Scalea, Italy; Europe’s Secret Paradise

Scalea at Sunset
Torre Talao, Scalea, Calabria. This tower was built in the 16th century as part of a system of 337 coastal towers constructed for deterring pirate attacks.

Scalea, Italy; Europe’s Secret Paradise

Big Italian cities in Summer are lovely however if you go in August, you will notice that things are a little different. Shops are shuttered, restaurants would be empty if not for the tourists and the traffic dies down to a dull roar leaving you wondering where the heck is everyone?

Most Europeans have all of August off. As soon as vacay time rolls around, they are off and heading to some of the most beautiful places in the world. 

Umbrellas on the beach in Scalea
Colorful umbrellas on the beach in Scalea

Where do Europeans go on Vacation? 

Since August is pretty warm most everywhere in Europe, they naturally head to the beaches and the best beaches are along the Calabrian coast in Italy. 

As you take the train south from Naples, you wind down along the shore past Salerno, through the Gulf of Policastro and if you are a European tourist, you very likely end up in Scalea. 

Scalea lies about halfway between Napoli to the North and Reggio Calabria to the South. As you drive or taxi from the train station to your destination, you look up and see the picturesque Centro Storico (Historic Center) with its tiny houses clustered together on the hilltop like shy children, rising above while the more modern area pedonale (pedestrian area) with its shops and cafes, stretches out before it like Mama’s apron.

The large street, the Corso Mediterraneo winds up and down the coast to neighboring resort towns with hotels lining the shore and shops and apartments rising up on both sides. Beyond the Corso Mediterraneo lies the crystal blue Mediterranean reaching open armed out to embrace the horizon.

Here and there rocky outcroppings drop into water so clear and blue that swimmers look like they are flying and boats appear suspended in midair over the sea floor. 

And those are only a few of the myriad of reasons Scalea is Europe’s favorite holiday spot. 

Calabria is the epitome of Southern Italian culture and charm but it was not always a well known tourist destination. In fact much of Calabria was very poor until recently. 

If you chat awhile with the elderly people in the hill towns, you will still hear stories about days of hunger when the harvests were scarce or the hunting was unsuccessful.

Those days have happily passed and Calabria is starting to boom as a tourist destination not only for Europeans but also Americans as we discover the unspoiled beauty of the region, the unrivaled Calabrian cuisine and the warmth of the people. 

Old Town Scalea
Old Town Scalea

The Old Town

Back in 2010, my husband and I decided to go to Calabria and look for a house. We wanted to retire in a little house overlooking the Mediterranean where we could immerse ourselves into a village and become a part of it. 

We contacted a real estate agent who recommended that we stay at Casa Cielo BnB. I remember his words clearly “Clive is a great cook”, and that sealed the deal.

Casa Cielo is not currently taking new clients as Clive and his wife Kathryn have retired and are traveling and blogging. However our agent was absolutely correct, Clive is a great cook.

Casa Cielo is situated right in the middle of the Centro Storico Scalea just off the famous main stair case that everyone photographs when they go. 

Scalea stair case
Scalea, Staircase

The little medieval houses huddle together and spill down the hill to the sea creating a gorgeous village filled with vias and alleyways that duck under houses and turn off into tiny stairs that wind through dark tunnels only to end with a splash of sunlight in a completely different part of the village. 

Walking down any staircase leads to the foot of the village and, across the Corso Medterraneo, the beautiful deep blue sea. 

Restaurants and shops peek out from corners in the Centro Storico inviting you in. 

And when you get to the beach, the lidos lined up dotting the beach with different colored umbrellas, beckon you to grab a resting place and perhaps bob in the sea for awhile.

 

Scalea's Monday Market
Scalea’s Monday Market

The Monday Market

One of my favorite things to do in Scalea is to go to the Monday Market. Scalea generally has a fruit and vegetable market daily and there are any number of produce trucks lining the streets at any given time selling fresh produce. From Tropea onions, potatoes to fruits and chili peppers, all the produce is freshly picked and brightly colored. 

These you can purchase for pennies and create a magnificent dish with just a few of these fresh ingredients. 

However the Monday Market is something else. It takes up a couple of blocks and is stall after stall featuring everything you would ever need for life in Calabria. 

I love the One Euro tables where you can find great T shirts and even dresses for almost nothing. The jewelry stands are likewise filled with treasures that you can purchase for a few cents.

Monday Market Bargains
Monday Market Bargains

Bright shawls from Africa billow in the breeze and bathing suit and underwear stalls are set up next to hunting goods. It is a free for all and way too much fun. 

Every time I go to the Monday market, I meet several of my friends there. We stop and catch up promising to meet for coffee or lunch soon. 

Orso Marso
Chris at the top of the hill Orso Marso

The Surrounding Towns and Villages

Scalea is a large resort town but some of its charm is the proximity to other hill and resort towns. Seemingly every mountain top in the area is crested with a little hill town. Each one has its own character and charm. 

