As ever, it was a long and winding road to Paestum – a beach resort with the added charm of a Greek city and three Doric temples, dating back to 500 BC.
During the journey, the feel of third-world poverty that we’d noticed around Naples changed.
“This part of southern Italy looks so much cleaner and more prosperous,” I commented to Mark.
“It should,” he replied. “We’re near Salerno and the Amalfi coast.”
There were still signs warning of cows on the motorway, though.
On the campsite near Pompeii, we met Sarah and Chris, a British couple from Cheshire. We donated our Pompeii guidebook to them and shared travel stories. They regaled us with classics, such as, “When our car was impounded in Slovenia,” and, “Being asked for a bribe in Bosnia,” which heightened my anxiety about our proposed travels around the Balkans.
They also warned that, besides boasting every possible ingredient that could contribute to a scary drive, the sinuous route along the Amalfi coast has a 3.5t weight limit. We sought an alternative, although that did not come without drawbacks.
In Salerno, we ground to a halt. An enormous hole meant the way was closed completely. It was only a short section; a cyclist bypassed it using the beach, but no such luck for us.
As we pondered our alternatives, a chap came out of a nearby hotel to admire our truck. In broken English, he told us, “Go to the rond (roundabout), then follow signs for autostrada and Battipaglia.”
“Botty Faglia?” I repeated.
Sensing our ineptitude, he hopped in his car and led us to the junction. This kindness and generosity of spirit is something I love about Italia.
Mark had warned me that our proposed campsite was down a narrow road.
“I wish you wouldn’t tell me that!” I said, “I just worry!”
However, when we turned into the narrow roadway, I commented,
“Ah, this is not too bad.”
“This isn’t the narrow bit!” he said.
When we reached the narrow bit, it was so narrow that he didn’t dare turn into it. I said,
“I’ll take a walk down and see what it’s like.”
I took the walkie talkie with me so we could communicate. When I happened upon the campsite, it was not only closed and locked, it looked derelict.
From the campsite’s rusting and ramshackle gates, I could see the sea, so I walked on into a large car park. Half of it had spaces marked out, but the rest was just rough ground, right by the waterfront. The adjacent lidos were all boarded up.
I tried to radio Mark, but the walkie talkie was out of range. When I arrived back at the truck, he was busy holding court. The lady from the mini market opposite the junction was taking photos, and two blokes leaning out from a nearby balcony were gesturing with thumbs up and shakas. A driver in a passing car slowed down to photograph The Beast.
We made the turn into ‘the narrow bit’ with a couple of shuffles to avoid a car parked right on the apex of the bend, but after that, it was no problem. Released straight onto the beach, the doggies jumped for joy. The sand was clean. There was no trash, which differed greatly from our experiences so far. Our view from bed was one of the best ever – an amazing orange sunset leaked its colours into the deserted shoreline. The only sounds were Mediterranean waves lapping the shore and the submarine sonar bird with its staccato ‘Beep. Beep.’ call.
Unlike our stay in the orbit of Naples, there were no barking dogs, no hooting horns – and no gunshots.
The following day, we awoke to the sea as calm as a mirror.
“It’s Blue Monday!” I said to Mark. In every direction, there was a radiant shade of cobalt, sapphire, or ultramarine – and still not a soul in sight.
I decided to take advantage of the tranquility to get on with some writing. Mark decided to get out the SUPs, which made life inside The Beast considerably less calm than the outside.
Going Stand Up Paddle boarding rarely involves an angle grinder, unless Mark has lost the keys for the padlocks that secure them to the back of The Beast. They were high security padlocks, so the angle grinder overloaded the inverter. (The inverter converts our 12V solar energy into 240V.)
With slivers of shredded steel flying around, I asked him, “Shouldn’t you be wearing safety glasses?”
“I don’t know where they are.”
“There are in with the sunglasses.”
“I can’t remember where I’ve put the sunglasses.”
We own hardly anything and live in a tiny space, but with Mark’s constant rearranging, at any one time, at least fifty per cent of our possessions are lost to us.
