Food  |  Travel

Sun, sea, and extremely spicy sausage: Venturing into Calabria

Posted on July 29, 2017

I had never heard of San Nicola Arcella when I agreed to spend nine days there. Neither, apparently, had anyone else.

In the weeks leading up to the trip, I saw a lot of blank faces whenever I mentioned where I would be travelling. Friends, the barista preparing my morning cappuccino, even a guy who grew up in the same region – nobody seemed to know about this place. I quickly came to the conclusion that it would turn out to be either one of Italy’s best-kept secrets… or one of its secret shames.

San Nicola Arcella is in Calabria, which at least partially explains why it’s not very well-known. The whole region is mired in a deeply murky history of corruption, earthquakes and the ubiquitous influence of the ’Ndrangheta, Calabria’s heavy-handed organized crime group. The region isn’t exactly a tourist hot-spot even among Italians, and most of the tourism attention that it does get goes straight to the town of Tropea – the Calabrian destination.

The sum total of my own experience with Calabria had been several hours of autostrada on the way down to Sicily last summer, and several more on the way back up. I didn’t really know what to expect, but I had a certain vision in my mind: olive trees, whitewashed villages, crystal clear water and peperoncini. I was more or less envisioning Puglia, to be honest, but with the addition of chili peppers.

I was halfway right. The water was crystal clear, and the region’s famous peperoncini made several appropriately spicy appearances. But the overall feeling of the place was very different than the image I had painted myself. San Nicola Arcella feels – and I mean this in a good way – like it can’t quite decide if it’s a beach town or a mountain village.

The streets are a mix of the two, with those faded pastel tones typical to Italian seaside towns butting up against rough, bare stone; sunny colours and sombre greys thrown together. And when you look around, it makes sense – in front of the town, down a steep incline, there’s the sea, boats bobbing gently, brightly coloured umbrellas just visible at the edge of the beach. But when you turn around, there are mountains, wild-looking ones, covered in scrubby trees and brush. It feels odd to be in a place that smells simultaneously of the sea and of sun-baked pine needles, but that’s what San Nicola Arcella is.

Most people come here for the beach. There’s no shortage of choice in the area, with the large stabilimenti balneari and their neat rainbow rows of umbrellas striping the sand directly underneath the town, and the smaller beach clubs tucked into coves beside ancient watchtowers or accessible only by winding paths and semi-precarious staircases.

When we arrived, the weather was hot and intensely humid, thirty-eight degrees of breezeless, damp sea air lying heavily over the town. The same weather that had turned the air still and suffocating had agitated the sea into oversized rolling waves that crashed onto the beach in a restless roar, the water stirred to a shade of turquoise so electric that it nearly appeared fake.

I wanted to rush directly into those waves, to try to wash off the tangible touch of that humidity, but the lifeguard stepped forward and stopped me before I could get more than ankle deep. By the next morning, the temperature had dropped and the air had been cleared by a fresh breeze. The water remained tantalisingly turquoise, the waves still agitated but in a decidedly more muted way. I dove in.

The beauty of having a relatively long stretch of time by the sea is the way the days sort of blend into each other in an exceedingly pleasant way. Time is measured in bottles of sunscreen consumed, tan lines progressively darkening, the way the beach towel gets stiffer and stiffer from all that salt dried into it. And being Calabria – Italy’s deep south – time just seems more fluid. You can never be in too much of a rush to soak up a little more sun.

If the beaches were one key part of those nine days I spent in San Nicola Arcella, the food certainly made up another. I’ve felt for a long time like the flavours in Italian cuisine get continuously brighter and more pronounced as you make your way down the country, the hearty but more uniformly rich tastes of the north giving way to bolder, sun-soaked ingredients and complex flavour combinations – think of Sicily’s penchant for sweet-and-sour – in the south. Calabrian food tastes exactly like the harsh, sun-baked climate it comes from.

Peperoncini are used liberally, showing up on pizzas and in pasta, infused into oil, served whole in little bowls as an optional add-on in restaurants, and, most famously, ground up with pork into the region’s firey and vibrantly red spreadable salumi, ‘nduja. I surprised myself, normally adverse to anything beyond the mildest level of heat, by thoroughly enjoying the ‘nduja. One night we cooked it into a pasta sauce, simmering it with sweet Tropea red onions until it began to bleed red oil, then adding in a handful of datterini tomatoes before tossing the sauce with long strands of fresh, handmade fusilli pasta. It’s hard to imagine another dish that manages to be simultaneously so simple and so packed with flavour.

