Arriving in the port town of Crotone in the “toe” of the Italian boot, we were greeted by sunny skies and an interesting coastline. Described in our tour book as a “sun-baked region of rugged mountains, old-fashioned villages, monumental woodlands, and a thriving farm-to-table scene,” Calabria seemed like a wonderful place to escape to the woods for a day to enjoy nature. Who knew…perhaps we could escape the blistering heat of the past two weeks for a hike in the woods.
After a 90 minute ride through farmlands, meadows, and forests, we approached our destination. We learned that olives are grown at the lower elevations, and that the olive oil they produce is especially sweet. We also learned that red-skinned potatoes are grown in abundance, making gnocchi the region’s favorite pasta. Pungent porcini mushrooms are also found growing wild in the moist, dense woods.
Our ultimate destination, the Sila National Forest, has been a protected area since the 15th century. It is home to the 350 year-old “IL Gigante,” the Giants of Sila. Standing at up to 150′ high with trunks over 7′ wide, the giants promised cooler temperatures and cool, crisp, clean air. This “Calabrian Alps” as it is called, seemed an ideal respite.
As we approached 6,000 feet above sea level, we began to see a few raindrops on the windshield. Our guide explained that they hadn’t seen rain in several months, but that a cloudburst isn’t uncommon at this altitude. She assured us it would pass. But when literally scores of hikers came running out of the woods, we knew it wasn’t looking good.
Then came thunder, lightning, and a relentless deluge. As we waited at the park entrance for the rain to subside, our guide checked her weather app and learned that the thunderstorm would hover over the area for the next two hours. No hike for us! There was so much rain that the parched ground couldn’t absorb it. Our driver, Roberto, had no place to turn around on the narrow mountain road which was now blocked by all the cars trying to escape, so he had to back down most of the way.
Once about halfway down, we stopped at an open-air restaurant, Vallefiore. Here we enjoyed the best of the local provisions. Starting with an antipasto of home made cheeses, cured meats, and pickled vegetables, next came a creamy porcini mushroom pasta. A variety of grilled pork and a platter of crispy fried potatoes capped off a “light lunch.” We washed it all down with a local wine and ended with an herb-based digestif. We now understand why the Italians have the civilized tradition of siesta after lunch!
But no siesta for us… at least not yet! A short distance away, we were transported back to the Middle Ages as we walked off our lunch in the charming village of San Giovanni in Fiore.
The iconic destination in this village is the Abbey Joachim of Fiore. A treasure of art, culture, and regional history, the abbey stands as a tribute to its founder Joachim, a wealthy man-turned-monk who built this magnificent stone structure.
Inside the Abbey, a museum offers a glimpse of how difficult life must have been in this earthquake -prone area. Three consecutive earthquakes wiped out homes and businesses, and people were forced to start over again and again. Hundreds of locals moved to North and South America during the early 1900s in search of a better life. Photographs reflect the difficulty of life during this time, and some of the children in the photos are likely still alive today.
As we made our way back to our ship, we had time to reflect on a day that, although wasn’t what we planned, turned out to be a great way to learn about a region less traveled.