Southern Italy’s Calabria region boasts a whopping 15 villages that made the list of the “Most Beautiful Villages in Italy”. That’s impressive! Yet, you probably haven’t even heard of most of them. The village of Gerace (pronounced jayr-ah-chay) merits an article all to itself for many reasons which we are about to discover.
Where is Gerace?
Located in the Reggio Calabria province on the Ionian coastal side of the region, this area is definitely not as well known as the more popular (and often overcrowded) area of Tropea. Gerace is not considered a coastal town, although being that it is less than 10 km from the shores of the Ionian Sea, its views beg to differ. It also happens to be within the Aspromonte National Park that spans across central Calabria.
Its beautiful name derives from the Greek word for sparrowhawk (lerax) and legend has it that it was founded in 915 CE when the inhabitants of coastal Locri fled to the mountains during a Saracen raid. In fact, Gerace is perched upon a hill at an elevation of 500 m. Like so much of Italy, over the centuries it was populated by many including the Romans, Byzantines, Saracens, Normans, and the Kingdom of Naples among others. Its monuments bear testimony to these influences.
Today it is considered a medieval hamlet with less than 3,000 residents. It boasts the title of one of the “Most Beautiful Villages in Italy” and the prestigious orange flag of the Italian Touring Club. It has also declared its candidacy as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
What to See in Gerace
It’s known as the “City of 100 Churches” and rightly so because, before the 1700s, there were actually 128 of them. This number was reduced to just 43 and after the devastating earthquake of 1783, only 17 remained.
Hopefully, you’ll be able to dedicate your entire holiday to Gerace and the immediate area because there is an amazing amount of things to see. Here are the “musts”.
Beginning with its churches- incredibly, this little village holds the largest church in all of Calabria. The Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta is considered Byzantine-Normanesque-Romanesque because of the influences of all three. Pay close attention to its ancient columns which were brought from the temples of Locri. Built between the 11th and 12th centuries, it has undergone numerous repairs due to damage throughout the centuries. Constructed of local sandstone, its sheer enormity is impressive. The Cathedral also contains the Prison of the Five Martyrs of Gerace.
In the vicinity of the Cathedral, you’ll also want to visit the Civic Museum located within the Palazzo Tribuna.
The beautiful church of St. Francis of Assisi dates back to 1296. Its interior is spectacular with a Baroque altar. Another gem is the Byzantine Church of San Giovanni Crisostomo (aka San Giovannello) which dates back to the 10th century.
The Norman Castle
Another hallmark of the village is its castle. Records confirm that the castle definitely existed by the 10th century although it’s believed that the original castle dated back to the 7th century. The Byzantines destroyed it during their invasion in the 10th century and it was soon rebuilt by the Normans in 1050. For this reason, it is considered a Norman castle.
Of the many lovely squares, Piazza del Tocco is probably the most remarkable because it overlooks the noble palaces of Calcheopulo, Migliaccio, and Palazzo Macrì.
Ancient Traditions and Culture
You’ll notice the fine stone craftsmanship on many of the churches and buildings which is part of the ancient tradition of Gerace. Many of the shops still craft terracotta from the local tuff and beautiful ceramics of the southern Italian Maiolica tradition.
Festivals and customs are deeply religious and rooted in ancient traditions and occur during Easter, in July (Festa del Sacro Cuore and Madonna del Carmine) and in August for the Patron Saints Festival. Gerace is also famous for its street art festival, Borgo Incantato, which draws as many as 10,000 visitors every July.
Gerace’s cuisine, like much of Calabria, is made up of intense flavors that are deeply connected to the local agriculture. Pasta is still tirata, or literally hand-pulled, and topped with sauces ranging from goat meat to eggplant. Vegetable dishes are a distinct part of the tradition and include eggplant, peppers, chicory, and asparagus and are often served stuffed.
Flavors and aromas, especially in desserts, are noticeably different as compared to central and northern Italy and often include cinnamon, figs, cloves, almonds, walnuts, honey, and even chickpeas. Some of the “must-tastes” are le nocatule (doughnuts), le zeppole (also fried) and la pignolata (again, fried balls of dough). As you can see, this is not a place to be watching your weight!
Gerace is fairly well-connected via Reggio Calabria (closest major airport and train station) and from there, the regional train will connect to Locri (only 10 km from Gerace). Private auto is handy for getting around the surrounding area in total freedom and Gerace is located off of the A3 Salerno-Reggio Calabria motorway.
Article by Marie Contino