Italians love their presepe (nativity scenes). They buy them, they collect figures, they even make them from scratch and compete in their local competitions. And no where do they celebrate and promote the presepio as much as on Via San Gregorio Armeno in Naples. In fact, it's an all-year-round thing, so if you visit Naples in the summer, plan ahead and buy a presepe and some figures for next Christmas. If not, try visiting when the shops are gearing up for the holiday rush and putting out their newest creations during September or October.
This street is packed full with shops selling artistic Italian style nativity figures and structures on which to display them. Many of these are actually wonderful examples of artistic talent, a craft passed on from generation to generation. Visitors can even watch how they are made in the workshops and studios--hands, feet and heads in terracotta, and clothing from fabrics or cartapesta (Papier-mâché). Still other craftsmen create all manner of structures like barns, villas, temples or entire villages out of plaster and paint.
In recent years, presepe figures have been made to mimic popular culture. You'll find not only the Pope, but soccer players, movie stars, politicians and recording artists.
Ostuni is known as White City of Apulia because of its stark white buildings perched high above the plain below. Located about 5 miles and within sight of the Adriatic coastline, it has a year-round population of about 32,000 inhabitants, but can swell in the tourist season to over 100,000. Part of the province of Brindisi, a region with high production of both wine and olive oil. The town is a popular popular place for expats, especially British and Germans.
The region around Ostuni has been inhabited since the Neolithic era, with Neanderthals living here over 40,000 years ago. The town itself was settled by the Messapii tribe, destroyed by Hannibal during the Punic Wars. It was rebuilt by the Greeks, its name deriving from the Greek Astynéon ("new town").
The town came under rule of the Romans until the Normans conquered it in 996 AD and built a medieval town around the summit of the 950 feet high hill, including a castle and four gates (ruins today). In 1507, rule passed to Isabella, Duchess of Bari, and under her rule Ostuni thrived during the Italian Renaissance, with an abundance of Renaissance architecture left behind.
The white color of the town had practical advantages. Since at least the time of the Middle Ages, the lime whitewashing helped keep buildings cool by reflecting the heat of the southern sun. Lime whitewash also has disinfectant properties, helping to slow the spread of disease--this was proven during the Middle Ages, lessening the spread of the Plague.
Lime is readily available in the surroundings of the city since the town itself is built upon three hills of Cretaceous limestone. The White City has become such a popular destination for tourists that the government pays for half the cost of homeowners repainting their homes every two years to keep them looking their whitest.
The centro storico (historic center) is still fortified by the ancient walls. The town's largest buildings are the Ostuni Duomo and the Bishop's Palace, together with a number of palazzi of local aristocratic families. In the surrounding countryside there are typical Pugliese masserie (fortified large estate-farms), as well as trulli (pointed roofed structures), many of which today have been converted into hotels and B&Bs. Since 2010, there has been such a large influx of British expats buying properties, that the town has been given the tongue-in-cheek nickname of Salentoshire.
La Processione della Grata - On the second Sunday of August, this procession leaves the Sanctuary della Grata to go to the center of the city and, and in the evening the candles of over six thousand people light up the countryside which can be viewed from the city's walls.
Sagra dei Vecchi Tempi - Feast of the Old Times. August 15th is a local food festival with many traditional dishes.
Cavalcata di Sant’Oronzo - a celebration of the town’s patron saint, takes place between the 24th-27th August. The high point are costumed knights and a procession on horseback.
Festa di San Biagio - On February 3rd, thousands of pilgrims go to the sanctuary of San Biagio carved into the side of the limestone hillside, just outside of town. The Sanctuary is notable for a huge, ancient sinkhole considered by speleologists the biggest underground cavity in Puglia. Visitors can enjoy the natural landscape in the surrounding area.- Via dei Colli, Ostuni, Puglia
Just remember to bring your sunglasses if you plan on visiting Ostuni -- it's that white.
Altamura is primarily known for its world famous crusty bread that lasts for weeks, but man doesn't live by bread alone. An occasional musical interlude helps, too...
The Teatro Mercadante of Altamura began a new history in the Pugliese city in 2014 after 25 years of closure, thanks to the patronage by Altamura entrepreneurs. The beautifully restored classical Italian theater hosts a mixture of opera, jazz, classical comedies, Avant-garde performances, modern plays and philharmonic concerts.
The theater is named after one of Altamura's favorite sons, Giuseppe Saverio Raffaele Mercadante (1795 -1870), an Italian composer, particularly of operas. After his death in 1870, the city of Altamura decided to build a new theater to honor his memory, starting construction in 1895 and finishing (amazingly) within six months! Originally, each person contributing to the effort, paid at least 5 lira which would represent "ownership" of the stage, a lamp, a door or a chair proportional to the amount paid.
The interior of the theater is horseshoe shaped, consisting of four tiers of boxes and stalls with a capacity of approximately 500 seats, which results in there being no bad seat in the house. The historic curtain, entitled Mirabile, is the work of the painter Montagano, depicting Frederick II of Swabia and the construction of the Altamura Duomo.
While Mercadante may not have retained the international celebrity of Gaetano Donizetti or Gioachino Rossini beyond his own lifetime, he composed as impressive a number of works. His development of operatic structures, melodic styles and orchestration contributed significantly to the foundations upon which Giuseppe Verdi built his dramatic technique.
Attending a play or concert in this wonderful Italian theater would be an experience that will add eternal memories to your Voyage to Puglia and Altamura...
In the baroque town of Caltagirone, Sicily, the main attraction is its ceramics industry. The name of the town derives from the Arabic word qal’at-al-ghiran, meaning Castle of Vases. There are ceramics everywhere you look... as tile murals on buildings, as signs, and in the many ceramics shops just waiting for a savvy Voyager to select a few special pieces to take back home.
