Rick Steves' followers favor the Cinque Terre, but American travelers will find good value and fewer crowds offseason on Italy's Southern coast.
TROPEA, Italy — Rick Steves’ followers have the Cinque Terre, the five cliff-hugging villages along the Northern Italian coast. European jet-setters camp out in villas on the island of Capri. Tour groups favor Sorrento and the gravelly beaches of Positano along the Amalfi coast.
The Calabrian seaside town of Tropea, six hours by train south of Rome, is hardly a secret. Sun-seeking Italian, British and German tourists come by the droves in summer. But compared to the more well-known Italian resort towns, it attracts few Americans, and offseason, being here can feel like wandering into a party waiting to happen.
Perched on a cliff over a sandy beach on the Tyrrhenian Sea, the restored old town is a warren of ivy-covered medieval stone buildings and little alleyways lined with wine bars, restaurants and cafes that sit mostly empty from late fall through early spring. Temperature is the big reason. The beach is the main attraction for European tourists, and when I stopped here with family members on our way to Sicily by train in early April, it was still jacket and sweater weather.
As the crown jewel of Calabria, a mountainous region too poor and remote to rate a mention in most guidebooks, Tropea can command higher prices than other Southern Italian towns with less to offer, but hotels and B&Bs offer discounts outside of the summer months, good news for American travelers looking for some relief from the falling dollar.
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We paid the euro equivalent of about $50 per person for a double room in Casa del Sole, a four-room B&B run by the energetic Eugenia Castellaneta, 40, who moved to Tropea from her hometown of Bari in Puglia a few years ago. Our second-floor room had no sea view, but we were content to soak up the salt air from a sunny balcony across the street from a weathered palazzo being restored by wealthy Italian owners. Breakfast was a steaming pot of milk along with coffee, juice, pastries, cereal and yogurt wheeled into our room on a cart each morning by Eugenia.
With a year-round population of just under 7,000, Tropea’s modern “new” town and its old quarter are both small enough to walk around in a few hours. Nearly every street dead-ends at the cliff overlooking the sea where flights of stairs lead to a sandy beach and a view of the Sicilian island of Stromboli with a steam plume rising from the top of the volcano.
Tropea’s star monument is the church and monastery of Santa Maria della Isola on the top of a limestone rock overlooking the sea. The church was closed the day we were there, but we were able to climb part way to the top along a path leading to cave homes once occupied by fishermen. Also closed — one of the downsides of visiting almost any Southern Italian town offseason — was a Norman cathedral housing displays of unexploded U.S. bombs from World War II.
Lemons, strawberries and chili peppers grow in Calabria’s sunny, hot climate. Lining Tropea’s main street, the Corso Vittoria Emanuele, are shops stocked with bags of sun-dried tomatoes, chilies and oregano for $2-$3.
Dinner one night was at Osteria Le Volpi e L’Uva, a restaurant and wine bar with an open kitchen and a half-dozen tables. We paid about $20 each for bowls of spaghetti with clams, salads, platters of grilled eggplant and peppers and a couple bottles of the house red.
The town treat is almost anything made from the “cipolla di Tropea,” a sweet, red onion shaped like a miniature football that grows in the surrounding countryside. Shops sell onion jam and pasta, and as we found out when we stopped into Gelati Tonino, even onion ice cream.
The inventor is Antonio La Tore (Tonino) who makes 60 flavors of gelato in the shop he’s owned on the Corso for 38 years. The most popular is onion, which he makes once a week and serves on Sundays, but he’s also come up with flavors that mimic other Calabrian specialties such as pesto, figs and pine nuts.
He convinced me to try his hot salami gelato with a hint of smoke and spice. I’m not sure salami was meant to be eaten cold, creamy and sweet, but when he posed for a photo holding up a big orange glop on a wooden scoop, he smiled like proud father, and I loved him for giving the idea a try.
Carol Pucci: 206-464-3701 or firstname.lastname@example.org