A heavily populated village of farmers and fishermen can be found on the narrow beaches between the Noce river and the rocky spurs of the Lao riv-er. Over the centuries, the ancient customs and traditions of the nearby na-tive fortress have stood the test of time.
The municipality of Praia a Mare is part of Pollino National Park, where ex-treme sports enthusiasts can try their hand at rafting and canoeing along the river Lao, one of Calabria’s major torrential waterways.
Dominating the coastal landscape is the island of Dino, located opposite Capo dell'Arena. This imposing rock spur, which is the natural habitat of pal-inuro primroses, one of the oldest protected species of Italian flora, is fa-mous for its picturesque caves including Grotta Azzurra, Grotta del Leone, Grotta delle Sarde, Grotta del Monaco, and Grotto delle Cascate.
In addition to its numerous seaside areas and natural points of interest, Praia a Mare is home to a variety of culturally and historically valuable mon-uments. The historic centre is where you will find the city’s major monuments includ-ing the Church of the Sacred Heart, the Church of Jesus Christ the Saviour, and the Church of Saint Paul the Apostle, with its refined lines and contem-porary style.
However, the most important place of worship in Praia a Mare is undoubted-ly the Santuario della Madonna della Grotta, which is named after the fact that it is contained inside a cave on the hillside. According to legend, in 1326 a Turkish vessel loaded with merchandise suddenly stopped near the Island of Dino. The superstitious sailors forced the Christian captain to get rid of the statue of the Madonna which was being kept on-board the ship. Howev-er, rather than tossing it overboard, the captain decided to abandon it on a large boulder on the shore, which is still an object of worship today. The statue was discovered by a young mute shepherd from Aieta, who, in order to announce it to the town, regained his ability to speak, thus becoming the first miracle of the Madonna della Grotta.
Since then, the Madonna has become the patron saint of the village and her statue is carried through the village in celebration during a three-day pro-cession (14, 15 and 16 August). On the 15 August, pilgrims flock to the sanctuary to ingratiate themselves with the Madonna. The Santuario della Madonna della Grotta houses many fascinating works of art, including a wooden icon on a gold background and the bell from an English steamship that torpedoed Dino Island in 1917.
Another breath-taking monument is the Torre di Fiuzzi (Fiuzzi Tower) which crowns the stack of the Fiuzzi cliff. At over 15 metres tall, it is one of the tall-est towers in the area and was used to defend the coast from Saracen at-tacks.
The 16th-century Fortress built by the Lords of Aieta is also particularly in-teresting and controlled Praia a Mare until the first few decades of the 20th century. Two further must-visit attractions are the ruins of the Norman castle and the municipal museum of contemporary art.
Dino Island (Isola di Dino) is the symbol of Praia a Mare and is the largest of only two islands in Calabria. The spur emerges majestically from the seabed in front of Capo Arena and has the shape of an enormous cetacean. The island is home to a wide variety of flora and fauna that are typical of the Mediterranean scrubland.
It is thought that the name of the island possibly derives from the Greek word "Dine", meaning vortex or storm, or from the island’s small temple (aedina) which was built by the Greeks. Some people believe the temple in question was dedicated to Venus, goddess of love, whereas others thought it was dedicated to Leucothea, protector goddess of sailors, or to the two Diskouri, Castor and Pollux.
On the western tip of the island stands a tower of Norman origin which was once used as a watchtower to protect the island against the numerous coastal invasions.
The island is brimming with natural caves containing stalactites and stalagmites and its seabed, 45 metres deep in places, is covered with a carpet of colourful gorgonians. In terms of the island’s caves, highlights include the Grotta delle Cascate (Cave of Waterfalls), named after the sound of the nearby cascading waterfalls; the famous Grotta Azzurra (Blue Cave), reminiscent of Capri; and the Grotta del Leone (Cave of the Lion), so called because of a rock immersed in the water that is shaped like a crouching lion.
Set in three rocky cavities at the foot of Mount Vingiolo, the Sanctuary can only be accessed via a ramp paved with sea pebbles, from which you can admire the entire Gulf of Policastro. It was most likely the Basilian monks who brought the statue of the Madonna here. However, due to a lack of reliable information, legend has it that superstitious Turkish sailors abandoned the statue.
In fact, the first cave houses the large rounded rock on which, according to legend, the statue was placed in 1326. In the largest cave, the floor is almost always wet due to the water that drips down from the vault. The right hand side features a white chapel whose altar is topped with a marble statue of the Madonna della Neve (Our Lady of the Snows). The third cave, illuminated by a natural opening, houses a rectangular chapel with a high altar base for the statue of the Madonna. The bell tower, the cloister, and the rectory were built just outside the caves.
The patronal festival commemorates the arrival of the Madonna at the caves of Mount Vingiolo on 14 August 1326. It is celebrated with an evocative procession at sea in which the statue of the Madonna is placed on a large boat, followed by other boats, and is transported around Dino Island before heading along the coast to moor at the beach. The procession continues towards the Sanctuary and onwards to Viale della Libertà to the Church of the Sacred Heart.
The Municipal Museum of Praia a Mare is located just a stone’s throw from the seafront and houses sections on Archaeology, Seashells, Photography, Contemporary Art, Calabrian Artists, Artists' Postcards, Sacred Art, and Ceramics, as well as a Library and Video Library.
The museum gives visitors an in-depth education on the evolution and growth of the man-artist in Calabria and on the Tyrrhenian coast of Cosenza.
The archaeology section presents the "The path of man” exhibition which showcases stone and ceramic artefacts found predominantly in the cave of Torre Nave and in the caves in which the Sanctuary is located. There are also small bronze and silver pieces of jewellery, and ceramics and pottery dating from the Bronze Age to the Imperial Roman period.
The museum’s contemporary art section displays works from the different fields of artistic experimentation, as well as sacred art with paintings depicting the places and images that evoke the Sanctuary. Of particular interest is the section on seashells which exhibits 300 specimens from all of the world’s seas. These were collected by a Roman enthusiast and then donated to the Museum.
The Contemporary Sacred Art Section houses 14 works depicting the Madonna and Child donated by 14 contemporary Italian artists.
The Tower stands on a stack about 15 metres high on the Fiuzzi cliff, just opposite Dino Island. Combined with other coastal towers, it constituted a defensive system along the coastal strip of the kingdom of Naples to defend it from frequent Saracen incursions and raids. It was linked to the watchtower on the western end of Dino Island and communicated with it in case of danger.
The castle can be found in Foresta on top of a spur facing the sea and is also known as Rocca di Praia or the Norman Castle.
Built at the time of Charles of Anjou, it was constructed to defend the coast from Aragonese and Saracen raids. It was subsequently adapted to its current design at the beginning of the 17th century. The plan is typical of a medieval castle, with its rectangular shape and two cylindrical corner towers connected by wide walls and topped with battlements.
This privately-owned castle boasts all the splendour of the past, which has been perfectly preserved over the centuries.