Half an hour later, Mark came back inside covered in putty because the boards had sustained dings in transit and needed repairing. Then came the blue bit, accompanying the announcement of,
“I can’t find the bolts that secure the fins to the boards.”
He found them eventually hiding among the spares and put them in a safe place for later.
Later, he spent thirty minutes searching for them in the grass. Another string of expletives heralded their discovery in the original safe place.
Once I’d watched him go down to the shore, I settled back down to write. All of a sudden, a thunderous clattering shattered my peace once again.
The wind had got up, so he’d decided to windsurf.
“My aluminium boom has calcified and the extension is stuck inside,” he explained, as he clanged it repeatedly against the chassis of the truck to unstick it.
Earlier, his sarcastic reaction to my attempts to assist him in his quest for watersport satisfaction had prompted me to say,
“I will not try to help you anymore,” to which he countered,
However, I couldn’t help but suggest using vinegar and hot water as a rather gentler method of parting boom and extension, as opposed to damaging it beyond repair by clobbering it against The Beast.
Mark fixed his boom. Miraculously, the vinegar worked its chemical magic, but he didn’t give me too much praise.
“I wouldn’t want it to go to your head,” he said, then told me, “You smell like a fish and chip shop!”
God bless husbands and ‘A’ Level Chemistry, although it didn’t help me fathom the solution to the next challenge.
Is it vinegar or urine for bee stings?
The shoreline seemed to have attracted a swarm of expiring bees. A fact I discovered during our barefoot evening stroll. I stepped on one while enjoying the sense of sand between my toes.
I consider myself to have a high pain threshold and I don’t like to make a fuss, but it really hurt! It grew so painful I had to sit down.
“I can’t walk any further. It’s getting worse. Is there still a sting in this?” I asked Mark. There was, and it was busily pumping venom into my poor, punctured tootsie.
Mark gallantly removed it, but his heroism faded with his response to my next comment.
“I’m glad it stung me and not a dog,” I said.
“I’m glad it stung you and not me!” he replied.
Early the next morning, a beach combing machine came to rake and clean the sand. After taking the dogs for a blast along the shore, we noticed a man in the derelict campsite with a dog on a rope. I chatted to him through the rusty railings. He told me the Allies landed in Paestum during WWII and said there was a bunker in the dunes, yards from where we camped.
Fascinated, we scoured the dunes until we found the bunker. On September 9th, 1943, during Operation Avalanche, the US 36th Infantry Division landed at Paestum. After nine days of fierce fighting within the town, German forces withdrew to the north.
Just off the beach near the new town, we stumbled upon the 16th century lookout tower, the Torre di Paestum. One of a chain built by the Viceroy of Naples to help ward off Saracens, German forces used it as a machine gun emplacement. Fortunately, its conscription into WWII had not damaged it too badly.
Five kilometres of the original walls remain around the historic Greek city of Paestum. We followed them as far as the ruins. In mid-afternoon, the site looked horribly busy, so we left it for another day. Like Pompeii, the key to an uncrowded experience was an early start.
Thankfully, while there are photos of troops inside Paestum’s temples, they were off limits to bombing by both sides.
We treated ourselves to some juicy tomatoes, basil, and local buffalo mozzarella cheese in the supermarket. As we were driving to Paestum, we saw lots of water buffalo – or more accurately, smelled them. They are sleek shiny black and exude the aroma of extra ripe cows. The soft creamy buffalo mozzarella is a DOC (controlled designation of origin) speciality in the area. We passed the Barlotti Caseficio which has been producing ‘white gold’ in Paestum for over a century. It takes four litres of milk to produce one kilogramme of mozzarella.
I suggested to Mark that, since they are milked I thought they must be kind. Not like the buffalo in Africa I heard stampede while I was on safari. Thankfully, in the opposite direction from where I was standing!
The Greeks founded the walled city of Paestum in 510 BC and called it Poseidonia. It’s an absolute hidden gem you’ve never heard of – but if you’ve ever watched the film Jason and the Argonauts, you will have seen the oldest temple, dedicated to Hera, which was the setting for the Capture of the Harpies.
