With modern life increasingly dominated by technology, holidays are becoming one of the rare chances to spend time immersed in nature, when we can try to look at the world around us rather than computer screens.
Calabria, with its wild landscapes and panoramic views of the sea, is an ideal place to reestablish a connection with the natural, simple side of life and enjoy the vibrant colours of wild flowers and cacti while listening out to the sounds of insects, birds and animals.
One of the best places to experience the natural beauty of this southern Italian region is at Capo Colonna, a promontory known as Capo Lacinio in antiquity, which is about 13 km south of Crotone in eastern Calabria. This is the site of one of the most important sanctuaries in Magna Graecia, the area of southern Italy populated by Greek settlers from the eighth century. It was dedicated to the goddess Hera, wife of Zeus and queen of the gods, who was venerated here as the protector of women, as well as a type of Mother Nature, the protector of animals and of sea travel, and a sort of liberator.
A grand temple to Hera Lacinia stood on the site from around the fifth century BC. From their boats, sailors would have had a view of the eastern side of the temple and its six columns. Unfortunately, it was demolished in the 16th century AD so its materials could be used for the construction of various buildings in Crotone. The sanctuary was further pillaged in the 18th century.
Nowadays all that remains of the temple is one single Doric column, measuring 8.35 metres in height. Nevertheless, the surrounding land and views of the sea still reflect the sacred nature of this site that may have originally inspired the idea for a sanctuary here.
Before heading to Capo Colonna, visitors to the area can discover more about its fascinating stories at the Archaeological Museum in Crotone. Excavations begun by the archaeologist Paolo Orsi in 1910 uncovered a treasure trove of gold, silver and bronze votive offerings to the goddess, which provide insight into the people and traditions of the time.
The most outstanding piece is a glistening gold diadem, or tiara, shaped out of a band of gold leaf and decorated with both a braid pattern and foliage garland. It is believed to have undergone two phases of work between the sixth and fifth centuries BC, and likely crowned a representation of Hera within the sanctuary. Interestingly, coins used in Crotone from the fourth century portrayed a crowned head of Hera.
To this day, the diadem still maintains its golden glow and is quite a treat to stumble upon in the museum.
The gifts left to Hera that were found in the sanctuary also include a set of intriguing bronze ornaments that are sculpted into three female mythological figures: the Siren, the Seated Sphinx, and the Winged Gorgon.
A Siren was one of several sea nymphs in classical mythology, which was part-woman and part-bird. They seduced seamen and lured them to shipwreck. The bronze siren found in the sanctuary of Hera dates to the middle of the sixth century BC.
The Sphinx was a winged monster in mythology, with a woman’s head and a lion’s body. She would kill anyone who was unable to answer her riddle. The Sphinx found here probably once adorned a container such as a cauldron and is dated to around 540 BC.
The Winged Gorgon, which dates to a similar time, is an especially interesting and unique piece. It is running to the left and grinning while sticking its tongue out, a pose associated with this female creature of the underworld.
Among other fascinating offerings left to the goddess, I found a bronze ship linked to the ancient Nuragic civilization of Sardinia, made in the seventh century BC. This ornament, depicting a typical Sardinian ship, portrays two carts drawn by a pair of oxen on both sides, and two doves on flagpoles. It is the first of its kind discovered in southern Italy and highlights the importance of the sanctuary of Hera, to which someone felt compelled to donate such a beautiful and rare gift.
This sculpture of a horse was also found, one of the first discovered in Calabria which resembles the Greek geometric style. Dating to the 7th century BC, it points to close and regular relations between the sanctuary of Hera and other sanctuaries in Greece.
Centres of worship such as the sanctuary of Hera developed on the edges of the settlement of Crotone, one of the most important cities in Magna Graecia, and were considered signs of divine protection. Religious sanctuaries were focal points for local inhabitants and became a meeting place for Greek travellers and indigenous people.
In the near-by museum on the site of Capo Colonna, there are further remains of the temple to see, such as this female head, discovered in 1972, which was probably from a sculpture on its roof.
The natural area around the temple was viewed as a sacred forest, according to several ancient accounts. Since a plan was launched in the 1980s to turn the area into a protected archeological park, a new group of trees have been planted along the road towards the sanctuary. The surroundings are covered in wild poppies and other bright flowers, which create wonderful contrasts with the azure and turquoise waters of the sea.
Here is how Nossis, the ancient Greek poet from Locri (circa 300 BC) described a gift to Hera of a piece of linen woven by her mother, a common custom among noble families of the time:
“Most reverend Hera, you who often descending from heaven
Behold your Lacinian shrine fragrant with incense,
receive the linen wrap that with her noble child Nossis
Theophilis daughter of Cleocha wove for you.”
“The temple of Hera Lacinia was about six miles away from the city (of Crotone) and was more famous than the town itself, revered by all the people of the neighbourhood. It had an enclosure surrounded by dense forests and tall firs and in the centre, grassland on which all types of animals sacred to the goddess grazed, without any shepherds. At night each herd would return separately to its own stalls, unharmed by wild beasts or the dishonesty of men. As a result a great deal of money could be made and from the profits a massive golden column was built and consecrated to the goddess. The temple was as famous for its wealth as for its sanctity. Several miracles are told that are comparable to the fame of the site: it was noted that the altar is in the entrance court and its ashes are never stirred by the wind.”