If you are looking for a European tourist destination, consider the Amalfi Coast and the city of Sorrento in the Gulf of Salerno. These tourist attractions popular with jet setters and many others lie in the Campania region of southwestern Italy on the Tyrrhenian Sea. Frankly, this area is hardly undiscovered. Make sure to see our other articles on Campania destinations in this series; they cover Campania’s capital city Naples, the historic ruins east of Naples, the area west of Naples, and finally the Isle of Capri.
We start our tour in the south at the Greek ruins of Paestum. We’ll work (can you really call this work?) our way north along the coast to the city of Salerno. Here we turn left and go west along the shore to Salerno, Amalfi, then Ravello which is just north, and continue along the coast to Positano and finally to Sorrento across the Bay of Naples from Naples.
Paestum lies about 50 miles (85 kilometers) southeast of Naples. The Greeks first colonized this area about 2700 years ago and originally named the city Poseidonia in honor of the King of the Sea. It sided with Rome when Hannibal invaded Italy and started to decline around fifteen hundred years ago. Paestum was abandoned during the Middle Ages possibly because of malaria, although it’s now quite arid. Some ancient city walls still stand as do many of its defensive towers. Paestum contains some of the best-preserved Ancient Greek temples in the world. Most of the site hasn’t been excavated yet.
The Temple of Hera, wife of Zeus, was misnamed the Basilica because researchers thought that it was Roman civil structure rather than a Greek religious edifice. Take a look and see if you can tell the difference. Researchers, perhaps different ones, also made a mistake concerning the Temple of Apollo, thinking that it was dedicated to Poseidon or once again to Hera. The site also contains a Roman Forum and an amphitheater. Here the mistake was deliberate, and much more costly. Believe it or not in 1930 a road was built across the site, burying its northern half. The civil engineer was held responsible and went to prison for wanton destruction of a historic site. To my knowledge no government officials were even charged.
Paestum’s Fifth Century B.C. Temple of Athena, sometimes called the Tempio de Cerere (Temple of Ceres) was once used as a Christian Church. By the way, you are allowed to get up close but may not enter these historic buildings. The local Museo Nazionale has an extensive collection of material from these sites including tombs decorated with Fifth Century B.C. mural paintings. Be sure to see the world famous Tomb of the Diver, a rare example of Ancient Greek painting.
Salerno, population approximately 150 thousand, was settled well before Roman times. Its Schola Medica Salernitana (Salerno Medical School) is said to be the oldest university in Europe. By the Eleventh Century it was considered the center of medical knowledge in Western Europe but by the Thirteenth Century it was on its way down. Napoleon’s brother-in-law Joachim Murat closed the school. The University of Salerno became public in 1968 and includes a School of Medicine and Surgery. The city was the site of an Allied invasion during World War II and briefly hosted an Italian government that declared war on Germany.
The Duomo (Cathedral) was built in the late Eleventh Century and restored on several occasions. Be sure to see its bell tower, pulpits, and carved marble sarcophagi. In fact, be sure to see the entire edifice with its Byzantine and Arab influences. The Cathedral Museum includes silver statues and historic medical school documents. Other Salerno churches include St. Benedict, originally part of a Seventh to Ninth Century Monastery destroyed by the Saracens and the Baroque St. George Church.
If you like palaces visit the Seventeenth Century Palazzo D'Avossa (D’Avossa Palace), the recently restored Genovese Palace, the Giannattasio Palace, and the Copeta Palace built on the site of an ancient cemetery. What about castles? The Castello di Arechi (Arechi Castle) commanding the city is built on previous Roman-Byzantine construction and is now used for congresses and exhibitions. The Eleventh Century Terracena Castle was said to be really something, even for castles. But it was virtually destroyed by an earthquake early in the Thirteenth Century and very little remains.
