The temples are there, high, majestic, imposing, with those columns that defy the sky. The sea is a stone’s throw from, you can feel its breath filtered by the beaches and the pine forest. The area is huge and the silence enveloping, broken from time to time by a breath of wind. Behind, the green curtain of Alburni, a discreet mountain, strong and humble at the same time.
Welcome, dear friends, to one of the most beautiful corners of what the ancient Romans called Campania Felix, the Cilento National Park, Vallo di Diano and Alburni, in the province of Salerno, whose Archaeological Park of Paestum, classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988, is one of the best parts.
There are not enough adjectives to describe the size and beauty of this area of about 120 hectares, nestled in the plain of the Sele river, where modern Europe meets its Greek roots and where the gaze sweeps over one of the best preserved archaeological sites in the world.
Its extraordinary Doric temples take us back to 2500 years ago and they tell us about when a group of Greek settlers from Sibari (Calabria region, in southern Italy) landed here and began urbanizing, enclosing the whole site in 5 km of walls, which today still represent a unique testimony of the defensive systems of the Magna Graecia cities.
THE GREEK TEMPLES
After crossing the southern entrance of the site, we find ourselves in front of two spectacular temples: Hera, Zeus’ wife, the oldest, also called Basilica by eighteenth-century scholars and the nearest one, larger and more imposing, said of Neptune, it is associated to the cult of the city that was called Poseidonia and that more recent studies have instead attributed to the cult of Jupiter or Apollo.
The first was built between 540 and 530 BC, is marked by 50 travertine columns more than 6 meters high and internally it has a cell with a central row of 6 columns that divides it into two aisles. While the second (450 a. C.), about 60 meters long, shows a mastodontic structure but perfect in proportions, embodying the principal Doric testimony of Magna Graecia, as well as the last example of sacred architecture before the arrival of the Lucanian and Roman dominators.
On the opposite side, in a slightly elevated position and in the shadow of luxuriant maritime pines, there’s the third great temple, most probably dedicated to Athena, the goddess of war and weapons, even if, in the daily vulgate, you keep calling it Ceres. The temple dates back to the end of the third century B.C., it is the smallest of the three and it is characterized by an elegant pronao, which introduced to the cell of the divinity.
All three temples give life to a great spectacle, you can hardly take your eyes off the grooves of the columns, the warm tones of the travertine and the sandstone, the stands and capitals that, although marked by time, they give off a magnetic charm.
Imagine what a sunset could be in this frame, when the red ball of the sun descends to the sea flooding with orange light the ambered shape of Neptune’s temple and the little more ‘pale temples of Hera and Athena. A show in the show !
THE ROMAN CITY
The treasures of the archaeological park do not end here. If it is true that not much of the Greek city remains (besides the temples9, just the agora, the tomb of the founder and the ekklesiasterion (the circular cavea building used for public assemblies), the Roman era, since 273 BC, has left us abundant traces, distributed all along the so-called Via Sacra, the ancient thistle that connects the south to the north: the large hole, with spas, shops, residential neighborhoods, sumptuous imperial mansions and finely decorated villas;the amphitheatre, public and religious buildings; the pool, the campus for exercise. All in all, a remarkable richness and liveliness, typical of the great marine and agricultural centers, roles that Paestum maintained until the IV century A.D., when a slow but inexorable decline began, caused by the construction of the road between Capua and Reggio Calabria, which moved the axis of the big traffics, reducing it to a small landing place for local businesses.
The whole area can be easily explored thanks to a structured visit route and partly without architectural barriers, which allows you to enter millennial buildings such as the Basilica. In some periods of the year, it is also possible to witness live the new excavations, during which archaeologists, assisted by students and volunteers, bring to light buildings, walls, fortifications. Definitely an exciting experience!
