Choosing a place to visit in Italy isn’t easy. There are hundreds of beautiful villages, UNESCO sites and gorgeous cities to choose from. Picking one can be overwhelming. In order to choose I went through pictures I have saved on Pinterest to find inspiration and there it was-Tropea. Located in Calabria at the tip of the toe of Italy Tropea was exactly what I needed, a quiet town right on the sea with jaw dropping views.
Once I booked the trip, we started telling our Italian friends where we were headed and their enthusiastic responses confirmed I had chosen the right place. Tropea is a few hours train ride south of the Amalfi coast, located on the west coast of Italy. For us it was a 10-hour train journey, some of which was along the amazing coastline with views of the sea, the small seaside villages and stunning sandy beaches.
We arrived in Tropea at night and despite the lack of tourists the town was full of life-the Italians dressed in their stunning dresses, fitted dress shirts with hair and make-up done to perfection spilled into the piazzas and streets. As neighbors stopped to gaze into strollers and coo over little children, it became immediately evident this was a tight knit community. Tropea’s main street runs from the train station to the end of the center of town (Centro Storico) and it is the gathering place of the locals and the tourists at night. We enjoyed our first dinner-pizza with the famous Tropea Onions- taking in the sounds of soccer game aired at restaurants around us. I was overwhelmed with a feeling that we had been invited into someone’s backyard party where friends and family gather to share a special moment. Captivated by this feeling I didn’t want to go back to the hotel so we joined the locals and headed through the town towards the sea. Corso Vittorio Emanuele (the main street) leads us to the cliffs on which the town of Tropea is built. When we reached the end, standing at the railing in the blackness of night a glow emerged-it was the stunning Santuario di Santa Maria (Santa Maria Sanctuary). The sandstone formation provides the foundation for the stunning church which has occupied it for hundreds of years. In the past this formation was an island but earthquakes caused by the largest underground volcano in Europe forced the earth up from the sea and joined the Isla Bella (Beautiful Island) to the town of Tropea.
The glow from the light below cast mysterious shadows across the island and the church. Each piece of vegetation adding its own dimension to the eerie scene in front of us. 11:00 at night and the vibrance of the town was contagious, spurring us to continue exploring. Walking down a narrow street shadows cast between the streetlights, the cobblestones quietly reflecting the light and small alleys revealed quaint restaurants sparkling in their hanging lights. When the street opened up to a Piazza there, we found the shimmering sea below the moons glow and the Sanctuary. It stood with pride, captivating all of us standing along the railing, glowing from across the cliff, enchanting all of us. I knew at that point Tropea was a very special place.
Generally, we like to spend our first day in any town walking, discovering, taking pictures and planning what we want to do for the rest of the trip. Anxious to continue discovering what the town had begun to reveal to us the night before we set out with camera in hand and began to wander the narrow cobblestone streets that make up this quaint town. The buzz of the night before had ceased and instead was a quiet empty town, waiting for the sun to fall and life to start again. (Covid-19 has left most towns in Italy with no tourists and Tropea was the same.) Immediately it was apparent we had left the refined architecture of Tuscany behind us and instead found a rustic architecture reflective of the sandstone cliffs the town was built upon. Large holes scatter along the sides of beige stone buildings, a clue to where the scaffolding would have been placed when the buildings were built. The cobblestones on the streets looked immaculately polished from hundreds of years of pedestrians moving throughout the city.
The narrow streets each lead to a spectacular view, whether it is the sea, the Sanctuary, the surrounding mountains or the marina. With anticipation we walked to the end of each street wondering what surprise awaited us. We were never disappointed. Along the way we discovered restaurants with bikes full of flowers outside, buildings with beautiful iron balconies, crests carved into the stone above doorways and markets with the famous fare of Tropea hanging beautifully outside.
Famous Foods of Tropea:
Tropea is famous for its beautiful red onions. The unique onions carry the esteem of being UNESCO protected. The onions, which locals claim are sweet enough to be eaten like an apple, are braided together with their browned stalks and hung from the outsides of buildings ready for purchase. They hang alongside another of Tropea’s specialties: pepperoncini (chili peppers) which hang in small groups drying in the sun. The purple of the onions, the red of the pepperoncini mixed with the groups of hanging white garlic are create a natural art-proudly displaying the culture of Tropea.