The historic metropolis boasts three fully fledged Doric temples, devoted to Hera, Poseidon, and Athena (Juno, Neptune, and Minerva if you’re Roman.) It’s remarkable to think that when the Romans took over the town and changed its name to Paestum, the temples were already 500 years old.
Today, you see temples constructed from golden stone, which turns a deep rose pink as the sun sets. However, in their heyday, experts suggest that, like Britain’s cathedrals, they may have been painted in bright colours. The GAIA tourist website for Paestum doesn’t hide its light under a bushel. It states the Temple of Poseidon (Neptune) “is considered to be one of the best Doric temples in the world ever.”
In between the two most northerly temples, devoted to Hera and Poseidon, is the Cavallo di Sabia, or Sand Horse, a sculpture by Mimmo Paladino. Besides being the god of the ocean, Poseidon was also the lord of horses. He fathered the winged horse Pegasus, whose mum was the fearsome Medusa.
Much of the site is incredibly well-preserved. There is a huge Forum, leading to the Amphitheatre, although I was horrified to learn that after surviving for more than two millennia, the 18th century road engineers who discovered the ruins still drove their highway straight through one side of the Amphitheatre.
The circular Ekkliesiasterion, where the city assembly met, was clearly visible, as was the Heroon. This is a cenotaph, or ceremonial tomb, dedicated to the city’s founder. It contained goods and artefacts, but no human remains. In both Greek and Roman cities, burials could not take place within the city walls. The Heroon is so hallowed that no one has violated it since its construction in 510 BC; not even road builders. Reptiles, on the other hand, show a little less respect. We met a group of Brits marvelling at the antics of a pair of lizards they’d spotted on the Heroon.
“Aren’t they cute!”
“Are they mating?” someone asked of nobody in particular.
“Oh my God. One’s got the other one in its mouth!”
That’s nature for you. Red in tooth and claw, and fearless of committing bloody acts of cannibalism upon a hallowed historic artefact!
Many houses and shops lined the sacred road within the city. Paestum was famous for violets and its roses, which flowered twice a year. Essential oils pressed from these blooms were sought-after throughout the ancient world.
Like the ancient thoroughfares we’d seen in Cerverteri and Pompeii, ruts from chariot wheels were visible in the stone. At the threshold of one house, now open to the elements and warmed in the sunlight, I laid my palm on a mosaic floor. I closed my eyes and imagined whose feet had walked upon those tesserae.
Paestum was abandoned when the plain turned to marshland and became malarial. It also became a target for attacks by Saracen pirates. I found it hard to believe that in the middle-ages, farmers used the magnificent temple of Athena as an annex to their farmhouse!
Since we had the pups with us, we didn’t go into the museum, so we missed seeing the original of the hauntingly beautiful image of the diver. Painted on a limestone slab, it formed the ceiling of a tomb in Paestum that dates to 470 BC.
Breath taking in its simplicity, it depicts a sepia toned figure of a man, naked and arching gracefully as he plunges from a black line-drawn masonry tower. He is captured in mid-air, as if floating between heaven and earth. There is no background other than two twig-like representations of trees framing the image on either side, and the gentle ripples of grey-blue waters waiting to envelop him.
Historian Pierre Lévêque, interprets the image rather wonderfully as, “the diver plunges into the sea (death), but also into life (eternity), where he will discover the primordial waters of life.”
If I had to gaze upon the same image for infinity, I might choose Paestum’s diver.
After sampling the joys of the fabulous old city, we repaired to the Simposium Restaurant and had…pizza. In Italy. At last!
It was delicious and not only that, we had the best view in the house.
I have never eaten pizza with a view of the sun setting over the pillars of a 2,500-year-old temple.
We would miss Paestum. We loved everything about it!
But our next destination, Matera, another UNESCO World Heritage Site and 2019’s European Capital of Culture, promised Neolithic tombs, cave dwellings and Rupestrian churches, all set amid stunning nature.
Paestum – Information to Help Your Visit
- Paestum Official Website – hours & tariffs
- Paestum Museum Official Website
- FREE Visits – on the first Sunday of the month
- Guide App for the Archaeological Park
- Camping Wild Paestum – a campsite that is open, close to the tower!