Tripping in Calabria



For foreign visitors there is joy to be had on local trains in the sultry south, where the pace of life is as leisurely and bewitching as the narrow-gauge railways

Suppose you have some summer days to spare. Suppose you have a fondness for trains. Here’s the idea. Do the southern coast of Calabria, Italy. You’re not sightseeing. Just accepting the sun-struck languor of the hills and beaches, the odd mix of hospitality and indifference that characterises the locals, the general invitation to a warm, wine-fed fatalism.

Then, do it bit by bit, as you feel and as it comes. Not worrying too much about timetables (no one else will), or even about precise destinations.

Map of Calabria


But arriving in Calabria is difficult. Using trains here is considered eccentric. There’s no line to link directly the opposite sides of Calabria, from the west to the east, or from the south to the north coast, and crossing the land north to south requires several hours and three changes to go 200 km.

Vineyards of Lametia

Much of the network was built in the 19th century to bring goods and merchandises down from the mountains and makes little sense now. I remember once in Lametia Terme Centrale, puzzled by the mismatch between the information on the ticket machines and that on the departure board, I asked a railway worker if there actually was a train to Sibari that day. Without taking his cigarette from his mouth, he advised me that if he were going to Sibari, he would never use the train.

So here’s an easier solution. Instead of attempting directly all Calabria tripping, take the line that snakes round the bottom of Italy’s boot, all the way from Reggio Calabria on the western toe (linked by trains to Milan) to Taranto on the eastern heel.

Seafront of Reggio Calabria, in the evening

That’s about 500km of single-track railway. As long as you keep the sparkling sea to your right and thirsty vegetation to your left, you can’t go wrong.

This time, using the trains along the coast, the travel will be light. Very light. The idea is to do everything, aside from the trains, on foot. You have a small backpack with two or three T-shirts, underwear, shorts, swimming gear, washing kit.

You really don’t need anything else. Your sun hat is on your head, your sandals on your feet, your shades on your nose. What we’re trying to do is divest ourselves of our ordinary obsession with organisation and control. Italy’s southern railways are peculiarly conducive to this. Tell yourself before starting: I will never complain about a train being late, or even departing early, or from an unexpected platform. I will be patient. I will be steady and slow as sunshine on a stuccoed wall.

Ancient amphitheater in Sibari


If you have the time and inclination, from Reggio Calabria you could make your way by rail and ferry to Palermo and start with another region, Sicily (the Milan-Palermo train actually boards the ferry).

However, that time I chose to do the long line, much of it single-track, running along the north coast from Reggio Calabria to my original destination, Sibari (to see the temple in its archaeological park).

Doing this trip, I once spent a scorching day at the cutely named Isola Capo Rizzuto, just outside Le Castella, a magnificent village with a marvelous Castle, positioned in front of the coast on an artificial island, as if it had been born directly from the Ionian waters.

Le Castella

To the north of Isola Capo Rizzuto, there is the wonderful long coastal railway that goes from Le Castella on the coast to spectacular Crotone, a stream of houses toppling from a high ridge into sweet valleys in front of the Ionian sea. And of course there’s the wonderful ride up the east coast from Crotone to Sibari, under the sandy slopes of Cirò Marina, where a wonderful wine (so called Cirò Red Wine) is produced, and where from many decades re-flourishes an ancient tradition of wine making (dating back to Greeks and Phoenicians).

Crotone, facing east across the Ionian Sea, is a surprise. The huge chemical factory to the north – one of the endless failed attempts to industrialise the south – closed in 1990. No bus awaits arriving passengers. Your half-hour walk into town is hot work. But when you get there, what rewards!

Sight of Crotone

The place to stay here is Hotel Concordia (doubles from around €70), where New Grub Street writer George Gissing resided in 1897, and fellow novelist Norman Douglas 10 years later. From their descriptions of the railways in their respective travel books, By the Ionian Sea and Old Calabria, it doesn’t seem much has changed. Having seen your booking made an hour before, the manager is at the door to greet you by name as you approach. He recognises an Englishman a mile off, but can’t believe you don’t have a car. “Nobody travels by train.”

Before arriving in Sibari, my ideal destination, and so onward into the Bay of Taranto, the big, squarish arch under Italy’s boot, you find, first, north-east, Corigliano Calabro, then north-west is Taranto itself, where a much grander collection of Greek art awaits.

