ON A ROLLICKING bright-yellow, glass-bottomed boat we set out to sea, a crumbling fortress anchoring the rocky cove that protects us. I am, it seems, the only paying passenger. That doesn't faze the gold-chain-adorned, 60-something captain with a deep tan, broad smile and fading tattoos, whose attention is more focused on the exuberant mob of extended relatives he has piled onboard today. It is the first of August and that means party time on the coast of Italy. While we moor further out in the bay, a handsome nephew casts admiring looks at his girlfriend's cleavage as they feed each other grapes. Nut-brown grandchildren cannonball into the crystal-blue water off the back of the boat. The sound system is the only concession to modernity on the beaten-up, tub-like vessel. We can't help but dance when it blares out Italian classics: 'L'Uccellino della Commare', 'Buona Sera Signorina', 'Tu Vuò Fa L'Americano'. Swimming off the side, I spy bodies splayed out on the hot rocks like melting caramel and toffee, alongside them ice coolers, boom boxes, fishing rods and bright-pink lilos.

This is Calabria, the country's unsung and often contradictory region. Here in the deepest south, the toe of Italy's boot, is a land of poverty and corruption and blighted over-building, but also a stretch of coastline that straddles both the Ionian and Tyrrhenian seas with sweet hilltop towns, and a culture and history proudly and profoundly its own. The long summer season and unspoilt shores have always been cherished by visitors from Milan and Rome renting coastal hideaways. But those from further afield have begun to trickle in too, tempted by images of the clear water and white sand, the portfolio of ancient art and architecture, and a new crop of smart seaside hotels. 

I first heard about the region's complex history and culinary note during long evenings at home in Tuscany from my friend Robert Lio, who is originally from Calabria but married a woman from my town of Pienza. He periodically pulls up here after a week in his old country, the whole car stuffed with red peppers, onions, broccoli and tomatoes from his garden; his aunts' marinated vegetables stored in glass jars the winter; sausages scored from farmer neighbours; wine made from his own grapes, not to mention lethal limoncello, and liquirizia (grappa flavoured with liquorice). 'But you must try it,' he insists as he ours glasses of slightly fizzy, highly alcoholic red wine. Together we eat plates of Calabrian cheese and ham sliced with Roberto's pocket knife as he recounts his latest visit home: the beauty of the beaches, the undiscovered forests of the interior, the villages that cling to cliffs, and the spectacular art treasures. Soon our eyes fill with tears caused not only by unbearably hot chillies and wine, but by the sheer poetry of his descriptions. 'But you must go to my country!' he says, clasping my hand. 'But I must go to your country!' I reply, hugging him goodnight. I wobble off into the Tuscan night with a clear pilgrimage in sight. 

Finally I am here. Hammocks are strung between poles over the lapping waves. A pine forest casts shade on daybeds draped with local textiles. Floors are laid with painted clay tiles and recycled driftwood. The long blue pool is surrounded by rattan sofas; there are cream straw mats on the grass.

This is the Praia Art Resort, which opened four years ago and put Calabria on the style map for a new type of visitor. Owner Raffaele Vrenna had a vision for this place. 'I was mostly attracted by the fact that it was beside the protected marine reserve of Capo Rizzuto, a corner of heaven,' he explains. His idea was to create the atmosphere of a still authentic Italian beach holiday: a place with only a dozen rooms where you could end up just watching the sea for days.

Nearby towns such as Le Castella are also worth checking out, though. Odysseus is said to have been held prisoner in the castle here, which was sacked by legendary pirate Barbarossa in the 16th century, and the structure is a reminder of Calabria's violent past when land-hungry Greeks, Romans, Saracens and Bourbons tried to conquer it. These influences can be seen in the diverse architecture of Norman forts, Byzantine citadels and medieval churches and in the seafood and vegetables prepared with spices rarely found in other parts of Italy. 

There are some similarities with Sicily, from which this region is separated by a narrow stretch of sea. Here you'll also find grilled swordfish, spicy sausages, stewed tomatoes and aubergine. But Calabria is distinct for its use of peperoncini chillies (there are more than 150 varieties, on display at a museum in the town of Pizzo) and arancia calabrese, an orange also known as bergamot. In a garden strung with lanterns at Il Giardino di Annibale in Le Castella I eat pizza topped with sweet onion from Tropea, the red variety renowned across the country. Tropea's Vecchio Granaio serves tagliolini with the freshest tomatoes, shrimp and clams, and at Incipit, the town's smartest restaurant, the speciality is an excellent fish soup.

Exploring the coast and the interior, I see flashes of other places: the crumbling beauty and faded buildings of Palermo, and the azure waters and cotton-coloured sands of Sardinia, and yet for all the overlap Calabria has a particular wildness and a culture more recognisable from the Italy of the 1950s.

Of all the beach spots I discovered, Tropea has to be Calabria's loveliest. The village is situated on a cliff 100 metres above a sandy stretch. A gorgeous monastery, Santa Maria dell'Isola, hovers on an offshore promontory. In August the bright umbrellas and beach mats look straight out of a Slim Aarons photograph, with a perfectly spaced geometric medley of yellows and reds. When I descend to the shore the atmosphere is decidedly more raucous with locals playing volleyball, gossiping and splashing in the water in barely there swimming costumes. In the evening, I sip wine and watch the passeggiata, a crowd that grows in number as midnight approaches. The idea of bedtime seems absurdly Anglo-Saxon as bambini alternate between ice-cream highs and meltdowns.

That night at Villa Paola, a peaceful hideaway outside Tropea, I fall into a deep sleep. The stately 16th-century former convent has been turned into an 11-room B&B. In the morning, sitting by a small pool that overlooks the cliff and perfumed gardens, I tuck into sticky marmalade-filled croissants and sun-sweetened figs. The tables look out onto Tropea and the Mediterranean in the distance. It's completely captivating. But Calabria is not just about the sea.

Roberto made me promise I would tear myself away from the sunbeds to see the Riace bronzes in Reggio Calabria, the Greek statues of naked warriors from about 450BC. Everyone else must be at the beach, and I am alone with these perfectly rendered, almost life-like figures. Found on the seabed by a diver on holiday in the 1970s, they are among Italy's most important treasures. There are Norman churches at Stilo, Bivongi and Gerace; Rossano holds one of the most significant early Christian bibles, and Rende is home to paintings by Mattia Preti, Calabria's famed artist and a follower of Caravaggio.

On my first night back in Tuscany I meet Roberto in the square. He and his family gather at a table with some of his homemade rosé, eager to hear my impressions. I talk about the soft, sandy coves, the beautiful churches, the villages, the spicy food, the warmth of the people and the astonishing antiquities. By the end his eyes slowly fill with tears. It's not just because of the wine.


This feature was published in Condé Nast Traveller October 2016
Article Written By Ondine Cohane
 ~ Photographs By Oliver Pilcher