The five civilizations of Magna Graecia Part 1: From Naples to Reggio Calabria

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An incredible fusion of races, civilizations and systems of government; an unexpected interweaving of customs and habits; and an ever-changing and astonishing variety of landscapes with volcanoes and forests, seas and mountains are the attractions which await the tourist on his long journey from Naples to the wonders of Sicily.

Naples, the “New City” of the ancient Greeks, became the resplendent capital of Southern Italy, of that part of the peninsula which, in the course of its long history, has undergone the most varied and uninterrupted cultural and social changes.

Today, this part of Italy is still known as Magna Grecia, just as it was in ancient times, though before the Greeks, there were the Italiots and with the Greeks, and after them, came the Phoenicians and the Carthaginians who tried to oppose the expansionist ambitions of the Greeks.

Under the Romans things seemed to have settled down, but no sooner did the Roman Empire decline and fall than other invaders established themselves: the Byzantines and the Arabs from the East, who later fought against, or mingled with, the Germans from the North, the Normans and the Swabians. Under the Swabians, Italy was to become the birthplace of King Frederick II, one of the most fascinating personalities of the Middle Ages.

He was followed by the infinitely worse Angevin kings who were not given the time to reign for long, for at the door was the House of Aragon, which, in its turn, was followed by that of Bourbon. And, finally, Giuseppe Garibaldi landed in Sicily, and marched up to Naples in order to unite the South with the rest of Italy.

The itinerary:

The itinerary starts in NAPLES, where we shall spend the next two days visiting the city,, We leave Naples the next day and run through Castellammare di Stabia to Pompeii (20 km. – 12 1/2 mi.) and Herculaneum; these will take up the best part of the day, adding, maybe, a visit to Mount Vesuvius.

An additional day can be spent in SORRENTO, a charming little place overlooking the sea, with some good monuments such as the church of San Francesco with a delightful small cloister, and the Correale Museum, or this is a good opportunity to add a day or two to visit the great islands of Capri or Ischia, famous for their historical and natural beauties.

Pompeii represents a unique heritage of architecture, sculpture, paintings, and mosaics – don’t miss it! Further along the same coastal road, in a stupendous setting at the foot of Vesuvius. We shall not even attempt to describe the two buried towns but merely mention that numerous guides are available and that various guidebooks are for sale at the entrances.

After having visited the excavations at Pompeii, we may have lunch before taking the Autostrada to Salerno which, after an inland stretch across the peninsula which separates the Bay of Naples from the Gulf of Salerno, returns to the coast (18 miles from Pompeii).

SALERNO. An ancient town, probably founded by the Etruscans, Salerno became a Roman colony and was later under both Byzantine, Longobard, and Norman rule. From the latter period dates the superb Cathedral, whose original Romanesque style is still preserved in the beautiful Atrium surrounded by 28 Roman columns. We enter the church through a magnificent bronze Door (1099) which leads into the central nave, where there are two 12th century Pulpits, decorated with mosaics, the Tomb of Margherita di Durazzo and the mosaics in the Chapel of Pope Gregory VII. The Cathedral Museum contains excellent paintings and a rich Treasury, including the famous 12th century Altar-frontal carved in ivory.

If it is not yet dark, we may still take a ride along the breathtaking Amalfi Drive, perhaps as far as AMALFI itself (1 miles), where we can spend the night.

This city was once a glorious Marine Republic; now there remains only the Arsenal, with its austere Gothic vaulting and the spendid cloister of the Cathedral (rebuilt in the 19th cent. when the ancient one felt down).
For our next day, it would be advisable to leave Salerno early in the morning for PAESTUM (27 miles from Salerno).

Paestum Temple – Photo © Matt Ryall
Paestum Temple – Photo © Matt Ryall

PAESTUM (27 miles from Salerno), once the Greek town of Poseidonia, where we will find one of the most important remains of Doric civilization. Within the archaic walls (almost 3 miles in circumference) stand three temples which were given their present names in the 18th century, when the area was first excavated after centuries of oblivion: the Temple of Neptune (5th century B.C.), perfectly preserved and majestic in form; next to it, the so-called Basilica, the earliest building in Paestum (middle of 6th century B.C.) with archaic columns and capitals, while the Temple of Ceres, the second in order of time, is somewhat further away, near to the important Museum.

Ruins of Italic and Roman buildings add a further element of fascination to this, already so strikingly impressive, site with its great solitary temples on the shore of the sea.

From Paestum we set out for our long journey to Calabria, with a first, rough and exhausting stretch of 34 miles through Vallo della Lucania, after which the road descends towards the shore of the luminous Gulf of Policastro. Some 77 miles from Paestum is SAPRI and after another 11 miles we reach the enchanting little town of MARATEA.

MARATEA, where we suggest a short rest to enjoy the view over the magnificent gulf. Continuing on the road along the Tyrrhenian coast with its numerous deep-blue inlets, wooded hills, and villages perched on cliff overlooking the sea, we enter Calabria at Praia a Mare. Driving through Seance, built on a hill round a medieval palace, Cirella, Dlarnante (with an excellent beach), and Cetraro we come to PAOLA

PAOLA 156 miles from Paestum. This is a charming little town with many 15th century monuments and a small Byzantine Basilica (8th century) in the Coachman district. Nearby is the Sanctuary of San Francesco di Praia with a Renaissance Church and a Gothic Cloister. After Paola the road leaves the coast and climbs up to the Crocetta Pass, from where there is a fine view of the sea, and continues on into the interior of Calabria, with the Crati Valley and the Sila mountains in the distance. Past San Fili, it joins Highway SS 19 and, 27 miles from Paola, we reach COSENZA

