Come enjoy a day in the beautiful seaside city of Reggio Calabria, located in the 'toe' of Italy's boot-shaped nation. With historical architecture, delicious cuisine, impressive shopping, and the most stunning natural skyline, Reggio is a place every traveller should visit.
Located along the Messina Straight (which pours into the Tyrrhenian Sea), the province of Sicily appears only a stone’s throw away from this gorgeous coastal city. We arrived in Reggio Calabria in the late morning, a cool breeze sweeping off of the deep blue waters as we wound our way downhill through narrow stone streets in search of a parking spot. Upon exiting the car after a lengthy drive, we sought a pre-lunch snack at the nearby Gran Caffè on Viale Zerbi, where I bought a heaping scoop of fiori di latte gelato, the slightly sweet cream flavour being one of my all-time favourites to eat while in Europe. Unfortunately, it’s nearly impossible to find at home in Toronto!
As I ate my ice cream, we made our way to the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Reggio Calabria (the National Archeological Museum of Reggio Calabria), with the primary purpose of viewing the Riace bronzes, one of the main historical symbols of the city.
We began our self-guided walking tour through the museum by reading over banners hanging in the lobby, dictating Italy’s recent history — from the fascist undertakings of the Second World War, natural disasters, mafia activity, and other sad but shocking truths that this nation has had to endure over the years. Once we entered the central area of the institution, we were able to admire thousands of local (and nearby European countries’, particularly Greece’s) archeological artifacts.
The main floor is home to seemingly endless ancient finds: terracotta pottery, jewels, intriguingly shaped sarcophagi (such a sandalled foot), painted plates, statuettes, and stunning sculptures. Toward the end of this floor’s exhibit, massive mosaics comprised of stunning tiles that have survived the test of time decorated the walls of the modern-day museum. This level is also home to the Riace bronzes.
Discovered in 1972 and of Greek origin, researchers are still unsure as to who these figures represent: are they athletes, heroes (such as Achilles and Patroclus), or deities (like Castor and Pollux)? This extraordinary duo was at one time accompanied by armour, including a helmet, coat of arms, and a lance held in place by the lowered right hand. You can see details of the two, in the collage of images I captured below.
Beneath this level, on the lower floor, you can find a small exhibit on Hellenistic tombs. These stunning sepulchres crafted of various types of stone are truly magnificent pieces of art. To think about the time, craft, and dedication that went into creating these pieces is remarkable, particularly when you find yourself in a small crypt at the far end of this exhibit. This space is untouched and in its original location. Upon unearthing these collections of hut-like tombs, the museum was built around them, as opposed to the city uprooting and relocating the graves. Though undoubtedly beautiful regardless of where they are situated, knowing that they are in the spot that they have always been, brings about a certain added uniqueness to them.
On the uppermost floor, you can find an exhibit of the area’s most ancient civilizations, predating the Roman period to a time where locals first began to farm the land. This was a time when humans first carved pictographs into cave walls to tell their stories, and when (thanks to shifting tectonic plates) the province of Sicily slowly began separating from mainland Italy to form its own island. Though I had learned much about the early peoples in my homeland of Canada while in school, having the opportunity to not only read about, but also to see the products of these civilizations firsthand at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale was extraordinary.
A short walk away from the museum, you can continue discovering the rich ancient history of Reggio Calabria in Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II (better known as ‘Piazza Italia’). Perhaps the most famous square in the city, it is nestled between the Palazzo San Giorgio, seat of the town hall, to the north-east; the Government Palace, seat of the Prefecture, to the north-west; the Palazzo Melissari-Musitano to the south-east; and Palazzo Foti, seat of the Province, to the south-west. At the centre of the square stands the monument to Italy, which for 140 years has provided the square with its more popularly utilized name. As well, it is here that you can find additional Hellenistic tombs, by merely peering down at your feet. Amidst the dark slabs of stone on the piazza floor, visible underground through squares of plexiglass, you can see the remains of these crypts. At certain times, visitors can take an elevator located right in the square down one level to explore the space below. Should you opt to do this, you will be able to see these early graves face-to-face, as opposed to looking at them through the glare of a pane of glass, from an aerial view.
This square is close to Corso Giuseppe Garibaldi, an entire avenue with tonnes of incredible local shops to pop in and out of. We first decided to cross through yet another square, Piazza Duomo, to visit the Cattedrale di Reggio Calabria (Cathedral of Reggio Calabria).
The mother church of the Archdiocese of Reggio Calabria-Bova, this cathedral is the most prominent religious building of the entire district, measuring an impressive ninety-four metres in length, twenty-two metres in width, and twenty-one metres in height. This holy place has fallen victim to many variations throughout its history, thanks to the alternating links to, initially, the Latin Church of Rome and then to the Greek-Byzantine Church up until the Norman Conquest in 1061. The centuries following this were witness to Latin influence, several reconstructions resulting from earthquakes, wars and sacks (some recorded on the 1632 memorial stone located on the right side of the cathedral’s aisle), up until the most recent rebuilding after the city’s 1908 earthquake. Restructuring occurred after the earthquake to a modern eclectic style, with the Romanesque and Gothic elements that you see today.
Walking along its serene aisles toward the magnificently ornate pulpit is a truly peaceful experience; surrounded by elaborate walls towering above you, intricate ceiling engravings and paintings, and row upon row of wooden pews for an ocean of parishioners, it’s easy to feel very small in such a grand place of worship.
