My husband’s hometown, in the middle of a national park, is one of Italy’s most interesting places. Interesting because it’s rarely ever visited. Interesting because it’s a striking area of lonely, rugged mountains, extending into the Tyrrhenian Sea, and forming the southern end of the Gulf of Salerno.
And also because the Cilento National Park (in the Salerno province) is a park of hill towns. Most of which are small, averaging about 3000 inhabitants, though my husband’s village is much smaller.
We love this area of sleepy, lonely villages and quaint people.
And every time we go there, I’m struck with the past. Almost as though we’ve stepped back to another century, suggestive of the Middle Ages or even Bible days.
Cilento has undergone many changes in its history.
Starting with Greek settlement, around 600 BC, which caused the locals to scurry for safety, and build the little hill towns. Followed by other kingdoms and civilizations, like the Samnites, the Romans, the Barbarians, and Medieval nobility, all of which have come and gone. But Cilento’s hill towns remain.
Times have changed since the days of Zia Pasquelina, who had us write her name because she’d never seen it before. And since Zia Rosa’s First Videocassette, but Cilento remains an enchanting place to visit. Still populated by simple, down-to-earth people, with easy-going, relaxed lives. The kind many of us dream of living.
So if you come to Italy, consider leaving the touristy areas behind.
Head south and up into the Cilento hill area. Where you can visit ancient towns bearing quaint names like Bellosguardo [Beautiful View], Sacco [Sack] Roccagloriosa [Glory Rock], and Buonabitacolo [Nice Place to Live]. Or Roccadàspide [Rock of the Asp], the town my father-in-law’s family originally came from.
We think it’s mostly a delightful place to just lie back and relax. But if you’ve a mind to, you’ll also find plenty to do. From visiting Greek ruins at Paestum, Agropoli, and Atena Lucana, or Enotrian ruins (in Roscigno). To the UNESCO World Heritage site of the Certosa Monastery (in Padula).
Or if you don’t care for ancient ruins, immerse yourself in nature activities, like mountain hiking or the boat races (at Castel San Lorenzo). Or visit Pertosa’s famous Caves, with spooky, eery scenes, straight from Dante’s Inferno!
On the cultural side, many monasteries still house ancient libraries. And here and there, we find hidden little treasures. Like the tiny old hermit dwellings (at Pittari), or the Poor Toy Museum (in Montana Antilia), which features toys farmers made for their children.
The only way to visit this area is by car. Bus and train service are sporadic at best. It takes several hours to cross the park, but the gorgeous scenery and quaint villages make it well worth the time. Especially since, during warmer months, you’ll find various sagras or food festivals (sometimes dedicated to the local saints). Festivals which feature all kinds of gastronomic delights like: bread, wine, local pasta dishes, sausages, salamis, cheese, and chestnuts.
Just take your time. This area is, perhaps, the heart of slow living.
A place to meander through. To savour (in more ways than one)! And if you race through, you’re likely to hit something on the way. This is open range territory for the Podolica cattle of southern Italy, from which we get the area’s delicious Caciocavallo cheese!
In my husband’s area, we also meet herds of shaggy, open-range horses. And quite often shepherds as well, leading flocks of sheep and/or goats across the road.
Touring the park truly is like entering a time machine. But little things, like those shepherds, also show the odd mix of new and old that Italy has become.
For those shepherds trek the paths of their grandfathers, but to the beat of iPods and smartphones!