The deep south, toe-end region of Aspromonte is still considered by many Italians to be out of bounds. For it is here, among the thick forests, crenellated mountain peaks and tumbledown villages, that the n’drangheta, or Calabrian mafia, based their empire until the 1990s. The organisation had its origins in landless nineteenth-century peasant workers who stole livestock, and by the 1980s mafia means of extracting cash had extended to regular kidnappings of local businessmen, who would be held for ransom in the dense woodland of the mountain slopes. The glare of publicity eventually drove the various ringleaders out of villages such as San Luca, and still keeps many potential visitors away.
That means that the delights of this unexplored corner of Calabria can be seen without fear of stumbling across a mafia don or a coach party. The Pietra Cuppa, or “Valley of the Large Stone”, is known to locals as the Uluru of southern Italy. A vast behemoth of granite jutting out of the slopes on the Ionian Sea side of the mountains, local folklore insists that it’s possible to see six human faces in the surfaces of the rock. Elsewhere, endless mountain roads corkscrew their way around the area, occasionally opening up to reveal all-but-abandoned villages clinging to the sides of cliff faces. Many have succumbed to the effects of poverty and random rock falls to create incredible ghost towns. The population of the upper half of San Luca village vacated en masse in the early 1970s, leaving villas, churches, shop fronts and gardens to the forces of nature ever since. Now whole days can be passed exploring these remains.
Accommodation in the Aspromonte mountains is limited to a rustic cabin owned by local farmer Antonio Barca. Here, perched on top of a steep hill, miles from the nearest village, evenings are spent drinking homemade wine on the veranda and eating vast platefuls of polenta and lamb chops, cooked by Antonio’s wife Teresa.
Italy’s last undiscovered corner is several universes away from Venice and Versace. The national staples of natural beauty and political corruption still hold sway here, but the lack of visitors, the deserted winding roads and the thrill of being at the very bottom end of the country’s toe all contribute to this being a very different – and now completely safe – Italian experience.