Cilento – Italy’s Secret Southern Coast
Southern Italy doesn’t stop at the glitzy Amalfi Coast. For secluded resorts and a sultry lifestyle, shift the centre of gravity just south to the secret Cilento.
The Cilento wants to wean us off those seductive, Smarties-coloured villages strung along the Amalfi Coast. The Cilento is less retro, more refreshingly real. It’s far better value, with better beaches and food. This is a land of hairpin bends, not high-priced hotels. Secluded bays stay secluded. Paestum’s romantic ruins rival Pompeii, but come without the crowds. Apart from July and August, the rugged, Unesco-listed coast is practically deserted. That said, the film-set beaches have been invaded temporarily in previous years by Hollywood with Jason & the Argonauts and Clash of the Titans.
In the languid Cilento, making a life trumps making a living. Boutique boltholes lose out to rough-and-ready farm-stays run by uncool grannies. Greedy grannies who make mozzarella. Every vineyard reveals yet another eccentric owner who abandoned a career in high finance to forage for low-slung mushrooms or bond with buffaloes. The simple buffalo farmer often turns out to be an award-winning winemaker. And the locals pride themselves on making their own limoncello, walnut or myrtle liqueurs. It’s about a return to roots.
Romantic ruins that rival Pompeii
For the Romantics, Paestum’s Greek ruins represented the final halt on the Grand Tour.
The Greek temples were `rediscovered’ by the Romantics in 1750, who felt they’d come upon a lost world too late. Shelley marvelled at the three well-preserved Doric temples standing empty on the grassy plain, abandoned since the departure of the Ancient Romans. On his Grand Tour in 1787, Goethe found the temples of Neptune and Hera inexpressibly grand, looming out of the inhospitable marshes and surrounded by “the blood-red savage eyes of buffalo”. Today, Gabriel Zuchtriegel, the German site director, punctures this over-romanticised vision of a lost city, even if that’s what the poets believed. He considers that the site was abandoned in Classical times, but never quite lost. Paestum was once a port, so the temples acted as beacons to centuries of sailors, even if the site is now a mile from the shore.
Paestum is far from being a heap of ancient ruins that have to be tramped through dutifully. The murals in the museum, the world’s sole surviving Ancient Greek murals, evoke Paestum’s past inhabitants as a passionate lot. From lusty gazes to erotic drinking games, the nudity and naughtiness is explicit. Tempted by a lusty satyr, Dionysus, the god of wine, is depicted as drunk and disorderly. This is despite the fact that the Ancient Greeks always watered-down wine; only Barbarians drank it neat. Much like ourselves, the Ancient Greeks had the best intentions, but often succumbed to temptation.
Buffalo mozzarella homeland
Paestum is little more than a series of temples and string of decent hotels facing the dunes. Even so, it’s an embryonic beach resort with both mythological heft and a sense of fun. The temples are conducive to drinking in grandiose sunsets while overdosing on an ancient culture. The beach clubs are for knocking back wines that date back to Greek times. For film nerds, the clincher is that Jason & the Argonauts‘ harpy scene was filmed in the temple dunes.
This would-be resort is also a gateway to the wine estates and buffalo mozzarella farms that bring the Cilento to life. In Campania, culture is often trounced by food, even in Greek times. The local figs were praised by Homer, while the Romans loved the spineless, mauve-tinged Paestum artichokes. This is the birthplace of buffalo mozzarella, best tasted at Vannulo mozzarella farm, home to the happiest, healthiest buffalo. The spoilt beasts get deep-tissue massages while listening to Mozart. It’s a heavenly life, at least for females. Male buffaloes often end up as handbags, of the hand-crafted, vegetable-tanned variety on sale here. If not tempted by a mozzarella lunch, visit the most rewarding winery and farm shop. San Salvatore La Dispensa serves estate wines and a feast of buffalo ice cream, mozzarella smoothies and buffalo mozzarella sandwiches. The owner, a hotelier turned winemaker and buffalo-breeder, makes superb organic wines from grape varieties introduced by the Ancient Greeks.
The Cilento Coast
South of Paestum, the coastline bulges out into a broad, mountainous hump of the Cilento. This is one of the loveliest parts of Campania, dotted with secluded coves and clean beaches. Known as the Cilento National Park, this Unesco World Heritage Site embraces secret bays and the lush hinterland. The landscape is carpeted with orchards, olive groves and vineyards, and cut off by deep gorges and thick forests.
Cilento resorts are refreshingly unpretentious and rarely chic. In Agropoli, catch the ferry to Capri if you really must drink lemonade with Beyonce. Palinuro is the exception, discreetly chic in that coy “I used to be just a fishing village, but now I’m Portofino” style. A bay sheltered by a promontory opens onto wide, sandy beaches and a Blue Grotto to rival Capri’s. By day, it’s about tropical-looking beaches facing Rabbit Rock, a grassy hump shaped like a snoozing Rabbit. On summer nights, Palinuro swings into party mode with bars, clubs and ice cream parlours and the posing that passes for strolling in Italian beach resorts.
Welcome to the South
The fishing village of Santa Maria di Castellabate makes an unfancy base for exploring the Cilento coast, as does lofty Castellabate, its sister village stacked up on the hill. Santa Maria’s moody beachfront is made for seafood feasts, especially if you can avoid the boisterous bambini in July and August. Santa Maria’s rugged coastline is riddled with caverns and dotted with watchtowers, culminating in Punta Licosa’s marine park. From the shoreline, you can espy the island of Licosa, where, in The Odyssey, a siren tossed herself off the cliffs and was transformed into a rock. The siren’s spell cast on Odysseus may have failed, but a spell still hangs in the air.
Medieval Castellabate, suspended above sandy bays, was the setting for Benvenuti Al Sud (Welcome to the South), a comedy about north-south prejudice that makes Italians go watery-eyed. A postmaster near Milan is sent south, expecting Mafia crime and corruption, but only encounters fireworks and feasting in a town of heart-stopping beauty. The oft-cited catchphrase is: “Whoever heads south cries twice, once on arrival, once on departure”.
This fortified film set is enchanting, starting with the castle terrace and plunging views down to a crescent of sand and crumbling, water-lapped mansions. From the castle, secret passageways burrow into the medieval core before fanning out in the café-lined main square. Life, like the film, centres on this square, where a Limoncello awaits. Welcome to the South.
Taste of Cilento:
Tasting Campania (foodie day tours): www.tastingcampania.com
Food and wine trails, from hiking in Cilento to wine-tasting and truffle-hunting in Irpinia, as well as a tasty street food safari in Naples. Italian-Australian owner Giuseppe Guanci can also set up customised, competitively-priced foodie tours.
San Salvatore La Dispensa (farm shop): www.ladispensa1988.it
Estate wine shop and restaurant for organic wine-tastings or mozzarella lunch.
Lisa Gerard-Sharp is an award-winning travel writer whose work, including blogs, can be found on www.lisagerardsharp.com