The Pleasures of the Greek colony of Paestum – in Italy!
Text: Garry Benson
Images: Garry Benson
Editor: Tracey Benson
Two of my passions – there are lots – are old ruins and food, as evidenced by my car and my waistline. So when I was invited to a housewarming I was very excited as it was in Rivello, Basilicata, at my friends John and Dora’s newly converted barn.
Rivello is about 5 hours south of Rome, so with friends Zoë and Susan we headed off on the Autostrada via Naples for a three day visit. As a drive, it was a wee bit gruelling due to being on the wrong side of the road for an Aussie. That my two navigators had widely differing views of their role it didn’t help.
After a great party and visits to local spots like Lagonegro, we agreed to take an easier (and quieter) route to Pompeii where we’d stay for a couple of days. So I decided the coastal route via Maratea, Sapri and the wonderful 7th century ruins at Paestum, right in the centre of a region known for its delicious mozzarella di bufala cheese. That’s the basic for one of my favourite Italian dishes, the simple but delicious Capresé Salad (I’ve included my recipe at the end).
Along the way, you pass mozzarella farms where ‘vendita diretta’ signs show they’ll sell you dripping bocconcini (balls) of cheese made fresh that morning—usually within 300 feet of the scenically grazing bufale that provided the milk. (The yogurt, honey, and fresh ricotta are excellent as well.)
Reids Italy website says:
It’s amazing to think that a culture could misplace three entire ancient Greek temples and forget about them for nearly a millennia, but that’s what happened when malaria and pirates drove the AD 9th century citizens of Paestum into the hills. Time forgot the crumbling ruins of this city founded in the 7th century BC until the 18th century, when a road crew rediscovered its remarkably well-preserved temples hidden among the weeds and poppies.
Reids Italy website goes on to say:
Poseidonia, or the City of Poseidon, was founded in the 6th century BC by Greek colonists from Sybaris. It trucked along nicely as the Roman colony of Paestum after 273 BC, and gained a small measure of fame for its enormous roses (which continue to bloom twice a year in gardens around the site).
Reids Italy website article continues:
Malaria decimated the population, and in the 9th century the Saracens wiped it off the map and out of memory. It wasn’t until the 18th century while building a road through the area that anyone other than farmers stumbled across the three incredible temples jutting out the of landscape, surrounded by blue-gray mountains. The three Doric temples at Paestum are said to be the best-preserved Greek temples in the world. These magnificent monuments date back to the 6th and 5th centuries BC, and are dedicated to the city’s namesake Poseidon (also known as Neptune, god of the sea), Hera and Ceres.
You can admire these stunning monuments in all their beauty as Paestum is off the beaten tourist path. The site takes 1–2 hours to see; and the museum another 40–60 minutes. It is possible to do it all in one morning by taking an early train from Naples (or leave the Amalfi Coast in the morning and head to Salerno and the connection), and lunching at the Nettuno restaurant on site.
Opening hours (from Reids Italy)
The Paestum archeological site is open daily from 8:45am until around sunset (last entry an hour before closing). The actual closing hour ranges from 3pm to 6:30pm over the course of the year, and it literally changes—in increments anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes—every 15 days (no joke); see http://www.infopaestum.it for a detailed chart.
The Paestum museum is open daily 8:30am to 6:45pm, but closed first and third Mon of every month.
Mmm, mozzarella: These plains of the Cliento coast are the epicenter of Italy’s mozzarella production, so be sure order some at lunch to indulge in the freshest mozzarella you’ll ever taste. The nearby beach: if you fancy a dip in the sea after a hot morning at the ruins, follow signs marked ‘mare’ for the beach, about a 20–30 minute walk from Porta della Giustizia.
I love the summer fruits of tomatoes, bell peppers, and chilli, and each year grow pots and pots of Sweet Basil. This is the last of the homegrown crop, I’ll have to buy them from now on. One of my favourite side dishes is Insalata (salad) Capresé:
4 vine ripened tomatoes
6 grape tomatoes
4 Roma tomatoes
4 bocconcini, sliced
10 de-pipped Kalamata Black Olives
1/4 cup torn basil leaves
salt and cracked black pepper
extra virgin olive oil, to serve
balsamic vinegar, to serve
Slice each tomato lengthways from top to bottom into thick slices. Place on a serving plate mix with the sliced bocconcini between each layer of tomatoes and top with capers, olives and basil leaves. Sprinkle with salt and cracked pepper.
Just before serving, drizzle the salad with an oil and vinegar dressing.
Present with a small bowl of basil pesto (I add a bit of extra lemon juice for some tanginess.)
Hint: Like strawberries, to get the full taste of the tomatoes take them out of your fridge an hour or so before serving.