But the tiles also adorn its stairways, the most majestic being the Scale di Santa Maria del Monte, built in 1608. Start to climb the 142 steps and you will be reading the town's history, each step telling their stories on hand-painted ceramic tiles that clad each stair’s riser. There are many fantastic characters, battle scenes, landscapes and symbolic patterns. It's a wonder to think that the staircase was rebuilt by the town after being destroyed by an earthquake in 1693 which destroyed most of the town. The Scale is a symbol of the town's resilience and rightfully, was honored as a UNESCO world heritage site in 2002.
When you arrive at the top of this kaleidoscopic ascent, you turn around only to notice that the steps' colors have disappeared, seemingly to allow you to focus on the wonderful views of the town itself with its Baroque architecture. With tiles and ceramics being part of the architecture of the town, anyone who loves colorful ceramics would love visiting Caltagirone.
You can see wonderful tile installations in its churches and palazzi, the Majolica Bridge of San Francesco, as well as in the Giardino Villa Comunale, a well cared for public garden. Worth a look are elaborate balcony of Casa Ventimiglia in Via Roma and Palazzo della Magnolia, in Via Luigi Sturzo with its terracotta embellishments.
If you go:
Caltagirone is located 43 miles southwest of Catania in southern Sicily. You can get there by bus from Catania but a car is recommended. Today the town thrives on tourists and ceramic collectors who visit over 130 ceramics studios and shops. The style of ceramics here is called Maiolica (Majolica) and is distinctively different from other areas of Sicily.
Museo Regionale della Ceramica
Examples of Sicilian ceramic objects dating from prehistoric times to the present day. One enters the museum through the so-called Teatrino (Little Theater), a belvedere dating from 1792 with steps and its decorated balustrade.
Teatrino del Bonaiuto, Giardini Pubblici 96041
Caltagirone, Sicily, Italy
Tel: 39 0933 58423
Palio della Rana
The Palio della Rana is a frog race--well, sort of. It's a wheelbarrow race with frogs. It usually takes place the weekend after Easter in the town of Fermignano, between Urbino and Urbania in central Italy's Marche region. Contestants, representing each of the seven contrade (neighborhoods) dress in historic costume and race with frogs atop small wheelbarrows, trying to reach the finish line before the frog hops off. Each frog is placed on a blue wooden carriola (wheelbarrow). The scarriolanti (wheelbarrow runners) race to the finish line while trying to keep the frogs on their wheelbarrows. If a frog jumps off, the competitor must stop, place the frog back on the wheelbarrow platform, and then keep going. There's also a procession in historical costume and food.
The date of Rome's founding (in 753BC) is celebrated on April 21 so if you're in Rome, watch for festivals, concerts, and special events. There's usually a fireworks display over the Tiber River and gladiator shows around the forum area. Find out more in April Events in Rome.
Palio dei Buoi
In the towns of Asigliano and Caresana on April 23 (the saint day of San Giorgio) the Palio dei Buoi (oxen race) takes place every year. Historically in this area, oxen were used in pairs to tow the plow and to carry out other heavy jobs in the countryside. Both the Caresana and Asigliano races have been held for over 700 years. San Giorgio is the patron saint of farm workers. Recently, the race has been delayed due to protests from animal rights activists.
Festival of San Marco
The Festa di San Marco is a traditional celebration dedicated to Venice’s patron St Mark the Evangelist, believed to be the author of the Gospel of Mark. Several relics from the saint still remain in the city, who is also said to have founded the Church of Alexandria. Festa di San Marco is also known as the Rosebud Festival or Festa del bocolo (rosebud in Venetian dialect) where traditionally men gift the woman they love with a single red rose, to commemorate an old legend connected to the history of Venice. A highlight of the festival occurs in Saint Mark's Square on April 25 including a procession to the basilica. (See Liberation Day below)
International Handicrafts Fair
Since 1931 in Florence, the Mostra Mercato Internazionale Dell'Arginianto, the world's premier market of artistic crafts, will be held from April 21 through May 1. Spread out over 55,ooo square meters in the Fortezza da Basso, over 800 exhibitors from all over Italy and from 50 countries will display and sell their beautiful Italian and international handcrafted items. All sorts of crafts are on display including lamps, pottery, rugs, fabrics, musical instruments, masks and statues. There will also be food to enjoy and taste, with many artisinal products, wines, gelato and more.
The Race of the Ring
The Corsa all'Anello in Narni in Umbria is part of the celebrations held from April 24 through May 13 this year. During this medieval jousting competition, horsemen try to snare rings. There are also a historical procession and other events.
The artichoke (did you know it is an aphrodisiac?) is the object of a three-day Festa di Carciofo (artichoke festival) held from April 12th through 14th in the coastal town of Ladispoli, just outside of Rome in Lazio. It's been a tradition now to honor the Roman Artichoke at this special festival. It forms the foundation of a wide selection of dishes created specially at this event. Visitors can sample the artichoke-related dishes on offer, which contain a delicious and unique combination of flavors.
But the most interesting thing to see is artichoke sculpture competition. Entrants can create anything they wish, from boats to life-sized animals such as tortoises, horses and elephants!
San Biagio Day
San Biagio is the Patron Saint of Avetrana in Southern Puglia. He was known in his time for being a doctor and saver of lives, and for being the Bishop of Sebaste between the third and fourth centuries. He was also known for his firm religious beliefs, and unfortunately, these were to ultimately cost him his own life. Having been imprisoned for his Christian beliefs, he was put on trial and – having refused to renounce his faith – was beheaded in 316. April 28th and 29th sees a two-day celebration of San Biagio with a combination of sombre procession and later upbeat fireworks, luminarie (display of lights) and music from bands as well as street fairs, food and drink.