COSENZA, an ancient pre-Roman town situated at the junction of the rivers Crati and Busento where, according to tradition, Alaric, King of the Goths was buried, with his treasure. We may see the exact sport from the foot of the Pancrazio Hill, on which stands the old town. We first cross the Alaric Bridge, on the other side of which we see the church of San Domenico with its beautiful Gothic facade and then, the Martyrs’ Memorial ,Bridge, in order to reach the Corso Telesio, which winds up through the picturesque old city to the Cathedral, whose originally Gothic facade has been changed by successive alterations. In the interior is the beautiful French Gothic Tomb of Isabella of Aragon and in the Treasury of the adjacent Archbishops Palace is the Byzantine Cross of Frederick 11. On top of the hill (at the end of Corso Telesio is the Municipal Museum) we visit the Norman Castle, enlarged bv the Swabians. We then descend through the oldest part of the town, to the church of S. Francesco, whose portal and a few other parts still hear witness to the original Gothic structure.

On the morning of the next day, we leave Cosenza on Highway No. 19 along the Busento river. Some 4 miles later we turn left onto Highway No. 178, which climbs through magnificent chestnut and oak woods and almost Alpine scenery to the severe mountain village of Aprigliano, and then (22 miles from Cosenza) to Lake Arvo, a peaceful sheet of water amidst the mountain peaks. We pass through Lorica, and 24 miles from Aprigliano we mach SAN GIOVANNI IN FIORE, a mountain town in the Sila with an ancient Gothic Abbey. From here we descend through rocky valleys to a road junction where we turn right and through woods of chestnut trees, which gradually give way first to oaks and then to olive groves, reach the town of S. Severina, situated on a night cliff, 22 miles, from S. Giovanni in Fiore. Five more miles and we come to another junction where we take the road to the left which, with a magnificent view of the Ionian coast of Calabria, takes us down (43 miles from San Giovanni in Fiore) to CROTONE.

Crotone Castle – Photo © AlessandraLM
Crotone Castle – Photo © AlessandraLM

CROTONE. Situated on a promontory and famous, in ancient times, for its splendor and beauty, Crotone was founded by the Achacans and later became a Corinthian colony (8th century B.C.); traces of the Greek walls and the ancient harbor are still to be seen.

There is a 16th century Cathedral and a handsome Castle, built over an ancient Acropolis also treat the 16th century, which houses the Municipal Museum with an outstanding archaeological collection.

On the nearby Cape Colonna there are the ruins of the Temple of Hera Lacinia, the largest and most important in Magna Graecia and a 16th century tower.

The sixth day we continue our drive through Calabria to Reggio Calabria (160 miles).

Skirting the endless rocky beaches pounded by the open sea, the road takes us amidst countless fiumare (the steep riverbeds on the mountain slopes), villages perched on the tops of hills, and luxurious vegetation, through Cropani Marina (28 miles from Crotone) on the Gulf of Squillace, and Catanzaro Marina (42 miles), to the ruins of one of the most imposing Norman churches in Calabria, the picturesque Roccelletta amidst dense olive groves.

Continuing through olive groves, we pass through Soverato Marina, Badolato, and Marina di Monasterace at Cape Stile, in the vicinity of which we can sec the ruins of the Doric temple of CauIonia, once a Greek colony. Then come Hoecella Ionica, perched on a steep rock round a castle, Gioiosa Marina, with an ancient watch tower built against the assaults of Saracen pirates, Siderno, with its 16th century walls, and after 93 miles.

LOCRI. Here we must see the Museum of the remains of ancient Locri, a Greek colony, which was founded in the 7th century B.C. and destroyed in the 12th century by the Arabs. Remains of the Greek walls and the ruins of a temple and theatre may he seen a little outside the new town to the right of the road. From Locri, we may, make an intersting short detour inland to GERACE, where we find a magnificent Cathedral (11th century). The interior is magnificent with ancient columns and 15th century sculptures.

We now return to the Highway and drive to Bovalino Marina, at the foot of the Aspromonte headland, round Capo Spartivento, and reach Melito Porto Salvo amidst orange and olive groves and luxuriant Mediterranean vegetation. We then pass below the picturesque village of Pentidaitilo, built on a flank of bare rock, and at Capo dell’Armi we have reached the Straits of Messina with the coast of Sicily in front of us. A few minutes more and we are in REGGIO CALABRIA.

Scilla – Photo © steno80 www.photosteno.it
Scilla – Photo © steno80 www.photosteno.it

REGGIO CALABRIA, a city founded in 750 BC ca. by colonists from Chalchis. It was very important among the cities of Magna Graecia. In the National Museum there are collections of archaeologic exhibits from the prehistoric period and that of Magna Graecia, particularly the room of the pinakes, that of he Locrian Temples and that of the Dioscuri.

Then there is the Aragonese Castle (XV cent.), the Cathedral with the Chapel of the Sacrament (XVII cent.) and the city of the Ottimati with an Alexandrian camisole floor of the X century and Arab-Norman columns of the XI). There is an experimental station for essences (of bergamot, citron etc.) which is unique of its kind. Lastly there is the Lungomare, the seaside promenade, one of the finest pieces of landscape in Italy along which modern buildings alternate with the ruins of V cent BC Greek walls and a Roman baths of the II cent. B.C. The following day we take the ferry across the straits, and land at MESSINA.

The itinerary continues the next day with Part 2: from Reggio Calabria to Palermo
Recommended itineraries in Italy
Itinerary partly courtesy of ENIT