Destination - Scilla, Reggio Calabria

The Pearl of the Costa Viola


Mythical.. charming.. picturesque.. quaint yet vibrant.. these words came to mind when I first visited Scilla one evening back in 1988 (and reiterated more recently during a visit a few months ago), it was love at first sight. One could immediately guess that it had many stories to tell.

Stunningly located on the Costa Viola in the Calabria region of Italy in the Province of Reggio Calabria, this pretty little fishing village is straight out of myths and bears a history that stretches back thousands of years. Its mysterious origins have, in fact, made Scilla an irresistible subject for writers throughout its existence. One writer eloquently wrote “Once charming and regal, Scilla casts a powerful spell, a kind of enchantment which gradually creeps into the depths of the onlooker inducing him to dream.”

Scilla is a village full of evocative fascination whose origins are lost in the mists of time, a true blend of mythology, history, legends and poetic illustrations that merge into a distant past rich in character and charm. This picturesque village has been described by the likes of Homer in the Odyssey, Ovid and Virgil and owes its name to the legendary sea monster Scylla, entwined around countless myths.
In Homer’s Odyssey, when Ulysses began his perilous journey home, he had to cross a stormy strait. On one side was Charybdis, a sea monster which bore a single gaping mouth that swallowed huge quantities of water, and belched them out three times a day, creating whirlpools. On the other side, Scylla, the seven headed beast slumbering at the foot of the steep cliff. Any vessel coming near the whirlpool was inevitably engulfed. They were said to be located close enough to each other so as to pose an inescapable threat to passing sailors; avoiding Charybdis meant passing too closely to Scylla and vice versa. Ulyssis is located in the Straits of Messina, Charybdis in Sicily and Scylla in Scilla.

The earthquake in 1783 destroyed most of Scilla and Calabria. Entire families were wiped out, buildings, bridges and the fortifications of the castle also destroyed. Whatever was left standing was then damaged and cancelled by the 1908 earthquake. The French took over Scilla in 1806, but were soon driven out by the British, but this was to be short-lived as in 1808 the French forced the British to evacuate the castle.

The 43 sq. km village can easily be explored on foot. It is made up of three districts: the beach resort of the Marina Grande, the castle and administrative centre, also the main residential area, boasting beautiful views known as San Giorgio and the picturesque fisherman’s district known as Chianalea.

The beach front, known as the Marina Grande, is the main attraction of this small village. This part is fairly modern, with a cheerful seaside atmosphere lined with bars and restaurants. It is generally bustled with seaside holidaymakers and locals during the summer months. One other attraction worth a visit is the fifteenth century Chiesa di Santo Spirito, located just beneath the Castello Ruffo, built in 1752 by devout sailors who came to Scilla during the eighteenth century. Here one can appreciate, various colourful marble works as well as the masterpiece of Francesco Celebrano, the descent of the Holy Spirit.

Spread out on the plateau above sea level is the central part of the village known as San Giorgio. San Giorgio is home to the famous Castello Ruffo, the Church of San Rocco, the patron saint of the city, overlooking the Piazza San Rocco which offers breathtaking views of the Marina Grande and other parts of the village. Perched on a promontory jutting out over the Straits of Messina and overlooking the azure waters of the sea is the imposing Ruffo castle, an old fortification built for military purposes then converted into a residential property in 1532 by Count Paolo Ruffo who resided in the castle for a number of years. This castle plays an important role in the history of Scilla and is considered by many to be the most beautiful castle in Scilla, not for its structure but for its historical and mythological significance. It has long been the emblem of the town and although myth states that its origins date back to Ulysses who built the oldest part of the fortification as a temple in honour of Minerva, its first foundations date back to the fifth century BC during Anasilla’s tyranny but it was built between the ninth and eleventh century AD. The earthquake in 1783 did not spare the castle but was restored in 1810. However another strong earthquake in 1908 destroyed most of the old structure. At various times this location has been a fortress, a home, a lighthouse, a monastery and, most recently, a youth hostel. It is currently a Cultural centre and holds a number of photography and painting exhibitions and sculpture symposiums. There is also a permanent exhibition of the luntre, only remaining ancient ship, once used for hunting swordfish.

The Church of San Rocco was built in 1424 to celebrate the end of the Plague but its first construction was destroyed by the 1783 earthquake. It was rebuilt only to be destroyed once more by the 1908 earthquake. San Rocco is the patron saint of the town. He came to Scilla during an epidemic of plague, tended to the sick and is said to have affected many miraculous cures by prayer and the sign of the cross and the touch of his hand. This church overlooks the piazza from where one can enjoy scenic views of the town, castle and the Marina Grande.

Squeezed between the waves and the main road below the cliffs with only one principal lane running along its length, Chianalea is a charming little fishermen’s settlement with cobblestone streets and an atmosphere all of its own. Nestled into a narrow strip of land, this little historical district is lined with tiny cramped houses built right against the sea, separated from each other by small alleys with waves washing up to their walls and with little fishing boats drawn up on tiny slipways. Here one can while away time on a cafe terrace over the water or stroll out to see the boats in the harbour below the castle. This enchanting little village is listed as one of the most beautiful villages in Italy. At any time of day, fishermen can be seen sitting outside mending their nets or chatting with each other. Fishing for swordfish was in fact the base for the main economy of the suburb until a few years ago.

Getting there is easy as it is very conveniently on the railway line which travels through Italy’s Tyrrhenian coast and is only some 20km north of Reggio Calabria. It can also be reached fairly easily by car. Flights from Malta to Reggio Calabria are to resume once again shortly.

One cannot but fall in love with Scilla, with its beautiful beaches, historical charm, vibrant colours and Mediterranean flavours and fragrances. Along with its invariably helpful and friendly inhabitants, it offers a good mix of culture, history and good food.