Amalfi, population about fifty thousand, was once a major trading center with schools of mathematics and law. The Amalfi maritime code was widely used in the Mediterranean area for centuries. It was demolished by the Pisans during the Twelfth Century and Amalfi ceased to be a naval and commercial power in the area. It is said that an Amalfi native first brought the mariner’s compass to Europe.
The Duomo or Cattedrale di Sant’Andrea (Cathedral of Saint Andrea), considered the most stunning cathedral in southern Italy, was initially constructed during the Ninth Century and has been rebuilt and expanded since then. Be sure to see the beautiful Chiostro del Paradiso (Paradise Cloister) the burial ground for local big shots. The chapels date from the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries and are bedecked with magnificent frescoes. Even if you don’t like to look at coffins, you will enjoy this cloister and its intermingling of Arabian and Byzantine styles. Stop by the Basilica Museum to see more historic treasures. The Cripta di Sant’Andrea (Crypt of St. Andrew), built in the Thirteenth Century, contains many the relics of St. Andrew, St. Peter’s younger brother.
The Valle dei Mulini (Valley of the Mills) was once a pasta-making center. In the Twelfth Century it switched to paper making, among the first to do so in Europe. Only three original paper mills still produce fine Amalfi paper. The Museo della Carta (Paper Museum) situated in a Fifteenth Century paper mill shows you what it was all about.
A few miles northeast of Amalfi lies the village of Ravello, population about twenty-five hundred. Ravello is home to a major annual Italian music festival in honor of a famous visitor, the German Opera composer Richard Wagner. This internationally known festival is not limited to opera but includes many varieties of music and other cultural events.
You will also want to see the Duomo (Cathedral) that dates from the late Eleventh Century and has been renovated and expanded on many occasions. Be sure to see the Twelfth Century bronze door, one of only about two dozen bronze doors in all Italy. This massive door includes over fifty panels depicting biblical scenes. One medieval pulpit is used for reading the Epistles and the other for reading the Gospels. The chapel is dedicated to an early saint. Every July 27 the faithful gather in the hope of a miracle involving the saint’s blood.
The heavily Arab influenced Villa Rufolo includes a 90 foot (30 meter) watch tower and gardens that captured the heart of German opera composer Richard Wagner. This villa was mentioned by the famous Italian author, Giovanni Boccaccio, in The Decameron. This is the site of the annual Ravello Music Festival, described above.
The nearby Villa Cimbrone looks old but was actually built in 1905. (In many parts of the world, but not in Italy, this would be considered as old.) Its most famous visitor was the Swedish actress Greta Garbo, as luck would have it also born in 1905. She is the one who allegedly said “I want to be alone.” You’ll have to check the 1937 tabloids to find out if in fact she was alone in this villa. Villa Cimbrone is now an upscale hotel. Whether or not you stay in the hotel you really should stroll through the rose gardens and see the Belvedere dell’Infinità (Belvedere of Infinity) overlooking the Gulf of Salerno.
Positano, population under four thousand, has gone from a major port in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries to a sleepy fishing village about fifty or sixty years ago to the Amalfi Coast’s number one tourist attraction. Famous residents include the American author John Steinbeck, Napoleon’s brother-in-law Joachim Murat (the guy who closed the once great Salerno Medical School), and singer-songwriter Shawn Phillips now living in Port Elizabeth, South Africa in case you are interested. Beautiful Positano was featured in the films Only You (1994) and Under the Tuscan Sun (2003) even though it is definitely not in Tuscany.
Joachim Murat resided in Palazzo Murat during part of his reign as King of Naples and Sicily. As you can well imagine, the Palazzo was hardly a little country getaway from that hectic, hectic office. The gardens are beautiful and the Palazzo is right near the beach. You too can stay there; it’s now a hotel. The Thirteenth Century Romanesque Chiesa Santa Maria Assunta (Church of Saint Mary of Assunta) is most famous for its Byzantine wood painting of Madonna with Child known as the Black Virgin. According to legend this painting was stolen by Saracen pirates who fled right into a violent storm. A voice cried out “Posa, posa” (set it down, set it down). They did and fled into the calm. The painting was retrieved and that’s how the city got its name.
