I dream of travel, and when I dream of future travels I like to think of pockets: that small bit of space that holds something precious. And, for me, Italy has many precious pockets. This month’s pocket of Italy focus is Praia a Mare. A small town I was fortunate enough to live in for three weeks in September 2018.
For centuries this town was populated by fishermen, farmers and peasants. Agriculture is still big here, and tourism is growing. Yet, it remains a great off-the-beaten-path experience with spectacular scenery, delicious food, attractive and pleasant people.
Praia a Mare is one of those towns where the Italians go on vacation in August when shops and restaurants take their summer break. It’s a place for lingering and living like a local. It’s a magical place filled with natural wonder, legend and history.
Praia is an old European Portuguese word meaning “beach,” so a literal translation would be “beach at sea.”
This small commune resides in the province of Cosenza in the Calabria region of Italy. Think of it as the front ankle of the boot, where Bari would be the back ankle of the boot. (We’ll talk of Bari later.) Surrounded by water on three sides, Calabria boasts 500 miles of stunning coastline. The Tyrrhenian Sea laps the rugged shore of the west while the Ionian Sea bathes Calabria’s southern and eastern coasts.
Praia a Mare has six kilometers (almost 4 miles) of coastline along the Tyrrhenean Sea, much of it is pebbled sand (so wear your water shoes), but there are pockets of black sand that are simply divine. Also, water so crystal clear you can always see the seabed.
The town of Praia a Mare is included in the Pollino National Park of Basilicata, where extreme sport lovers can go rafting or whitewater canoeing along the nearby Lao river, one of the main torrential rivers in Calabria.
Praia a Mare’s main attraction is its 2-kilometer-long beach, which contains 50 lidos, with intermittent slivers of beach open free to the public during the summer months. Once the northern winds pick up speed in late September, leading to tropical windstorms that last a few days, one by one the lidos shut down - men coming to dismantle them until nothing remains but the sand and the sea.
Hotels, as well, start to close. Storm shutters come down and the street cafes close, but the town continues.
Gusts can go as high as 13 MPH in December, though the temperature remains in the 50s and low 60s. Praia has temperate weather year-round, ranging between 45 degrees and 88 degrees F.
At the southern end of the town, about 100 meters from shore sits Dino Island, a not-to-be-missed experience. The imposing rock spur, a World Heritage site about 3 kilometers long, is renowned for its sea caves that shoot underwater lights that illuminate the iridescent blue waters. Take a paddleboat or canoe out to Dino Island and discover those caves up close: Leone, Frontone, Sarde, Monaco, Cascate and the most known Grotta Azzurra - yes, Praia has its own Blue Grotto but this one you can row in by yourself. For experienced divers, the Grotto Gargiulo opens 60 feet below sea level and extends into the depths of the island for tens of feet.
You can rent small motorboats to surf the coastline but be careful to skirt the seaside of Dino Island since the southside area close to shore is reserved for swimmers. And paragliding is huge here. The view is breathtaking 600 meters above the sea, and a tandem flight is a must for a first timer.
At the beach’s southern extremity sits a medieval tower, built by Byzantine forces to guard the coast, on an outcropping of volcanic rock with a commanding view of the sea.
About 50 meters up the slopes of a mountain that rises precipitously above the town is another large cave, also carved by wave action several million years ago, inside of which sits the Santuario Diocesano Madonna della Grotto. The church and its open-air sanctuary are open to the public, and if you’re feeling spiritual be sure to take in the service or the incredible view of Praia laid out before you.
There are other sights to see and numerous things to do so be sure to ask me for suggestions.
Praia is easy to get to as it has its own train station where the Trenitalia stops. It’s a beautiful two-hour 40-minute regional train ride from Napoli Centrale to Praja-Ajeta-Tortora. Or you can hop on a bus or enjoy your own car ride. Driving in Praia is easier than in the bigger cities with plenty of places to park.
But once there, you don’t need a car, everything is accessible to you and walking is the best way to discover Praia and its people - every bar and restaurant welcomes you. Or discover the town by bike and take your morning expresso at an outside cafeé. The “viale” (Via L. Giugni) is a delightful place to take your evening “passegiata” under the tree-lined, traffic-free lane. Families stroll about each evening, sharing engaging conversation.
And Praia a Mare takes siesta seriously, everything closes between one and four pm. Take advantage of it, like I did. Relax on the beach with a dip in the sea, then head back to your apartment/villa/hotel for a “pistola” (nap) before showering and heading out for the night. The bars are open and each one offers a delightful aperitivo or espresso to start the evening off with a smile.
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W. Anne Jones
A curious explorer, learning and growing. Join me as I travel the world one day at a time.