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Italy's Tropical Paradise: Tropea and Capo Vaticano

Updated: Aug 8, 2019

Situated on the coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea, Italy's Calabria is home to two ethereal tropical getaways. Wanderous Affair's editor-in-chief, Emily Fata, steps into these postcard-worthy locations in today's post to help you plan your next vacation.

A view of Tropea's Spiaggia Mare Piccolo (Small Sea Beach), taken from the top of the hill at Santuario di Santa Maria dell'Isola di Tropea. Photo by Emily Fata.

When vacationing in Italy's balmy south, there are no shortages of stunning beaches to visit; however, deciding on which tropical hideaway to escape to can be difficult. On the east coast of Calabria in the province of Vibo Valentia, you can find two destinations that will sweep you off your feet: Tropea and Capo Vaticano.

The former is a tourist hot spot and the latter a short drive away, where you can find peace and quiet in the hidden alcoves that the seaside offers. I've written about my afternoon spent in both towns, including the best things to do while visiting to capitalize on your time.


We actually travelled here twice during the duration of our stay in Calabria, once in the first week of our trip and the second time mere days before we departed home for Toronto. As we crossed into the town’s border, we were greeted by a large sign proudly proclaiming Tropea as a “blue carpet”; indeed, the vast Tyrrhenian Sea lapping against the curved shoreline truly appears as flooring, but one that is ever-moving. As for the mere colour descriptor of “blue,” it does not do the sea justice. The waves’ shades shift as they move to and from the beach, flowing between aquamarine; to cerulean; to cornflower blue in the blink of an eye. The surface sparkles with reflected sunlight, sending rays of light casting off the ripples.

However, sights of the sea are not the only views to take in. Walking through the streets within Old Town are a treat of their own: old and colourful building fasciae, unique doorways, locally handmade goods, no shortage of caffès to stop and have an espresso or gelato at, and a plethora of intriguing souvenir shops.

My eyes roved over the intricate hand painted pottery hung up on storefront walls, magnets sporting fruits and pictures of the beach, tiny terracotta birds that sing ethereally when partly filled with water, and animatronic set-ups of characters partaking in regular rustic activities — spinning wool, fishing, and churning butter to name just a few. I wove in and out of various shops, collecting an assortment of souvenirs along the way to bring back home for my friends and family. My bag began filling with wine stoppers decorated with Mediterranean patterns, ceramic magnets, and small hand painted terracotta urns perfumed with potpourri native to the area.

Along the old streets of Tropea, visitors can spot the town's beautiful balconies, colourful window shutters, and vibrant climbing flora. Photo by Emily Fata.

Eventually, I found myself done with shopping and instead interested in taking in the views of Old Town. Though there are various lookout points along the way by following the streets encircling the perimeter of the cliffside, one of the loveliest views are located at the Belvedere observation deck off of Via Indipendenza. From this small square on the edge of the precipice, you can clearly see the red clay rooftops of seaside buildings lining the beaches (Spiaggia a Linguata to the left and Spiaggia Mare Piccolo to the right), rows of palm trees, and the striking Santuario di Santa Maria dell’Isola di Tropea standing proudly atop a mountain against the blue of the Tyrrhenian.

This church was so lovely that I had to see it up close. I began my careful journey along the nearby steps that led downhill to Via Lungomare, where I crossed the street to find myself at the base of the monastery’s ‘island’.

The awe-inspiring Santuario di Santa Maria dell'Isola di Tropea, taken from the Belvedere observation deck on Via Indipendenza. Photo by Emily Fata.

Santuario di Santa Maria dell’Isola di Tropea is reachable only by climbing up winding steps along the mountain face, carved directly into the rock. When you reach the top of the cliff, you find yourself face-to-face with the clean lines of Santa Maria dell’Isola’s architecture. Though its façade was restructured after a 1905 earthquake, the building itself was likely built between the sixth and ninth centuries, with some sources claiming it to be as early as the fourth century. It was the first home to a community of Basilian monks prior to being passed on to the Benedictines in the eleventh century, who still own it today under the Abbey of Montecassino.

Its name was given following an exceptional event during Byzantine Iconoclasm, wherein a wooden statue of the Madonna inexplicably drifted onto the nearby shoreline from the Orient. Legend has it that it was divine intervention that brought the statue away from the destruction of consecrated iconography being carried out in Byzantium between the eighth and ninth centuries; however, this statue of the Holy Mother has since vanished without leaving a trace.

Further, as the name suggests (in English, the church’s name translates to “Holy Mary of the Island”), the hill on which the monastery is situated upon was originally a small island separate from Tropea’s mainland. Over the centuries and thanks to the build-up of silt, the water was filled in, thus connecting it inland.

Prior to entering the church, we wandered around the outside terrace, where I was able to look down over the wooden rails at Spiaggia Mare Piccolo (“Little Sea Beach”) from an aerial view. Below, people stretched out on their towels under the warmth of the sun, children played along the lapping shoreline, and couples walked hand-in-hand along the nearby pathway.

One of several rooms on the upper floor of Santa Maria dell’Isola. Photo by Emily Fata.