Liberation Day (National Holiday)
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the day that Italy was released from the Nazis and the rule of Mussolini by Allied troops. The following year in 1946, the first national holiday was held to mark this occasion. The country will come together to remember those that fell in the war and to honor the dead. In addition, there will also be festivals, concerts and bands to mark the day.
In Venice, it will be a doubly special day – in addition to Liberation Day, Venetians will also be marking the Festival Of St Mark, the city's patron saint. Bands and musicians will provide a series of aural treats, while markets and carnivals will add to the fun. The famous boat race, Regata di Traghetti, will also see teams of gondoliers competing to win first prize while ferrying passengers.
One of the most beautiful towns we visited in Puglia was Polignano al Mare. We walked the old historic center, took lots of photos, and were amazed by their beach, hugged by rocky cliffs of the Saracen Cove on either side. One of the most unusual offerings is the Grotta Palasezze, a restaurant built into a large grotto hanging just meters over the sea. If you frequent pretty much any social media sites about Italy, I'm certain you've seen photos of the place. It's definitely jaw-droppingly beautiful.
To be honest, Voyaging with an eleven-year old, we decided not to go there for dinner. You see, I had researched this place before our Voyage ever started. Not simply because we thought it wasn't kid-friendly (it really isn't), and not because our (then, 11 year-old) son Lucas wouldn't enjoy it. In actuality, he has a very sophisticated palette and handles him self very well whenever we go to posh places. We're always given compliments about him--ever since he was a toddler. There were two other main reasons...
One is the price. This place is very expensive. You're paying for their uniqueness and the view. They charge €10 per person for cover. They'll charge you €50 for a €10 bottle of regional wine which you can usually find in a local alimentari for around €6, but the rest of the wine list will cost from €100 - €600 a bottle. (We tend to like moderately priced, good wines and never pay over-inflated restaurant prices when we can avoid it). You'll pay another €45 or so for a single serving aperitivo. Then another €45 for la primo of pasta or risotto and €45 per secondi--fish or meat entrees. And be careful about surcharges ("market price") for things like shrimp and prawns (up to €150 a pound or more!) If you want to have a six plate tasting menu instead, that'll set you back €140 each. For dessert, a semifreddo is about €15.
So, given the exchange rate when we were there, if we did three tastings, one bottle of mineral water, desserts and no wine, we still would have spent over $600!
The second reason we opted no to go? This place is way too formal for our tastes. I mean, the waiters usually are dressed better than the clientele. There is an old-school dress code in place here... but the odd thing is, they really don't enforce it (for nicely dressed people), otherwise they'd be turning away most of the more casually dressed tourist clientele. Just don't show up wearing shorts. They will turn you away with a real attitude, reservation or not.
This is the new millennium, after all. "Dress codes" are pretty much meaningless, so why should the wait staff have to dress so darned stuffy, too? It's damned off-putting. Besides, if I'm going to be paying such over-inflated prices, I should be able to dress any damned way I want. In reality, you get an odd mix of tourists dressed nicely but casually, mixed in with a few locals dressed for their "bella figura" having dinner for a special event--anniversary or whatever.
And in the end, there are two things that prove this is an overpriced place marketed to foreign tourists: The menus are printed in both Italian and English--a sure sign of a tourist joint. Secondly (according to many online reviewers, and perhaps most important of all), the staff tends to rush you along through your meal, unlike most ristoranti. It's the Italian custom never to rush through a meal--especially when you're in a restaurant. Most local places expect to have only one cover per table each night. People may take 4 hours to enjoy their meal and conversation. At Grotta Palazzase they are trying to move you out of the way so they can have at least two sittings each evening, perhaps as many as four. Not very Italian of them, is it?
As it turns out, we still enjoyed the views of the sea at a chic bistro-pizzeria at the other end of the little bay, and had wonderful wine, fantastic aperitivi, the best pizzas in all of Italy and amazing desserts--all for around €60 for the three of us--at Terazza Pizzeria.
In the end, if you really want to have the experience of dining in Polignano al Mare, try the Terazza Pizzeria (very affordable, casual), or Il Bastione (affordable, casual) with an outdoor dining terrace hanging on the cliff above the Cove. It has a dramatic view of the Cove and its houses clinging to the cliff with a more affordable and diversified menu. (How does €60 for two sound?) The views will stay with you forever--along with most of your cash! If one compares the photos of the dishes served in Il Bastione and Grotta Palasezze, you'll see the quality looks very similar. This is Puglia, after all... most places serve wonderful food--especially from the sea.
Il Bastione, above - Grotta Palasezze, below
But if you're really hell bent on eating dinner in a cave, I suggest taking a drive to Matera, the Sassi city, where most of the restaurants in the Sassi district are in caves. No sea view, but still a great, romantic experience, especially if you take a passeggiata (stroll) down to the Piazza along the edge of the gorge at sunset.
Borghi Fantasma (Ghost Towns) of the Cilento
The obvious thing that you notice when touring through Italy is its geology. The mountains, cliffs and hills are mostly a direct result of volcanic action--and in addition, there are three active volcanoes still terra-forming the landscape. The weather is also a factor with most of Italy experiencing a "rainy season" beginning in late October. When heavy rains come, there are floods and landslides. Earthquakes are a regular occurrence throughout Italy, too. All these can be disastrous for communities--enough so that they must abandon their homes.