Before you leave Positano visit its main beach, the Spaggia Grande, and stroll on its walkway, Via Positanesi d’America, named for the thousands of locals who immigrated to the United States, especially to New York City, to seek a better life. I’ll let you decide where it is better to live today - Positano or New York City. As you stroll along you’ll see many sights including the Torre Trasìta, a historic defense tower transformed into a residence.
Sorrento, population about sixteen thousand, is located about 30 miles (50 kilometers) south of Naples, across the Bay of Naples. It has been a resort town for perhaps two thousand years. Among its famous visitors were the British authors Lord Byron and Keats, the German author Goethe, the Russian author Maxim Gorky, and the Italian opera singers Enrico Caruso and Luciano Pavarotti.
Sorrento has excellent museums. The Museo Correale di Terranova proudly displays its collection of Sixteenth, Seventeen, and Eighteenth Century paintings, furniture, and decorative objects. Its grounds are beautiful as is the view. The Museo Bottege della Tarsialignea (Inlaid Woodwork Museum) is devoted to the tradition of inlaid woodwork so active in the Sorrento region. It includes a lovely collection of these pieces surrounded by appropriately selected paintings, prints, and photographs. Il Museo Mineralogico Campano (Mineralogical Museum) is relatively new. Its international collection includes minerals from Mount Vesuvius and Mount Somma. There is also a dinosaur collection including baby dinosaurs and dinosaur eggs as well as a display of Permian reptiles that predate the dinosaurs by almost countless millions of years.
There’s lots more to see in Sorrento including its historic city center with what remains of the protective walls of the Middle Ages, the Fourteen Century Il Chiostro di San Francesco (Saint Francis Cloister) with its neighboring monastery that predates it by perhaps seven hundred years, and the Eleventh Century Basilica of Saint Antonio dedicated to Sorrento’s patron saint. Here you can see his crypt and two whalebones. According to legend they belonged to a whale that swallowed a child who was rescued by Saint Antonio in his most famous miracle.
What about food? As you have seen in the other articles in this series, there is a lot to eat in Campania. Lemons are a local specialty, especially when the rinds are made into a sweet liqueur known as limoncello. Anchovies are another local specialty. I do not recommend them together.
Let’s suggest a sample menu, one of many. Start with Spaghetti alle Vongole (Spaghetti with Clam Sauce). Then try Spigola (Sea Bass). For dessert indulge yourself with Crostata all’Arancio (Orange Tart). Be sure to increase your dining pleasure by including local wines with your meal.
We conclude with a quick look at Campania wine. Campania ranks 9th among the 20 Italian regions for both acreage devoted to wine grapes and for total annual wine production. The region produces about 64% red and and close to 36% white wine, as there is little rosé. Campania produces 17 DOC wines. DOC stands for Denominazione di Origine Controllata, which may be translated as Denomination of Controlled Origin, presumably a high-quality wine. The G in DOCG stands for Garantita, but there is in fact no guarantee that such wines are truly superior. Only 2.8% of Campania wine carries the DOC or DOCG designation. There are three DOCG wines: the red Taurasi, the white Greco di Tufo, and the white Fiano di Avellino. I have tasted the Fiano and found it to be top of the line.
There are two DOC wines produced in this area: Costa d’Amalfi and Penisola Sorrentina. Both are made in a variety of styles with a variety of local grapes. Try them. But you can surely buy better Campania wine.
Levi Reiss has authored or co-authored ten books on computers and the Internet, but to be honest, he would rather just drink fine Italian or other wine, accompanied by the right foods. He teaches classes in computers at an Ontario French-language community college. Visit his website www.travelitalytravel.com devoted to Italian travel with an accent on fine Italian wine and food. Visit his central wine website www.theworldwidewine.com with weekly reviews of $10 wine and columns devoted to various aspects of wine including wine and food, humor, trivia, organic and kosher wine and lots more.
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