Maiera is quiet and reverent. Grisolia is bubbly and welcoming. Diamante is well named as it is truly a diamond set next to the sea. Its beautiful promenade is home to fun shops and gelaterias. Its old town hides beautiful murals and mosaics. 

Santa Domenica Talao
Santa Domenica Talao

And of course one cannot discuss surrounding hill towns without bringing up my favorite hill town, Santa Domenica Talao. 

Santa Domenica Talao
Santa Domenica Talao

Set on a hilltop overlooking the Sweeping green of the Lao plain and the Mediterranean beyond that, Santa Domenica Talao is an artist’s Mecca where seemingly every villager is a master of some form of art. 

Our architect, Antonello Lucchesi recently unveiled his spectacular terrace just off the piazza with an unobstructed view of the sea and mountains beyond. 

Under the terrace is a stunningly beautiful loggia with different levels and perfect stairs that open up the lower village and make it accessible as the stairs prior to this were pretty brutal to navigate. 

Our neighbor Rosaria is a master chef and we have been beyond lucky to have been invited several times to one of her spectacular lunches. 

Several villagers knit or crochet. After lunch one day Rosaria brought out her tiny crocheted teacups that were so small and delicate that I was afraid to pick them up. 

I could go on and on bragging about the amazing people in Santa Domenica but I digress.

When you come to Scalea, give yourself time to explore the surrounding towns and villages. Each is a jewel in a perfect Mediterranean setting. 

Calabrian Cuisine
Calabrian Cuisine

Calabrian Cuisine

Calabrian cuisine is just now being discovered by the foodies of the world. America has known Calabrian cuisine of a sort since the late 1800’s when the Italian diaspora brought an influx of Italian immigrants to the US mostly from Calabria. 

Once they arrived, pizzas pastas, breads and other Italian staples appeared on American tables but they were adapted to America palates. 

YUM!
YUM!

The cuisine in Calabria is unique. At lunch recently Rosaria told me that some of the dishes she was creating (I should say “crafting” because that is what she was doing) were specific to Santa Domenica Talao and that each individual hill town had its own recipes.

This is a treasure trove of magnificent new food treats for us to explore and enjoy. 

From the Arancini (little rice balls, filled, rolled in bread crumbs and fried)  to the ragu to the bacalao (salt cod rehydrated and cooked to perfection) Calabria has something new for every day of the year and I have not even touched on the desserts. 

Calabria also has many immigrants from Sicily who have brought their amazing cuisine and especially fabulous desserts. Our favorite restaurant in Scalea is Vulare Sicillienne where we find pistachio encrusted sword fish, beautiful seafood pastas and the world’s most perfect cannoli. 

Calabrian Atmosphere
Calabrian Atmosphere

The Atmosphere

The first time I arrived in Calabria our plane slanted in over the Mediterranean and I saw the stretch of magnificent coastline. I suddenly felt like I was home. 

I felt like I had been on a long muliti life time journey looking for who knows what and that I had finally found it. 

Then when I came to Scalea and finally to Santa Domenica Talao, I knew that I was where I belonged. 

In our city of San Jose, California, there is a spiritual hecticness, an anxiety that I can feel in the air. Wherever I go in San Jose, it is there.

When I reached Calabria, it disappeared. And truthfully, until I visited Calabria, I did not know that it even existed and that I had grown so accustomed to it. 

It was like a huge weight had lifted off my shoulders and I was there in the moment to enjoy all the gifts that Calabria was giving me. 

I cannot describe it other than to tell you to come and experience it for yourself. 

A History of Calabria, The Original Land of the Italians

During our first trip to Calabria, Chris and I stayed at the Casa Cielo Scalea B&B in Scalea. This fabulous B&B is owned and operated by Clive and Kathryn Bayton.

Clive and Kathryn
Clive and Kathryn on the lungomare in Reggio Calabria

Along with being a gourmet cook, accomplished artist, and photographer, Clive is a historian of the region and has gleaned much knowledge of the origins of Calabria. He has graciously provided us with his account of the history of Calabria:

A Brief Ancient History of the Original Land of the Italians

Before the recorded civilisation of the mainland of North and West Europe, the Greeks had established an empire of culture and learning around the coastlines and islands of the Mediterranean Sea.
From their established bases in Sicily they gradually moved to the mainland into what is known today as Calabria, the first tribe they encountered were the Itali and they named the land ‘Italia’. So it is always with a smirk while defending my adopted people that I proudly tell the modern day inhabitants of places such as Milan, Rome and Venice who tend to look down their noses a little at the poor people of the south, that no matter how they view the Calabrese, they are the original Italians.