Aside from the weather, there have been many other factors causing towns to be abandoned throughout Italian history: harsh living conditions, plague, lack of running water and electricity, failure of crops, pirate raids, bombings and even the massive emigration to the Americas for people striving for a better life for their families. In fact, some put the number of Ghost Towns in Italy at nearly 20,000! Many of these are wonderful snapshots in time ripe for the Slow Travel Voyager to discover.
The Cilento has been affected by some of these factors causing communities to abandon their homes--while creating some interesting Borghi Fantasma, Ghost Towns...
Romagnano al Monte
A sixty mile drive miles from Roscigno Vecchia will bring you to the ghost town of Romagnano al Monte, right on the border of Basilicata. It has a long history from the late Roman era over 1000 years ago with kings, lords, barons, brigands, and heads of murderers displayed in the piazza. After a 1980 earthquake the 600 inhabitants were relocated to a new Romagnano nearby. When I visited the site in 2014 access was restricted with a rehabilitation project underway to promote tourism. Tourists are welcomed today. The village sits 1300 feet above the Platano river canyon below and boasts two fortified religious buildings dating from the 13th century with the walls of a castle still evident. Many houses still stand, some in near perfect condition but most others severely damaged by the earthquake with nature taking over. Kitchens may still have dishes and pots, with other rooms showing little glimpses of the lives that prospered here... a doll's head, prayer icon, furniture, tools or even shoes. Click to see MAP.
Borgo Medioevale di San Severino
Perched just above the modern village of San Severino di Centola is a medieval ghost town that was abandoned decades ago, when the inhabitants decided they would like to live closer to the new railroad station. A thousand years ago, a castle and watch tower were built to protect against invaders from the Gola del Diavalo (Devil's Gorge) below. The ruins of the castle are still there to explore along with the ruins of the Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli and other homes in the village. In August a festival is held in the Borgo and a living creche during the Christmas season. Click for MAP.
Sacco Vecchio is a different type of ghost town, having been abandoned for unknown reasons between the 9th and 11th centuries AD, possibly due to either plague or invasion by brigands or other foreign forces. Sacco Vecchio was abandoned by its inhabitants who moved more downstream at the foot of Monte Motola. Today, visitors can hike up some very well maintained rustic steps to the ruins of the old village (about 3/4 mile walk from the modern village of Sacco), looking more like an ancient archeological site than other ghost towns abandoned in more recent times. From the 4th century, the area was settled by the Longobards and Basilic monks. There are also structures and foundations that have been dated to pre-Christian times.
Some ghost towns come with legends and Sacco Vecchio is one of them... According to an 18th century legend, the castle on top of the cliff was built around 600 AD by Duke Zottone di Benevento, to ward off the Byzantines. The overly jealous and possessive Duke accused his wife Saccia of adultery and locked her away in the castle. After the destruction of the castle in the 8th century, the inhabitants built their new village downhill called it Saccia in memory of the Duke's innocent wife.
The site is situate on top of a 400 foot tall cliff with sheer rock walls over 200 feet tall. There are many hiking trails in the area and the gorge below --the Sorgenti del Sammaro (Sammaro Springs Gorge)--that will take you to amazing rock formations shaped by the torrents flowing through the gorge. The nearby modern village of Sacco is also very picturesque and worth a visit with its narrow streets, flowered balconies and the cliffs towering above. Don't forget to visit their museum of wood artisan crafts. Click to see Map.
Grottoes and Caverns of Cilento
Grotte di Polla
Explored in 1956 by some the Grotte di Polla contains concretions of stalactites and stalagmites, but still retains a deep layer of mud on the bottom that makes things difficult for speleological explorers to explore further.
How to get there: cross the village of Polla, and follow the signs for the Convent of Sant'Antonio. One quarter of the way up Via del Convent di Sant'Antonio on a sharp curve you will find the entrance to the Grotte up a short path hidden by some vegetation. At this writing, it is not clear about how to gain access to the Grotte di Polla. It's best to contact the Commune of Polla.
This video shows a 3-D plotted animation tour of the Grotte di Polla.
La grotta di San Michele Arcangelo
Another interesting discovery in Fasanella is found 2000 feet up above the town--"Antece" - il Guerriero di Costa Palomba ("Antece", the Warrior of Costa Palomba)--a rock sculpture dating back to the 4th century BC. The ancient warrior's name is "Antecce" (in local dialect), which can be translated as either "The Ancient" or "The Immovable". He is life-sized and dressed in a warrior's tunic holding with a sword strapped to his back, a lance and a shield at his side. The road to the site is well marked from the village with a short, well kept path taking you by foot up to Antecce.
And for serious spelunkers, there is the Grava dei gatti Monti Alburni, a wonderful cave with a huge vertical sinkhole.
Also up in these hills are found an observatory, several mountain chapels and sanctuaries, and stacked rock spires. It's definitely a mystical place to visit. The road to the cave (grotto) is immediately off of the main square in the town at the end of Via Primavera. The road leading up to Antecce is on the other end of town.
While in Sant'Angelo a Fasanella, there is one other site you should visit... Cascate dell'Auso, natural springs, a source pouring out of the mountain, with a series of waterfalls and its ancient Roman arch-top bridge. This is a well-cared for natural park site with walkways, bridges, ruins of old structures and overlooks. There is a 150 foot deep sinkhole directly on top of the 1000 foot cliff that rises just above the Auso spring source, evidence of the power of water in this Karst environment. Water is everywhere underground, slowly eroding the limestone with its acids, forming caves and occasional sinkholes. This is a great spot for photos, a comfortable walk and a picnic. Take a left turn at the entrance for the Grotta di San Michele Arcangelo to get to the Auso park, about 1 mile from town.