One night we ate in a sprawling fish restaurant beside the beach, the last of the night’s sunset fading away as our group noisily arranged itself around a long table. Another night, we headed up into the hills behind the town for a distinctly different type of cuisine at an agriturismo – food so removed from the kind of seafood-centric dishes you’d expect just a couple of kilometers from the sea that it felt like it was from another place entirely. The antipasto course was a never-ending parade of plates, the table covered in cheeses and salami, vegetables fried into fritters, vegetables cooked into frittatas, vegetables sautéed with more vegetables. I’ve never been so totally and utterly defeated by an antipasto – by the time my pasta, a hearty recipe involving sausage and melted cheese, was set down in front of me, I couldn’t eat more than a few noodles. Moving onto a meat course was unthinkable. Calabrian food is as substantial as it is delicious.

What these nine days in San Nicolla Arcella did, I think, was to give me a taste of exactly what I’d been missing out on by not visiting Calabria sooner.

I know it’s a complicated region, and parts of it are surely as grim as some Italians like to make it out to be. Even the really good parts aren’t perfect, with terrible mob-constructed concrete buildings and decrepit-looking highways marring views and too much garbage piled up outside towns. But there’s also so much to love – unspoiled beaches and charming towns, never-ending dinners and the kind of flavours that make you smile. And then there’s that water, that electric turquoise water…

I’ll be returning to Calabria.

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Comments on this post

Rebecca 29 July 2017 at 10:41 am

Oh gosh – these images are just perfect! Yes, it looks like the perfect spot to escape to and unwind. I’ve never been to Italy – but this is exactly the type of place where I could imagine only meeting locals and my holiday would be all the better for that.
Thanks for introducing me to this region – I certainly do want to go.

Anja 29 July 2017 at 10:45 am

Now I’m both hungry and longing for Italy again 😂(even though I was just there – in Sardinia, however). I actually had no idea that Calabria has somewhat of a bad rap. However, I often find that it pays to go to these places anyway and give them a chance yourself instead of listening to other people’s opinions. To me it’s such an essential part of traveling too, to explore things for yourself. Even if a place isn’t perfect, for whatever reason, finding the small things that make them great (like the food, the turquoise water and the beautiful sunset) is part of the reason why I travel – if that makes sense? Love your writing style and photos btw!

Fay 29 July 2017 at 10:47 am

A lovely insight to a little known town in the south of Italy. Amazing photos too, beach or mountain feel I’m sold 🙌

Eva 29 July 2017 at 10:58 am

Great choice of a destination, a true hidden gem. I’m sad that as a northerner I have visited so little of the south (I’m from Torino). I have been south of Rome only three times. I’m not very used to super hot food and never wanted to try ‘nduja, but your description of that simple pasta you wrapped up made my mouth water and made me long for the simplicity of cooking one can experience in Italy when you have access to such ingredients so easily.

Joanna 29 July 2017 at 11:29 am

I think that entire Calabria is one of those hidden gems of Italy, untouched by tourists yet. And your photos from San Nicolla Arcella show exactly this. I loved your story, the simplicity of the place, the fish restaurant by the beach at sunset, the agrotourism in the hills… I will be moving to Italy for a month in autumn and I will make sure to try to reach this remote part of the country as well. It sounds so dreamy, even with the troublesome mob history around.

Abbi @ Spin the Windrose 29 July 2017 at 11:39 am

Aw man, I left my heart in Italy and have been yearning to go back ever since. Your photos are simply stunning – you’ve captured Calabria so beautifully. I haven’t been to this part of Italy yet but after reading your post I need to go.

Nicole 29 July 2017 at 4:42 pm

Oh wow it looks so beautiful. I’ve still never been to Italy (must rectify that soon) but it looks like going to a less touristy bit meant you got to really absorb the Italian way of life and that sea looks simple stunning.

