High on a rocky promontory on the breathtaking coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea—also known as the “Coast of the Gods”—is Santa Maria dell’Isola, a 4th century monastery that’s accessible only by climbing up a winding flight of steps carved directly into the cliffside.
People have lived in Tropea for at least 2,000 years, since Sextus Pompey defeated the emperor Octavius. According to legend, it was founded by Hercules himself.
Santa Maria dell’Isola was built so long ago that even the topography of the land around it has changed. When it was first erected, it was on its own little island. But over the centuries, silt built up and filled in the water between that island and the mainland. The building itself has lived several lives, as well: A simple church in medieval times, it was made over during the Renaissance. In 1905, an earthquake destroyed its facade, and it was rebuilt again.
A holy destination for pilgrims, the church is home to a 12th-century Byzantine portrait of the Virgin Mary that, according to locals, protects the area. In 1638, the Virgin from the portrait appeared to the Bishop in Calabria, and warned him of an impending earthquake. On March 27 of that year, he rounded up the residents of Tropea and marched them out of the town. An earthquake struck that very day, but the people stayed safe.