Grotte di Pertosa
The Grotte di Pertosa are one of the best--and largest--caverns to visit in all of Italy (although the huge caverns at Castellana di Grotte in Puglia are my personal favorite). Only 40 minutes from Salerno at the northeast corner of the Monti Alburni massif (mostly highway) and about one hour 40 minutes from Agropoli (going around the mountains), they are the only caverns in Europe where you can navigate an underground river by boat. The Fiume Nero tour is mixed with silence, magnificent rock formations, occasionally interrupted by the roar of the underground waterfalls. The grottoes took Mother Nature 35 million years to form and stretch for nearly two miles under Alburni Mountains, rich with concretions, columns, "bacon"formations, stalactites and stalagmites of endless colors and sizes. One of the most popular grottoes in the region, they are often rented for receptions, weddings, film crews and even fashion shows. The temperature is 60 degrees Fahrenheit all year long. Click to see map.
The tiny village of Pertosa seems very well groomed due to the tourist popularity of its Grotte, but there not much else to do there aside from filling up your gas tank and eating at one of the many tourist ristorante. But there is is one more attraction to the area... Less than a half mile south of Pertosa, the Campostrino Gorge runs from the nearby hamlet of Muraglione and the village of Auletta is a popular spot for river rafting, kayaking and canyoning. is a popular spot for river rafting, kayaking and canyoning. In fact, if you are into these sports, the entire region of Cilento is ripe with options due to the many rivers and gorges.
Grotte di Castelcivita
Lying just outside the Parco Nazionale del Cilento e Vallo di Diano, at the southwest edge of the Alburni massif, the Grotte di Castelcivita caves extend for 3 miles, making them one of the largest caverns in southern Italy. They offer one shorter trail for tourists (3/4 mile) and another 3 hour excursion (1-3/4 miles long) for amateur cavers. The grotte contain world class stalactites and stalagmites and other bizarre mineral formations. The entrance to the caves are situated about a mile downhill of the hilltown of Castelcivita. There is a small ristorante/pizzeria and outdoor stands with locals selling crafts like wood carvings and pottery, and local produce like honey or cheese. Another colorful bar tabacchi sits one hundred meters down the road with a sunny outdoor patio, drinks and food. The Grotte hosts many types of performances, too... multimedia, performance artists, concerts, etc.
As you can see, this brings us nearly back to where we started our tour of the Cilento in Paestum... a 45 minute drive from Castelcivita. Of course, there is so much to do in the Cilento that you can make your own itinerary depending on your interests and the time you have to spend there. The Cilento can be where you head toward after visiting Naples and the Amalfi Coast, or you can combine a trip through the Cilento on the way to points further south in Basilicata, Puglia, Calabria or Sicily. The more you explore southern Italy, the more wonderful things you'll discover... like the Cilento!
I hope this three part series has helped.
Copyright 2017, Jerry Finzi/Grand Voyage Italy - All Rights Reserved
Vallo di Diano - The Inland Cilento Plateau
The complete name of the national park zone is Parco Nazionale del Cilento e Vallo di Diano (Cilento National Park and the Valley of Diana). There are really two parts to the park... the Cilento Coast with its seaside towns, beaches and the mountains, and inland, the Vallo di Diano. This broad valley ( 5 miles wide by 20 miles long) is naturalist's wonderland and can be a relaxing contrast to the beachy summertime holiday vibe of the coastal beach towns--especially during the high season.
There are flowering meadows, dense forests, with the dramatic mountains feeding the many streams, rivers and waterfalls. A UNESCO Site, it is the second-largest national park in Italy, covering nearly 700 square miles and containing 80 villages. Besides the history of Greeks, Romans and others, during more modern history these mountains were plagued by roaming briganti (bandits). Today, you are safe from kidnapping or thievery--not to worry. If necessary, you can say your prayers at the largest monastery in Europe.
One method of getting a good taste of both the coastal beaches and mountains as well as the Vallo di Diano is to start at Paestum, moving down the coast visiting the various towns and points of interest, then after exploring Capo Palinuro, make a turn up toward the mountains and the valley, heading north again, thus doing a sort of loop of the entire region. There are many discoveries to be made in the Vallo...
The hilltown of Sanza will be your first stop when traveling up from Palinuro toward the Vallo di Diano. While it does have an old historic center at the top of the village, the town can be thought of as a pit stop while traveling. As a workaday Italian town, it has gas stations, restaurants, alimentari (small food markets) and hardware stores... in other words, it's a place to stop to fill your tank and pick up picnic supplies. You might find its location fairly interesting, too, as it's surrounded by some pretty majestic mountains--for one, the extinct volcano Monte Cervati is over 6000 feet tall, the highest mountain in all of Campania.
This area has a strong appeal for serious trekkers, mountain climbers or back country mountain bikers... there are several trail heads just before you reach the town. One dirt road travels up to a small mountain chapel pilgrimage about a mile west of the summit. Otherwise, there is a loop trail that starts at the north end of Sanza which is 35 miles long with an elevation challenge of nearly 5000 feet!
If you are traveling with a 4 wheel drive vehicle, you can drive up toward Cervati and start your trek or cycling adventure from higher up the mountain. If you're into serious mountain cycling, this is the place for you. In winter, the place is well known for snowboarding. The views from the bald, rocky top of Cervati are amazing but during the journey you might come upon mountain goats, sheep, grazing buffalo, wild boar, wolves (yes, they have some here), hawks and eagles. The trails may also lead to waterfalls, majestic cliff overlooks, caves and even a tunnel or two.