Nduja is the other food Tropea is famous for. It is a spicy sausage bearing the intense red color of the pepperoncini which flavor them. Shop owners vacuum pack them and stack them in baskets in a beautiful display for all who are brave enough to try them. Being a vegetarian, I left that task to J.
Beaches of Tropea:
Tropea was built on sandstone cliffs 2000 years ago. Pirates were ravaging the coastal villages so the solution was to build this town on the high cliffs, allowing them to spot the pirates from far distances. Carefully they perched the homes on top of the sandstone cliffs where they still stand solidly today. The narrow streets were a strategic decision to help the locals in the event the pirates invaded the cities. This decision was great for defense against pirates but does mean navigating down about 200 steps to reach the beaches below. Yes, this sounds daunting but the gorgeous views of the city and the sea distract from the intensity of the climb.
Once we reached the bottom of the stairs, we were rewarded with crystal clear turquoise water gently rolling into the sandy shores. Each beach along Tropea’s coastline offers something different, be it rocky arches and caves, restaurants or simple vegetation as a backdrop. On each beach the turquoise water eventually gives way to sapphire blue water which leads your eye to the Aeolian islands, including the volcano Stromboli, and eventually to Sicily.
At night people gather in the Piazza Cannone to watch the sunset into the water next to Stromboli. On our second evening we did as the locals do, we dressed up, grabbed a seat in the café ordered a cocktail and took as many pictures as possible of Stromboli, and the incredible glowing sunset. This is also the best place to view the Santa Maria Sanctuary. With the backdrop of the setting sun the Piazza filled with laughter, romantic couples kissing and people with cameras trying desperately to capture the radiance of the setting sun.
On our final day in Tropea we booked a boat trip to Capo Vaticano, along the coast of the Gods, including snorkeling over an ancient Roman port built over 2,000 years ago. Dramatic sandstone cliffs line the coast with large stone outcroppings, arches and clear turquoise water. As the boat sped through the Tyrrhenian Sea we watched the fish swim below. The tour ended at the Capo Vaticano where a lighthouse stands on the highest coastal peak in Italy. In the water across from the peak is a small rock formation-the vaticano. It was named the vaticano because in ancient Greek times they believed an oracle lived in the cave at the bottom of the peak. Sailors would consult with the oracle before they went out to sea.
From this point we could see the tip of the toe of Italy and the island of Sicily. It was hard for me to be this close to Sicily and not continue on to the island. Later this summer, I hope…
Where We Stayed:
The TownHouse Tropea was our hotel of choice due to its fantastic location in the center of town, and the gorgeous rooftop balcony. They were incredibly helpful and kind during our visit. The room was great and even had a partial view of the sea and Stromboli. I would definitely stay with them again if we returned to Tropea.
Where We Ate:
There are many restaurants in Tropea so picking places to eat wasn’t always easy. We had a great recommendation from Virginia at The TownHouse Tropea to have pizza at Little Italy (ask for the Margarita with red onions). That’s Amore is a fantastic fish restaurant right in the heart of the center so it is great people watching as well. For vegetarians they offered a few dishes as well.
La Dogana ristorante has fantastic food with an incredible setting outside with white stone walls, white tableclothed tables, flowering vines growing on the walls and across the seating area. I was disappointed with their lack of vegetarian options-not really wanting a pizza in such a nice restaurant. But the ambiance was definitely worth it!
We booked our tour with SeaSports Tours. They were incredible. The captain spoke fluent English and was careful to make sure he always translated all of the tour into English. They also offered a “happy hour” or appertivi at the end of the tour which was lovely.
My Favorite Shop:
I found La Casetta del Piccantino (Vico Mezzatesta, 1) in Centro which was charming, and completely authentic. They make all of their sausages, sauces, etc. in the family-including an amazing cheese with a picante crust. He sells his families Nduja sausage as well as their hand made salumi. The ambiance of products lining the shelves, the pride of the owner and the gorgeous pepperoncini hanging from the ceilings made this place the best spot we found in Tropea. (The food is vacuum packed-easy to buy and travel with.)
A trip to this Calabrian town will never disappoint and may even teach you a few things about how to live a life full of laughter, great food, and romance.