While the hills on which Rome would one day be built were frequented by no more than wildlife, sheep and the occasional shepherd, Calabria already had great towns built by the Greeks. As the Greeks established themselves, cities such as Sybaris (founded 720BC) were built. So rich was this city that the inhabitants’ opulent lifestyle would put the word ‘sybaritic’ into the English language to describe a person of luxurious living and outrageous pleasure seeking.

Many famous Greeks walked or established themselves in this land, Pythagoras set up home and a school here, while ancient Olympic heroes such as Philippus of Croton were born here, their taste for the local wine ‘Ciro’ which is still made here today was so great that it was sent back to Greece as a reward for other victorious Olympic athletes.

While Calabria and Greece were living in relative peace with class, civilisation and culture, a new force was growing in the north apparently with its origins in two human baby boys suckled by a she wolf (c.753BC)! Guess those shepherds didn’t do their job that well, but all the same Rome grew.

The first republic was established in 509BC and thus started the road to an Empire. But before the republic could conquer the rest of the known world, first it had to conquer or unite the tribes of Italy. Calabria was then as is now, almost an island from the rest of the Italian peninsula with sea on three sides and a range of mountains blocking easy passage from or to the North. It is said of those days that some of the fiercest opposition to Rome was here, as the different tribes battled for their lands, the Greeks on the other hand made an organized withdrawal…. and as we know, Rome eventually became the master.

Throughout Rome’s history as an empire it has had its fair share of enemies on its homelands. When first trying to establish itself around the Mediterranean,  Carthage of North Africa was ahead of the game with Sicily, parts of Spain and other lands already under its laws.

We have all heard of Hannibal (Born 247BC) the Carthaginian and his epic journey over the Alps with his army and war elephants but few know that he kept Rome in fear for eight years by stationing himself and his army in Italy. His base was in Calabria close enough to Sicily for passage to Africa if his country should recall him, and on Rome’s doorstep keeping them busy at home and their ideas off of a march on Carthage.

So strong were Hannibal and his army that even the politicians of his homelands feared that if he returned he may take power and so they decided to keep him in Calabria. It was only when Rome was knocking on the city gates that he was recalled, but with Rome already having a firm foothold on the continent it was all too late. Carthage and its empire were torn down to its very roots and Europe started to be taken into Roman occupation.

A thought for the modern world is that these were two great nations of equal strength struggling for power, the victor would one day influence the known world with its rules, laws and religion. That victor was Rome which many years later would convert to Christianity and spread its beliefs to all. The vanquished, or the lands in which they once lived turned to Islam, one wonders what the prominent religion of the world would have been today if Hannibal had been victorious.

And so it came to pass that the Roman Empire became rich, powerful and looking at the facts, a little stupid. Slaves from all its conquered territories were shipped to Italy to entertain and do all the work. So many slaves were brought in that they outnumbered Roman citizens and so the story of Spartacus (born c. 109BC) and the slave uprising can now be told (which is not necessary as we have all seen the movie when all the captured slaves after the final battle claim to be Kirk Douglas!)

But again one of the Empire’s enemies and general pain in the butt travelled to Calabria with his army and settled in what is now the area around the city of Reggio Calabria. When Rome finally caught up with him they built a huge containing defensive wall around him from coast to coast, and with the sea to his back Spartacus and his troops were surrounded. A great battle took place and miraculously the slave army broke free and headed north and out of Calabria. However, weakened and in disarray, once the Roman army again caught up with them in which is now the region of Campania, the revolt was finally quashed.

The final enemy of Rome to visit us here in Calabria was Alaric the king of the Visigoths (born 370AD). Alaric and his armies were the first to sack the city of Rome. By this time the empire had been split into two, the western empire with Rome its capital, and the eastern empire ruled from Constantinople, so I suppose we can say he only defeated one half of the Romans, but he did give the city a bashing and emptied it of all its gold and treasures.

With this little bundle well wrapped up, instead of heading north towards home he came South and camped outside what is now the city of Cosenza in Calabria. Here he died of a fever and was buried with all the treasures he had taken from Rome. It has never been found as the slaves that buried him were all put to the sword in order to keep the location secret. It is out there somewhere, but before you all buy a metal detector and jump in a car or jump on a plane, you should be told of the method of the burial. It took place at a point where two rivers met, both were diverted while the grave was dug and the burial could take place, and when done the rivers were again put on their natural course, so unless you can walk on water…forget it!

So there it is a little bit of Italian history that many know of but few associate with Calabria … Calabria the birthplace of Italian civilisation, the very first Italy that hardly gets a mention in modern travel guides.

Today Italy’s tourist trade is enticed over by the images of wonderful places like Venice, Pisa, Florence and Rome. Its history is shown through museums and historical sites such as the ruined cities of ancient Rome and Pompeii, while the very roots of its existence are ignored, yet still await discovery under the fields of my adopted homeland … can someone lend me a shovel?”

Clive J. Bayton

Be sure to visit Casa Cielo Scalea B&B’s Facebook page!

Casa Cielo
Casa Cielo