Note: Although you can drive fairly high on the mountain with a 4-wheeler, this is serious back country. Don't travel alone. Cell phone service is spotty. Mountain rescue is fairly non-existant. Bring a hand-held GPS unit if possible. Day trips only--do not consider camping on the bare-topped mountain. Carry lots of water. If you are into more flat land cycling and trekking, consider trekking in the valley below.
Montesano sulla Marcellana is another workaday hilltown about 8 miles further east on the other edge of the Vallo di Diano. You will find this one a bit more attractive in terms of architecture as this town has a history going back 1000 years with a varied cultural past during the Renaissance. It's an odd hilltown in that it's missing its castello or rocca at the top (Google Earth shows just a wide flat parking area, but there might be new construction going on at the time of this writing). Its obvious crowning glory is a rather late addition--Sant'Anna a Montesano, the twin-spired Gothic cathedral built in the 1950s with a grand exterior but a rather bland interior when compared to most other basilicas or cathedrals in Italy. If anything, this village is worth a visit if only to take in the wide panoramic views of the entire expanse of the Vallo surround by its mountains.
Certosa di San Lorenzo Monastery
Sitting on the eastern edge of the Vallo di Diano, just below the hilltown of Padula, is a "monastery" claimed to be one of the largest in southern Europe...
the Certosa di San Lorenzo. I put "monastery" in quotes for good reason. Looking more like an over-indulgent palazzo on the scale of Versailles rather than a stern, stark monastery, the Certosa dates from 1306 and covers nearly a square mile and contains: 320 rooms and halls, a mile and a half of corridors, galleries and hallways, 300 columns, 500 doors, 550 windows, 13 courtyards, 100 fireplaces, 52 stairways (some are magnificent) and 41 fountains. And I haven't even talked about the huge formal gardens. I can't imagine monks here spending much time meditating and praying in their cells.
As you can imagine, you can spend a lot of time trying to see everything at Certosa di San Lorenzo. If you would like to visit here, you might consider a stay in the little hilltown of Padula overlooking the monastery. The Certosa is one of the crowning highlights of a Voyage through the Vallo di Diano--don't miss it, but allow enough time to explore it fully.
While in Padula, there is one other site worth taking a look at just up the hill from the town... San Michele alle Grottelle. The grotto's history stretches back to pagan times honoring the god Attis, but has been used as a Christian pilgrimage since before the time of Constantine, when Christian worship was literally forced underground. Today you can see an outer structure dating to the 10th century AD with frescoes from the 14th century. The sacristy is made from the rock on which the church stands.
About a mile and a half north of the Certosa di San Lorenzo is the Battistero di San Giovanni in Fonte, a paleo-Christian baptistry unlike any other in the world--its baptismal waters come directly from the natural spring flowing through the building. The site was used worship a pagan nymph, but since the 4th century has been used for Evangelical baptisms. As a plus, there is a wonderful agriturismo B&B right next to the Battistero growing not only their own produce but having a fish farm growing trout--La Fonte Agristurismo.
Sassano and its Valley of Orchids
The Valley of Orchids (Valle delle Orchidee) is located in Sassano, right in the heart of the Vallo on the western slope opposite Padula. The orchids bloom from April to June, and even some varieties keep flowering until July. Within a 20 square mile area, you can observe 68 species of wild orchids plus 57 subspecies, 35 varieties and 24 hybrids. The entire Vallo actually boasts 254 species of wild orchids. Every year in May, Sassano celebrates the wild orchid with its Festival of the Orchids with free guided tours, tastings of local products, and regional folk music.
The hilltown of Teggiano sitting over 2000 feet above sea level, on the eastern edge of the Vallo di Diano, has a history going back to the 4th century AD, originally an ancient Roman colony of Nero. The proof of its antiquity can be seen in an ancient Roman bridge and inscriptions in the town in Greek letters. You can think of Teggiano as a medieval museum which includes, The Castle of Sanseverino; the Cathedral with XIII century doors; the Church of Annunziata with its frescoes; the Church of St Angelo with a crypt from the year 1200; the Church of SS. Pietà (medieval cloister, frescoes and statues); the Diocesano Museum; and the Museum of Rural Civilization.
Sitting about 600 feet above the valley below, this is possibly one of the more beautiful hilltowns of the Vallo di Diano with several piazze and belvedere that afford majestic views of the valley and mountains surrounding the town. A very civilized town, there is even indoor parking at the top of the town! There are also incredibly wide piazze and viale--unusual for a small hilltown. It's a town for walking and taking in the wonderful architecture, such as the 15th century Norman fortress, Castello Sanseverino and its many churches and chapels. There are even some hidden gardens and many Italian style pot gardens. The feel is Renaissance, many of the houses having "Juliette balconies" and arched alleyways. There are often festivals and sagre in the town to enjoy throughout the year. And don't forget to get a viewpoint at night of the illuminated village from higher up on the mountain or from the valley below.
Teggiano would be a practical place to stay for a few days to a week while exploring the rest of what the Vallo di Diano has to offer. If you decide to stay in the town, you can rent beautiful rooms in Castello Sanseverino or other apartments in the village for about $100 a night or less. I can imagine a one week stay in a Cilento coastal town like Santa Maria di Castellabate for exploring the coast or doing some boating, then another week in Teggiano while enjoying what the Vallo and surrounding mountains have to offer.
The Lucani were the native people living in the Vallo di Diano during the 6th and 3rd centuries BC. The megalithic walls in Atena Lucane date back to the 500 BC with both Greek and Roman dominance the 4th to 2nd centuries BC. Many historians claim this is the oldest settlement in the entire Vallo.
