This post was originally published on July 29, 2017 as part of a previous version of Verbalized. I've archived most of those posts but have kept a few favourites, particularly those about travel.
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.
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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.
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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.
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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.