City of Corigliano Calabro

The sway of the train and play of light and shade induce a pleasant stupor. Empty sands and blue seas. Bleached-white riverbeds. Mile after mile of olive groves and kiwi plants. I now remember Stazione di Torre Melissa. Vineyards. Grey rock promontories. Stazione di Cirò. The train guard’s whistle. A squat tower on a low hillside. Cacti and scorched grass. Stazione di Crucoli. A short stop in Crucoli village in the wine shop of Linardi wines, the time for a good glass of Red Cirò in the company of the owner, Roberto Linardi, in person. I read Graffiti and no sign of railway personnel anywhere. In English someone has scrawled other signs…

My train along the coast, near Torretta di Crucoli

Stop wherever you want. Or don’t stop. Depending how many days you have. But don’t miss the beach of Corigliano. Just a few hundred kilometers from the coastal town, you cross a swing bridge that divides a huge inland lagoon to the left from the open sea to the right and at once you’re in an antique metropolis of dark narrow streets and people sitting out on kitchen chairs looking in through the windows at their own TVs in rooms whose walls are nothing but bare stones piled up centuries ago. Men and women call to each other across and along the streets with strange cries and coded whistles, a fluid repertoire of gestures that very probably haven’t changed in many generations. I know of nowhere in Italy where an ancient past seems so alive.

Do you want to go on? There’s no line now along the west side of the bay to Taranto and Calabria at the tip of Italy’s heel. But you can take the train toward Brindisi, changing region, get off at Francavilla Fontana and link up with the Ferrovie Sud Est, a local network that somehow contrives never to run along the coast but will take you to Otranto, and Galliano del Capo, just a short bus-ride from the wonderful Santa Maria.


The difficult-to-find Sibari railway station in Calabria made me come back to Reggio Calabria.

Your daily routine is as follows. Lunch in the hotel. Morning stroll and swim. Breakfast under sunshades along the seafront, which the Italian Poet D’Annunzio considered the more beautiful kilometer of Italy. Car at rent in the mid-afternoon, to kill the hottest hours, going to Scilla, ten minutes of road. On board you can use your phone to book a place in whatever upcoming town takes your fancy – nothing beats an unplanned adventure.

Melito di Porto Salvo

Another destination could be, on the oppositeside of Reggio and Scilla, Melito di Porto Salvo on Calabria’s south coast, perhaps, where Garibaldi landed in 1860 to start his triumphal march to Naples. Or Brancaleone-Marina, further round the coast, where novelist Cesare Pavese was sent into internal exile for anti-Fascist activity in 1935. He complained bitterly, but it’s hard to imagine a bluer sea or whiter beach.

You’ll find the small stations of these villages mostly deserted. The locals prefer their cars. It hardly matters that the ticket machine is out of order because you’ve sorted yourself on the internet. A single, diesel-driven carriage appears in a shimmer of August heat. It may be only 10 minutes late, but it looks like it’s coming from another age. Inside, a rattling air-conditioner just about keeps the temperature bearable. A couple of hawkers with cheap merchandise to sell on the beach get their packs stuck in the swing doors. One is wearing five blue sombreros on his head. A group of 10-year-olds run up and down the aisle. No business travellers. No other tourists.

I then visited the Castle of Scilla under the Aspromonte mountains: a tour of north-western Calabria.

Scilla and its castle

The centre is a labyrinth of narrow alleys climbing up and around a steep conical hill, each thread of street crisscrossed above with drying laundry and inhabited below by folks playing cards and drinking wine outside the bead curtains that protect their doors. At a corner a man is sharpening knives on a grindstone he turns with pedals and a chain.

At the top of the hill a castle houses a museum of Greek artefacts, for you are now in Magna Grecia, that part of Italy colonised by the Greeks in 700BC. The Castle of Scilla is magic, positioned on a very high rock, and it watches the sea for miles and miles…
In the tiny museum you can wonder at winged horses, pretty mermaids, a tiny rabbit-shaped container that once held cosmetic oil for a woman’s skin. Brightest of all is a gold diadem fashioned into a circle of leaves and berries, emblem of the goddess Hera, whose ruined temple boasts just one standing column on the cliffs to the south of the town.

The bay of Scilla, with its beachside bars

Come early evening, lying on your back in the calm, warm sea, taking in the great sweep of the bay, it’s not hard to imagine the Greek galleys at anchor in their scores, conquering and trading as the British would do a couple of thousand years later. Right now, though, there are just a few rusty fishing boats and the tinkle of a band grinding out 1960s covers in a beachside bar.