This hilltown is tiny--only 1/4 mile wide but has fine views of the Vallo. There is a small archeological museum and a 12th century castle. The other reason to stop at this village is to do some trekking in the nearby Arenaccia valley where you will see mountain torrents, waterfalls and many caves. (Click to see a map of hiking paths in Atena Lucane).
The medieval village of Polla can be enjoyed for its medieval historic center, its many churches, a 12th-century castle and the Franciscan monastery of Santuario di Sant'Antonio. It should be of particular interest to cavers and hiking enthusiasts thanks to the karst nature of the mountain above the town. The Grotta di Polla is located just below a tall rock cliff on the drive up Via delle Grotte, just below the Santuario. The cave's artifacts date it back to the stone and bronze ages. Polla is also a place for culinary pleasures, handcrafted folk costumes and their annual Pizza Festival.
Copyright 2017, Jerry Finzi/Grand Voyage Italy - All Rights Reserved
It's rare that Voyagers to Naples and the Amalfi Coast travel much further south past Salerno, but with its ancient Greek temples, rocky coast, picturesque port towns, sandy beaches, thousands of square miles of national park with its wild orchids, river rafting, mountain trekking and biking paths and even a ghost town or two, the
Cilento Coast is a worthwhile destination.
This isn't a very touristy area--aside from Italians. There won't be much English spoken in the villages and towns. If you come during the Ferragosto (August holiday), when most Italians are taking a month long vacation, the sandy beaches will be crowded with Italian families and in some areas, wall to wall beach umbrellas. But most other times of the year, the Cilento Coast is laid back and definitely not on the tourist radar although there are miles and miles of sandy beaches and their beach towns along the coast.
This is Middle Class Italy at its best. You will see a mix of quaint towns, abandoned buildings, built-up beach resorts, construction projects seemingly at a standstill, rustic cabins and trailer camping grounds, Greek ruins, fantastic surprisingly great family ristorante, cozy and flowery B&Bs, Norman and Saracen watch towers, hilltowns and mostly fishing boats in place of luxury yachts.
The climate is mild in the Cilento, even at the shoulders of the tourist season. Early spring and late fall will still have temperatures in the mid-sixties during the day--cold for Italians, but fine for the rest of us. And even in November, the rainy season is not really that rainy--about 9 days per month on average. The best news... even in August, the historic averages are in the mid eighties, due to both the sea breezes and the cool air coming down from the mountains.
The sunsets are also better on the Cilento because the sun sets over the sea, unlike on the Amalfi Coast where the sun sets over the mountains in the direction of Capri. And if you love mountain biking, SCUBA diving, fishing, trekking and exploring grottoes and caverns, then the Cilento is a place to explore...
Paestum: Greek Temples Older than Ancient Rome
Paestum (originally named as Poseidonia, honoring the god Poseidon) was founded by the Greek Achaeans around 600 BC as a major city and trading port with a system of roads, temples, and defensive walls. It was an attractive site due to its fertile fields, sea port and access to the inland mountains.
Paestum is a day trip from the Amalfi Coast, with tourist buses dropping off the throngs of people in late morning, but Voyagers to the Cilento Coast can consider it as their first stop to discover its three well preserved Greek temples, archeological site and museum.
The Temple of Hera is oldest, built in 550 BC. It has 9 Doric columns on each facade and 18 along each side. The Temple of Athena was built around 500 BC. It has outer Doric columns and Ionic columns inside. It is 6 columns wide by 13 long. The Doric Temple of Hera II is the youngest, built in 460 BC and is also the best preserved. It is six columns wide by fourteen long. By 273 AD, the Romans took control and renamed it Paestum. The workaday beach town of Paestum is also worth a stop for a pizza with mozzarella di bufala or for a walk on its beach.
Mozzarella di Bufala
The most famous and important food product of the area, especially in the towns of Battipaglia, Eboli and Paestum is by far the Mozzarella di Bufala. There is no cow's milk used in this region for mozzarella. The milk used is from buffalo, or rather, the breed of water buffalo raised in the Campania region and the resulting cheese is a DOP protected product. Fully 90% of the mozzarella di bufala is produced in this region.
Tours of a buffalo farm are possible, but two good ones to check out are Taverna Penta and Tenuta Vannulo. The buffalo are treated well here... they even have self-service massage machines that the buffalo can go to whenever then need a little spa treatment. When trekking in the high mountains of the Cilento you will probably come across herds of buffalo grazing--a beautiful sight. The amazing taste of Mozzarella di Bufala--as well as their meat (very popular here)--is a testament to their fine treatment.
Flying in Cilento: Zip-Line Adventure at Trentinara
Coastal Towns Worth a Visit
Agropoli's history is varied and interesting, from the neolithic people living in the surrounding hills, hunting and fishing, to the indigenous people that created a more stable settlement before the Greeks came around 600 BC and settled in nearby Positania (Paestum). The Greeks use the large bay (since silted up) and river for fishing and trading. By the 1st century BC, Romans controlled the settlement and renamed it Ercola to honor Hercules. The Byzantines took over control in the 5th century BC and the Normans built a fortress castle to ward off attacks from the Turks. As late as the 1800s, even the French controlled the port town.
Only one hour from Salerno by car, Agropoli is part of the National Park of Cilento and Valley of Diano and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It's a romantic town, especially at night, virtually every balcony has a great view of the sea, fig trees and the mountains. Worth a visit is its castle which crowns the medieval village (borgo), cobbled streets and its wonderful churches. There are obvious influences of the Saracens, the Turks, Byzantines, the Romans and the Greeks in its architecture, food and culture. In summer there are medieval festivals with colorful costumes in the old town and flowers just about everywhere. Agropoli would be a very good choice as a hub for a longer stay to explore other areas of the Cilento.
