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