Affresco della ‘Dormitio Virginis’ nella Cattolica di Stilo

ADVERTORIAL • April 2024

How to have a divine time in Calabria, Italy

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Calabria Official Tourism

A world of saintly shrines, charming cathedrals and ancient abbeys awaits in Italy’s sun-baked south. Here’s where to find them.

In the toe of Italy’s boot lies Calabria, a vast region of verdant national parks and cinematic coastlines. Calabria, however, is more than just Italian eye-candy; the region has a long history of spirituality set into its very soil. Here, it’s as if ancient religions are woven into the fabric of the hillsides, and the region’s spiritual practices remain a huge part of its culture today. That’s why savvy, locally minded travellers are embarking on picturesque pilgrimages and now, you can join them.

Duomo di Cosenza Cattolica

Duomo di Cosenza

How to… find sublimity in ancient churches
Calabria’s centuries-old religious structures provide a ‘who’s who’ of European architectural styles across the ages. Monasteries, shrines, churches and cathedrals spanning hundreds of years display some of the best preserved examples of Byzantine, Orthodox and Greco-Roman design.

Hiding within the sprawl of Calabrian mountains lie monasteries built by monks as far back as the ninth century, while various churches and cathedrals established by Normans in the 12th century still stand (the Gerace Cathedral is the largest in Calabria).

UNESCO-listed Cattolica di Stilo, a 19th-century Byzantine monastery with five distinctive brick domes, is a must-see, as is its neighbour, the Sanctuary of St John Theristis in Bivongi – historically one of the most important 15th-century Basilian monasteries.

Cattolica di Stilo

Cattolica di Stilo

How to… embrace your spiritual side surrounded by greenery
Calabria’s natural abundance elicits an inherent sense of serenity – even spirituality – for its lucky visitors, with bucolic sprawls allowing travellers to soak up the sublime healing properties of the great outdoors.

At the country’s southern tip, Aspromonte National Park is a waterfall-filled paradise sloping up from the sparkling Tyrrhenian coastline to 2,000-metre high mountain peaks. Further north, Sila National Park (better known as ‘the green heart of Calabria’) entertains soaring mountains and fir-covered hills. On the Calabria-Basilicata border, the Pollino National Park sports some of the region’s most diverse fauna including wild boar and deer – it’s also home to what’s thought to be Europe’s oldest tree, a 1,230-year-old Heldreich’s pine.

Varia di Palmi

Varia di Palmi (Giancarlo Parisi)

How to… participate in ancient religious rites
Ancient religious rites are key events in Calabria’s cultural calendar. The Varia di Palmi, listed as an oral and intangible heritage of humanity by UNESCO in 2013, which takes place on the last Sunday of August, sees a large crowd gather to celebrate the Virgin Mary. A large procession is led by the largest ‘Macchina Meccanica’ in Italy and probably in Europe. This massive scenic wagon is 16m high, weighs 20 tonnes and is dragged on the shoulders of more than 200 mbuttaturi. It is a symbol of strong religious faith and the united effort of the citizens of Palmese.

In Calabria, ancient rites, not only Catholic, are revived. Every year on Palm Sunday, an archaic ritual is performed that originates from the remote world of Greek mythology and the Eleusinian mysteries. The latter were religious mystery rites celebrated annually at the sanctuary of Demeter in the ancient Greek city of Eleusis. When, in the 7th century BC, Eleusis became part of the Athenian state, the rites were extended to the whole of ancient Greece and its colonies, including the village of Bova, where the ritual is still very much alive and very much felt today.

The feast of the ‘Persephoni’ or ‘Pupazze’ originates from another ancient mythology, when the cult of Persephone and her mother Demeter was celebrated in Mycenae.

Certosa di Serra San Bruno

Certosa di Serra San Bruno

How to… wander its most spiritual towns
Many of Calabria’s ancient towns hold spiritual significance. The residents of Conflenti, in the foothills of the Reventino Mountain, are said to have seen apparitions of Mary during a 16th-century plague, while other villages boast strong links to the deity, such as Rossano Calabro, Cerchiara di Calabria, San Sosti, Melito di Porto Salvo – all worth placing on your spiritual treasure trail.

There’s also the coastal town of Paola, birthplace of St Francis, while Serra San Bruno in the southern province of Vibo Valentia is named after the saint who introduced the Carthusian order to Calabria.

In the mountain village of Taverna, travellers can see works by the ‘Calabrian Knight’, Mattia Preti, an influential painter who was appointed as a Knight of St John in 1660. In the Monumental Church of San Domenico, 11 of the artist’s pieces are currently on display.

Religious relics of great significance are commonplace in Calabria. A thorn from Jesus’ crucifixion crown can be viewed in the church of Santa Spina in Petilia Policastro, while supposed strands of Mary’s hair are held in a shrine in the co-cathedral of San Nicola in Palmi.

To discover more inspiration for your trip, go here

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