If it weren't for the fact that my wife's father comes from this part of the toe of Italy, it's not likely that it would have been high on my list of travel destinations. Calabria tends to have a bad rap as a poorer and bedraggled part of Italy, and the 'Ndrangheta organized crime group is said to have its claws in local government and businesses. Somehow Sicily, a few kilometres across the narrow Strait of Messina from this elegant regional city, has shed much of its Mafia image. But not Calabria.
If that has served as an inhibitor to travel here, that's a shame because southern Calabria has lots to offer: beautiful Tyrrhenian and Ionian sea beaches, medieval mountaintop villages, coastal towns such as Scilla and Tropea that rival anything that the Amalfi Coast has to offer, and many natural and historical wonders.
Of the latter in Reggio Calabria, at the Museo Nazionale, are the Riace Bronzes, larger than life-size bronze statues of nude, bearded warriors that were cast hundreds of years BC. But far well less known is this area's natural marvel, the bergamot, which grows along 80 kilometres of coastline on either side of Reggio Calabria.
About the size of a large orange, this citrus fruit gives Earl Grey tea its distinctive aroma, its oil is used in perfumes, cosmetics and, increasingly, in confectionery and pharmaceuticals. The fragrance of the rind and the flower is captivating: Poets lauded it as the fruit of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, beauty and sexuality.
This area is said to be the only place in the world where bergamot – not to be confused with the wildflower of the same name – grows so well. Its roots are deep: The trees survived a 1908 earthquake and tsunami which destroyed much of the surrounding area, including Reggio, whose classical buildings have long since been rebuilt and whose nickname is the City of Bergamot.
All along the coast, into the foothills of the Aspromonte Mountains, you can see the ubiquitous fruit. The small trees grow along narrow roadways, in walled home gardens, in tiny groves and in larger plantations. Getting oil out of the rind – it takes about 200 kilograms of fruit for one kg of oil – has been going on here since the mid-18th century, and in its heyday in the 1960s bergamot growers could make a very good living. My wife's grandparents, too, grew bergamot in Pellaro, a town just south of Reggio.
But, then, cheap synthetics started taking over, bergamot groves were abandoned or paved over in the rush to urbanize. The industry hung on by its fingertips, supported by passionate locals who believed bergamot would again be known as the green gold of Calabria. With the help of the Consorzio del Bergamotto, a co-operative of all those involved in bergamot production, a worldwide interest in organics and even research that bergamot juice may lower cholesterol, there's much local hope that the bergamot will again fulfill its historical legacy.
Though there are no official tours of bergamot groves, if you're intrepid, the local tourist office or hotel can find you a taxi driver who can take you to see one. And if you come to Reggio, you can drop by La Bergamotteria, a shop on Via Torrione, just a few steps up from the pedestrian-only Corso Garibaldi shopping strip and venue for the daily evening passeggiata, or stroll. There, you can buy all kinds of items (liqueur, candies, soaps and honey derived from the bergamot) and the owner, Edoardo Sergi, is likely to pull out an album of historical photos of bergamot oil production, such as the mechanical device invented locally to squeeze the oil from the rind.
A few minutes down to the seafront will take you to the wide, graceful esplanade, described by the Italian poet Gabriele d'Annunzio as the "finest kilometre in Italy." The boulevard contains a parallel botanical garden with tropical plants and India rubber trees that are nearly a century old.
From here, on a clear day, you can see Sicily's Mount Etna, whose sporadic eruptions of ash have yet to snuff out the bergamot, which locals believe is a special gift from God.