Calabria’s Ionian coast is a mainly flat sandy strip, sometimes monotonous but less developed than the Tyrrhenian side of the peninsula, and generally with cleaner seawater. At the border with Basilicata, mountainous slopes soon give way to the wide Piana di Sibari, the most extensive of the Calabrian coastal plains, bounded by Pollino to the north, the Sila Greca to the west and the Sila Grande in the south. The rivers flowing off these mountains, which for centuries kept the land well watered and rich, also helped to transform it into a stagnant, malarial mire, and although land reclamation has restored the area’s fertility, without visiting the museum and excavations at Sybaris you could pass through the area with no inkling of the civilization that once flourished on these shores. Southeast of here, the old Byzantine centre of Rossano and Crotone, another ancient Greek city, provide further interest as you travel along the coastline.
The southern part of Calabria’s Ionian seaboard is less developed than the rest of the region and less scenic, with a string of mostly unappealing seaside towns and villages. If you like sandy beaches, though, this is where to find them – either wild and unpopulated or, if you prefer, glitzy and brochure-style, as at Soverato. At Locri there’s the region’s best collection of Greek ruins and, overlooking the coast a short way inland, the craggy medieval strongholds of Squillace and Gerace.Read More
Thirty kilometres down the coast from Sibari, ROSSANO was the foremost Byzantine centre in the south, and the focus of a veritable renaissance of literature, theology and art between the eighth and eleventh centuries, a period to which the town’s greatest treasures belong. These days, its coastal offshoot of Rossano Scalo (site of the train station) has far outstripped its inland parent in terms of size and bustle, and most of the holiday-makers who frequent its beaches never even get round to visiting the hilltop town, 7km up an awkward winding road – something that has helped to preserve the old centre from excessive development.
Behind the cathedral, the Museo Diocesano contains the famed codex purpureus Rossanensis, or Purple Codex, a unique sixth-century manuscript on reddish-purple parchment illustrating the life of Christ. The book, which was brought from Palestine by monks fleeing the Muslim invasions, is open at one page, but you can leaf through a copy and see, among other things, how the Last Supper was originally depicted, with Christ and his disciples not seated but reclining on cushions round the table, and all eating from the same plate.
South of Rossano lies an empty stretch of beach, with, inland, the vineyards of Ciro, the source of Calabria’s best-known wine. Crossing the River Neto into the fertile Marchesato region, you’ll have your approach to CROTONE (the ancient Greek city of Kroton) blighted by a smoky industrial zone – not the most alluring entry into a city, but a rare thing in Calabria, and a reminder of the false hopes once vested in the industrialization of the region. In spite of this, Crotone today has an agreeable, unspoiled old centre, and makes a good base for the beaches that spread to the south and for the Greek ruins at Capo Colonna.
The site of ancient Kroton has been entirely lost, but in its day this was among the most important colonial settlements of Magna Graecia, overshadowed by its more powerful neighbour Sybaris, but with a school of medicine famous throughout the classical world and closely linked with the prowess of the city’s athletes, who regularly scooped all the honours at the Olympic Games back in Greece. In 530 BC the mathematician and metaphysician Pythagoras took up residence in Kroton and it went on to be the foremost of the Greek cities in Calabria. However, increasingly destabilized by internal conflicts, the city was eventually destroyed by the Romans. A resurgence of sorts occurred in the thirteenth century when it was made the main town of the Marchesato region, a vast feudal domain held by the powerful Ruffo family of Catanzaro. But its prosperity was always hindered by the scourge of malaria, provoking the author George Gissing – himself a victim of malaria during his visit in 1897 – to condemn Crotone as “a squalid little town”.
On Calabria’s extreme eastern point, 11km south of Crotone, the famed column at CAPO COLONNA is a solitary remnant of a vast structure that served as the temple for all the Greeks in Calabria. Dedicated to Hera Lacinia, the temple originally possessed 48 of these Doric columns and was the repository of immense wealth before being repeatedly sacked as Magna Graecia and Hellenism itself declined.
There are some excellent bathing spots not far south of here. The Isola Capo Rizzuto is a spit of land, not an island, with a choice of sandy or rocky inlets to swim from. During the winter the resort is dead, but it can get quite congested in the height of summer and difficult to find a place to stay.