As we approached the small chapel located just inside the main doors, the sound of singing monks filled the air with their solemn hymns. They were located in a locked area just behind the chapel, locked off from the general public. I sat a while on one of the short wooden pews, soaking in the beautiful melody and tranquil stillness of the church in relative solitude. You’re able to sit here as long as you please, followed then with the option to either return to the base of the mountain and go back to the town centre, or pay a small 2€ fee to enter the church rooftop and monastery gardens.

At 180cm (5’11”) tall, the low ceilings were something I had to be wary of, but having the opportunity to see the stunning open-concept upper level and breath-taking rooftop was well worth all the cautious ducking that I had to do. The view from above Santa Maria dell’Isola is a sight to behold, with sparkling sea stretching out all around you in a stunning panorama. Like Pizzo Calabro, Tropea is located along la Costa degli Dei (“the Coast of the Gods”). With Spiaggia a Linguata to the west and Spiaggia Mare Piccolo to the east, it becomes difficult to keep your gaze focused on any one particular fragment of your sightline.

Naturally, as with most of my time in Italy, I took longer than the rest of my group to pry my eyes away from the rooftop views; after doing so rather reluctantly, I headed back the way I came to find myself in the back of the church, behind the monastery, in the striking gardens.

Wild succulents growing in the monastery gardens. Photo by Emily Fata.

Following the path lined with lush greenery, I wound my way through rows of prickly pear cacti, colourful flora, and two-toned olive leaves stretched out on robust branches. With one side facing the church and the opposite confronting to the sea, a tall metal cross towered above the pathway as a stoic representation of the centuries of Christians who entered the very building that it watched over.

At this point, I noticed two fluffy bunnies munching on the low-level shrubbery. Making my way further along the path and around the bend, I happened upon a small rabbit house with another handful of bunnies hopping around it (at this point, I excitedly began to FaceTime my friend back in Toronto to show her what I had discovered here in Tropea).

Two rabbits grazing on low-hanging shrubbery. Photo by Emily Fata.

This concluded our time in the gardens as well as exploring Santa Maria dell’Isola as a whole, and so we went back down the mountain (undeniably less exerting than the journey up). Once your feet are again firmly planted on sea level, you can opt to either return to Old Town by climbing up the cliffside steps or lounging at any of the adjacent beaches. Though it was far too cold for a dip in the water for me — even with my resilient Canadian blood — I spent a moment distracted by imaginings of a day when I can return in the heat of summer to feel the salty waves covering my skin.

Until then, I’ll keep dreaming.

Capo Vaticano

Located in the municipality of Ricadi and the last strip of land before the Straits of Messina, walking along Capo Vaticano truly feels like you have stepped into a postcard. We reached a stunning viewing point off of Strada Comunale Capo Vaticano, parking at the point where the highway ended and walked along a stone path that led directly to an observation point called Capo Vaticano Ricadi (the address is 89865 Capo Vaticano, Province of Vibo Valentia, for those who want to make their way there).

Passing along the road lined with tall prickly pear cacti (fichi d'India, in Italian), the pristine turquoise waters of Spiaggia di Grotticelle (Grotticelle Beach) are visible over the cliff’s edge, just beyond the protective rail in place along the perimeter. This beach is the largest and the most popular amongst tourists, as it’s made of three adjacent natural bays and contains scattered caves and hidden beaches that fuse to form a mind-blowing landscape.

A few benches set up in a small observation area that allows passerby to sit a while and enjoy the views, snap a few pictures, or simply lean against the rails while breathing in the clean salt air. At the time I visited, there were a couple of people sitting and reading, and another young woman listening to music with headphones while staring out at the sea.

A view of the bay of Capo Vaticano, taken from the Capo Vaticano Ricadi observation point. Photo by Emily Fata.

I stood peering over the rail myself, admiring the shifting colours of the waves — shades of baby blue, turquoise, and green flowing into one another before abruptly turning a deep navy where the water depth dropped off. Down below, a landscape made of rocks and inlets made the cape appear like heaven on earth. From there, a stairway carved into the cliff leads to a handful of beaches that would otherwise be unreachable. In the most ideal situation, I could have sat there forever, taking in the stunning views, but watching the sun set over the Tyrrhenian was just enough.

Recognizing a slight pang of hunger, we walked to the small gelateria just off the path of the observation point for a small snack. Inside, we found the cutest retro caffè, reminiscent of the 1950s. We ordered a bottle of water and some pops, as well as a few Tartufo di Pizzo. As you can probably imagine, I was quite addicted to these sweet treats for the duration of my stay in Calabria!

A panoramic view of Capo Vaticano, taken from the Capo Vaticano Ricadi observation point. Photo by Emily Fata.

I finished the last bites slowly, reluctant to rise from the picnic table we sat at on the caffè patio, in order to head back to our car and go home. Alas, this day had to come to an end; I made sure to steal a few more moments staring at the sea, hungrily drinking in the views until I have the chance to see the crystalline water once again.

A delicious Tartufo di Pizzo enjoyed while overlooking the cape. Photo by Emily Fata.

What better way to spend a day in beautiful, sunny Calabria, than on the beach soaking up the sun's rays? Though this is just one of many possibilities for a day-trip (or longer!) in the province of Vibo Valentia, it's definitely one of the loveliest.

Have you ever been to Calabria? What are your must-see beaches in the region? Let me know in the comments!



To read more of our posts on Italy, click here.



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