Maria 29 July 2017 at 6:34 pm

First of all I just want to say that I enjoy your style of writing a lot. The way your described this salumi pasta dish made my mouth water while I’m stuck on a train with my cheese sandwich :D anyway, I found it very interesting to read about your experiences in Calabria. I too went there (and nowhere close to Tropea or Reggio Calabria) and was left with this rather mixed up impression – although obviously the beaches are stunning. Ive been to Italy quite a bit (I’m half
German half Italian) and usually feel super comfortable in Italy, but haven’t so much in Calabria really. I know this doesn’t necessarily mean anything but one situation really stayed with me: The next door neighbour threatened to kill us because we had looked at him from our hostel’s balcony. I don’t know if he was messing with us and didn’t really care to find out. I’d still go back and visit there, but wouldn’t move as carelessly as in other Italian places I think. It’s such a beautiful region but because of the socio-economic structure, it’s just not the easiest place to visit. Thanks for sharing your experiences anyway, I hope you have a blast in Italy!

Anna 29 July 2017 at 7:11 pm

I’m salivating…! The meals you ate here sound absolutely divine! I wonder if there’s a vegetarian equivalent to the extremely spicy sausage. I guess I’ll have to visit to find out! And your photos in this post are absolutely beautiful :) what a photogenic place!

Donna White 29 July 2017 at 10:25 pm

You’ve done it again – managed to capture the sights, smells, and tastes of a particular location and translate them into words. I read this sitting in my chair in front of my computer in Canada, but for a few minutes, was transported to another world. Armchair tourism at its finest!!! Love U and love your writing and your photography.

Kay 29 July 2017 at 11:06 pm

This post has the most pinnable images in one post I’ve ever seen :D As Maria said, I also really enjoy your writing style! I’ve only visited Rome in Italy, so I have SOO much more exploring to do there. Adding Calabria to the list!

Ana Maria 30 July 2017 at 12:43 am

I love Italy!

Georgette Jupe (@girlinflorence) 30 July 2017 at 3:40 pm

So happy you went to Calabria, we went in 2015 and I loved it. Sure, it had its negatives and I wasn’t shy about naming those too but I found it to be almost an addictive place. Nico and I definitely want to go back and discover more. Great images as well, they capture perfectly the spirit of the place.

Lisa - The Wandering Lens 30 July 2017 at 4:04 pm

I’ll pass on the spicy sausage but wow your photos are so beautiful! Calabria looks like the perfect mix between every Italian gem and that water colour is turquoise perfection.

Cherene Saradar 30 July 2017 at 11:23 pm

Ahh you describe it so vividly and your writing is beautiful! As are the photos. I would love to visit this fascinating place!

Dario 1 August 2017 at 12:37 am

Grazie mille per questa magnifica rappresentazione della Calabria, vivida, penetrante, direi quasi avvolgente, che consente al lettore di immergersi piacevolmente e agevolmente nel vero spirito dei luoghi.
La regione può dirsi davvero una delle perle sconosciute dell’Italia del sud, non solo a livello internazionale, ma anche – come hai potuto notare! – nazionale.
La Calabria è un luogo dalle mille sfaccettature (per chi vuole apprezzarne una parte, si consiglia il contrasto tra il Parco della Sila e il litorale di Praia a Mare, passando per il borgo fantasma di Pentedattilo e la sconosciuta città di Stilo), che merita un’attenzione ben maggiore di quella dedicatale, per lo più limitata, come hai giustamente notato, alle località balneari di turistico spessore.
Nel mio piccolo, da non residente, assieme ad un gruppo di amici europei italofili sto cercando di farla conoscere meglio e di più al pubblico internazionale.
Un giorno forse citeremo il tuo articolo, elegante, puntuale e di stile senz’altro sopraffino, come un ottimo strumento di seduzione del viaggiatore, ignaro di questa gemma del mediterraneo.

Eliza Wadsworth 1 August 2017 at 12:29 pm

Great article. I almost went to Calabria but chose Bagheria Sicily where I am now. (20 km. from Palermo airport). The water is clean which can be an issue apparently as it is so close to Palermo. The color is as magnificent as you described it. I love the fact that there are NO tourists, and no English spoken. It is quite run down. In comparison to Florence where I have been stationed. Apparently Italians choose not to vacation here thus the very cheap accommodation, and airfare to Palermo I took. Perfect choice as it is very unspoiled, and unique. A real town not some swanky guide book place.

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