After your brief playtime on the shores of Capo Vaticano, head east from Vibo
Valentia on route 182, by way of Soriano and through a magical forest to Serra San Bruno. Founded by the German mystic St. Brunone, who died here in 1101, this is a fascinating complex of buildings from various eras. The Calabrian earthquakes have torn down parts of structures, yet Andrea Palladio's façade for the church still stands, as do the magnificent library and cloisters. Guided tours are offered daily, but only to men, since these monks still adhere strictly to St. Brunone's extremely rigorous discipline. Days are very long here, divided between prayers, physical exercise, work in the wrought iron, wood and stone laboratories, and very little chit-chat. Now and then the pious fathers (32, at last count) can be seen at dawn, silently gliding through the snowy woods in their white hooded robes (rumored to be made of the finest cashmere), softly singing vespers. That is the only glimpse a woman will ever get of these men, but even if she has to content herself with a walk to the manmade lake, where a statue of the saint stands waist-deep in the chilly waters, she will be giving her male traveling companions a fine gift if she allows them to see the monastery without her.
|Afterwards, take route 110 south to 100Bis, which leads after a handful of miles to the Ferdinandea. There is something very special about this part of Calabria, which was once the royal hunting grounds of King Ferdinand of Naples. Drive through the thick forest for miles and you'll rarely see a soul, and then suddenly you round a corner and come upon the massive stone hunting lodge, sunken in a clearing just slightly larger than its perimeter. Get out and walk through the guards' quarters and you'll soon imagine it bustling with dogs, robust rosy-cheeked warriors, exhausted cooks and clouds of fragrant steam. Today the only sound is the rustle of the wind in the leaves.|
|Retrace your tracks back to route 110S and continue on to Bivongi. The landscape has changed drastically by now, with trees giving way to vast vineyards. In the picturesque hill town, stroll down the narrow streets, under archways and past high stone walls. The 11th-century church of San Giovanni Theresti is considered a masterpiece of Norman-Byzantine art. If you have lunch here, try the local wine, but not too much: Calabrian wine is strong!
|Continuing on 110S you'll soon come to Stilo, a fairly well preserved village with several fine churches. The main attraction here, however, is the Byzantine Cattolica, thought to have been built either in the 7th or the 10th century. Its elegant red brick façade, topped by four cylindrical cupolas, is visible from afar as you climb the slopes of Mt. Consolino. Inside, the church is small, austere and extremely mystical.|
|From here continue east to the coast, where you'll pick up route 106S, then 111W to another Calabrian highlight, the medieval town of Gerace (pictured here). On the way into town you'll pass a series of pottery workshops carved into the clay hillside; stop to admire and purchase if you want. Founded in the 9th century by Greek refugees, Gerace is one of the most interesting towns in southern Italy. It has a grandiose 12th-century castle, an absolutely breathtaking 11th-century cathedral, and three Byzantine churches (S. Giovanello, S. Maria del Maestro and S. Maria del Monserrato). If you're here in summer, expect crowds. Otherwise expect to be inspired.|
Back on 106S, it's a 15-minute drive down the hill to Locri Epizefiri, another ancient stronghold. The remains here are especially evocative, because they are scattered here and there in an olive grove, to be discovered one by one. First you'll come upon the temple and a wall, then you'll encounter a theatre and another temple, then you'll find the sanctuary of Persephone. One thing you'll find very little of is tourists. Like Sibari and Capo Colonna, the ancient remains of Locri have been left behind by modern Calabria, and if you listen quietly, you're liable to hear ancient Greek on the wind.
The last stop on our mystical tour is Bombili. Take 106S about 4 miles from Locri, then turn off on the provincial road, to the Sanctuary of Our Lady of the Grotto, reached by climbing 141 steps carved into a hillside. Behind the sanctuary is a "convent," actually no more than dozens of cells carved into the rocks.
Visits to Serra San Bruno are held daily 11-12am and 4-5pm. Ring the doorbell. Also, a very few places are available for men who wish to stay for a period, if they agree to follow the monastery's strict regime (write to Certosa di Serra San Bruno, C.da Certosa, 1, 89822 Serra San Bruno (VV).
Click here for information about the museum at Locri Epizefiri.
A simple but charming place to stay at the end of this tour is La Casa di Gianna in Gerace.