Many people pass over Reggio in their rush to get from mainland Italy to the island of Sicily. Driving down the highway, they turn off at Villa San Giovanni for the car ferry to Messina, never giving a thought to what they might be missing just twenty minutes further along the road. What’s down there, anyway? Trust me, go the extra ten miles and visit Reggio Calabria —you’ll be glad you did.
AN HISTORICAL NOTE
First off, Reggio has been around forever. The “Calabria” or “di Calabria” was tacked onto the name after unification so as not to confuse it with Reggio Emilia up north. Its history predates the Greeks, who settled this strategic location at the exact center of the Mediterranean in the 8th century BC. They called their colony Rhegion, which was subsequently Latinized by the Romans and transformed through the ages under the area’s various rulers.
The casual visitor looking around Reggio for the first time might wonder just what happened to the old town that the good people of Reggio (the Reggini) had called home for so many epochs. The simple answer would be earthquakes, principally those of 1783 and 1908, two devastating seismic events that crushed southern Calabria and eastern Sicily. Consequently, Reggio’s architecture appears rather modern with respect to its long history.
The current population is about 180,000, the largest city in Calabria, with double the number in the greater metropolitan area.
Nestled against the foothills of the Aspromonte Mountains, Reggio Calabria sits along the Strait of Messina at the very tip of the Italian peninsula. The lungomare or waterfront is a great place for a stroll, either down at beach level or along the upper promenade, which flanks what is commonly referred to as Via Marina, a pair of north-south coastal roads laid out in boulevard style. The approximate two-kilometer strip of land between serves as a lovely city park the length of the downtown area.
Stately mansions face this public garden and the strait beyond. Ruins of an ancient Greek wall and a Roman bath complex give a nod to Reggio’s past, and welcoming shade from the midday sun is provided under and amidst its many exotic plants and trees.
Reggio Calabria’s lungomare is not only a picturesque setting but the view across the waters of the strait—to Messina, the mountains of Sicily and on a clear day, Mt. Etna in all its glory—is truly spectacular. Italian writer Gabriele D’Annunzio is said to have proclaimed Reggio’s waterfront, “il più bel chilometro d’Italia” or the most beautiful kilometer of Italy!
REGGIO’S HISTORIC CENTER
After the 1908 earthquake, the downtown was completely rebuilt. The city’s website characterizes the architectural style as being “between eclecticism and Liberty,” which is Italy’s art nouveau, a style for which Reggio is noted. Despite the building variety, with many instances of Neoclassicism, other period reinterpretations and a significant percentage of late art nouveau, the overall appearance is rather uniform with an air of genteel sophistication.
Corso Garibaldi, the pedestrian-only street lined with tony shops displaying their wares in the ground-floor windows of impressive edifices, runs parallel to Via Marina. The Reggini saunter up and down this attractive thoroughfare as they engage in Italy’s beloved passeggiata. This leisurely walking is so popular in Reggio that pedestrian traffic-jams form during peak meandering times. The passeggiata is a pastime for all ages and young people come out in droves on Saturday night.
Piazza Italia sits at the center of Corso Garibaldi, or il Corso as the avenue is called. This important square, the seat of today’s municipal government, prefecture and provincial administration, amazingly served as the agora or central public space for the ancient Greeks as well as the forum in Roman times. Recent archeological excavations have revealed six stratifications within a 6-meter (20-feet) depth: Hellenistic Greek, Imperial Roman, Byzantine, Norman, Angevin and the nineteenth century. The visitor can look through glass to see the ancient street below or if lucky and it’s open, descend to the lower level.
An exhaustive study of the buildings in Reggio’s historic center would fill many pages. I can only entice with a few details.
REGGIO’S THEATERS, CHURCHES AND CASTLE
The two theaters on il Corso are well worth a look. The classic 1,500-seat Teatro Francesco Cilea sits catty-cornered to Piazza Italia. Dedicated to the Calabrian opera composer, the theater produces a series of performances in its lovely 18th-century style interior. The Politeama Siracusa charms with its art-nouveau curvilinear motifs and appealing wrought iron work, but unfortunately is rarely open.