THE ARCHAEOLOGICAL MUSEUM
An integral part of the Park is the nearby National Archaeological Museum, one of the most important and visited of Italy, with over two million finds from both Paestum and the nearby Sele estuary, where the so-called Hera Sanctuary is located, which the splendid metope are from, admirable from the gallery, together with rich collections of architectural elements in terracotta and stone, votive objects, kits and funerary plates for the most part of the Lucanian period, excluding the most famous and ancient one, of Greek origin, known as The Diver, whose meaning still divides and fascinates scholars.
A SITE VERY AVAILABLE
The removal of architectural barriers on part of the route to the temples was a great effort; the possibility to visit the museum’s warehouses in small groups, full of beautiful painted tombstones; the extension of visiting hours; the educational workshops for children and families and those of taste in collaboration with Slow Food Cilento; “A dip in the Blue”, museum path autism friendly;visits to the dark with lanterns to the southern Sanctuary; the initiative“adopts a block of the Walls”, to finance the maintenance of the whole complex. And then concerts, theatre performances, initiatives in collaboration with the Friends of Paestum Association, aiming to maintain and enhance what, without any doubt, is a unique example of Great Beauty.
SOME TIPS TO MAKE YOUR STAY ENJOYABLE
Paestum and its surroundings are lands full of attractions for stays not only in the name of culture and archeology, but also in the name of nature, good food and relax.
*If you love to walk, do not miss the Path of the Argonauts, which connects the temples to the sea; a path of easy walkability, about 2 km long which unfolds between history and landscapes. Guided excursions are held every first Sundays of the month, the cost is included in the entrance ticket to the Archaeological Park, in the annual ticket Paestum Mia and in the card adopt a block of the Walls.
On the way back, one of the ideal places to enjoy the sunset show on the temples are the open coffee tables of the Museum Bar, perhaps in front of an aperitif or a cup of fragrant yogurt made with buffalo milk.
- If you feel more gastronaut than argonaut, here it’s perfect for you: the territory offers excellences and delicacies in quantity. Starting from the delicious mozzarella and the many dairy products produced with the milk of buffalo raised both on the plain and on the first hilly buttresses. Delicacies you can find in restaurants, cheese shops and elegant shops, such as The Dispensa 1988 by the Azienda Agricola San Salvatore of Peppino Pagano, in the Cafasso locality, a kind of gateway to the great Cilento gastronomy as well as an ideal place for stocking dried legumes, cold cuts, cheeses and wines from native vines.
Or to Tenuta Vannulo, in Capaccio Scalo, in whose meadows tame buffaloes with black coats gaze. The organic farm opens its interior spaces for tasting and catering; a well-kept museum of peasant civilization and a tannery, because high quality clothing, bags and accessories are also made from the skin of buffaloes .
Another must of Cilento are figs processed by hand as tradition commands and interpreted in the style of Santomiele, a company leader or better a real Taste Factory, nestled in the village of Prignano Cilento.
In its minimal interior, modernity meets an ancient knowledge: the figs of a special cultivar named Dottato are carefully selected, dried in the sun and carefully processed by hand, then mixed together with the almonds of Puglia, the nuts of Sorrento, with local citrus and with chocolate. From the squeeze of the dried figs the Melassa is also obtained , a brown nectar, used not only in desserts but also with meats and cheeses.
*If after so many ups and downs the plain and hill, you feel tired and you don’t mind the idea of resting for a little bit, the advice is to set course to the village of Omignano, where the doors of Iumara open. It’s an ancient cool country house with a restaurant, a big garden and a swimmingpool, where care and attention to the guest are the figure of the best Chilean hospitality.
The nine spacious and bright rooms, equipped with the most modern comforts and with local materials, such as terracotta or Vietri ceramics or the mixture of vulcanic stone, guarantee total rest and pleasure. While at the restaurant, chef Andrea D’Anna will pleasantly entertain you with his dishes based on the fresh country products revisited with taste and lightness.
Photo credits: Archaeological Park of Paestum; Santomiele Srl;Iumara Food and Hospitality.