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Paestum is probably the most important, yet least visited, Greco-Roman archaeological site, making it one of the most unforgettable. On a pastoral plain just more than an hour’s drive from the labyrinthine ruins of Pompeii, just an hour south of Naples and the Amalfi Coast, this once great city on the Tyrrhenian Sea was beyond Vesuvius’s reach but abandoned to malarial marshes in the ninth century and rediscovered only in 1746. Thereafter it was every Grand Tourist’s dream destination, beloved by artists, architects and literary souls who romanced its three weathered Doric temples, dedicated to Poseidon, Athena and Hera, in pictures, cork models and words. Leaving Paestum for home in 1787, Goethe called it the “last vision [of Italy] I shall take with me on my way north, and perhaps the greatest.” American landscape artist Jasper Cropsey captured its alluring sunsets in 1861, and Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s fantastical etchings, Différentes vues de Pesto…, published posthumously in 1778, helped ignite the Greek revival that swept Europe and America.
Unhurried roads lead to Paestum, a dot on the map where the parking is easy. (Alternately, train service runs from Naples.) There’s a single pedestrian street, Via Magna Grecia, with a church, an information bureau, a sprinkling of souvenir shops and some rather good cafés and restaurants serving travelers and locals alike. The flat 300-acre site is wonderfully nonchalant, breezy and picturesque, resting inside an ancient city wall considered to be as important as the temples, which are the oldest, most beautiful and best preserved in the world. Crowds are thin, especially after the bus tours leave for lunch, but wildflowers and birds are abundant, as are the colorful lizards that freeze or dart upon approach.
We can thank the Allies who landed here in 1943 for jump-starting excavations that yielded artwork and architectural evidence of the varied cultures that flourished under the Greeks, then the Lucanians, who Latinized “Poseidonia” to “Paestum,” and finally the Romans. Like Pompeii and Herculaneum, Paestum’s treasures can be found at the Naples National Archaeological Museum, but many other finds are displayed in situ at the site, opposite the ancient setting where they were unearthed, in an excellent museum with intelligent labels in Italian and English. Walk around before exploring the ruins for a sense of the history, color and ornamentation of what is now roofless, overgrown and defaced. The main floor houses the Greek artifacts, including the famous frescoed Tomb of the Diver, rare bronze vases and architectural salvage with its decorative painting intact. The second level is for diehards and Iron Age devotees, but it also brings you eye to eye with the carved metopes from the Temple of Hera, while the top floor is devoted to the Roman era. The slight, 30-page guidebook to the museum and site is actually a great companion, or call upon a licensed guide for a two-hour tour before rambling around on your own—Silvia Braggio (silviaguide.it), a major in English literature, is poised, professional and a savvy native who still calls Paestum home.
The city is also in the center of the buffalo mozzarella industry, Italy’s fourth-largest signature food product after Parmesan, prosciutto and Grana Padano. Much of the mozzarella is still made by hand, but only in the morning, in factories where people are welcome to witness the water buffalo and cheesemakers and sample the results. (MozzarellaDop.it is a great site to learn more about Paestum’s mozzarella industry.) A tasting plate at the café at Barlotti (Via Torre di Paestum 1; 39-0828/811-146; barlotti.it) starts at about $15; coffee, yogurt and the cakes the Italians enjoy for breakfast are all prepared with buffalo milk.
The Mediterranean climate here also favors peach and apricot orchards, olives and grapes, which were all cultivated by the ancients. Paestum native Barbara Guerra has dedicated herself to raising the profile of the region’s sustainable produce on behalf of the mozzarella industry through Le Strade della Mozzarella (lestradedellamozzarella.com), her organization that puts on festivals, tastings and dinners and also connects visitors with other passionate locals, like vintner Giuseppe Pagano. His vineyard and farm, Azienda Agricola San Salvatore, in the Cilento hills (sansalvatore1988.it), produces organic fruits, grains and beans along with award-winning wines, including a Fiano that he enlisted oenologist Riccardo Cotarella to help develop.
The best approach is to visit the farms and vineyards in the morning, and then you’ll have the ruins to yourself in the afternoon. Lunch off-site or at one of these two restaurants tucked inside the ancient wall: Seafood-heavy Ristorante Nettuno (Via Nettuno 2; 39-0828/811-028; ristorantenettuno.com), housed in an old farmhouse at the southern entrance, has tables overlooking the temples. (The temples are also alluringly lit at night and can be gazed at over cocktails from Nettuno’s bar.) Il Gallo e la Perla (Via Magna Grecia 949; 39-0828/199-0572; ilgalloelaperla.it) provides an eastern view, wonderful seafood and meat dishes and seating on a patio or under the trees.
Accommodations in and around Paestum are plentiful and varied, though in a place that remains stubbornly under the radar, there’s not much demand for luxury. In easy walking distance to the site is Il Granaio dei Casabella (rooms, from $110; Via Tavernelle 84; 39-0828/721-014; ilgranaiodeicasabella.com), which has nice sitting rooms, a good kitchen and a pleasant staff. The simple bedrooms next door at the Hotel dei Templi (rooms, from $80; Via Tavernelle 64–66; 39-0828/811-747; hoteldeitempli.it) look out at the temples and over Via Tavernelle as well. Bicycle over from the family-run Hotel Villa Rita (rooms, from $110; Via Nettuno 9; 39-0828/811-081; hotelvillarita.it), which has a pool—invaluable in summer. The high-end Savoy Beach Hotel (rooms, from $70; Via Poseidonia 41; 39-0828/720-100; hotelsavoybeach.it) is a bit of Miami on a two-lane road opposite a string of private beach clubs on the forested seafront. A short drive from the ruins, it has a stunning pool and wellness center and is home to the outstanding Tre Olivi restaurant run by Giuseppe Pagano’s sons. At the other end of the spectrum and off a long dirt road in the middle of nowhere, more farmhouse than villa, is Azienda Agrituristica Seliano (rooms, from $100; Via Seliano; 39-0828/723-634; agriturismoseliano.it), the stately 19th-century family ranch of Baroness Cecilia Barratta. The indomitable Barratta, who keeps an apartment in Brooklyn and her finger on the pulse of Italian restaurants around the world, offers cooking lessons besides bedrooms and a swim. And Il Cannito ($ rooms, from $305; Via Cannito; 39-0828/196-2277; ilcannito.com), with its restrained interiors and infinity pool, is a stylish option located in the foothills of Cilento and Vallo di Diano National Park; its richness of unexplored territory is a fine spot to linger for a few days of hiking and biking in view of the sea.
For more information on visiting the ruins and museum, go to infopaestum.it.