Under the Calabrian Sun
In the baking quiet of a Calabrian summer afternoon, va bene, quindi, and hai capito crescendo on a looped track through my mind. I feel everything in this chaotic Calabria.
Day after day we trace the sea in our blue fifteen-year-old Fiat 600 to the beach at Marina di San Lorenzo. Still early in the season, the handsome bagnino, Pietro gives us our pick of beach chairs and opens our umbrella, telling us of his uncle in America. Somedays I order a panino and birra, other days we snack on sweet melon and sparkling water.
A water shoes purchase at the daily market in Reggio proves to be money well spent. My sensitive feet give away that I wasn’t raised on these rocky beaches. With each visit, I mindfully float in the refreshing salty water, my toes pointed towards Sicily. In these moments all is well and feels that it will forever stay that way.
I’m invited into a new world in Calabria. In Villa San Giovanni I re-meet kindred kind of friends and their beautiful bilingual babies. We spend evenings together toasting glasses of Calabrian wine and tasting bite after bite of fresh local delights, inhaling the sea breeze, exhaling our anxieties, which again seem so far removed when so fully present in such moments.
This southern land envelopes us into daily adventure. Our faithful Fiat carries us high into the Calabrian mountains. We pass a funeral procession and make the sign of the cross at the sight of the casket approaching the church’s heavy wooden doors. As we enter a wooded area, the road narrows. When we emerge from the cool of the shade, we see the sun-drenched vines, imagining what grape variety they could be. Soon the road becomes nothing more than a path and we are forced to continue the rest of the way by foot. By now, our destination, Sant’ Aniceto stands strikingly before us, a crumbling 11th century Byzantine castle, its backdrop the Sicilian mountains and the sea. It almost feels as if we are trespassing as we stumble through the high, prickly grass. Standing inside this castle’s long forgotten grandeur, I’m reminded our time here is but a drop in the sea.
Adventure awaits once more in Pentedattilo, a ghost-town abandoned in the 1960s. Its name derives from Greek penta and daktylos meaning “five fingers,” a suitable name for a village tucked into a mountain in the shape of a hand. The town has a haunting history dating back to the 17th century when almost an entire family was massacred a bitter rivalry between two families. We visit the church, slowly scanning the black and white images from back in time that breathe life into the lonely hamlet. Stepping into long-forgotten homes, now converted to shops, we offer the artisans our euros in exchange for bergamot scented soap, an engraved wooden ornament of the mountain, and a bottle of digestive liquor. Along dusty lanes, we duck under grape vine canopies and carefully round corners where cacti grow haphazardly to make our way back to the car.
Bergamot trees follow us on our ride back to Reggio. Ninety percent of the world’s production of the essential oil extracted from this yellow orange-shaped citrus fruit comes from the province of Reggio. Brew a steaming cup of Earl Grey tea and there the scent of Calabria will be.
Somedays the drive along the Calabrian motorways won’t end soon enough. The air-conditioning is broken and the wind through cracked windows tousles me into a trance. Soon enough I regain composure. We finally find the correct turn into a chilly forest to take in the view of Sant’ Elia. For the first time the ever present sea is nearly invisible in the folds of an encompassing mist. Three solid white crosses look out to the town below known for it’s Ndrangheta ties. I’m curious as always about this mafioso land.
When we arrive in Gerace, the locals are scarce. The hot air seems to crackle and it’s clear these are the hours to hide from the heat. We have lunch in what appears to be the terrace of a family’s home. Even in the stifling heat, I have no self-control to turn down a full plate of the local pasta and wine.
Overly full, we return to the narrow streets. Along the way to the 12th century Norman Castle ruins at the top of town, bougainvillea spills upon rustic stone walls, its magenta blooms completely confiscating my attention. By now we thirst for shelter from the sun and find refuge in the cathedral. Consecrated in 1045, its Romanesque simplicity seems slow to inspire a sentiment of awe until I learn its columns came from Greek and Roman temples nearby. A family prepares the church for a wedding as we circle the mismatched pillars wondering what ancient treasure they once supported.
We saunter through town once again, our heart rates slowed by the heat. In search of a bar to cool down in with a crisp drink, I’m struck in the leg. I look down to the white splatter on my calf shaking my head with a smile hearing the signora’s words in one of my favorite films, “un segno di Dio.” My eyes have been wide open to signs these past weeks. What is this one telling me?
From the viewpoint high above terracotta rooftops and the Ionian Sea, it’s no wonder Gerace was built here, offering protection to the people of the nearby town of Locri from invaders coming from the sea. I have a moment alone to cement the scene in my memory and ponder my fortune once more.
Scilla, made up in part by Chianalea, the quaint fishing village tucked tightly between shore and hillside naturally wins me over. Pastel houses sit pretty on the sea alongside boats fishing for pesce spada. What is meant to be a light snack to tide us over until supper, turns into a multi-course lunch so fresh and fulfilling I figure for a moment I will move here and live a slow life by the sea.
I am mesmerized by the gentle way the dandelion light brushes balcony awnings and the water shuffles against beaten stone walls. Scilla is rightfully called one of the “borghi più belli d’Italia.”
From the fortress, Castello Ruffo, sitting royally atop Chianalea, on this clear day, I can almost see the Aeolian Islands and I imagine the mythological sea monster, Scylla guarding the entrance to the Strait of Messina.
After a visit to the fortress and church, I can no longer hold back my desire to plunge into the cool, clear cerulean sea along the Marina Grande.
At a certain stage, I fell in sync with the rhythm of Calabria. It’s charms and alluring passion vanished away any hint of wrong in the air. These are the adventures I dreamed about reading books in my youth. Now I own the images and words forever. In those three weeks, Calabria saw my soul and could tell dozens more stories, even the ones I cannot.