Calabria is particularly blessed with panoramas that take your breath away – mozzafiato, as they say in Italian. The Santuario di Santa Maria dell’Isola in Tropea is perhaps the most famous of them all. The particular combination of emerald-green water, white sand, blue sky and the little church on its rocky perch is irresistible.
“Where is that church?”
“It must be on the Amalfi coast.”
“No, it’s in Puglia.”
“The Cinque Terre?”
“I’d love to sip an Aperol Spritz there.”
Rest assured, you can eat, drink and even lounge on the beach with the view, but you need to go further south, to Calabria, specifically to the bump on the top of the toe before you reach the very point of the Italian boot.
HISTORY OF SANTA MARIA DELL’ISOLA
Surrounded by the Tyrrhenian Sea, the Santuario di Santa Maria dell’Isola is in the town of Tropea in the Province of Vibo Valentia. While its history is uncertain, the area is known to have come under the auspices of Basilian monks of the Eastern rite some time during the early Middle Ages. In the 11th century, the island’s religious reigns were passed to the Benedictines under guidance of the Normans. Tropea and the surrounding communities were gradually Latinized, and interestingly, the Abbey of Montecassino has held dominion over the island sanctuary for over 1,000 years.
Little of the original structure remains due to the devastating earthquakes of 1783 and 1905. Today, Santa Maria dell’Isola has become one of Calabria’s most internationally recognized symbols.
LEGEND AND FESTIVAL OF SANTA MARIA DELL’ISOLA
Was the church built by the Basilians or the Benedictines? While written records of the church’s initial construction are not known to exist, a legend associated with the Madonna fills the void.
In a period when religious icons were being destroyed, a wooden statue of the Madonna washed up on the shores of Tropea. The town’s bishop and mayor decided to set her up in a natural grotto in the rock, but she was too tall! No problem, they would saw off her legs. At the very moment the carpenter touched his saw to the wood, his arms became paralyzed and the bishop and mayor were struck dead. Following the incident, the Madonna began performing miraculous acts for the sick who came to the spot where she had been placed.
The annual Festival of Santa Maria dell’Isola is celebrated on August 15th. In keeping with the dramatic setting and popular legend, St. Mary of the Island arrives by sea, together in a boat with St. Joseph and the Baby Jesus. Out of the water, she is carried around and up the steps to the church on the shoulders of the faithful.
VISIT THE SANCTUARY OF ST. MARY OF THE ISLAND
Strolling through the center of Tropea’s old town to the balcony at the end of Corso Vittorio Emanuele (the main street) or veering to the left to reach the Piazzetta del Canone (Little Piazza of the Canon) brings the visitor to stupendous prospects of the sanctuary. Tropea’s old town sits up on a cliff, which makes the view down to the sandy white beach, crystal waters and across to the “island” all that much more striking. Cameras come out, selfies are snapped, group pictures posed. But then the traveler notices that the isola is in fact, not an island.
Back in the day, the sandstone isola was completely surrounded by water. Nature and man have altered the topography, but the name has stuck.
To visit the sanctuary from the old town, a set of steps leads down to the beach level near the Piazzetta del Canone. And then, stairs sculpted out of the rock lead up to the church with its pristine façade – almost too smooth and perfect the nearer you get, which is the end result of the previous face’s complete collapse during the seismic event of 1905.
Inside, the Holy Family beam down from the simple altar.
An old organ looks back from up in the wooden balcony at the other end of the narrow, central aisle.
Stone side walls evoke a time gone by.
THE SANTUARIO IS A SANCTUARY
Entrance to the church is free, but access to the rooms above and to the rest of the “island” requires a modest admission. Climbing up the irregular steps to the small museum with windows facing back onto the historic center is priceless. As are the views from the church’s terrace and gardens.
The grounds behind the church are larger than one might expect when facing the sanctuary. The church is at the front of the little peninsula and the area behind is very pleasant, indeed. One can almost imagine a Basilian hermit contemplating whatever an early Christian might have pondered, except for the numerous signs admonishing visitors not to write on or break the plants.
While just a stone’s throw from the hustle and bustle of Tropea’s old town, the atmosphere is completely different. You can gaze across at the historic center, seemingly impenetrable with its fortress-like buildings growing straight up from the cliff’s edge, or down to the bathers frolicking in the clear water, or out to sea, all the way to Stromboli, one of Italy’s active volcanos.
The Santuario di Santa Maria dell’Isola is a lovely city park. It’s truly Tropea’s sanctuary, so please don’t attempt to scratch your name into a prickly pear cactus pad.
Has your interest been piqued? Come to Calabria with me! I will show you the “other Italy.” See the full itineraries on my Calabria tour page.
Would you like to know more about what there is to see and do in Calabria, the fascinating region in the toe of the Italian boot? Check out Calabria: The Other Italy, my non-fiction book about daily life, history, culture, art, food and society in this beautiful southern Italian region. Available in paperback and electronic versions.
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