Calabria is brimming with reminders of its warrior past, not least of which are the powerful walls of its castles dotted along the coast and further inland. These fortifications were originally designed to defend the area against frequent foreign invasions but are now appreciated for their outstanding architecture and beauty.
The region’s Byzantine and medieval castles are steeped in history and culture but are also closely intertwined with fascinating myths and legends that are hidden in the stones of these ancient buildings. Calabria’s castles are the artistic and historical legacy of a fiercely proud population. In the past, they majestically defended the cliffs and are now a characteristic feature of their surrounding landscapes.
From a practical perspective, the castles of the Alto Ionio offered refuge to populations fleeing overseas pirates. They also played a pivotal role in developing the region’s culture during periods of great historical turmoil.
Considered the gateway to Calabria, Rocca Imperiale is one of the most picturesque medieval villages in the whole region.
It is no surprise, then, that in 2018 it was named one of the most beautiful villages in Italy.
The beauty of its surrounding landscape and the sea combined with its architectural and historical heritage, its climate and convenient location between the Pollino National Park, the Plain of Sibari and the Metapontino area are all features that make Rocca Imperiale one of Calabria’s most popular tourist destinations.
The imposing Swabian Castle of Rocca Imperiale is perched on top of the hill along which the town extends. The fortress was built by Frederick II of Swabia who was also known as Stupor Mundi on account of his charismatic personality that contributed to his mythical aura. This alluring duke was behind the construction or renovation of as many as 200 castles in Southern Italy for defensive purposes.
The Castle was built in a place of great military and strategic importance and offered views over the entire Gulf of Taranto. The construction of the castle led to the development of the town centre which soon became populated by communities that moved there from nearby fortified settlements.
Over the course of the following two centuries, the town, which was constantly torn about by barbarian raids, was ruled by many different feudal lords. Unfortunately, in 1664 the castle was attacked by 4000 Saracen pirates who devastated Rocca. The thirteenth-century church in the historic centre was destroyed and only its beautiful Romanesque bell tower embellished with mullioned windows and cornices still exists today.
In 1989, the last remaining descendants of the family that owned the castle decided to donate it to the town of Rocca Imperiale.
One of the colonies of the ancient city of Sybaris, Roseto Capo Spulico was named after the area’s flourishing rose industry, whose petals were used to fill the pillows of sybarite princesses.
Thanks to its enchanting sea, unspoilt nature, and various regional policies that have positively impacted the town, Roseto has become one of the most popular tourist destinations in Calabria.
And it's clear to see why: the town offers breath-taking scenery, a crystal clear sea, a temperate climate and unparalleled natural beauty. Roseto has won the coveted Green Flag award on numerous occasions on account of its attention and dedication to nature, the sea, agri-food production and environmental sustainability, as demonstrated by a series of policies to raise awareness and differentiate waste.
The Federiciano Castle of Roseto Capo Spulico is undoubtedly one of Calabria’s most iconic monuments and is known throughout the world.
Brimming with history, this magical and mysterious building was a sacred place for the Emperor and, over the years, was used as a defensive outpost, military garrison and templars’ castle.
The Castrum Roseti (Roseto Castle) and its surrounding walls were built under the reign of Robert Guiscard.
It was originally built as a self-sufficient castle equipped with stables, prisons, a water cistern and rooms serving as the feudal lord’s residence.
The castle epitomises Frederick's architectural style, but among the ancient stones and sunny courtyards you are sure to notice marks left by the Templars. For instance, the alchemical templars’ coats of arms, including the "Rose" and the "Lilies", decorate the entrance arch of the defensive walls. Furthermore, the layout of the castle seems to be heavily influenced by the Temple of Jerusalem.
Many believe that the Holy Shroud and the Holy Veil were being kept in Roseto Castle when they were thought to be missing. After the Crusaders looted Byzantium in 1204, the relics were forgotten about until 1356, when the shroud reappeared in a French church. It was then sent to Turin.
According to research carried out by a direct descendant of Frederick II and endorsed by expert sindonologists, the emperor came into possession of the relics when he inherited them directly from his grandfather, Frederick Barbarossa. He took them with him on his travels, including to the Castle of Roseto, only to lose them again during the massacre of Parma in 1248.
Today the Castle is the site of the Town Hall of Roseto Capo Spulico and the Ethnographic Museum of Peasant Civilization where you can discover fascinating information about the origins of the local inhabitants.
Oriolo, situated at the foot of the Pollino, is an ancient town that developed around the recently renovated Aragonese Castle.
Many believe that the ancient town of Kàstron Orzoulon, the former name for Oriolo, was one of the twenty-five towns ruled by the powerful city of Sybaris in its glory days. If this is true, we can be certain that Oriolo is very ancient indeed.
Like many other Calabrian villages, Oriolo was created as a fortress to defend the communities fleeing from the coastal Saracen attacks. The town has a seventeenth-century urban layout and features many stately palazzos overlooking the main street, which crosses the entire town and connects the feudal lord's residence to the fifteenth-century walls.
The quadrangular, Aragonese-style castle was originally a fiefdom of the Sanseverino family from Salerno. In the 16th century, it then became the marquisate of the Pignone del Carretto family. If you look closely, above the entrance of the fortress you will be able to see the family coat of arms displaying five pinecones (pignone).
The Sanseverino family castle was recently restored but maintains its old structure with two watchtowers and a keep.
The PGI Lemon, cultivated for centuries in the territory of Rocca Imperiale, is known locally as Antico (old) or Nostrano di Rocca Imperiale (ours of Rocco Imperiale).
The fruit of this intensely yellow lemon has an extraordinary aroma that sets it apart from the rest.
According to a scientific analysis, this particular lemon variety contains a high concentration of limonene and precious natural essences of essential oils with distinct aromas. During the year, the Lemon of Rocca Imperiale produces three distinct varieties from three different blooms: Primofiore (harvested from May to July), or Maiolino (harvested from May to July) and Verdello (harvested from August to October).
However, Roseto’s undisputed queen of fruits which, in 2016, was crowned as Italy’s most most beautiful fruit, is the cherry.
One of the nation’s favourite fruits, the irresistible De. CO. (controlled designation of origin) Roseto Cherry is the region's product par excellence and boasts a completely unique flavour and a disarming beauty. Now a protagonist of the local cuisine, it has earned itself a place in delicious first courses, such as maccheroncini with clams and De.Co. Cherries. It is also a key ingredient in many main courses and, of course, in desserts and jams.
Among Oriolo’s numerous gastronomic specialities, the Taralli, a type crumbly savoury biscuit with a strong wild fennel flavour, particularly stand out. The taralli di Oriolo are prepared from a mixture of soft wheat flour, white wine, extra virgin olive oil, eggs, salt and local wild fennel seeds. They are boiled in water before being baked in a wood-fired oven.