It might not be brimming with Renaissance art or cultivate world-class wines, but the southern Italian city of Tropea offers a pretty, down-to-earth charm even its northern neighbours can’t deny
To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect from Calabria. Sure, the Italy aficionados I knew spoke in excitable whispers about the many under-valued and ‘undiscovered gems’ to be found in the mezzogiorno - the southern part of the country that used to form the Kingdom of Naples. But for all their enthusiasm, no one seemed to know much about Calabria, the ‘toe’ of Italy’s ‘boot’ – apart from the fact it had a reputation for roughness and there weren’t many Michelangelos to ogle.
So I booked a flight anyway, and was immediately spellbound by Tropea - a town well known to many Germans and Northern Italians as it turns out, who come here during summer to laze on the sandy beaches, stroll through the city’s well-preserved medieval centre and use it as a convenient base to explore the rest of the region.
Cobbles, convent and cathedral
Teetering above the south Tyrrhenian coast, the city (allegedly founded by Hercules) was once used as a residence for the Italian nobility. Mooching through the charming, cobbled centre, it’s easy to believe. A jumble of architectural styles pay tribute to the region’s waves of invaders and settlers – Normans and Bourbons, Byzantines and Arabs – while its cliff-top location commands a royal view of the sparkling Tyrrenhian sea.
Tropea isn’t a large town; most of its key sights can be seen during a morning or afternoon stroll. In fact, since I was staying at Il Convento, a former convent renovated into apartments that are built literally into the cliffs, I was fortunate enough to have an eye-popping view of one of the main draws without leaving the lounge: the striking Benedictine monastery of Santa Maria della Isola, which sits out to sea on its own rocky promontory, looking smugly back at the city like a cat that got all the cream.
There are other historical and cultural sights, such as the imposing Norman cattedrale (whose interior displays a couple of unexploded US bombs from World War II, with thankful prayers to the Madonna attached to each) - but really, Tropea itself is all about that glorious azure sea, with its long, sandy beach and its views of Stromboli, which, along with other Aeolian islands, can be visited by motorboats throughout summer.
The other key allure is the city’s relaxed ambience, though you won’t find much of that if you visit the city in August. Italians holiday en masse in this month and many ‘Northerners’ descend on Tropea. If you don’t mind fighting for your few square feet of sandy beach with dozens of animated Italian families and packs of boisterous beefcakes in sprayed-on trunks, fine. Otherwise, you might want to consider a different month.
That said, if Tropea’s beaches are crowded, fear not. This stretch of coast isn’t called the Costa degli Dei (Coast of the Gods) for nothing. Head north to Pizzo, or south to Capo Vaticano and Nicotera, and you’ll find more secluded beaches, sweeping cliffs and lush Mediterranean maquis. The Capo Vaticano area – just 15 minutes from Tropea by bus – is a particularly good source of hidden bays, though you may have to engage the locals a little to get directions.
Where to eat and where to stay
Another great diversion in Tropea is eating. There are plenty of itsy kiosks selling ubiquitous local staples like red onions (which make a delicious jam) and peperoncini (hot peppers), while the city’s restaurants do a fantastic line in seafood like swordfish and baccala, as well as porcini dishes, since the nearby Sila region boasts an abundance of the celebrated fungi.
Da Cece, a family-run eaterie set in a romantic piazza has wonderful traditional dishes like spaghetti con cipolla (spaghetti with red onion); the funky Hosteria Italiana has artists in the kitchen and fantastic wines in the cellar; La Munizione boasts expansive vistas across the marina, serves excellent Italian food and hosts vivacious DJ parties on the concrete courtyard below. Ah, and you must try the pizzas at Vecchio Forno, which are fired in a century-old wood oven. They’ll give you a taste of Tropea that you’ll never forget.
In terms of accommodation, Tropea isn’t exactly inundated with stylish hotels and b&bs, but the aforementioned Il Convento della Pieta and the slick Residenze Il Barone in the centre are both highly recommended. It’s also possible to enjoy a little more solitude by staying slightly out of town at elegant hotels such as Panta Rei Hotel or Porto Pirgos Hotel. These places have private swimming pools, lush gardens and four/five-star service, and offer regular rides into town should you need one.
A long weekend is probably enough time to enjoy tiny Tropea and its surroundings fairly comprehensively, but if you have more time it’s worth considering a trip to the bucolic Sila National Park. In just a couple of hours you can be exploring a contrastive terrain of lush forests, abundant wildlife and ancient villages deep in the heart of the Calabrian countryside. This is all, of course, without mentioning the historical towns of Gerace and Stilo in the east; the Greek ruins at Locri; the rugged Il Pollino National Park further north; and the coastal towns of Scilla and Reggio di Calabria in the south.
True, you won’t come across many Michelangelos and the locals may indeed be brusque on occasion. But you’ll mostly discover friendly, down-to-earth people and nature, history and culture in abundance.