Have I told you guys that one of my nerdy missions is to visit all 50 states? I’m on 38. I also want to visit all 20 Italian regions. And last month I got to my thirteenth – Calabria.

Not on most Americans’ radars (someone told me recently that some “definitive” American-published tour book, Rick Steeves maybe, didn’t mention anything farther south than Sorrento), Calabria is Italy’s wild, mysterious toe-of-the-boot of Italy. It’s kicking Sicily.Map of Rome to CalabriaIt is so mysterious that my half-Calabrese companion, Francesco, when I asked him to tell me the history of this place, referred me to a movie I could watch about it.

We drove in the car from Rome to Zambrone, a teeny tiny town with some extraordinary beaches, close to Tropea, which I had never heard of, either. Going south from Rome, the highways turned mountainous, and tunnel-filled, and then all of a sudden we turned a corner and there was the ocean. The glassy Mediterranean with the sun reflecting off of it so brightly you couldn’t look at it for more than a second. This wasn’t like the ocean you see near Rome, which is rather polluted, and the views of which are obscured by buildings and tattooed people.

As we pulled into Zambrone, Francesco’s ancestral home, I liked it immediately. Sweet piazzas and churches and little shops shoved against the sea, with strips of sand and rocks tightly sandwiched in between.

This is the "train" that will take you to Zambrone. Kinda reminded me of Mister Rogers.

This is the “train” that will take you to Zambrone. Kinda reminded me of Mister Rogers.

That night was the first of several sagre that we would attend.

What is a sagra? It’s a festival dedicated to a certain food, held in a certain place, where that certain food is a specialty. This trip became the week of the sagre.

The first was the sagra of the ‘nduja in Spilinga. It was late when we left the apartment in Zambrone to wind our way through the countryside under billions of stars. I was expecting some kind of small event with outdoor tables and a couple of old ladies selling things in jars.

Instead, about a mile from the town of Spilinga, the lone road became so jammed with traffic that people were literally abandoning their cars on the side of the road, throwing children on shoulders, and walking the rest of the way in pitch darkness to Spilinga.

First thing to note is how late children stay up here! It was already 10:00 probably, and tiny children were ready to party with their parents.

Second thing to note, or rather ponder, is what is so special about ‘nduja? And why is it spelled that way? It is spelled that way because it is dialect, not Italian, and what is so special about it is that it is spreadable sausage, beet red in color, spicy as a jalapeno and soft as butter. This little town makes all this ‘nduja that is shipped and eaten all over Italy. Don’t be surprised if I open up a little ‘nduja restaurant in Nashville in a few years.

Third thing – Francesco and I were the tallest people there, by far. I was a head and shoulders taller than the women…and the men. And Francesco’s got two inches on me. One of the traditions at the sagra (and they do this in Spain, too), are two huge dolls called giganti, worn like costumes by normal-sized people. They have huge heads and are about 8 feet tall. As everyone was staring at us, I thought, maybe these people think we’re the Giganti. Like instead of making the giant costumes for this event, they just hired an American and her unusually tall Italian boyfriend.

I think everyone in Calabria was at the ‘nduja sagra in Spilinga. And I was the only American around. I think I spotted a couple of Germans. I kept thinking, what am I doing here? What events in my life brought me from Alabama to this ‘nduja festival in Calabria? I wonder this sort of thing a lot. I don’t have the answer.

Know what Calabrese people love to do at their sagre? Dance the tarantella.

The tarantella is a folk dance where you just kind of jump and spin around with your arms raised. A Calabrese (not Francesco who referred me to films) told me that the dance’s origins are a country lass who was bitten by a tarantula and went crazy while the poison flowed through her. So she’s twirling and stomping and basically freaking out.

Know what freaks me out? The fact that everybody in Calabria, young and old, loooooves this dance and dances it with abandon. America has/had its folk dances, especially in the south. But NO ONE at any age knows how to dance the Virginia Reel anymore, and no one under 80 years old knows how to square dance. Even in the parts I call home.

But there was everyone, out in the streets and squares, children to old people, so unconcerned with looking cool that to me, they looked very cool. Dancing to really well-rehearsed and professional tarantella bands. It is just incredible to me how centuries-old traditions survive here, and that young people are as into them as anything else.

