Le Castella: a pearl in the turquoise waters of the Ionian Sea

Several of my Calabrian friends had told me about Le Castella, south of Crotone, long before I came to visit. I had looked at pictures of the castle here on its peninsula jutting out into the blue seas, an enticing sight that drew me to this place. But the photos did not compare to actually seeing it in reality for the first time: the combination of the castle, the wild flowers and plants on the coastline, and the waves of the turquoise waters of the Ionian Sea lapping against the rocks made me see a truly magical side to the world.

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Le Castella’s history stretches back to ancient times, and is connected to several myths and legends. Its name, meaning “castles” in the plural sense, has interested historians and writers for centuries.

In the 12th century it was noted in the plural form in the Book of Roger, a description of the world by Arab geographer Muhammad al-Idrisi. Then in the 15th century it was referred to as “castles in the sea”. One possible explanation for the plural name was the existence of some fortified little islands which used to be found in the bay, according to historical records, though they have since disappeared.

Roman author Pliny the Elder (23 AD- 79 AD) wrote about these little islands in his Natural History encyclopedic work, giving them names including Dioscuri, and Calypso. The latter is interesting because it has been linked to the legendary island of Ogygia in Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey, where the goddess Calypso kept the hero Odysseus as her lover. Many places, including Gozo in the Maltese archipelago, claim that they are the true location of this island, but I could perfectly imagine the idyllic world of this goddess being around this part of Calabria

Here is a wonderful depiction of Odysseus in Calypso’s grotto on Ogygia by Flemish painter Jan Brueghel the Elder (painted around 1616):

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In Greek mythology, Calypso was a nereid, or sea goddess, whose name means “the concealer” or the one who hides things. According to Homer’s account, she was the daughter  of Atlas, the god of endurance and astronomy.  She was banished by the gods to Ogygia island, where she welcomed in Odysseus after he lost his ship and his army to the monsters of Scilla and Charybdis in the Straits of Messina.

Calypso fell in love with Odysseus and hoped to make him her immortal husband. But after a while the hero wanted to return home to the island of Ithaca and his wife Penelope. The Swiss painter Arnold Boecklin depicts the relationship between Calypso and Odysseus in the piece below painted in 1883.

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I have long been fond of Boecklin’s paintings, which I discovered as a teenager when I lived for a while in Basel, his hometown. I had this picture in a set of postcards I bought from the Basel Kunstmuseum. I did not know the story at the time but I remember being fascinated by it. Looking at it again after learning the background, I recognised the deep sorrow in the painting. On one side Odysseus is a dark figure looking out to sea, reflecting the exile’s longing for home. But on the other side, it seems to me that poor Calypso, who tries to enchant Odysseus by singing and weaving on her golden loom, has realised that her spell is not working anymore and her hero wants to leave her.

Calypso managed to keep Odysseus in her beautiful cave-home for seven years, according to the myths. But eventually the gods ordered her to let him leave and she does so, reluctantly, leaving her heartbroken.

Whether or not Homer had envisaged the island of Ogygia being in this area remains a mystery, but this would definitely be an appropriate location for Calypso’s enchanting island due to the natural beauty and mystical surroundings.

IMG_3459Pliny the Elder also wrote that Carthage military commander Hannibal built the first tower to defend himself against the Roman armies at Le Castella during the second Punic war, (218-202 BC).

The original structure of the present castle dates to the Angevin age in the second half of the thirteenth century. reflected in the cylindrical tower which dominates the fortress. It was not inhabited by noblemen or kings but was used by Aragonese soldiers as a refuge to defend themselves against regular Turkish and pirate attacks.

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The castle was likely the central point of a complex defense system on the coast. Its inner tower is lit by some windows which are called murderholes– small on the outside but bigger on the inside so that soldiers could watch out for enemies without being seen. Inside, you can see some of the stones used to fire from catapults, and you can even try to pick them up.

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A spiral staircase leads up through the tower. At the top you can look out at wonderful views of the surrounding bay.

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After we had toured the castle, we had to decide which of the many great restaurants in town we would try for lunch. We opted for Da Mimmo’s, where we enjoyed  some excellent fish dishes, including linguine with shrimps, mussels and clams.

In the afternoon we headed to the nearby beach, where we could carry on admiring wonderful views of the castle and the open seas, imagining this really was the place where Calypso enchanted Odysseus.

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