria Cultural Tour this past June and the burning question has been, how did it go?
The Italian expression alla grande comes from everyday speech and translates as splendidly, sumptuously, in a lordly manner, and I’m proud to say that the tour went very, very well. Alla grande, in fact.
My international group of ten set out to explore Calabria in early June. These enthusiastic travelers were eager to soak up everything the region had to offer. A few had ventured down to the toe of the boot on previous occasions. One had lived in Calabria, and several were making their very first trip to Italy! Interestingly, they held American, Canadian, Italian and Australian passports. Their blood ranged from 100 percent calabrese to not a drop from the Italian peninsula. A few spoke a little Italian, and one participant was completely fluent in Italian as well as the dialect from her village of origin.
CALABRIA CULTURAL TOUR OVERVIEW
The travelers arrived in Calabria by plane, train and car for this cultural tour, designed to provide as full an experience as possible within the limits of a relatively brief visit: from the mountains to the sea, cities to villages, folk art to “high” art, ancient history to contemporary society, and of course the region’s outstanding agricultural and culinary traditions. Here is a glimpse of the 10-day land tour.
We started out in Cosenza, where we spent four nights in one of our “elegant, roomy, and very comfortable” four-star hotels with dinners that were “delicious and pleasing to every palate,” as described by a participant in an on-line review. In addition to visiting the national gallery and strolling through town, one of the highlights for the group was a private concert by a pair of extraordinary local musicians, who serenaded us with accordion, guitar, mandolin, tambourine, recorder and even a hurdy-gurdy!
EXPLORING NORTHERN CALABRIA
Our day-trip to Rossano included a guided tour of the old town with its Baroque cathedral, busting at the seams with families of the many children taking their first communion, and the newly refurbished Diocesan Museum, where we marveled at its exceptional 6th-century illuminated manuscript. We clinked our glasses at our first family-style meal in a local agriturismo and then visited the Amarelli Licorice Museum, where my book Calabria: The Other Italy was on display!
On our excursion to the town of Civita in the Pollino Mountains, we learned about the Albanian heritage that dates back over 500 years and saw examples in the village’s language, architecture and religion. In Altomonte, demonstrations of breadmaking proceeded our deliciously copious agriturismo lunch at kilometro zero, the ultimate farm to table dining.
In the Sila Mountains, the magnificent pines, hundreds of years old, stretching up to the sky, brought to mind the California redwoods. We ambled under their canopy, over the boardwalk that protects the fragile forest floor of the nature preserve. The fresh mountain air stimulated our appetites, meno male (thank goodness), as we needed every bit of available space to devour the exquisite local meats, cheeses, mushrooms and potatoes, abundantly presented on large serving platters. “Mmm…” One participant couldn’t help but express his pleasure, at times undulating to “Mmm..mmMMmm…” or a variation thereof. I understood.
History popped in Santa Severina. The imposing Norman castle that anchors the medieval village strikes first. Then come the many layers, within and without, from pre-Roman to Byzantine all the way through to the contemporary design of the town’s piazza – so much in such a beautiful place.
IN THE PROVINCE OF REGGIO CALABRIA
Our time in the southern end of the region began in the delightful ethnographic museum in Palmi. Ceramics to combat the evil eye stood beside giant puppets and the tools of traditional trades. Although the sky was a bit hazy, we looked down on the Strait of Messina from Monte Sant’Elia, like a vast picture window on the Mediterranean.
Scilla never disappoints – from the castle-topped outcropping with a history of swordfish scouting that predates Odysseus and his confrontation with Scylla, the mythological sea monster, to the ever so picturesque fishing village of Chianalea.
Many people go to Reggio Calabria just to see the spectacular Riace Bronzes, two Greek statues that will take your breath away, and that, they did. However, they find themselves delighted with the city itself, from the dazzling waterfront to the lovely shopping and not to mention the bergamot. We sampled bergamot juice in a shop that had more products made from this special citrus than you could shake a stick at, as Reggio is officially the Città del Bergamotto.
Our daytrip to the historically Greek-speaking area included a visit to Bova, a hill town in the Aspromonte Mountains, Amendolea where we dined on mouthwatering goat dishes in a bergamot grove and the otherworldly ghost town of Pentedattilo.
Preparations for a wedding were in progress as we visited the majestic cathedral of Gerace, on Italy’s list of Borghi più Belli d’Italia. We visited six of Calabria’s fourteen “Most Beautiful Villages of Italy” on the trip.
WINE, HISTORY AND GELATO
Our winery visit took us to Cantine Lento, a family-owned business where one of the daughters showed us the vineyards and cellars, and led the tasting of their delicious wines, which we enjoyed with an array of appetizers and a delicious pasta dish made by her mother!
With Calabria’s rich history, visits to a couple of archeological sites were not to be missed. The participants were amazed by the mosaics in the Roman baths at Villa Casignana and the marble sculptures at Scolacium Archeological Park. And as one of the participants shared in a review, our expert local guide was “a treasure trove of knowledge about every village, town, castle, church, cathedral, museum, etc.”
On our final full day, we visited Tropea, Calabria’s showstopper, or shall we say, Calabria’s showstopper for those who weren’t on our tour to see one after another. However, there’s no denying that the view down to the beach from the cliff town is stunning, with the blue-green sea and the Sanctuary “St. Mary of the Island” sitting out on its own spit of land. We had a wonderful ‘nduja (a spicy local salami) and Tropean onion tasting before we moved on to Pizzo and sampled their signature gelato called tartufo, a stuffed gelato ball in a multitude of flavors, and walked it off with a visit to the historic castle where Joachim Murat, Napoleon’s brother-in-law, met his demise.
CALABRIA CULTURAL TOUR REVIEWS
Our farewell dinner began with a round of spontaneous toasts and ended with hugs and maybe even a tear.
You may be wondering if there are any Calabria Cultural Tour reviews. Yes, Karen’s Travel LLC is on Trip Advisor. Some highlights from participants: “A feast for the senses! I can’t imagine anything topping this tour!” “Truly a wonderful tour – I have been on many tours before and none has surpassed Karen’s offering.” “Karen’s tour offered a solid intro to the region…. Warm and welcoming people, along with a mélange of fantastic food, history, and culture, make Karen’s tour an unforgettable journey.”
I felt fortunate to have had a wonderful group of people on my first tour and am overjoyed by their reactions to both Calabria and my tour, which one woman described as her “trip of a lifetime.”
The bar was set for the future. I planned on repeating this tour, adding a day in Reggio for an 11-day program in May 2020, as well as offering a new program called Traditions and Food of Calabria that June, but as we know, the pandemic forced the cancellation of our carefully laid plans. Thankfully, 2021 has brought new travel hopes, and Karen’s Travel LLC is offering the Calabria Cultural Tour in the fall. Check out the updated itinerary on my Calabria Tour page. And please, share it with friends and family!
Read more about the fascinating region in the toe of the boot in Calabria: The Other Italy, my non-fiction book about daily life, history, culture, art, food and society in this important area of South Italy. It’s available in paperback and e-book versions.
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