A very amateur cell phone video, taken by me, speaks louder than words:


As if to intentionally overload me with cuteness, suddenly Francesco and his cousins, whom we randomly ran into in the midst of the tarantella mob, told me it was time for the Camejuzza. The Camejuzza is a creature made out of some kind of inflammable material and fireworks. A human being dons this thing (it must weigh a ton), and dances a kind of modified tarantella with the Camejuzza on his back while someone lights one end of it. The fireworks go off, increasing in intensity, as one firework ignites the next and so on all the way to the rear end, which is the big finale.

I asked Francesco’s cousin (I wasn’t getting any good info out of Francesco) what the Camejuzza was. A camel? A horse? He explained, “It’s not a camel and it’s not a horse. It’s a Camejuzza.”

Friends from all over the world, I present to you, the Camejuzza (worth watching until the end for the grand finale!):

During that week, we went to several more sagre, each one with some tarantella (but none with a Camejuzza). The sagra of the eggplant. The sagra of the candied nuts. The sagra of the layered ice cream. The sagra of the wine. Every night was a different food festival in a different town. I said to Francesco, “If Calabria isn’t always like this, don’t tell me.” I want to live in a world where, even if I am far away, sagre are going on every night in Calabria.

Tropea, a surprisingly lively town on a cliff, which reminded me a lot of Sorrento.

Tropea, a surprisingly lively town on a cliff, which reminded me a lot of Sorrento.

OMG Y'all. A cowboy store in the town of Pizzo! With boots and hats and Texas flags and all manner of things I wouldn't expect.

OMG Y’all. A cowboy store in the town of Pizzo! With boots and hats and Texas flags and all manner of things I wouldn’t expect.

It was a glorious week. By night, we toured the sagre with Francesco’s cousins. By day, we went to the beach. The water was perfect and the sand was just pebbly enough not to stick to your wet parts, but not too pebbly that it wasn’t soft.




And, Beaches.

And, Beaches.

Lord have mercy.

Lord have mercy.

Taken for a paddle boat we rented in Zambrone. Just silly.

Taken while on a paddle boat we rented in Zambrone. Just silly.

And sunsets.

Calabria Sunset 2

The island of Stromboli, not too far in the distance, was erupting.

The island of Stromboli, not too far in the distance, was erupting.

And shooting stars. We were in Calabria for the period of San Lorenzo, in which every night, dozens and dozens of shooting stars zip across the sky. I had heard of this, and believe it goes on all over Italy, but you can’t see them in Rome or anywhere with city lights. There, out in the Calabrese countryside, I was showered at night by shooting stars. I saw more of them my first night in Calabria than in the rest of my life put together, and by the time the trip was over, I had seen over 100.

It was one of the most relaxing trips of my life. Although I feel compelled to add that I did work a good bit during the trip. The internet has come to Calabria, too!

I will close this post with this story. One of our last nights in Calabria, we stuck close to Zambrone and just walked up and down the beachfront and it’s bars and shops. It was August 15, Ferragosto, one of the most important Italian holidays. There were fireworks right over our heads, set off just a few feet from where we sat on a blanket on the sand. Somewhere, people were floating lanterns off into the sky, and we joked about how they’d end up in the ocean and someone would have to fish them out. After the fireworks, we strolled, looking for a cold beer, when we realized that one of the lanterns had blown inland – not out to sea – and had landed in the brush on the side of the hill. The hill was on fire. Majorly on fire. It was spreading. At the bottom of the hill, the Calabresi continued with business as usual, laughing with their children, drinking cold things, holding hands and kissing, looking out to sea. Only I seemed to be concerned about the wildfire above us on the hill. Eventually, some fire trucks came but we saw no hoses. Apparently the choice was made to just let it burn and watch to make sure it didn’t get more out of control. But, the thing was, no one was watching. Everyone was just having a good time, confident that it would all turn out ok.


Cell phone pic, not of the fire on the hill caused by a rogue sky lantern, but of the people at the bottom of the hill, taking it all in stride.

Cell phone pic, not of the fire on the hill caused by a rogue sky lantern, but of the people at the bottom of the hill, taking it all in stride.