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Travel review: Tropea

by Kenny Maciver
Travel review: Tropea
Friary-turned-hotel Villa Paola

Overlooking the clifftop town of Tropea, a former friary blends understated luxury with Calabria’s unique cuisine. 

The patron saint of Calabria, the 15th-century friar Francesco di Paola, is reputedly one of the first people to recognise the benefits of a simple, plant-based Mediterranean diet. He founded the Order of Minims to champion a minimalist lifestyle, and they built a monastery on a rocky promontory just outside the medieval clifftop town of Tropea. There, a group of his vegan followers dined frugally on produce they cultivated on the hillside terraces below. It’s an ethos that has been embraced by the exclusive Villa Paola hotel and its De’ Minimi restaurant that now graces the monastery’s atmospheric cloisters.

Stepping into the hotel’s citrus-tree-filled courtyard after a short transfer from Lamezia Terme airport is like slipping back in time, albeit with signs of more luxury than the ascetic friars would have known. We take in the stunning view of Tropea’s ancient townhouses, which seemingly grow organically from a cliff that juts into the Tyrrhenian Sea. Some observers regard this Costa degli Dei (the Coast of the Gods) as an undiscovered Amalfi. But the Tropeans will have none of that. Its beaches are better, sea a more translucent azure, and cuisine more adventurist – as we are about to find out. After checking into our spacious cloister room (one of only 12) with views overlooking wildflower meadows, we are invited to sample the De’ Minimi restaurant’s ‘Streetissimi’ lunch menu. Behind the Anglo/Italian wordplay is an imaginative take on Calabrian street food that perfectly reflects the lean-but-flavour-forward style of the hotel.

Delivery of the region's famous red onions. Image: Getty
Delivery of the region's famous red onions. Image: Getty

Sitting beneath the Villa’s giant maritime pine tree, we are served a creative mix of shared plates: stuffed lestopitta, a taco-like Calabrian bread that is stuffed with creamy stracciatella cheese and shavings of octopus carpaccio; frisella rusks topped with silky anchovies, olives, chicory leaves and local mozzarella; and morzello, a classic Calabrian stew featuring veal heart and tripe in a rich tomato sauce. It’s also our first of many weekend encounters with Tropea’s world-famous red onions. Fresh from the Villa’s own fields, they add a purple caramel topping to a bright yellow frittata. It’s something to do with the composition of the sandy soil and the ancient variety of onion, we are told, that makes ‘Calabria’s red gold’ so unique. Raw, they are fragrant and luscious, with no hint of bitterness or acidity that stings your eyes. You can bite into one like an apple; you can serve them straight onto bruschetta; or, if you’re brave, you can even try the local red-onion-flavoured ice cream.

Following a post-lunch pausa and a swim in the hotel’s bijou infinity pool, we wind along the road to Tropea. A wander round its ancient streets shows the faded wealth of this fortress town. Its back streets are a labyrinth of crumbling but still majestic palaces and hidden churches. They also present an opportunity for some great – and inexpensive – gourmet shopping: a big bunch of red onions (of course) but also a pair of frightening looking salamis and 100% natural liquorice (another locally harvested delicacy).

The hotel’s small but perfectly formed infinity pool
The hotel’s small but perfectly formed infinity pool

Calabria – and specifically the mountain of Spilinga above Tropea – is also the home of ’nduja, the fiery and rich spreadable sausage that has gone from unknown ingredient to cook’s essential in a few short years. Spoilt with the abundance of choice in a local salumeria, we go wild and buy four different makes. Feeling we are not quite adhering to the minimalist ethos of the Villa’s former residents, the next day we decide it is time to for some healthier activity. The hotel team arranges for us to visit the Thalasso Spa at the Villa’s sister resort at nearby Capo Vaticano beach. Indoors, we swim in a warm pool that stretches out into the sand dunes, restoring our equilibrium before we take up the offer for a relaxing massage. After lunch, it is time for more exercise. A brisk tour of Tropea with guide Antonio reveals areas and details we had barely noticed: broken-down renaissance palaces, ancient community ovens, tiny alleyways designed to let only the leanest residents pass and ancient stone-carvings above doorways showing the gruesome fate that invaders could expect.

We return to Villa Paola and pay a quick visit to its adjoining church, the Sanctuary of Saint Francesco di Paola with its frescoed ceilings and bright eggshell walls. But our (not altogether minimalist) thoughts are already turning to the evening and the renowned tasting menu at Villa Paola’s De’ Minimi restaurant, which has earned it a listing in the Michelin guide. Chef Emanuele Pucci’s focus is on the best Calabrian ingredients: local, ecological and seasonal. That echoes right across the seven courses and perfectly paired wines that feature stunning Calabrian grape varietals that sadly never seem to leave the region – gaglioppo, magliocco, greco nero, greco di bianco. The first highlight of the tasting menu is a red mullet that has been aged for two weeks in a dry freezer to give it a distinctly nutty flavour before it is pan fried. Sitting alongside is a long carrot that has been coated in a sauce of tomatoes and sweet pepper and cooked directly on charcoal and served with a tangy béarnaise sauce.

Following on, a risotto made from Sibari rice – another local gastronomic star – is accompanied by a rich vegetable jus extracted and reduced over 48 hours to produce a punchy umami favour. Sprinkled on top are cubes of pancetta of black pig from Calabria’s wild La Sila mountain plateau. To finish on a savoury high, we are offered a fillet of beef from the indigenous oxen-like podolica breed, served with half a Tropea onion on a pool of cheese fondue made with the ultimate caciocavallo cheese from Croce di Magara. As we head back to our room with the prospect of a flight to catch the next morning, the thinking is now not so much of minimalism but of how the charms of Calabria are under-celebrated. Though Villa Paola with its matchless coastal setting, mindful luxury and captivating cuisine is playing a big part in changing that.

How to book

Villa Paola is open late-March to early- November with rooms starting at £285 per night based on two people sharing on a B&B basis. The five-course tasting menu at Di’ Minimi restaurant costs €95 per person. Visit

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