Altomonte lies at the foot of the Pollino National Park, in a fold of the mountains of northern Calabria. It is one of the most charming villages of the province of Cosenza, and is well-known throughout Italy for its notable artistic-cultural heritage, making it one of the most important artistic centres in the region.
The town is partly in the plain, lapped by the Rivers Esaro, Grondi and Fiumicello, and partly in the hills, where the climate is wonderful and there is an extensive panorama through to the Sibari plain and the Ionian Sea.
Place of encounters and contaminations, between the oriental vein and the derivations of the Arbëreshe ethnic group.
Altomonte is in a central position and so is a place of meetings and contaminations with an oriental vein, demonstrated by the persistence of Greek rituals, the Arab-originated urban layout, and the Arbëreshë, i.e. the Albanians of Italy, who have maintained their language and traditions despite being fully integrated for centuries.
The town was built on an existing fortified nucleus and still has a mediaeval setting with old houses with stone doorways, the work of famous local stonecutters of the 17th-19th centuries. The centre is full of churches and monuments of great artistic and architectural value which make the town the best example of Gothic-Angevin art in Calabria. The Church of S. Maria della Consolazione, with a magnificent doorway, a large rose window made up of small arches arranged in a wheel and the elegant mullioned window of the massive bell tower, is in the upper part of the built-up area. A monastery founded by the Dominicans in the 15th century is annexed to the church. Today, this houses the Civic Museum, full of fine sculptures and paintings, including masterpieces by Simone Martini and Bernardo Daddi, which have led to Altomonte being described as a sort of island of 14th Tuscan art in Calabria. The museum also hosts a sophisticated collection of old sacred paraments and another of choral books illuminated by the Dominicans. The Castle of Norman origin is definitely worth a visit. It was extended and restored several times by the successive lords but has maintained its original layout. There are many palaces in the old centre full of charm and culture including Palazzo Giacobini, home of the old hospital, as the place where pilgrims stayed was called; today, it is a reception and conference centre. The Belluscio Theatre, where prestigious national and international events are held, is worthy of separate mention. The ‘Belluscio’ is an open-air scenic space, cradled in the folds of the old centre of Altomonte.
There are other surprises here. It’s not unusual to see women sitting in the doorway to their homes, peeling wild cardoons gathered in the countryside. The air in the old centre is full of a mix of scents from the kitchens, the legacy of a flavour-filled peasant culture with ancient Phoenician roots, still alive today and perpetuated on the tables of each house in the village and the trattorias and restaurants offering the most genuine dishes of the local cuisine.
The Bread Festival
The Great Bread Festival is held in the streets of the old centre in May. This is one of the most eagerly-awaited dates in Altomonte’s cultural and tourist calendar. There are many stands of local producers, representatives of towns belonging to the Associazione Città del Pane (Association of Bread Towns), towns in the Most Beautiful Villages of Italy ranking and Slow Cities displaying and offering tastes of specialities and quality products. Altomonte Pro Loco (Tourist Office) arranges guided routes among the Forni Accesi (Hot Ovens) and Catui Aperti (grottoes, cellars, stables, etc.). This is a splendid opportunity to enjoy the beauty of the old centre and the goodness of traditional local products.
Peasant cuisine is based on the genuine nature of local ingredients. Place of honour goes to homemade pasta and mischiglia, a vegetable and legume soup made of nine wild herbs cooked together. The zafarani cruschi, sun-dried chilli peppers tossed in boiling oil, are typical of the area. The sweets with honey from Arab tradition stand out.
Largo della Solidarietà, 1, Altomonte