Benvenuti al Sud – Welcome to the South

View from Ravello
The spectacular Amalfi Coast

I’ve always loved Italy and the Italians. I love the sun drenched land, the warmth of the people, the delicious food. This summer for the first time I discovered the South. By south I mean the part of Italy starting at Naples and extending down to the toe of Italy. This is the region of Calabria and home to the beautiful Cilento National Park. There’s a great line in the film ‘Benvenuti al Sud’ where the narrator says….. ‘’Un forestiero quando viene a Napoli piange due volte, quando viene e quando parte….’’ This means that when a stranger comes to the south they cry twice, once when they arrive and once when they have to leave. This perfectly sums up the feelings that I have for ‘the south’.

I’d always regarded myself as a Northern Italian girl, I love the architecture, history, culture of the north. I adore Venice, as you know. I love the Pre-Alpi (foothills of the Alps) and I even like the Alpini with their feathers in their caps. But I have to say there is something very special about ‘ the south’, very special indeed. In fact the Ancient Greeks agreed with me – they created the fortress city of Agropoli on the rocky coastline, at the southern end of the Gulf of Salerno in the 6th century BC. In the days before the Roman Empire the Greeks controlled the whole of Southern Italy. Agropoli was a strategic location and an ideal spot for developing a port. Nearby on the flat land in the valley of the River Sele the Greeks built the incredible temples of Paestum. Ever since I was a little girl I’ve wanted to visit these temples. They have fascinated me for decades – brilliantly preserved, symmetrical, elegant. They are strikingly similar to the Parthenon in Athens. What is even more interesting is that, until the 18th century visitors were convinced that they were Roman constructions.

Our guide Pina introduced me and a small group of fellow ‘latter day’ Grand Tourists to the splendours of Paestum just a month or so ago. Pina is a life long resident of Palinuro (to the south of here), she studied at the University of Salerno and is an expert on the region and its history.  We start in the Museum of Paestum which was built in the 1950s. The Museum explains the history of the site and houses many of the spectacular tombs discovered in this area. The site itself was a necropolis and centre of worship. The numerous painted tombs discovered here date from around 500 BC and are truly magnificent. The extent of the decoration, use of colour and creative design on the tombs is exceptional. It is the largest collection of Greek tomb paintings in Italy.

We stroll along the Roman road that was built later to link the temples. The road takes us from one rectangular temple arrangement to the next. The details of the columns, pediments, interiors are pointed out to us by Pina. Even though it’s a beautiful sunny day we are the only visitors at the farthest temple. I make a decision to exit the park at the south end where the Ristorante Nettuno has been refreshing travellers for generations. We sit in a shady courtyard enjoying tea and coffees – we have a superb view of the temples. Pina regales us with tales of local people reaching one hundred years of age in this area. The result of the Mediterranean diet she explains. As the sun begins to descend in the west we decide to move on. But first we drop Pina at the train station of ‘Paestum’ still located close to the site – and with literally one train an hour running along the track (grass on both sides) to Agropoli. We say our farewells and head south to Castellabate – where some serious fun awaits!

As we drive south we glimpse the blue-green Tyrrhenian Sea to our right. We climb the narrow winding road up to the old medieval town of Castellabate. We stop at the magnificent ‘belvedere’ which gives a wonderful view up and down the coast and out to sea. On a clear day you can see Amalfi and the Island of Capri to the north-east. Roberto our driver has arranged a surprise for us. This village is the location for ‘Benvenuti al Sud’ a hugely popular Italian film. Just beyond the ‘belvedere’ there is a small restaurant with terraces descending down the rock face. A table is reserved for us and a bottle of Prosecco is on ice, we’ll be toasting ‘the south’ as the sun sets. How wonderful. Roberto is so thoughtful, so considerate, even though he is Roman! Even more magical there is a wedding going on – I’d already spotted the Fiat 500 – dressed up for the event. It turns out the wedding party are having their reception on the terrace next to ours. Sipping prosecco and watching the sun go down…………..I almost have an Ernest Hemingway moment but probably need a bottle of scotch for that!

And that’s not all folks, that’s not all. Roberto leads us through town to a charming piazza lined with restaurants. We take our place at a vacant table. We have stepped into a Fellini movie. The square is filled with people eating; families, groups of friends, senior citizens. All eating and talking, talking and eating. This is the square that features in the film ‘Benvenuti al Sud’ I’m guessing the director had the same feeling that I did when he saw this square. On a near-by table there is a famous personality from Italian TV – from time to time people approach her for an autograph, which she gives, slightly reluctantly. To be here in this piazza, sharing in the life of this small town makes me feel glad to be alive, glad to be here.

It’s dark now and we start our descent to the coast and to the seaside town of Castellabate Santa Maria. We are staying the night at Palazzo Belmonte, originally the private residence of the local Prince and now a luxurious hotel. The Palazzo is huge, grand, imposing. The welcome is not – the Prince frankly can’t be bothered and we are shown to our rooms by an 18 year old student from Salerno. The rooms in the palazzo are fabulous and we all need a good night’s sleep.

After breakfast the next morning our boat man arrives. We have a little boat ride down the coast arranged and Nicola our boat man and his side-kick ‘Il Capitano’ have arrived. They are wearing matching tee shirts. We drive to the port where our boat awaits us. It’s a beautiful day, within minutes we are leaving the harbour and heading for the lighthouse at Punta Licosa. Legend has it that one of the sirens lived here and tried to lure Ulysses to his death on this very rocky coastline.

Nicola is new to tourism. He actually runs an electrical goods shop, but being an entrepreneurial type he’s seen the tourists coming here and has decided to set himself up, offering day trips and driver services in the area. I like him – he’s enthusiastic and keen. An elderly sea dog is our captain for the day – I’m guessing he owns the boat. We anchor off the coast and a little picnic table is set up in the stern of the boat, table cloth, knives & forks, glasses, local wine. Nicola’s wife has prepared a selection of tapas for us – they are quite delicious. Squid marinated in lemon and herbs, local cheeses and chilli peppers, tiny parcels of fresh fish in batter. All quite delicious. We chat, laugh, pose for photos.  ‘Il Capitano’ has been to London once he informs me – in 1962 – he found it cold and foggy. He hasnt been back. Our boating excursion is beautifully executed. It is relaxed, we feel like friends, the food is delicious. When we are ready we head back into port. Nicola insists on taking us – as his guests to a wonderful pasticceria nearby. The selection of ice creams, cakes and pastries is incredible. We choose a small selection which we wash down with coffee, tea or even a surreptious brandy (not me). We really have had the most authentic and genuine hospitality with Nicola and Il Capitano.

Ristorante Nettuno at Paestum
Nettuno Restaurant, Paestum

It’s the little things that make the difference. Nicola and his hospitality. The Prince and his amusing indifference. Pina and her passion for history, Roberto and his courtesy. There’s a sense that life continues here in ‘the south’ and always will – in a gentle unhurried manner. For us ‘Benvenuti al Sud’ ‘Welcome to the South’ was certainly true.

 

Notes:

  • For more on Southern Italy try: The Trulli of Alberobello about neighbouring Puglia.
  • Don’t miss the Medieval Medical Garden at Salerno The Medical Garden, Salerno
  • Thanks again to Belinda and Debbie for accompanying me.
  • On Basilicata you might enjoy: Matera and Basilicata
  • Don’t hesitate to contact me with questions or observations
  • I’ll be leading a small group to Southern Italy in October, 2017

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