As all over Italy, churches aren’t difficult to find. Reggio’s cathedral sits on the southern end of il Corso and faces a large, newly renovated piazza. Officially called the Basilica Cattedrale Metropolitana di Maria Santissima Assunta in Cielo, the church was rebuilt in Romanesque Revival style following the 1908 earthquake and re-consecrated in 1928 almost one thousand years after its establishment. The marble Baroque chapel that was rescued from the previous structure is not to be missed off the left aisle. The Cathedral has been a focal point of Reggio’s Festival of the Madonna, one of Calabria’s biggest celebrations, for over 500 years.
Amongst Reggio’s many beautiful churches, the shimmering sanctuary of the Church of San Paolo alla Rotonda stands out. Many of the interior mosaics are the work of Calabrian artist Nunzio Bava. The church is located near the Palazzo della Cultura on Via Reggio Campi in an elevated position from where there is an excellent view over the city. Back in the center of town near the castle, the Church of the Ottimati features a geometric mosaic flooring from the Byzantine period despite the present structure’s relatively new construction.
Reggio Calabria’s majestic Castello Aragonese (Aragon Castle) survived the 1908 earthquake intact, but much of the structure was subsequently knocked down in the name of city planning. Despite its size, the castle, just two streets up from il Corso, seemingly hides outside of a block’s range, when the impressive edifice suddenly looms above with its formidable cylindrical towers. Today, the castle serves as an exhibition space.
VISIT REGGIO CALABRIA MUSEUMS
A visit to Reggio wouldn’t be complete without examining the wealth of ancient artifacts at the world-class archeological museum. In fact, many people fly in just to see the famous Riace Bronzes, 2,500-year-old Greek statues of impeccable artistry. However, even without these giants of antiquity, the archeological museum in Reggio Calabria would be a must-see. It’s at the north end of il Corso facing Piazza De Nava.
Inside Teatro Cilea at the center of il Corso, the Pinacoteca Civica or the Civic Art Museum of Reggio Calabria is an interesting art space with numerous paintings by Calabrian artists in elegant rooms of the theater building. The Palazzo della Cultura is another museum that features local artists as well as art confiscated from a ‘Ndrangheta mafia boss. The Museo San Paolo, housed in the same palazzo up a hill from the castle, has a very nice collection, an eclectic mix of icons, paintings, sculpture, silver and books. If that weren’t enough, the cathedral displays a collection of sacred objects in their Museo Dicesano and Reggio also has a Musical Instrument Museum, set up in the city’s old Lido train station in a little pine grove, a bit further north from the new one. And for a unique museum experience, visit the city’s Bergamot Museum.
THINGS TO DO IN REGGIO CALABRIA
Are you still looking for things to do in Reggio Calabria? How about shopping, eating or going to the beach? In the summer, the seaside is lined with rows of lounge chairs, umbrellas, bars, clubs and restaurants of seasonal concessionaires.
The shopping choices are quite extensive, everything from high-end designer boutiques to general department stores. When you visit Reggio Calabria, you can pick up a specialty food item from the area or a bauble made by Calabria’s master jeweler Gerardo Sacco.
And make sure to stop in a bar of which there are many, all with gleaming, state-of-the-art coffee machines. Rub elbows with a local and remember that the Italian bar is not only home to Italy’s quintessential “espresso,” but a wide selection of beverages and delectable pastries, as well. Taste a delicious dessert or beverage made from the bergamot. After all, one of Reggio’s nicknames is the Città del Bergamotto.
A cone, dish or brioche filled with gelato will fortify a passeggiata, and Via Marina boasts two gelaterie that are local institutions, Cesare and Sotto Zero. There’s so much to see and do in Reggio Calabria, dinner will have to wait.
Are you ready to visit Reggio Calabria? Join my Calabria tour! And read more about Reggio and the fascinating region in the toe of the boot on the above links and 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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