|Belmonte Calabro, on a hilltop overlooking the Tyrrhenian coast.
Photograph: J Wildman/Getty Images
The fourth place that Carolyn and I discovered in our drive down the Apennines in late June this year was the lovely little town of Belmonte Calabro, which is perched on a hill overlooking the northern coast of Calabria two hundred and sixty metres above sea level.
Sunset is probably the best time to enjoy this charming town, standing on a terrace, watching as the sun sinks down into the sea and the distant profiles of the Aeolian Islands emerge out of the haze, including the unmistakable silhouette of Stromboli sitting on the horizon.
Belmonte Calabro sits on a terrace surrounded by forest, a two-kilometre winding drive uphill from the shores of the Tyrrhenian Sea. In the 13th century, when southern Italy was under the rule the French prince Charles of Anjou, Marshall Drogone de Beaumont constructed a castle here to guard the coastline. The small town that evolved out of the cluster of houses that had gathered around the foot of the castle took the name of the founder, Italicising it, of course, into Belmonte. Today, little remains of the castle, but the historical centre of the town still retains its original medieval plan: a tangle of car-free lanes and stairways climbing between small houses, terraces and gardens, one piled up on the other. It’s a beautiful place.
Post-World War 2, most of the inhabitants of Belmonte abandoned the town, seeking their fortunes elsewhere. Its population dwindled from three thousand to just thirty, with many of the houses empty and collapsing. Seven years ago, Gianfranco Suriano, a young local who had grown up here and had fond memories of the town being like ‘one big family’, decided to make a stand. He and his wife Gabriella had the idea of restoring some of the houses and turning them into accommodation for rent and managed to convince some of Gianfranco’s friends and former neighbours to join them and so EcoBelmonte was born.
EcoBelmonte is an ‘albergo diffuso’, an innovative form of hospitality that manages dispersed, self-contained accommodation from a centralised reception (which also has a fabulous little restaurant, strictly local produce and cuisine). There are now fourteen charming houses available for rent, each very different to the other. They are all beautifully and idiosyncratically decorated, some with terraces, some with gardens and they are all very well-appointed. It is a magical place, a perfect base from which to explore the mountains, beaches and history of this little-visited part of southern Italy.
How to get there:
By car: Head down the A2 autostrada, taking the Lagonegro exit, and then the SS 18 sign-posted to Belmonte Calabro. By train: The closest station in Amantea, 6 kilometres south, which is served by both the super-fast Frecciargento and the Intercity trains. By air: The closest airport is Lamezia Terme, which is 44 kilometres south.
Where to stay:
Albergo Diffuso EcoBelmonte (Via Cavour 65, Belmonte Calabro, https://ecovacanzebelmonte.it). Fourteen charming homes (restored rigorously following environmental methods are available throughout the village. The owners offer ‘experiential’ tourism, including cooking classes, ceramic classes and seasonal activities such as picking grapes and olives. Doubles from 120 euro.
B&B A Taverna Intru u Vicu (Vico Terzo Independente, Belmonte Calabro). This small B&B has six rooms dispersed through the centre of the village. They also offer wine tasting, with cheese and salami platters in their cellars. Double from 60 euro.
B&B Al Melograno (Localita Veri, Marina di Belmonte). This lovely b&b down on the coast has two generous rooms with en suites in a restored barn in parklands behind the beach. There is a barbecue and a generous breakfast of local produce is included. Double with breakfast from 70 euro.
Where to eat:
U Pimmiduoru e Bellimunti (EcoBelmonte, Belmonte Calabro). The albergo diffuso has a small restaurant (with candle lit tables in the small piazza, weather permitting). Name is means the ‘tomato of Belmonte in dialect, which is the local speciality, the fruit weighing up to two kilos). You have the choice of the meat of seafood menu, seasonal local recipes rigorously using only local produce.
Osteria Villa Cuccagna (Via della Tinga, locality Annuziata, Belmonte Calabro). This charming local osteria is a kilometre from the centre of Belmonte. The grilled fish with a side of Belmonte tomato is not to be missed. Around 25 euro per person.
Ristorante Il Rivellino (Via del Rivellino, Marina del Belmonte). This very good restaurant overlooks the sea, situated in a fortress that dates from 1570. You can dine either in the central courtyard or in the garden Apart from the usual seafood, the pasta with green beans, potato and pancetta is highly recommended.
What to do?
Saturday morning: Go to the beach.