From Scilla, you can now take a train going to the north, along the western coast of Calabria.
From there, I quietly arrived to Tropea, a village located on a small high rock plateau, full of tiny ancient houses, in front of a alike-Caribbean sea…

Like a dream

Here I tasted the most famous onion of Italy. Due to its unique sweetness, Tropea onion is the most celebrated and appreciated onion, even abroad. It grows, typically, on the cliffs that descend from Mount Poro towards the sea between Cape Vaticano, Zambrone, Tropea and Briatico, in the provinces of Cosenza and Vibo Valentia, but the larger origin land of this onion is the coastal medium-high Tyrrhenian of Calabria, the areas of the provinces of Cosenza, Catanzaro and Vibo Valentia, where the cultivars belong to fresh and aerated soils, overlooking the sea, with conditions of humidity, typical of the area of the upper-middle of the Tyrrhenian coast of Calabria.

The streets are full of tourists and I love this mess, the air is full of scents of Origan, the wild herb which grows spontaneously under the Calabria sun, nearby the plateau of Mount Poro, a splendid place near to the major touristic attractions of Calabria: Capo Vatican and Tropea.

A generous land…

The word origan comes from the Greek “oros”, which means mountain and “ganos” which means splendor. Its meaning is, therefore, “mountain splendor”, and these two adjectives and qualities has been attributed to the plant for its grace and abundance of its flowers. This perfume recalls the wild and generous character of this land…


Still, if Italian State Railways tried your patience, Ferrovie Sud Est will transport you into a surreal heat haze of unexpected connections and sudden cancellations in which you will very likely spend hours entirely alone with a garrulous ticket collector delighted to have found someone to talk to. Everywhere signs inform you of the generous contributions of the ever beneficent EU. In any event, if you’re returning home via overnight couchette from Lecce to Milan, make sure you set off with a good few hours to spare. Then put your head down on a Trenitalia pillow and let the rails lull you into a last Mediterranean reverie.

The Calabrian olive tree, from the Bourbons until today



The presence of the olive tree, this centuries-old plant that turns the Calabrian countryside of Puglia and Campania to green, has been for centuries the peculiarity of the Calabrian lands and of the entire South. Their presence in our territories is so strong that we imagine that it is spontaneous vegetation, nothing more wrong!

The olive tree for centuries needs care so that it grows luxuriant and produces its fruit.

For millennia, in fact, the work of planting the olive trees, including the harvest, involved entire Calabrian families.

A secular tree

The endless expanses of olive groves are the result of centuries of land transformation and how the Calabrians are linked to this plant. The Calabrian territory has been, at least under the botanical aspect, shaped by the wise hands of the peasants who devote themselves to this millenary activity with self-denial.

What has been said so far represents the concrete demonstration that the fruits of these natural monuments have given the Calabria Region the possibility of entering the European commercial logic since the second half of the seventeenth century, intercepting the developments and transformations of the international market.

Magic light under the olive trees


Starting from the mulberry tree and the renowned silk production, we arrived at the cultivation of olive trees and, finally, of citrus fruits.

Unlike what happened for the production of cereals, the cultivation of olive trees helped the territory, to guarantee greater stability to the lands oppressed by the fragile hydrogeological conditions (typical in Calabria the floods). In Calabria, or rather in Calabria, the olive-growing has spread rapidly, creating highly specialized areas, such as the areas of Gioia Tauro and Rosarno, reaching, then, up to the slopes of Aspromonte.

A strongly man-made landscape

Also on the Ionian side, in Rossano and Cirò, there has been an overwhelming rise of this plant. The production of oil grew so greatly that, in some cases, the traditional and secular Apulian supremacy was actually surpassed by Calabria (it is often said, since the end of the eighteenth century, that “when Puglia rests Calabria produces”).


The first strong signs of the flourishing of Calabrian olive growing were recorded Starting in 1735. The author of this renewal was King Charles III of Bourbon, who assisted by Minister Tanucci, implemented a series of reforms that renewed the Kingdom of Naples.

The Bourbons

The writer Giuseppe Maria Galanti, in one of his work (“Writings on Calabria, a meticulous investigation of the socio-economic conditions of Southern Italy between the last decade of the eighteenth and the early nineteenth centuries”) wrote:

Generally olive groves are hoed and are fattened, and the use is that each owner usually keeps or uses small herds of sheep to fertilize. Where there are no sheep, fertilizers are the lupines. In Catanzaro and its contrada the use of the ancient “trappeto” [a olive press] continues. The oil is preserved either in clay pots or in tanks made of Genoa stone ”. Evidence of the very noteworthy diffusion of the olive tree is a series of documents of the time such as, in particular, notarial deeds concerning rents or restitution of olive groves or trappeti.

