I love big cities, and always enjoy returning to Hong Kong, New York, and Sydney—among many others. But what about those unknown gems that are off the beaten tourist path… those obscure places that are just waiting to be explored by real travelers?
Our new “Mini City Guides” are here to uncover those gems, and we’re looking to our favorite explorers—AONC readers—to give us the inside scoop.
Which accessibly obscure city would you like to share?
Paestum, Capaccio (Salerno) Italy
What makes it unique?
When I say I’m traveling to southern Italy, people ask if I’m going to Amalfi. When I mention a must-do day trip to the ruins, they assume Pompeii is my destination. Where I’m headed, though, is another area in Campania, 25 miles south of Amalfi, home to my Italian relatives and the ancient Greek ruins of Paestum.
Paestum is recognized by UNESCO as part of the World Cultural Heritage and is home to three of the most beautiful and largely intact Doric Greek temples (all built to honor female goddesses). It is far less known and less crowded than Pompeii; there have been times when I’ve shared the ruins with fewer than ten other people. If I plan it right, I feel I have the place to myself.
If you go in the summer, an umbrella is great to have as there is very little shade. There is a wonderful, modern archaeological museum, with some of the most important finds of the Greek and Etruscan civilizations, including the 5th century Tomba del Tuffatore (Tomb of the Diver). I like to step outside onto the east patio and take a breather while looking at the mountains in the distance.
What makes it special to you?
This is the area from where my grandparents emigrated in the early 1900s. I first traveled here in 2000, and have over the years met many of my relatives who still reside in the village of Controne (appx 20 miles east of Paestum). In 2012, I attended the wedding of my cousin’s daughter (the reception was held in Paestum), and it remains one of my best travel experiences.
Each trip I take to Paestum reveals a new discovery, whether architectural, historical or personal. While I love all my travels, this is the area of the world where I feel most at home.
What’s the best place to grab a bite to eat or drink?
My favorite restaurant in Paestum itself is La Pergola (Via Magna Grecia, 108). It is tucked back off the main street, adjacent to a parking lot near the northern entrance to the town. As this is mozzarella di bufala country, order the caprese. There is no other region on earth where the cheese will be as fresh. The pizzas are delicious. If it’s not too hot, I prefer to sit on the patio. As in most Italian restaurants, you can linger there as long as you like.
If you leave the restaurant through the gelateria off the small porch, you can grab a gelato to go. If you exit out the opposite door, you’ll come upon the Byzantine church.
Where can you kick your feet up with a great cup of coffee?
It’s Italy – all the coffee is great! A good spot is La Bottega del Gusto. Great place to sit and watch the sun start to set on the ruins.
Are there any festivities that can’t be missed?
If you visit in the summer, they have what are known as “night trails,” where you can roam the ruins by moonlight. The temples are also lit up and there are musical performances. In mid-August the Paestum Danza, Musica, Teatro performing arts series takes place.
Italians love their festivals – I truly believe there is one held every day – so whatever time of year you visit, there is one to experience. Nearby ones include artichoke and chestnut festivals and further afield, in Controne, there is the yearly Festival del Fagiolo, when nearly 30,000 people descend on the village of 900.
What’s the best time to visit?
I prefer mid-April through June or October through November, but any time is good. Keep in mind many Italian business owners close for part of August. This area does not yet draw the crowds seen at other better known archeological sites, so there really aren’t any “stay away” dates. Late summer can be very hot, but there are plenty of beaches.
What’s the best way to get around town?
I prefer to have a car when I’m in the area (I rent from a local service), but you can get to Paestum by train or bus. When traveling this area of Italy, keep in mind that it doesn’t receive an abundance of foreign visitors.
Many times I’ve been asked by a shop owner – what is an American doing here? So it can be frustrating at times that many brochures or websites are only in Italian, events are not widely publicized, etc. There isn’t the well-oiled tourism machine that exists in Rome and parts north. The best way I describe it is that I am more of visitor here than a tourist.
Paestum itself is not very large and it is easy to walk the entire area. It is worth hiring a local car or guide with a car (both very reasonable) to visit more of the surrounding area.
Any other areas around that can’t be missed?
If there is a full day or two to spare here, I highly recommend a short trip to Tenuta Vannulo, where the bufale are treated to classical music throughout the day, have self-automated car-wash-like bathing stations and line themselves up to enter milking pods.
An early morning stop guarantees some cheese and yoghurt available for purchase. An afternoon stop is just as tasty with gelato or cheesecake – or put them both together, as I’ve seen many locals do.
Further east, in the Cilento National Park, are the Grotte di Castelcivita, spectacular and surreal caves. Wear sensible shoes, as it’s wet and slippery. Castelcivita also holds a Porcini festival.
In the same area is Castello Feudale Filomarino in Roccadaspide, a hillside village where it’s best to have a small car, as the roads are extremely narrow. Lovely views and breezes.
Thanks again to Nancy Ruff for sharing her love of Paestum with us. More Mini City Guides are on the way!
Images courtesy of Nancy and her sister Judi Ruff.