The Marina di Belmonte, the coastline below the village, has over three kilometres of unspoilt pebble beach. Most of it is ‘free’, ie there are no charges and you can go where you like, but there are a couple of beach clubs. EcoBelmonte has an agreement with the Lido Il Girasole (www.facebook.com/girasole.lido ), which has a restaurant/bar, takeaways, a shaded terrace and rows of deckchairs. It was fabulous. We paid 20 euros for two VIP (front row, on the water) deckchairs, umbrella and side tables. The water was crisp and clean and, although we were there at the end of June/beginning of July, there were very few people. Being VIP there was a QR code and, had we wished, drinks would have been delivered to our deckchairs. We decided not to be lazy and had a delicious lunch of light, modern, seafood served on the Lido’s terrace. The food was great, the service was friendly and efficient and the prices were reasonable. Perfect, really.
Saturday afternoon: Go snorkelling or diving.
Known since the time of Homer, the waters around the two rocks of Isca, located a short way off the coast between Belmonte Calabro and the town of Amantea to the south became a regional marine park in 2008.
The reefs around the island contain a surprising variety flora and fauna. The maximum depth of the seabed is twenty-five meters and the Secca di Limoncella, fifteen metres deep, is the great place for underwater photography. In this stretch of coast, fishing and motor navigation are prohibited, but ‘seawatching’ (ie glass-bottom boats) is allowed. The submerged rocks and large expanses of sand and kelp make this environment an ideal habitat, and, if you are lucky, you can see sea turtles and dolphins.
Isca Diving (www.iscadiving.com/joomla/en/) and Circolo Nautico Ontario (Via Giuseppe Ianni 56, Marina di Belmonte) organise outing to the rocks and surrounding reefs. You can go in a glass bottom boat for a two-hour tour which coast 20 euro per person, hire snorkelling gear (15 euro) and go on guided dives for 35 euor per dive.
Sunday, alternative 1: Go hiking
Belmonte Calabro is situated on the western slopes of the Apennine Range. The mountains are covered in vast uncontaminated forests. Google Maps took us the ‘long way’ from Cosenza (the provincial capital) down to the coast down a marvellous twisting through dense beech forest that we wouldn’t have visited otherwise.
Living Nature (www.livingnature.it) is a group of local volunteers who organise a variety of gentle outdoor activities including ‘acquawalking’, a guided morning walk up through the forest the Fiume Veri (Veri River), an area of rich biodiversity, until you reach a waterfall where you can have a swim and a light lunch before heading back. The walk costs 15 euro per person and is scheduled from 09.00 to 14.00.
There are a number of options for bushwalking in the immediate area. For the keen hiker, there is Trail 815, also known as the Drogone de Beaumont trail, a twenty-kilometre hike that takes around six to seven hours, starting from Marina di Belmonte on the coast, climbing up through forest with spectacular views, to Monte Cocuzzo (1541 mts asl). It is marked with the red and white of CAI (the Italian national walking association) and you’ll need to talk to your hosts at EcoBemonte to organise the return lift. For the less adventurous, there is a short loop, five kilometres and 2 hours, which winds down to the coast Belmonte Calabro and then brings you back up again following a different path.
Sunday, alternative 2: visit Cosenza and the Sila National Park
Cosenza, the provincial capital, is fifty minutes’ drive from Belmonte Calabro. It’s an interesting town, the old medieval part over Pancrazo Hill is separated from the modern section of the city by the Busento River.
The Sila National Park, which covers a mountainous plateau, is forty minutes’ drive on from Cosenza. It was founded in 1997 covers seventy-four thousand hectare and the highest mountain in the park is Mt Botte Donato (1928 mys asl). Animals found in park include wolves (the symbol of the park), peregrine falcons, the eagle owls, and goshawks. It is covered by forests of beech tree, silver fir, black pine, holm oak, chestnut tree, and Mediterranean maquis. In 2010, the Sila National Park was assessed to have the purest air in Europe.
For a day visit it is best to head for the Altopiano della Sila Grande (the Sila Grande Plateau), which is covered in lark pines and has three lakes: Cecita, Arvo and Ampolino. The Cupone Visitor’s Centre on the shoes of Lake Cecita is a good place to start your visit. It has a flora and fauna museum, a botanical garden with over one hundred and fifteen species, and a geological garden. There are plenty of marked trails near and around the lake (information available from the visitor’s centre).
Another reason for visiting Lake Cecita is that you can have lunch at La Tavernetta, considered one of the best restaurants in the whole of Calabria. It’s specialities include porcini mushroom ravioloni with truffles, roast lamb stuffed with artichokes and pecorino cheese and suckling pig on the spit (https://sanlorenzosialberga.it).
On the way out of the park, you can visit the Riserva dei Giganti della Sila (the Giants of the Sila Reserve). which has forty-nine larch trees that are over forty metres high, with a girth of two metres in diameter.