Modern reconstruction of an ancient trappeto

Among the many, we report that, related to the land of Cannavà, one of the most fertile and extensive in the municipality of Catanzaro; here, the Duke of Cardinale, Luciano Serra, had planted an olive grove of 2000 barrels of oil (hl. 10.460). The olive trees, of remarkable dimensions, had a yield equal to about 14 hectoliters of olives (24 tomoli)… and the closed horizon of the dark olive grove and the gloomy air of the immense plain is enlivened somewhat by the fragrance of a squared garden of about 15 hectares. The trappeti are in the village, but the pomace goes to the old trappeto to be washed, which is a building occupying 72 ares of land with millstones 10 and presses 24″.

According to some sources, at that time, the Calabrian olive oil production came alone to represent the value equal to one third of all the olive oil production of the Kingdom of Bourbons. The enormous olive oil production of Calabria is analyzed by another scholar, Grimaldi, in his “Statistical studies on the agricultural and manufacturing industry of Calabria Ultra II“, published at Borel and Bompard’s Book-typographic Establishment, Naples 1845.

A flourishing agricultural economy

Further, Grimaldi, in his “Meridional Question, studies and texts of Borzomati”, wrote:

Extended cultivation and useful to the Province is that of the olive trees: it was derelict during the decade from 1806 to 1815 so that the olive groves, in part, were destroyed, and, in part, were substituted by  many woods. Once the trade was revived, the ancient olive groves began to be taken care of, new plantations were made, and at present almost every site is progress.

Although in 14 municipalities, the olive tree is cultivated throughout the province, of which the qualities called ogliarole and rotondelle, which give abundant oil, and celline, of which less is obtained but of better quality, abound. . In general, they are not taken care of and are abandoned to themselves […].

Fertilizers are not applied to olive groves at all.  …]. Pruning is made in  winter, in some sites it is not done, in others it gets hurt […].The olive harvest is generally done when these are perfectly ripe, except for very few owners who carry it out before reaching this point. The fruit is partly harvested from the ground and the remainder on the tree is dropped by perturbing the branches. In addition to the damage that comes from the system of cutting down and collecting mature olives, there is the other that derives from keeping them before harvesting for about a month piled up and pressed in places that are often humid and low […].

Olive oil mills, commonly called trappeti, are defective. In fact, the grindstone is a hand and a half wide and with a little sharp cut, so in addition to being heavy and slow moving, it requires a lot of effort to be moved and the shredding of the olives is not well done.

Life of the village and olive-growing

The olive oil product is 19,523 barrels, that is cantaja [a certain unity of measure of that time] 107.287 and rolls [idem] 57 and 1/3, and it is little less than doubled in the last decade, since, before 1835, the average product was 10.623 barrels; the price is 55 ducats each barrel. Finally the olive groves can be considered as occupying 312.368 moggia [a land unity measure] of the territory of the province, and are mostly in the district of Catanzaro and in that of Crotone“.

It is clear that the famous Calabrian writer Grimaldi was thoroughly familiar with the situation of the Calabria countryside.


There was a phase of blockade under the Napoleon, but growth resumed in the years to come.

Napoleonic age

Calabria began to export more and more olive oil, not only in the other provinces of the Kingdom, but also and above all in the main European countries.

The Calabrian olive oil was highly sought after by the industries of Northern Europe, especially by the soap factories of Marseille and by the English textile industries.

Cloth olive oil, the olive oil for clothes, as it was called in the Anglo-Saxon lands, was intended not for food consumption, but used for processing fabrics in factories and for lubricating machinery. This is why the Calabrian landowners were not interested in the refinement or improvement of the finished product.


Today, olive growing is the fundamental sector of agriculture in the region. In terms of income, it represents 25% of gross salable production.

A growing regional economy

There are more than 160,000 Calabrian olive farms. Their contribution to direct and induced employment is significant. The development of the crop is essentially linked to the resolution of technical and economic problems summarized below:

–  Restructuring of olive groves

– Conservation of part of the plants to meet environmental and landscape needs.

– Removal of old plants that are no longer profitable and replanting of new cultivars.

– Production rebalancing through the containment of the phenomenon of the alternation of the production cycle and the pest control.

– Reduction of production costs with particular reference to that of collection.

– Production of oil with low acidity and good organoleptic characteristics, that is directly edible.