When we talk about visiting Castellabate, we are really talking about three towns... The old town of Castellabate high up on the hill with magnificent views of the broad gulf, San Marco, the picturesque small port village on the southern edge of the bay, and the larger Santa Maria di Castellabate, arguably the best resort town on the Cilento Coast.
San Marco offers fine hotels, a natural walking path to a rocky "la Grotta" bathing environment, and its small pleasure boat harbor.
The hill top medieval village of Castellabate is a UNESCO treasure, with amazing views of the gulf between Punta Licosa and Punta Tresino (the natural sea park). Perhaps its best treasures are its castle and the Papal cathedral. During summer and fall there are medieval festivals with celebrants in colorful costumes. This historic village is positively magical at night.
Sitting on the east coast of the blunt Cilento peninsula, Santa Maria di Castellabate, is one of the most picture perfect beach towns on the entire Cilento Coast. It has several sandy beaches frequented by families, not movie stars. Perhaps its best feature is its promenade along the port, a great place for an early evening passeggiata. There are also a good variety of restaurants and cafes to choose from. This is definitely a place to stay for a while or as a hub to explore the rest of the Cilento.
Acciaroli has the honor of having over 300 residents over the age of 100, mostly due to its laid back lifestyle and healthy Mediterranean diet. It is sleepy seaside village with a scenic seaside walkway and a charming old town. The crusty details of the aging architecture is a photographer's dream. An authentic fishing port, you will see mostly fishing boats with the trawl nets and sailboats docked in the small harbor. There is also a long sandy beach with some of the cleanest water imaginable. It's possible that during your stay you won't meet anyone but locals. Earnest Hemingway wrote the Old Man and the Sea after spending time in Acciaroli, his "old man" character being drawn from a fisherman he befriended while there.
Palinuro is the southernmost town on the Cilento Coast I am profiling... but more than just the town, I am recommending Capo Palinuro and the rugged area and shoreline surrounding this rather typical holiday and camping town. This rugged promontory juts out into the sea with many crags, cliffs, islets, sea grottoes and even several natural arches. If you like things rugged or camp with a caravan (we call them a Third Wheel here in the States) then this town is for you. Otherwise, you could rent a holiday villa and explore the area... renting boats, SCUBA diving, mountain biking, hiking, bird watching and more.
Capo Palinuro is a naturalist's dream, with many sentieri (hiking paths) throughout the peninsula that can be used to observe flora and fauna--there are thousands of indigenous species for botanists, birdwatchers and casual nature lovers. Even the beaches in the village of Palinuro are of interest--they are located in rocky tide pools
hatever you do, try not to miss the Blue Grotto, the Arch of Palinuro, or just rent a boat at the marina and discover the many other sea grottoes that dot the Capo. The really amazing thing about the Capo is that the distances between sites are very low.
A circumnavigation of the cape by rental boat is roughly 3 miles one way--a very doable and amazing boating adventure for a single day's boat rental where you will experience monumental cliffs, snorkel in a sea grotto, swim in unbelievably clear waters, sun yourselves on pristine sandy beaches and perhaps come upon a Palinuro Sea Otter.
Also, hiking loop trails on the cape are fairly short distances, for instance, the longest loop trail that takes you from the village of Porto up and around the Capo and back is a little over 3 miles. Still, these trails do involve a change in elevation of about 300 feet, so you need to be fit to enjoy them.
Fun Fact: The Arch of Palinuro can be seen in 1960s Hercules films and Jason & the Argonauts.
I suggest ending your coastal Voyage of the Cilento Coast at Palinuro simply because most of the towns further to the south are very large beach towns with kitchey tourist shops and wall to wall beach umbrellas from larger hotels. Starting at the holiday town of Marina di Camerota to the bustling town of Sapri set in its deep cove harbor (the last coast town in the Cilento region) the feeling is less and less laid back and more holiday town. I will mention, that for campers, there is a nearly three mile strand of straight sandy beach that looks back on the Capo di Palinuro stretching from the Fiume Mingardo river to Marina di Camerota with several camp/caravan venues, but during the high season these might be booked solid by Italian holiday campers.
Leaving the Palinuro area, I'd suggest driving up toward the hilltown of Senza, located near the southern starting point of the Vallo di Diano... (see MAP)
Copyright 2017, Jerry Finzi/Grand Voyage Italy - All Rights Reserved
I can attest to the fact that parts of Basilicata, a southern region of Italy, are very rugged, especially true of the area surrounding the villages of Castelmezzano and Pietrapertosa, tucked at the top of dolomite, jagged cliffs. These towns draw extreme sports enthusiasts with their Vol dell 'Angelo (Flight of the Angels), a high speed face down zip line hung between the two towns' clifftops.
There is lot in this region for the extreme sport or outdoor enthusiast: canyons, gorges and white water streams, biking through high mountain pastures while passing donkeys, sheep cattle, ghost towns, and castle fortresses on hilltops... cross-country skiing in winter, and hiking and trekking trails, one of which brings you to a mountaineering-style cable bridge, hanging in between two mountains, 360 feet above the gorge and river below...
Ponte della Luna (Bridge to the Moon) is accepting the first adventurers today--April 6th--who are brave enough to carefully walk across it's 900 foot span for a 30 minute, breathtaking experience. Safety equipment is required, but can be rented at the ticket office. There are 600 metal steps about 18 inches apart, which seem invisible when looking down, thanks to their open grid design. The views of the rustic village of Sasso di Castalda are amazing, but one shouldn't get too distracted!
Open every day from 9am to 5pm
€ 15 adults
€ 10 children under 14 years
Group discounts available
Ponte della Luna Website