Feeling an elation found only in immersing yourself so thoroughly in a city’s rich history, we chased the high all the way to Castello Aragonese (Aragonese Castle), located on Piazza Castello between Via Aschenez and Via Possidonea while surrounded by the shade of tall, fluttering palm trees. Though known as ‘Aragonese’, this castle actually has more ancient origins, with traces of a fortification in this area of the city dating back to eras much earlier than the construction of the castle itself (which has been documented as existing as far back as the year 536 AD).
Walking through its corridors, you can feel its long and dramatically-charged history envelop you. The stone walls that were once home to the Normans’ court keep secrets that no modern explorer will ever unveil, but this only adds to the shroud of mystery and attraction that makes Aragonese Castle what it is today.
The castle’s current name is likely linked to the most vital changes made to the stronghold, which resulted from the direct orders of Ferdinando I of Aragon in 1458; little of the castle has been altered since these modifications.
Having the chance to meander through its stunning stone walls is something that anyone should jump on. From the lower level to the uppermost battlement (with the pale azure Calabrian sky as your ceiling and the red clay-roofed buildings of Reggio and the Messina Straight spread out beneath you), you can see what a stunning city this truly is. In the distance, you can easily spot the coastline of Sicily and on a clear day, the peak of Mount Etna, a volcano on the nearby island province. Imaginings of long-ago armies patrolling the fortress enter your mind as you peer through the arrowslits lining the battlements, as well as thoughts of the countless parties and royal festivities that occurred on the floors below where you stand.
As we readied to leave, we signed the visitor guestbook, which flagged one of the castle’s personnel to offer us out-of-towners the opportunity to walk through a small section of the castle typically locked off from tourists with a large iron gate. Taking on this opportunity, we followed her into an unfinished part of the castle. It was used by local women who were on the run from their abusers during the Second World War, as a means to escape via the area’s underground tunnel. This passageway led under the road and emptied to the high levels of the sea, where they could board a ship and escape Reggio Calabria in search of safety and a better life.
In this section of the castle, there is also a second tunnel mere footsteps away from the first; this cave-like space was never completed, but was also intended to wind its way under the road and out to the sea.
When peering around the entirety of the alcove, one can see little rocks wedged into small spaces between the original stones, added over the centuries to prevent the walls and large dome above — constructed to encourage air circulation — from collapsing in the event of an earthquake or any trauma to the surrounding area (either natural or man-made). Indeed, because of these preventative measures, this is the only area of the castle that completely survived various earthquakes throughout its history, including the aforementioned from 1908 that resulted in the reconstruction of the city’s cathedral. Its survival was all thanks to the placement of these small rocks.
Having worked up quite the appetite from our exploration of the city, we stopped for lunch at a Japanese-Chinese fusion restaurant on Via Giulia called Shanghai Wok. Offering a generous buffet, I was happy to find a fair amount of vegetarian- and vegan-friendly dishes for myself to eat. I filled my plate with never-ending sushi, an array of saucy steamed vegetables, several vegetable spring rolls, and a heaping pile of garden salad. Our family was seated toward the back of the restaurant, in a quiet spot where we were able to talk at a comfortable volume without the need to shout to be heard over other diners.
After eating so much (and how can you not when you’re at a buffet?), we returned to Corso Giuseppe Garibaldi to walk off our meals and do some shopping. There was a plethora of stores, both local and chain locations, that presented a variety of things to browse and purchase. Perhaps my favourite shop, Libreria Nuova Ave is a little bookshop where they carried a wide variety of both modern and classic books, all in the Italian language. It’s also the oldest bookshop in the city!
Here, I was able to find Il Grande Gatsby, the Italian translation of my favourite novella, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I was inspired to do this by my best friend, who purchases the first Harry Potter book (her favourite series) in the local translation of whichever country she visits. Of course, I also picked her up the translation of this book, including it as a part of her birthday gift shortly after I returned home.
Eventually, we were led back to Piazza Italia, following the music of a live band playing in the square. Tailing the sound of the melody as it gradually became louder and louder, we eventually found ourselves in front of a horn band consisting entirely of policemen, on the edge of the piazza, playing in the rain that had now begun to come down steadily. Among the crowds, we watched the uniformed officers play enthusiastically despite the weather, enjoying the beautiful music filling the air.
Once the music had come to an end, our ambling migrated westward toward the Messina Straight, coming face-to-face with perhaps the most exemplary focal point created by the government to the city: an astounding monument erected in honour of King Vittorio Emanuele III. This arresting marble memorial bearing a bronze statue of Athena Promachos was raised along the seafront. Designed by Camillo Autore of Palermo, the monument stands on the Molo di Porto Salvo, right where the King of Italy had landed after touching national soil for the first time on July 31, 1900 (after the assassination of his father, King Umberto I). The beautiful goddess originally faced the sea, to symbolize her defence of the coasts of the nation. However, upon the completion of renovations in 2001, she was turned to face her city. According to the mayor at the time, he believed that Reggio’s true enemies were situated inside of the city itself, not at sea.
Following the walkway running parallel to the sea in either direction, one can find a number of places to sit and watch the water, to stop and grab a bite to eat, or to look further west to the shoreline of Sicily on the opposite end of the straight. Doing so was a brilliant way to unwind in the last hour of our time in Reggio Calabria, to enjoy the beautiful surroundings and cool off with the help of a breeze sweeping over the waves.
Before returning to our car for the drive home, we stopped once again at Gran Caffè for gelato. This time around, I opted for a basic chocolate scoop packed into a crispy waffle cone. It was a moment for us to relax before finally readying ourselves to leave beautiful Reggio Calabria. What better way to end an amazing day on Italy’s seaside, than with ice cream?
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* This article was featured in Wanderous Affair: Volume 2, Issue 3