Looking back over these images and remembering our time in Italy makes my heart ache. That feeling of longing reminds me that these moments were the highlight of our whole year. Just a small bag of belongings, a train ticket in my pocket, map of the coast and open itinerary. We had finally settled so comfortably into travelling that we were choosing where to lay our heads to sleep at night just a day or so in advance.
We picked Scalea on a whim. We knew nothing about the town, just a tiny dot on the map, barely any reviews or images to tell us what we would find there. I knew I wanted somewhere small, ocean side, with a crumbling old town centre and an affordable apartment we could have all to ourselves. We bypassed popular tourists towns (mostly due to cost and we were tired of crowds), and instead settled on Scalea purely by chance, getting accepted for an airbnb apartment at a moments notice. Seven sleeps in this sleepy little town, and I didn’t know just how much of a treat we were in for.
The apartment we chose to stay in was part of a complex just on the outside of town. The owner was Russian, and the apartment was his Italian holiday home. The pictures showed a lavish hotel style apartment, a little out-dated but with a big pool, small gym, front desk reception and large gardens. We were told a shuttle bus would pick us up from the train station, and we could request it anytime we like to go into town if we didn’t feel like walking down the hill. It sounded like a paradise, and a standard of accomodation we hadn’t treated ourselves to in a long time (oh and for $28 a night??).
Fast forward to disembarking the train in the little town of Scalea, gathering our belongings and waiting curb-side for our shuttle ride. Minutes began to slip by and sweat gather on my forehead in the mid-day sun. We laughed and joked of the possibility of it all being a hoax… the idea would have terrified me months earlier but now I felt comfortable facing a crisis.
I heard it before I saw it. An old, beat up mini van with the name of the apartment complex painted on the side in faded, sprawled text. I shot Martin a smirk. This definitely didn’t look like the modern shuttle of the photos. We threw our bags in the back, said hello to the driver (who in typical Italian style didn’t speak a single word of English), and jumped in. The seats were ripped and sand covered the floor.
It only took us a few minutes to reach the apartment complex. The gate was locked so the driver hopped out to open it. So far so good. It did seemed to exist and looked relatively like the photos, but most of the outdoor shutters on the windows were drawn, and not a single car was parked in the carpark. Our driver silently helped us with our bags and walked us inside. It was deserted, the front desk empty, hallway lights switched off. This friendly but silent driver took us up the stairs, to a door and pointed at the number handing us the keys, and left. We were alone and it was dead quiet. At this point I burst into laughter, the whole situation was so bizarre. We let ourselves into the apartment and thank goodness it looked like the photos. Small, quaint, 80’s but homey. Just a little lounge room, cooktop, seperate bedroom and bathroom with washing machine! Oh and a balcony with the most magnificent view of the ocean.
We dropped our stuff and left to explore our new home. The reception entrance was sparse, just an empty desk and a noticeboard with every notice written in either Russian or Italian, barely any english. We snuck quietly down corridors listening for the sounds of other people, we heard nothing. Next we explored the grounds, carefully mowed lawn, the pool was immaculate, no splash marks the pavement to suggest someone had swam anytime recently. The pool chairs neatly organised in rows, gym equipment clean and untouched. It was the middle of the day, in the warmth of the end of summer, in a hotel that could sleep hundreds and it appeared we were the only ones here. We had officially arrived to the Italian version of The Grand Budapest Hotel.
If Italy had taught me anything by now, it was to always expect the unexpected. That first night in our new home we were so exhausted we didn’t leave our cosy little apartment. We cooked pasta (luckily we had thought ahead and packed a bag of spaghetti and jar of sauce in our backpack), watched a movie on the laptop and had an early night sleeps.
The next morning there was a russian lady on reception who smiled at us. She was the first person we had seen other than our silent driver, and she would be the only person we would meet in the hotel. We were too shy to ask about the shuttle… so we put our bathers on, packed a day bag and set off on an adventure into town.
We quickly learnt that the sleepy town of Scalea was deserted. Just those locals who stay on through the winter months, as summer was coming to a close and the tourists had moved on again. The beach restaurants and resorts were shut, so we had the whole pebbled beach to ourselves. We swam every single day, making the half an hour journey down the hill, dipping our bodies into the crystal clear waters chasing fish with goggles on. Then lying in the sun until dry to do it all over again. We’d stop by the shop after siesta to grab ingredients to cook delicious dinners at the apartment, and sometimes even grab a fresh pastry or two from the bakery on the corner. One night we ate the most delicious pizza in a big restaurant and we were the only two in there. We had the town to ourselves.
One day we decided to go on an adventure. I’d read of a magical archway to the ocean in the next town over, but working out the logistics of buses or trains was complicated. Why not walk? Google predicted a one and a half hour walk to the arch. Of course we didn’t take into account that we would be hiking up and down hills, through fields in the middle of no where. It was hot and we quickly were exhausted, but I wouldn’t give up. We made it to the town, and weaved our way through the streets towards the ocean. A stray dog took notice of Martin, the two became thick as thieves instantly. We gave him pats, a drink of water and before we knew it we now had a friend following us to the beach.
To this day, I think it was is the most beautiful place I have ever seen. To get there we hiked along the cliffs edge, scaled what felt like mountains, narrowly escaped a snake, and all with our new canine friend by our side. When we finally reached the arch, we climbed directly over it to reach the shores below. We gave the dog a drink from our water bottles and he decided it was a good time for a snooze. Martin and I both felt equally as exhausted but eased our sore feet in the azure waters of the bay. It’s something I’ll never, ever forget, Arcomagno.
Even though the pup didn’t feel like the hike home at the end of the day, we convinced him to come with us and brought him back to his street. He followed us closely in town, and it broke my heart to think we had to leave him behind. It was a beautiful place, he seemed healthy and well fed. Luckily as soon as he saw his lady dog friend he decided to part ways with us.
We stopped to buy dinner supplies and started the long trek home through the mountains and in the soft rain.
Scalea, place of my dreams, and forever in my heart.