The dramatic coastline of Tropea, Italy.

The dramatic coastline of Tropea, Italy. Photo: Getty Images

Large, nude bronze survivors from the 5th-century BC draw Lee Langley to the oldest city on Italy's Calabrian coast.

On August 16, 1972, a chemist from Rome on a scuba-diving holiday was gliding through the waters of the Ionian Sea, just off the coast of Calabria, when he was startled to see, thrusting from the sea floor, what looked like a human arm.

The region is just across the water from Sicily, but no police were to be involved here. What was cautiously dredged from beneath the calm blue surface and borne ashore to the village of Riace was a pair of statues, larger than life-size, nude and flamboyantly male, two of the finest examples of mid-5th-century BC Greek sculpture to be found anywhere in the world. Wrapped in the soft Calabrian sand, the Riace bronzes had slept on the seabed for 2500 years.

Once were warriors... Statue B of the Riace pair displayed at the Reggio Regional Museum.

Once were warriors... Statue B of the Riace pair displayed at the Reggio Regional Museum.

The presence of the bronzes transformed Reggio Calabria from a stopover on the drive to Sicily to a destination in itself. Fighting off central government plans to move the bronzes to a major national museum, the town insisted the statues stay put, and a lengthy process of restoration work began.

In due course, the bronzes were loaned to Florence and Rome. They were permitted a triumphant tour of Italy and celebrated on postage stamps. Safely back in the Museo Nazionale in Reggio Calabria, they were placed on permanent exhibition at what had hitherto been a little-visited museum. The restoration went on; removal of encrustation and the corrosive effects of seawater, damage of various sorts, all needed skilled attention to preserve the statues. Forty years later, the work is continuing.

Over the years, as I trawled Italy for its treasures (Ravenna for the mosaics; Arezzo for the Piero frescoes; Orvieto for the Signorelli chapel), seeing the bronzes was always lurking, put off until next time. Until now. The simple route would have been a flight to Reggio itself, but the town is not famed for its charm, so I decide to explore Calabria's coastline while catching up with my Greek heroes. The Costa degli Dei is 40 kilometres of shoreline along south-east Italy. The Romans were here, the Greeks before them - Calabria lies within Magna Graecia, the name itself a leftover of the Byzantine Empire. The town of Tropea was to be my base after flying to Lamezia Terme airport and taking a taxi past fishing villages and towns. Along the coastline are steep cliffs and glimpses of narrow, curving beaches.

The old town of Tropea sits on a headland overlooking the volcanic island of Stromboli. The centro storico literally edges the soaring clifftop; a maze of alleyways lined with faded 18th-century palazzi built on even older foundations. The rise and fall of empires was accompanied by the occasional earthquake, and often later buildings grew from the mediaeval rubble. There are several punti di visto - public "balconies" - around the Tropean clifftop, each with spectacular coastal views and most with steps cut into the cliff face leading to beaches below.

Tropea is one of those Italian towns - Lucca in the north is another - that seem to cast a spell on visitors; with no great art or ancient ruins to offer, the place exerts a pull, composed of charm and a sense of restfulness. Days pass. You fail to leave. So might the sirens have worked their legendary seductive magic? (Not far north are the waters where Odysseus lashed himself to the mast and stopped his sailors' ears with beeswax so that he could hear the sirens' song and live to tell the tale.)

However, I'm here for the bronzes, so I take a bus from Tropea to Reggio Calabria. The ride takes about an hour (the train takes twice as long). We navigate Scilla - Homer's Scylla - its fortress and looming crag poised above the shore, across the strait from gaping-mouthed Charybdis, and drive safely on, but alarm bells ring when I hear that the bronzes are not in the museum itself today, but nearby, in the laboratorio.

They're in restauro - two words to strike dread into the heart of visitors to Italy. The Piero della Francesca frescoes in Arezzo were in restauro for a decade before the wraps came off. The land is littered with the broken hearts of visitors who discover the object of their journey is in restauro, behind closed doors or under plastic sheeting. I fear the worst.

Reggio itself proves an agreeable surprise: largely rebuilt after the earthquake of 1908, it's a mix of architectural styles, with a seafront promenade lined with palm trees and pricey cafes. We reach the laboratorio and there they are, at last, close enough to touch, though sealed by a glass wall; not the looming figures I was expecting, familiar from so many illustrations, but supine, cradled in protective wooden crossbeams - fallen warriors, touching in their vulnerability.

Archaeologists and historians have not established their identity. Military heroes, some say; others suggest they could be athletes. Or possibly characters in a play by Euripides. Another theory places them as part of a group from Delphi. There is, too, the mystery of how they came to be on the Calabrian seabed. Here, most experts are roughly in agreement: on the way from Greece to Rome, caught in a storm, the statues were thrown from a ship to lighten its load, or rough seas dislodged them from their place on deck. No wreck was found on the seabed.

Marvels of the sculptor's art, the pair have an intense humanity. Lifelike, natural, relaxed. Nothing stiff or emblematic. They could almost be turning to each other to exchange a word. And soon, we're assured, they will be upright once more, on new, improved earthquake-proof bases, in the Museo Nazionale.

Statues A and B, as they have come to be known, were almost certainly not by the same sculptor: Statue A, the younger warrior, could be the work of the leading Attic sculptor Myron, known for his mastery of movement and ability to capture a likeness; while B could be by Alkamenes, a pupil of Phidias. Each is a masterpiece.

I study their limbs, the muscles, veins and subtle hollows, the riotous curls and luxuriant beards. Their eyes are inlaid ivory and glass, the teeth glint silver; eyelashes, lips and nipples are copper. The Riace heroes have lost their shields, fists clenched around what once were handles. But they retain their glory.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Alitalia flies daily from Rome to Lamezia Terme airport; see alitalia.com. Tropea is 55 kilometres from the airport. A bus runs daily between Reggio Calabria and Tropea.

Staying there

Apartments in Tropea's 18th-century Palazzo Bragho cost from €300-€400 ($390-$520) a week. See www.pantomar.it/en.

While you're there

The Riace bronzes are in Palazzo Campanella, Via Cardinale Portanova, Reggio Calabria; open daily 9am-7.30pm, admission free. The Heritage and Cultural Department is yet to move them to the Palazzo Piacentini. See bronzidiriace.org.

More information

See calabriaturistica.it.