We love Italy; it’s our favorite country, so far at least (we’ve never been to Romania or Suriname yet, so we can’t be definitive about that). And for all that Rome and Tuscany and Genoa are great, we love southern Italy best of all. So after Mark’s two weeks in Lucca (and my four days there) it was off to the train station for the trip to Salerno. While the journey from Lucca to Florence was slow and frustrating – we had 18 minutes between the time our train was supposed to get in from Lucca and the train down to Salerno was supposed to leave, and we were about 17 minutes late – the high-speed train through Rome and Naples and then on to Salerno was comfy and relaxing.
Salerno itself isn’t such a great city. A city of 135,000 people, it lies about 35 miles southeast of Naples, at the edge of the peninsula that includes the Amalfi Coast. To be honest, there’s not a lot great you can say about Salerno. It’s got a cathedral that’s attractive and worth seeing. The original building dates back to the 11th century, though it’s been remodeled substantially since then, and it allegedly holds the remains of St. Matthew the Apostle (color me skeptical).
The old historic center of town has a great Neopolitan feel to it, for us anyway, with the narrow, winding streets that the sun almost never gets to. And nestled in that old town is Salerno’s medical school, a late medieval institution and the oldest medical school in the West. As long ago as perhaps the 9th century (the ancient history is sketchy) city leaders of Salerno began to use ancient Greek texts, then accumulated at the monastery of Monte Cassino south of Rome. Because of Salerno’s location on the coast, their contact with Arabs – then far advanced relative to Europeans in terms of science and medicine – gave them the opportunity to enhance that Greek knowledge with more modern Arabic insights. And thus was born the medical advancements of the West. Right there in Salerno.
So in Salerno itself, besides the cathedral and old city, there’s not a lot to draw you. Although it is on the coast and we love the Mediterranean, there is not much good to say about the beach. The big deal, though – and it was a big deal – are the old Greek ruins of Paestum. And we almost missed them.As we were planning this trip through the south we learned that Lisa, one of Mark’s old college friends who today teaches Italian in the Chicago Public Schools, was going to be studying in Salerno the same time we planned on being there. At our first dinner together she asked what we were going to do in Salerno. We gave her our too-common, g response “Oh, you know, walk around, see what’s here. We don’t have anything in mind.”
Well, Lisa didn’t want to waste her time in Salerno so she started throwing out ideas and when she mentioned Paestum our ears perked up. Paestum was an early Greek colony established in the first millennium BC when the Greeks were spreading out; while today we think of this as Italy, back then it was known as “Greater Greece.” Paestum was a big stop on the 18th century European “Grand Tour” and only a few miles from Salerno so we were excited about going down there.
Early the next morning, then, we hopped on a train for the 40-minute ride down to Paestum. The big draws in Paestum are three large temples still standing after over 2,500 years. There are few places in the world where you can see even one ancient Greek temple still standing, and here there are three. Throughout the ruins are old city streets and the foundations of many, many buildings. Even the remains of a smallish amphitheater, part of which was demolished so a 19th century Italian could build a road through it.
The temples – believed to have been dedicated to Hera, Neptune, and Athena – were really pretty amazing. Big old columns that have been standing there for century after century. One of the great things about the site is that you didn’t have to admire them from a distance: here you could walk right into and through two of them. There’s nothing quite like that “up close and personal” approach.
Near the site was a pretty good museum, too, that included the Tomb of the Diver. Discovered in 1968, the tomb dates to about 470 BC is made up of five limestone slabs, each of them painted in fresco. The four sides are scenes from a surprisingly homoerotic symposium, while the cover slab is that of a man diving into waves. Of thousands of Greek tombs recovered from this era, this is the only one with frescoes of human subjects. And as it was protected from the elements for nearly 2,500 years – it was, after all, buried – the slabs and the art are in remarkable condition.
Our three days in Salerno went well, then. We had fun with Lisa, including taking her out for her birthday, and started to relax into the vibe of southern Italy. From here we head just a little north up to Amalfi where we’ll spend a couple weeks lazing on the Amalfi Coast and then out to Capri. I’ve been waiting a long time for this!