Through the Woods From Shore to Shore
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Cosenza is the largest city in Calabria. Home to an illustrious university and many fine aristocratic buildings, it has the somewhat sleepy air of a friendly provincial capital, and it also makes a fine starting point for a trip to La Sila, one of Europe's great forest wonderlands.

The most romantic approach to Cosenza is from the south, beneath the 12th-century Norman castle set high on a hilltop, then on into the Old Town centered around Piazza XV Marzo. You'll want to see the cathedral, rebuilt in 1184. Near a Madonna by Luca Giordano is the tomb of Isabel of Aragon, who died after a fall from her horse on the return voyage from the Eighth Crusade. While you're in town, try to spend a few moments in the serene cloisters of San Domenico, and at the 13th-century San Francesco d'Assisi church.

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SS107 leads eastward and upward, via Celico, towards the highlands of La Sila Grande. This is unlike any other spot in southern Italy. Its snow-capped mountains will remind you of Switzerland, its three pristine reservoirs will take you back to northern Canada, its lively streams and waterfalls will suggest a Norwegian fjord, and its homes are strangely reminiscent of the American log cabin or the colorful Russian dacha. Amazingly, though our impression of Il Mezzogiorno (as the Italians call their country south of Naples) is of a sunburned rocky wilderness, it was originally much more like this, a seemingly endless dark green forest of pines and hardwood trees. As so often has happened in Calabria, history intervened, in the form of the Roman emperors, who devastated the woodlands to build ships and roofs for apartment houses in the Eternal City. Today, thanks to replanting, la Sila is considered one of Europe's most densely wooded areas, and the most famous woods are the Bosco di Fallistro, just outside of Camigliatello. Here you'll be able to admire the giganti della Sila, trees which are over 500 years old, six feet across and 130 feet tall.

Camigliatello, a classical alpine village, is the best base for exploring la Sila. In summer you'll find loads of opportunities for hiking (try the 3-mile climb up Mount Botte Donato for simultaneous views of the Ionian and Tyrhennian Seas); in winter, this is one of Italy's best cross-country skiing areas (the 10-mile run from Monte Curcio to Mount Botte Donato is the most popular). If you're persistent or just plain lucky, you may spot a grey wolf or a golden eagle, or even the extremely rare Italian dormouse. Be sure to sample some of the local freshwater fish and, in autumn, the abundant wild mushrooms. And if there's time, take a side trip to Taverna, where the church of San Domenico houses seven paintings by Calabria's most famous artist, Mattia Preti. If you have only one day for La Sila, there is an unforgettably panoramic narrow-gauge railway between Cosenza and San Giovanni in Fiore. Three trains leave daily for the 2-hour trip. If you can stay awhile, click here for a selection of lodgings in Camigliatello.

When you are ready to leave la Sila, take route 107S, past San Giovanni in Fiore to Caccuri, a dramatic hill town built around a restored castle. Or take 107Acc, which is a less tortuous road, south to Crotone. Today the main attraction here is traffic, but in ancient times it was a renowned center of learning, home to Pythagoras and to Alcmaeon (who may have been the first scientist to dissect a body, right here). It was also the birthplace of Milo, whom we might dub the Carl Lewis of Antiquity, as he won the Olympics twelve times. Milo went on to lead the Croton army in its defeat of Sybaris, and died only when his hands got stuck in a tree he was trying to cleave in two. (A pack of wolves took advantage of his helplessness). If you arrive in an off-hour or are intrepid enough to brave the traffic, visit the cathedral and the castle.

A far more rewarding option is to continue south along the coast to Capo Colonna. Once the site of a temple to Hera known throughout the ancient world, it is now a lonesome spot of devastating beauty, marked by a single column set at the very edge of the Ionian Sea. If you are a true romantic, get here at sunrise.

For information about recreational activities in la Sila, stop at the visitors' center in Cupone (tel. 984/978144) or the forestry post at Camigliatello (983/71141). La Sila is part of the Parco Nazionale di Calabria; park headquarters are at Via della Repubblica 26 in Cosenza.

For those who would like to see la Sila but have little time, there is an unforgettably panoramic narrow-gauge railway between Cosenza and San Giovanni in Fiore. Three trains leave daily for the 2-hour trip.

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