Hidden beaches, crumbling ancient ruins and an underrated form of beauty: for a real glimpse into Italy’s south, head to Calabria and Basilicata, says Abra Dunsby.
The Costa degli Dei might be named after the gods, but I’m on a different sort of pilgrimage.
With a rainbow-striped umbrella hauled over one shoulder and a beach bag hanging from the other, I start my wobbly descent down steps hewn from the hillside.
Then I catch my first glimpse of it: a shock of rippling, Aquafresh-blue water that looks like someone has tweaked it on Photoshop.
From my perch on the steps, framed by shrubs and prickly cacti, I spot a group of caramel-hued, Speedo-clad Italians launching themselves from craggy grey rocks and splashing into the water below.
The intense blue ebbs on to a small strip of pearly sand that wouldn’t look out of place in the Caribbean, and is dotted sparsely with figures stretching out on towels in the near-blinding sunshine.
This is Zambrone, a heavenly slice of beach along the Costa degli Dei, or the Coast of the Gods, located on Calabria’s Tyrrhenian side.
While Puglia in Italy’s heel is soaring in popularity, Calabria, which rests in the boot’s toe, is still very much off the radar for British tourists.
This southern region has been blighted by poverty, rampant overbuilding and the organised crime of its Mafia, known as the ‘Ndrangheta.
That shouldn’t put clients off though: it might lack the glamour of the Amalfi Coast or the gloss of Cinque Terre, but Calabria has a rustic beauty of its own, making it ideal for repeat visitors or Italophiles who want to avoid the crowds.
It’s not just Calabria that’s escaped the attention of the Brits – the neighbouring region of Basilicata also has treasures to unearth, namely the fairy-tale hilltop town of Matera, and combining the two offers a fantastic peek into a lesser-known side of Italy’s Mezzogiorno or southern region.
Though its hectic cities are best avoided, Calabria boasts more than 480 miles of spectacular, unspoilt coastline, the best of which is on the Tyrrhenian side. Tell clients to visit in June or September, when temperatures are lower and the crowds of holidaying Italians are fewer.
At Capo Vaticano’s Grotticelle and Tonicello beaches, white granite cliffs reflect in the water giving it that brightest blue hue. Both have lidos where clients can pay around €12 for loungers and an umbrella, or they can escape the masses by walking further up the beach to find their own patch.
Equally impressive thanks to its clean, translucent water is the beach of Riace, which is also famed for the Greek bronze statues dating circa 450BC discovered in its waters in the 1970s. They are now housed in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in the city of Reggio Calabria.
But it’s the beach town of Tropea that trumps them all. Its sandy-coloured buildings teeter dramatically on the cliff edge, gazing down onto a photogenic beach where locals splash about in the clear water or top up their already impressive tans.
Tell clients to climb the winding steps up to the medieval cliff-top church, Santa Maria dell’Isola, for views that span across to Stromboli and the Aeolian Islands on clear days.
In the evenings, Tropea buzzes with Italians enjoying the ritual of the passeggiata – a leisurely stroll – pausing to refuel on ice cream, snap pictures of the sunsets from the viewpoint, or mooch in delicatessens filled with local produce.
The town is famous for its sweet red onions, garlands of which are often draped attractively across Vespas by traders.
Equally revered are Calabria’s fiery chillies or pepperoncini, which add clout to its seafood and pasta dishes; its juicy figs, which are often wrapped in Parma ham for a tasty starter; and ‘nduja, a soft, spicy sausage.
Hiring a car is an ideal way of getting around in this part of Italy, and the four-hour drive across the two regions is also a very scenic one.
In Calabria we weave along wiggly roads dotted with wild flowers, hilltop villages and the occasional crumbling Norman castle.
The vista shifts dramatically as we pass over the towering, thick greenery of Calabria’s La Sila national park, punctuated with snaking silver flecks of river. The area is one of three national parks in the region, all of which offer excellent hiking, biking and climbing thanks to their vastly mountainous terrain.
Basilicata’s golden fields of hay bales and apricot, olive and lemon trees feel part of an untouched and forgotten Italy, and we drive along empty roads passing only the occasional farmer.
While the region is a poor one, its crowning glory of Matera brings many cultural riches, and should make it onto any fan of Italy’s bucket list.
The town is well known for its Sassi, ancient stone cave dwellings, churches and monasteries that date back to the Middle Ages.
Over time the caves became the homes of some of Italy’s poorest, and they were inhabited up until
The city is now a Unesco World Heritage Site and has been cleaned up substantially. Many of the old limestone caves are now mini- museums, restaurants, bars or even luxury hotels, and no doubt more will pop up by 2019, when Matera becomes European Capital of Culture.
From the old town, the views of layers of honey-coloured buildings that stretch out across to the nearby Gravina gorge are one-of-a-kind and incredibly cinematic. At night, when the flickering lights of lanterns and candles dot the panorama, the experience is even more magical.
If they’re keen to continue exploring, history-lovers will delight in the beach town of Metaponto, home to the remains of an ancient Greek temple dating back to the 5th century BC, revealing the huge influence the Greeks had on Italy’s south.
If it’s more beaches they’re after, send them to Maratea, dubbed the Pearl of the Tyrrhenian for its long stretch of hidden coves and pretty hilltop town.
While the sights are soul feeding, it’s just as rewarding to embrace the essence, beauty and slow pace of this part of Italy.
As my trip comes to an end I relish that simplicity like the regions’ old gents do: by sitting outdoors, sipping an espresso, and watching the world go by.
Book it: Citalia offers an eight-night self-drive trip to Calabria and Basilicata from £995pp, including four nights at Hotel Residence Tirreno Tropea and three nights at Palazzo Gattini in Matera, on a B&B basis including car hire and Stansted flights. Based on September 28 departure. citalia.com
The facts: The five-star, 20-room Palazzo Gattini is situated right next to the town’s cathedral, and makes a picturesque base for luxury-lovers. The 17th-century former home of the Gattini counts was redesigned by architect Ettore Mocchetti as a luxury hotel in 2008, and the interior combines the traditional with the modern, with preserved limestone walls, antiques and smart mood lighting and artwork.
Thumbs up: Each room is unique: ours has a vast, antique bed; local ceramics perch on down-lit shelves; there’s a marble-clad shower and scarlet floor-length drapes contrast with the stone walls. Tell clients to visit the excellent underground spa that’s been carved out of the stone with a hammam, sauna, massaging pools and a new magnesium-rich floating pool. There’s also a roof terrace, where clients can enjoy an aperitivo while sitting under ivy covered-arches, admiring city views.
Thumbs down: Parking isn’t on-site as the area is pedestrianised, however there is a car park nearby and the hotel has its own shuttle bus, with a special license to ferry guests between the two.
Sell it: Rooms start from €204pn.